[News] The New Commissars
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Fri Jan 30 09:04:45 EST 2004
February 2, 2004 issue
Copyright © 2004 The American Conservative
The New Commissars
Congress threatens to cut off funding to collegiate Mideast Studies
departments that refuse to toe the neocon line.
By Anders Strindberg
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
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
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
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
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
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