The New Commissars

From the archive (legacy material)

Anders Strindberg | The American Conservative | 2 February 2004

Congress threatens to cut off funding to collegiate Mideast Studies departments that refuse to toe the neocon line.
Universities are no strangers to disagreement and debate. In fact, the process of argumentation has always been an important way for academics to sharpen theories and refine analyses—be it in biology, economics, or political science.
Not so in the field of international studies, claim the intellectual cadres of the neoconservative movement, who have long been bitter about the under-representation of their worldview within academia. This imbalance, they claim, is not due to any weaknesses in their arguments but to the fact that U.S. universities in general, and departments studying the Middle East in particular, constitute a monolithic cabal of America-hating left-wing extremists with whom debate is impossible. Academia must be brought to heel.
Taking advantage of the fears and anxieties following 9/11, and their current political clout in Washington, neocon think tanks have waged a three-part battle against the academy. First it was necessary to popularize the view of universities across the country as an unmitigated breeding ground for “terrorist thought.” This was accompanied by the monitoring of scholars and institutions that expressed criticism of Israel and of U.S. foreign policy (i.e., “anti-Semitic” and “anti-American” views), “naming and shaming” them on the Internet and in columns and editorials. While thus “raising public awareness,” Congress was being lobbied for legislation to confront the threat from this enemy within: the fifth column in the ivory tower.
The pieces came together on Oct. 21, when the House approved the International Studies in Higher Education Act, HR 3077. If passed into law, the bill would mandate the withdrawal of federal funding from international-studies departments that fail to display sufficient support for U.S. foreign-policy positions, do not contribute to homeland security, or fall short of federally mandated standards for “diversity” of political perspectives.
The language of diversity may be a clever sales pitch, but HR 3077 is all about failure to tolerate disagreement. The depiction of university politics that underpins the bill is deceptive to say the least. While academia is doubtless more left-leaning than many other professional environments, it is by no means the extremist left-wing monolith that the neocons claim. In reality, some institutions tend to be critical of U.S. policy and others not; some tend to support Arab positions, while others express sympathy for Israel. Some engage in “leftist” post-colonial studies, others in quantitative survey work, and other still in “rightist” political-culture studies. There is great diversity of perspectives, and the debate between them enriches academic inquiry and improves the general knowledge base. This is what has made the U.S. home to many of the finest academic institutions in the world.
Federal funding of international studies—known as Title VI funding—dates back to 1965, when the tensions of the Cold War created a need for greater understanding of the world. The government decided to contribute funding to universities that would enable them to pursue in-depth research and education on particular regions, their politics, customs, and languages. A requirement for Title VI funding was that the recipient departments disseminate their knowledge to schools, businesses, industry, and government through outreach activities. Scholarly matters, such as theoretical preferences and composition of curricula, were left entirely to the departments themselves. Even though the funding program was established at a time when fear of communism and the Soviet threat was peaking, the personal political views of academics were not an issue.
The politicization of Title VI funding came about when pro-Israel interest groups grew concerned with criticism of that country. In one of the earliest and most notorious examples, the Near Eastern Studies Center at the University of Arizona stood accused by the Tucson Jewish Community Council (TJCC) of anti-Israel bias in their outreach material. The center was exonerated by two independent inquiries, but as part of an acrimonious process that dragged on for several years in the early 1980s, the TJCC demanded that the Department of Education (DOE) evaluate the political slant of the center’s publications and academic material. The DOE refused, referring the complaint to “normal academic channels.” When two congressmen then intervened on behalf of the TJCC to ask Secretary of Education Terrence Bell to freeze the center’s Title VI funding, Bell responded that “federal interference would be unwarranted and illegal … Questions of academic freedom as well as of state and local control of education also enter in here.”
“Among the issues raised in Tucson was the extent to which people not involved in the academy should set the parameters for academic inquiry,” says Prof. Robert Gimello, who was director of the Near Eastern Center when the TJCC launched its attack. That issue is now central to the controversy surrounding HR 3077. If signed into law, the bill would create a congressional committee with oversight responsibilities for academic matters that not even the strains of the Cold War managed to politicize. Two out of seven committee members would be seconded from the intelligence agencies or the Department of Homeland Security, while the remaining five would be “experts” in the field of higher education. One could reasonably expect these to be drafted from the same think tanks that have most fiercely lobbied for the bill and that constitute the favorite recruiting ground of the current administration.
The committee would advise the Secretary of Education, who, in making grants, is directed “to take into account the degree to which activities of centers, programs, and fellowships at [institutions of higher education] advance national interests, generate and disseminate information, and foster debate on U.S. foreign policy from diverse perspectives.” These requirements are as broad as they are unclear, with the task of interpretation left up to the committee.
Based on the committee’s evaluation and advice, federal funding for research and education would be approved or withheld. The $86.2 million spent annually on Title VI programs makes up a mere 0.005 percent of the federal budget. No less that 118 “national resource centers” receive parcels of this funding, however, and many of them are dependent on it, especially as it provides “federal endorsement” that encourages private and corporate donors.
Of these 118 centers, 11 are Middle East studies departments, the real targets of the bill. There are obvious reasons for this concern about Middle East studies: an area of inquiry that examines questions related to Islamism and the Arab-Israeli conflict is a natural focus of neocon nitpicking.
The most prominent advocates of HR 3077 have been Martin Kramer, a senior associate in the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University and editor of the Middle East Quarterly; Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum (which publishes the Middle East Quarterly); and Stanley Kurtz, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and contributing editor to National Review. To gauge the implications of HR 3077, it is instructive to look briefly at their various interlocking arguments.
In October 2001, Martin Kramer published Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. His central claim—that Middle East area studies are literally a waste of money—rests on several bases: a) it is left-wing, pro-Arab, and shows far too much understanding for Third World causes; b) it served to conceal the gathering Islamist threat against America leading up to 9/11; and c) it studies cultural and historical topics that are of no consequence to national security. Kramer concludes that because the security of the state demands research focused on our ever-plotting Muslim and Arab enemies, federally funded Middle East scholars must be mobilized to this end. The study of terrorism, he argues, must override the study of culture and history.
One of the many things that Kramer ignores is that since the early 1970s, a separate field within the social sciences called “terrorism studies” has emerged and expanded exponentially. Research is focused on the causes, dynamics, and remedies of terrorism, and co-operation between academics and the intelligence agencies is the order of the day. Even within this field, however, the most constructive contributions tend to come from those who study not only terrorist tactics or strategy, but also the social, cultural, and historical backgrounds of those classified as terrorists—the stuff that Kramer thinks is useless simply because it is not obvious.
The attacks of 9/11 came as a shock to America and the world, but Kramer claims that if Middle East scholars had only made better use of federal funding, they would have been able to see the writing on the wall. When Kramer spoke at Princeton a year after the appearance of his book, I had the opportunity to ask him where he had published his own prescient predictions of 9/11. He too had failed, of course. Having spent several years with one foot in terrorism studies and the other in Middle East studies, I know of no one in academia (whether federally funded or not), think tanks, or government who foresaw 9/11. Not even Kramer. His argument may be influential, but it is nonetheless petty.
Daniel Pipes, a recent presidential appointee to the Board of Directors of the United States Institute of Peace, has complemented Kramer’s accusations by creating Campus Watch, a self-appointed, on-line thought police. Campus Watch monitors institutions, faculty, and campus activities and reports instances of “extremism,” “analytical failure,” and “apologetics” on its Web site. It has encouraged students to inform on professors that express the wrong views and briefly maintained online “dossiers” on outspoken scholars. (It had to remove these dossiers from its site because the personal harassment of individuals looked far too much like an assault on the diversity of opinions that Campus Watch claimed to defend.)
Pipes has taken credit on behalf of Campus Watch for the advancement of HR 3077, and it is therefore warranted to ask what kind of opinions merit his organization’s censure. Professor Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University is attacked for having remarked, “People near and dear to me, whether they live in downtown Manhattan, in Kandahar, in Ramallah, in Jerusalem, or in Baghdad, are at the mercy of US foreign policies.” The late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said, Pipes has railed, “calls the U.S. policy in Iraq a ‘grotesque show’ perpetrated by a ‘small cabal’ of unelected individuals who hijacked U.S. policy. He accuses ‘George Bush and his minions’ of hiding their imperialist grab for ‘oil and hegemony’ under a false intent to build democracy and human rights.” Prof. Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco is reported to have said, “Zionist money is de facto U.S. foreign policy.” These remarks range from the perceptive to the controversial. That Campus Watch uses them as examples of intolerable speech should give some indication of the forthcoming interpretation of HR 3077.
Stanley Kurtz has written extensively on the need to curb academia and was invited to testify before a congressional committee in June 2003 about the need for legislation. Virtually volunteering his services (and those of Pipes and Kramer, to whom he paid due homage), Kurtz expanded on his belief that academia is characterized by “intellectual failure and moral bankruptcy,” suggesting that, “instead of restricting the membership of [the congressional oversight] committees to scholars, policy makers and policy experts from think tanks need to be empowered to sit on such panels.” Congress bought it, passing HR 3077 unanimously.
While there are doubtless problems in academia, that scholars have views is not one of them. HR 3077 talks of diversity but rather aims to mute criticism of the neocon agenda. If their concern were truly to enhance national security, the neocons—not known for their adversity to spending tax dollars on “urgent matters”—would presumably have proposed that another 0.005 percent of the federal budget be appropriated to fund terrorism studies. Instead, they attempt to strangle the funding of those whose views they disagree with. Moreover, if the neocons were even slightly concerned with conservative principles, rather than the corporatist mobilization of civil society in the service of their cause, they would understand that attaching political strings to federal funding of academia is wholly inappropriate.
The analytical failures of Middle East scholars are pointed out by those who warned us most vociferously of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and told us that liberating Iraq would be a quick thing. Pipes and Kramer both wrote their Ph.D. dissertations in medieval Islamology (and at least Pipes received Title VI funding), yet now they are complaining about the production of useless, non-applied research. The whole mess would be simply trivial if it weren’t true that wherever political commissars are put in place to regulate the academic debate, the debate tends to suffer.
Anders Strindberg is a visiting research fellow at Princeton University. He is working on a book about Syrian foreign and domestic policy.