The New "New McCarthyism": Are Left-Wing Academics Being Persecuted?
Joe McCarthy's been dead half a century and still can't get any rest. Every time the left feels a critical breath down the back of its collective neck, genetic memory kicks in and out come the picks and shovels to exhume the old corpse and prop it up to scare the bejesus out of the villagers. Like Marley's ghost, you'd imagine that McCarthy's remains are so weighted down with the chains of frivolous citations that it would finally become an embarrassment to display him any longer. After all, he's so bound up with unwarranted examples he can't even spin in his grave respectably any more. Why they put Lenin under glass is anyone's guess. Tailgunner Joe would have served a far more practical purpose.
None of this, of course, has prevented The Nation from having one more go-round with that desiccated metaphor in an article by Larry Cohler-Esses entitled "The New McCarthyism." This must be the 20 or 30th "new" McCarthyism I've read about. Perhaps this is the "New and Improved" McCarthyism, or the "New, Enhanced Formula" McCarthyism...whatever. I do know one thing, there was only one "McCarthyism," and it was buried with its namesake. To the extent the echoes may still be heard, this ain't it.
So what's the beef now? Big surprise, the campus left is angry, no indignant - no, outraged - that peons, veritable villagers with torches and pitchforks why, the hoi polloi -- joined by a rabble of ex-academics they thought safely confined in exile on the Elbe of privately-funded think-tanks along with a rag-tag remnant of remaining on-campus colleagues they had previously imagined were properly dhimmified and quiescent, not one of whom wields any governmental, or even administrative power - are storming the walls of the ivory tower. We're daring to take a look at the work of the next generation of academic wunderkind. Why, don't we know who they are?
The answer is yes, we're getting a pretty good idea, and the more interested we get, the more worried they get that the party may be coming to an end and many of the campus elite may be exposed as the glorified basket-weavers they are - or should be.
The first of Cohler-Esses' examples was Barnard College's tenure track Anthropologist, Nadia Abu El Haj. Her book, Facts on the Ground, has caused quite a stir. Such a stir, in fact, that the usual dismissive wave of the hand and mutter of "Let them eat PhD theses" will no longer suffice.
El Haj describes her approach in her introduction. (Or is it someone else's? The paragraph is written in that sort of nudge-nudge, wink-wink third-person style that leaves the author an out by denying possession of the stated view as their own, while many who have read the work and are familiar with the academic traditions involved insist this is, in fact, her own approach. This is what people do when they would dearly like to seed an outrageous claim but still leave room for plausible deniability if they're called out on it.)
The approach is as follows: "Rooted in multiple intellectual traditions (poststructuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory, a sociology of scientific knowledge) and developed in response to specific postcolonial political movements (specifically, demands for the repatriation of cultural objects and human remains by indigenous groups in settler nations such as Australia, the U.S. and Canada), this critical tradition is united, at its most basic level, by a commitment to understanding archeology as necessarily political."
Kids, our words for today are "colonial," "settler," and "political." Few people outside academic cloisters understand some of those terms up above (though they are another important factor in understanding where the academic outrage on the part of scholars who value the Western tradition emanates from), but anyone who's been paying attention understands the political implications when the words "Colonial Settler State" are applied to the modern State of Israel, as El Haj does over and over again. It is a rhetorical sticky-bomb, a bit of negative political marketing meant to undermine the legitimacy of the state - a state which is neither settler nor colonial, but in fact was the product of an indigenous nationalist movement.
But never mind what anyone with a score-card understands El-Haj's agenda to be, we're going to get caught up in the minutiae, this is, after all, an academic exercise by definition. Cohler-Esses also takes issue with the accusation by her critics that El-Haj claims that "the ancient Israelite kingdoms are a 'pure political fabrication.'"
Once again, we get caught up the parsing of sentence fragments and paragraphs, never mind that this is the sub-text of the entire book. Here's that paragraph again anyway:
While by early the 1990s, virtually all archaeologists argued for the need to disentangle the goals of their professional practice from the quest for Jewish origins and objects that framed an earlier archaeological project, the fact that there is some national-cultural connection between contemporary (Israeli)-Jews and such objects was not itself generally open to sustained discussion. That commitment remained, for the most part, and for most practicing archaeologists, fundamental. (Although archaeologists argued increasingly that the archaeological past should have no bearing upon contemporary political claims.) In other words, the modern Jewish/Israeli belief in ancient Israelite origins is not understood as pure political fabrication.
Here we go with that plausible deniability through opaque prose business again, and who can blame her? This is, after all, a semi-scholarly work, and there are certain forms that must be obeyed...mustn't be too obvious...until one receives tenure...and unless one's name is Finkelstein, who we'll be getting to.
I say it's pretty clear what El-Haj is doing and her critics are correct, in fact, as the blogger/historian Ralph Harrington at Greycat points out, it actually gets worse from there. The best that can be said for it is what another blogger/historian, Jim Davila, who thinks the El-Haj critics have been careless, writes at PaleoJudaica: "I'm inclined to put the paragraph under Popper's category of being "not even wrong" -- not sufficiently clearly formulated to be evaluated critically." This is not exactly the kind of defense one would pay an expert witness to provide in court.
The real gulf between those crying over accusations they consider unfair, and those who view themselves as wielding the mailed fist of accountability against their jaws is all in the sub-texts - the big picture -- not the sentence parsing.
So Cohler-Esses next decries the "McCarthyizing" of Dhabah "Debbie" Almontaser, now resigned principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in New York, for trying to explain away t-shirts emblazoned "Intifada NYC" - this from the principal of a new school already raising concerns about the teaching of Middle Eastern Arabic culture along with the language - a task fraught with the danger of dragging all manner of detritus along with it. Have you seen what passes for entertainment and education in the Middle East? Have a browse around the MEMRI or Palestinian Media Watch web sites if you need a clue. Let's hope we leave that hate "culture" over there if you please. No wonder New York taxpayers were concerned about a school principal whose impulse was to explain rather than condemn. You and I understand the serious implications of the word "intifada," while the left is more concerned over whether she got the dictionary definition correct.
She got the recitation correct, so where's the problem? That is, of course, beside the point.
Likewise, Columbia Professor Rashid Khalidi, removed from his position instructing teachers in a New York program for grade school instructors. Could Khalidi or could he not explain away the quotes with which he was associated by the New York Sun that, according to Cohler-Esses, was responsible for doing him in?
Considering that Khalidi has a long personal (though controversial in the details) association with the PLO stretching back to the early 80's, and that he has an even longer record of apologizing for Arab terror groups and blaming the Middle East's ills on the United States and Israel it's hard to imagine the New York tax payer complaining that this should be a man to instruct their kids' teachers on Middle Eastern realities, isn't it? Why, the nerve of some people!
When universities do end up policing themselves, they seem to spend as much time condemning outsiders interfering in university business than they do in getting their own house in order, as in the case of Columbia's Ad Hoc Grievance Committee to which The Nation's piece refers. Contrary to what's stated in the article, the Columbia report finds that the incidents attributed to controversial instructor Joseph Massad did credibly occur, it just declined any real action on the matter.
You can tell a lot about a man, or a magazine, by the company they keep, which brings us finally to the case of Norman Finkelstein. There's little to be said about "the Fink" that hasn't already been stated, and the case against his scholarship, or lack thereof - the shallowness of Finkelstein's CV has been frequently noted -- has been regularly made. One of the best reviews I've read of Finkelstein's work was written from the left by historian Tobias Abse:
NORMAN Finkelstein's new book, The Holocaust Industry, does no service to the left, to Jews or to genuine anti-fascists of any variety. Objectively, this book, whose very title echoes the rhetoric of Holocaust denial rather in the way that the phrase 'race relations industry' is a hallmark of all British racists, provides considerable comfort to every Holocaust denier, neo-Nazi and anti-Semite on the face of the planet. It was no accident that the Evening Standard I bought on my way home from Finkelstein's book launch in Bookmarks (where his presentation had somewhat disingenuously barely mentioned his third, longest and most controversial chapter) in July contained a 'Diary' item in which David Irving expressed his pleasure that Finkelstein had vindicated him against his critics...
...Finkelstein's solicitude for the Swiss bankers and, to a lesser extent, the German industrialists, whose alleged persecution by Jews receives a less extended treatment, is truly extraordinary. Even if every single allegation that Finkelstein makes about Jewish lawyers or Jewish organisations engaging in greedy and corrupt profiteering from Holocaust compensation claims were true, which seems unlikely, why should any leftist or indeed any humanitarian waste a single tear on Swiss bankers, probably the prime example of amoral beneficiaries of plundering dictators from Hitler to Mobuto and beyond? The so-called 'shakedown' about which Finkelstein waxes lyrical has not left a single Swiss banker bankrupt, let alone starving in the street...
The campus left hates every hegemony but its own, and it's ready to fight ferociously to keep hold of its outposts. What all of these cases have in common is that every one of these teachers has a worldview that seeks to reinterpret our common sense into blaming the world's ills on America, Israel and the Jews - usually in that order.
They seek to control the Means of Production of future experts and opinion leaders. In return, we intend to engage the Proletariat in an Intifada that makes it difficult for them. The stakes are high.
As I write this, rumors dating back months of a foregone conclusion in the tenure battles of two of those named above look to have proven out: Columbia has denied tenure to Joseph Massad, while Barnard has granted it to Nadia Abu El-Haj.
Let me explain tenure for those out there, like myself, who work in the real world. It pretty much means an academic job for life. It's the union gig to beat all union gigs. Northwestern University has a tenured associate professor in electrical engineering named Arthur Butz who's more well known for his prowess as one of the nation's foremost Holocaust deniers than anything to do with his engineering profession. Though the university admits he's an "embarrassment," they're stuck with him until he himself decides to retire.
That's a heck of an embarrassment for Northwestern.
What's next for Nadia Abu El-Haj? The title of an '04 lecture she gave gives us a clue: "Bearing the Mark of Israel? Genetics, Geneaology, and the Quest for Jewish Origins." Yes, while her first book sought to use archaeology to deny Jewish national identity, her next book looks bound to attempt the same with Jewish genetics.
Embarrassing times for Columbia.
And all the name-calling in the world won't stop some of us from pointing it out.
Martin Solomon is a Boston area blogger and small business owner. He blogs at Solomonia