The new McCarthyism

From the archive (legacy material)

Juan Cole | Salon | 22 April 2005

A witch hunt against a Columbia professor, and the New York Times’ disgraceful support for it, represent the gravest threat to academic freedom in decades.
A member of the U.S. Congress calls for an assistant professor at a major university to be summarily fired. The right-wing tabloid press runs a series of vicious attacks on him, often misquoting him and perpetuating previous misquotes. Opinion pieces attacking “tenured radicals” and questioning professors’ patriotism use him as their centerpiece. All of these attacks are spurred by a propaganda film made by an advocacy group, in which anonymous accusations are made and the professor is not given an opportunity to respond to the allegations.
It is not 1953, the Congress member is not Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and the professor is not being accused of being a communist. No, it is 2005, the Congress member is Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., and the professor is being accused of being anti-Israel.
The lesson for academics, and American society as a whole: McCarthyism is unacceptable except when criticism of Israel is involved.
The targeted professor is Joseph Massad, of the Middle East Languages and Cultures Department at Columbia University. Massad is the author of “Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan” (Columbia University Press, 2001), and of a forthcoming book treating the sexual depictions of Arabs in colonial literature, “Desiring Arabs.” He is well-published, and his first book received rave reviews in journals such as Choice and the American Historical Review. His career would have been no more controversial than that of any academic historian working on Argentina or Uganda, had he not been a Palestinian-American teaching about Israel and Palestine in New York City. Nor, had he been critical of Argentinean or Ugandan policies, would any eyebrows have been raised in the United States.
The attacks on Massad, and two other professors in the department, were led by off-campus right-wing Zionist organizations aligned with Israel’s Likud Party — notably a murky Boston-based organization called “the David Project,” which produced the film in which the accusations were made. (In fact, according to an in-depth report by Scott Sherman in the Nation, there is no single “film”; at least six versions exist, and it has never been screened for the public. When the Nation asked to view it, the David Project refused to make it available. Its head, Charles Jacobs, also refused to provide details to the Nation about the group’s financial backers or its ties to professional pro-Israel lobbyists.)
Almost none of the allegations against Massad (anti-Semitism, mistreatment of students, likening Israel to Nazi Germany) came from students who had taken his courses. In the most serious case, an allegation that Massad angrily told a student, “If you’re going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom,” the charge was corroborated by one other student and one auditor, but three other individuals present said they had no recollection of the episode taking place, and it did not appear in Massad’s teaching evaluations.
Columbia president Lee Bollinger appointed an ad hoc faculty grievance committee to look into the accusations. After a lengthy investigation, the committee issued a report. It found Massad not guilty of anti-Semitism or of punishing pro-Israel students with poor grades. (Indeed, it singled him out for unequivocably denouncing anti-Semitism.) In the case of the incident described above, it found it credible that “Massad became angered at a question that he understood to countenance Israeli conduct of which he disapproved, and that he responded heatedly. While we have no reason to believe that Professor Massad intended to expel Ms. Shanker from the classroom (she did not, in fact, leave the class), his rhetorical response to her query exceeded commonly accepted bounds by conveying that her question merited harsh public criticism.” In his response to the report, Massad denies that this incident took place, pointed out logical fallacies in the report’s reasoning, and criticized it for failing to connect the charges with the organized political campaign against him.
Although it was little noted in the press, the report did indeed acknowledge that Massad in particular and the department in general had been the target of an ongoing campaign of intimidation. It noted that for several years, after pieces appeared in the tabloid press blasting the department as anti-Israel, many non-students, clearly hostile and with ideological agendas, had been attending classes in the department, interrupting lectures with hostile asides and inhibiting classroom debate. One individual began filming a class without permission. Chillingly, the report noted, “Testimony that we received indicated that in February 2002 Professor Massad had good reason to believe that a member of the Columbia faculty was monitoring his teaching and approaching his students, requesting them to provide information on his statements in class as part of a campaign against him.”
Whether the disputed charges against Massad, fomented by outside groups with obvious agendas, merited a major investigation by Columbia is a matter of debate. Many students and faculty at Columbia believe the investigation should never have been launched in the first place. Having undertaken the inquiry, however, the ad hoc committee rightfully understood that its charge was narrow — that its mandate was to investigate “conduct”: that is, behavior and “civility,” not views. To prescribe some views and ban others would contravene the most deeply held values of academic life. As the report noted, “We are committed, individually and collectively, to the right of all members of the Columbia community to hold and espouse a range of opinions, including those that make others uncomfortable. We focused our attention on conduct, and on the relationship between that conduct and the obligation for all of us to maintain a civil and tolerant learning environment.”
Even the narrow charge is problematic. The line separating “views” and “conduct” is difficult to demarcate in any objective way, and the place of “civility” in university teaching is not self-evident. In the film “The Paper Chase,” John Houseman played the curmudgeonly Professor Kingsfield, who routinely used personal humiliation of first-year law students as a pedagogical tool. Whether one agrees that such a method is useful or valid, it is certainly the case that the Kingsfield character was modeled on real-life professors, some of whom inspired great loyalty in their students, who felt well-served by some sharp words when they were guilty of woolly thinking. The notion of an ad hoc grievance committee investigating John Houseman for suggesting that students’ heads are full of mush is faintly ridiculous, but it is the sort of procedure to which Massad was subjected.
>From all accounts, Massad is a passionate and outspoken but fair and dedicated teacher. The Nation quotes a doctoral student in Massad’s department as saying, “In Massad’s class, the most prolific contributors to class discussion were students who disagreed with him, and many did not hesitate to interrupt him to make their point.” The ad hoc report noted: “Outside the classroom, there can be little doubt of Professor Massad’s dedication to, and respectful attitude towards, his students whatever their confessional or ethnic background or their political outlook. He made himself available to them in office hours and afterwards. One student, critical of other aspects of his pedagogy, praised his “warmth, dynamism and candor” and his unusual accessibility and friendliness. One of the group of students who questioned him regularly and critically in class told us of their friendly relations outside class where their discussions often continued. A student who has complained that he was mocked in class by Professor Massad in the spring of 2001, was still in email contact with him one year later.”
One would have thought that the ad hoc report would have closed the door on this whole sorry affair. But almost worse than the McCarthyite accusations was the response of the New York Times. Incredibly, the Times slammed the ad hoc committee for not being inquisitorial enough. Not satisfied with an investigation of conduct or classroom civility, it wanted Massad’s views put under the microscope. The Gray Lady apparently wanted him sent for reeducation, for all the world as though he were a Right Deviationist during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and as though America’s newspaper of record were a Maoist inquisitor.
The Times’ editorial read, “But in the end, the report is deeply unsatisfactory because the panel’s mandate was so limited. Most student complaints were not really about intimidation, but about allegations of stridently pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli bias on the part of several professors. The panel had no mandate to examine the quality and fairness of teaching. That leaves the university to follow up on complaints about politicized courses and a lack of scholarly rigor as part of its effort to upgrade the department. One can only hope that Columbia will proceed with more determination and care than it has heretofore.”
The New York Times editorial is among the more dangerous documents threatening higher education in America to have appeared in a major newspaper since the McCarthy period, when professors were fired for their views on economics. (At the University of Michigan in the 1950s, two professors were fired for belonging or having belonged to the Communist Party, and one professor was let go for favoring “Scandinavian economics.”) “Quality of teaching” is one thing — no one defends unqualified teachers or mere propagandists. But no substantive allegations regarding the poor quality of scholarship, or “lack of rigor” in the department, have been made against Columbia’s Middle East department — for the simple reason that such claims have no foundation. The Times’ invocation of “scholarly rigor” is really a thinly veiled demand that professors follow what it defines as an acceptable, “fair” pedagogical line.
But as soon as the “fairness” of views is made the criterion for retaining a teacher, the door is opened to witch hunts and chaos. No two students will agree on what is a “fair” view of a controversial issue. The substantial Arab-American community of Dearborn, Mich., not to mention many liberal American Jews, would probably find almost every course taught in political science departments in the United States on the Arab-Israeli conflict to be hopelessly biased against the Arabs and Palestinians. Why are they less worthy arbiters than the editorial board of the New York Times?
When I have taught the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict at the University of Michigan, I have had fair numbers of Arab-Americans, Muslim-Americans and Jewish-Americans in my class. My class evaluations have overall been good to excellent, but I always have a handful complaints from both sides. Some Arab-Americans blast me for naively accepting key claims of Zionism when I argue for Israel’s right to exist. Some Jewish students stridently insist that Jerusalem belongs solely to Israel and that is that.
The fact is that you will never get agreement on such matters of opinion, and no university teacher I know seeks such agreement. The point of teaching a course is to expose students to ideas and arguments that are new to them and to help them think critically about controversial issues. Nothing pleases teachers more than to see students craft their own, original arguments, based on solid evidence, that dispute the point of view presented in class lectures. That is why the New York Times editorial is so wrong, and so dangerous. University teaching is not about fairness, and there is no body capable of imposing “fair” views on teachers. It is about provoking students to think analytically and synthetically, and to reason on their own. In the assigned texts, in class discussion, and in lectures, the students are exposed to a wide range of views, whether fair or unfair.
Elected bodies throughout the United States, dominated by the Christian right, are now considering radical programs such as imposing the teaching of “intelligent design” in biology classes, or abolishing academic tenure (the practice of not firing professors for their views). Even Congress has succumbed to the pressure: The House of Representatives passed an outrageous bill, HR 3077, mandating that area studies programs that receive federal money must “foster debate on American foreign policy from diverse perspectives” — a heavy-handed attempt to mandate pedagogy that supports the American administration in power and supports Israeli policies uncritically.
The New York Times is a bastion of liberalism and Enlightenment values in an increasingly hysterical and intolerant time. But it has lent this burgeoning movement legitimacy by calling for official oversight of views in the classroom. Its editors should stop to consider that any society that censors Joseph Massad’s teaching is unlikely to stop there. The next step will be to censor the newspapers as well. “Unfair,” “liberal” views such as those apparent in many New York Times articles and editorials may be put under scrutiny by the same sort of people who want a party line installed at Columbia.
Juan Cole is a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan and the author of “Sacred Space and Holy War” (IB Tauris, 2002).