How Middle East Experts Have Let Down the Country
Mr. Kramer, the former director of the Dayan Center for Middle East Studies at Tel Aviv University, is author of Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America.Where are America's Iraq experts? According to one view, the media are hiding them from you. That's the claim of Juan Cole, University of Michigan historian. He's one of the establishment boosters of Middle Eastern studies, and a staunch defender of the Middle East Studies Association against all comers. (He also edits its quarterly journal.) In a recent piece on HNN, he complains that the media are ignoring America's historians of Iraqpeople who know about the country in its historical context. "It is an index of America's longstanding anti-intellectualism," he remonstrates, "that long hours of cable television news are filled with the views on Iraq of small town radio talk show hosts and retired colonels, but virtually no one who actually knows Arabic or has written substantially on the country appears on the small screen."
He goes on to list the historians and their fields of expertise, and the reader's
eye races ahead to learn the names of those who've done contemporary work. Suddenly,
we crash into this paragraph:
No American historian has essayed a major work on Baathist Iraq, for which the sources would have to be propaganda-ridden Iraqi newspapers, expatriate memoirs with an axe to grind, Western news wire reports, and what documents the U.S. government has been willing to declassify. Given the limitations of these sources, it is no wonder that most scholars have devoted their energies to the Ottoman and British periods, for which more documentation exists, the biases of which are more easily dealt with because passions have cooled with the passage of centuries.I wonder whether Professor Cole is even aware that he has contradicted himself. He complains that the media have excluded Iraq "experts" from the public forum, even as he reports that those same "experts" have excluded Baathist Iraq from their own area of expertise. In fact, the real scandal is not the "anti-intellectualism" of the American media. There is no reason on earth for them to ask an expert on 19th-century trade in Mosul about the intentions of Saddam Hussein. The scandal is the admitted fact that American academe has not produced a single work on Baathist Iraq.
Millions of taxpayer dollars have been poured into this fieldincluding, after the Kuwait war, a special appropriation for research fellowships called the Near and Middle East Research and Training Program, justified on the grounds of "national security." You would have thought that at least one bright young man or woman would have gravitated toward the study of Baathist Iraq, which for over a decade has been America's top national security concern in the Middle East. But no one did, and the answer is implicit in Cole's own words.
I'd like to work on Baathist Iraq, says the student. Don't waste your time, says the professor. The sources are too unreliable, the subject is too burdened with passions. If you insist on working on Iraq, tackle some remote period. (Unless, of course, you want to join the legions of Middle East "experts" who are "working" on the Palestinians: any period, any subject is just fine. Palestinian newspapers, memoirs, and oral testimonies are evidence, and the historian of the Palestinians has special dispensation to indulge his or her biases and passions.)
It's the guild masters who have created a situation where Baathist Iraq has been excluded from the research agenda. Outside America, where the guild is run differently, invaluable work has been done on this very subject. There is Amatzia Baram's book on the Baath's manipulation of Iraqi identity. There is Ofra Bengio's book on Saddam's political discourse. They made excellent use, among other sources, of those "propaganda-ridden Iraqi newspapers."
Nor is it true, as Cole says, that there is "more documentation" for the Ottoman and British periods. After the last Gulf war, the United States government brought eighteen tons of Iraqi official documents to Washington, a treasure trove seized by Kurds from Iraqi government offices. Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya and Human Rights Watch have made use of these documents. Not so historians and political scientists, who presumably are too busy studying "masculinities in Egypt" and "perceptions of the deaf in Islamic societies" (real research topics funded with "national security" appropriations).
In the lengthening indictment of Middle Eastern studies, Cole's confession"no American historian has essayed a major work on Baathist Iraq"is one of the weightiest counts. That absence, like the absence of studies of Bin Laden, is the result of a skewed academic culture that systematically discourages policy-relevant research. Why Washington continues to pump money into this enterprise is more of a mystery than the doings of Saddam Hussein.
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Tacitus - 3/12/2003
"This being a free country, these historians and social scientists are free to do research on whatever they want, and that's fine with me."
Education in this country is heavily taxpayer-subsidized, and I think most taxpayers resent subsidizing "mental masturbation while on drugs". Parents and students who pay for these expensive educations have a right to expect something better than the teaching of "mental masturbation while on drugs" for their money. Thus far academics have not been held accountable for failing to provide the services that the government and private individuals pay them to provide... but they shouldn't be surprised if and when a day of reckoning arrives.
"The space these academics leave open is then occupied by the likes of Mr. Kramer, Mr. Pipes, and countless ideologues, charlatans, and activists of different colors that claim to be "experts" on the Middle East."
Most academics are ALSO ideologues, charlatans, and activists, so where does that leave us?
Tacitus - 3/12/2003
"Are American academics to blame for the scandalous ignorance of the general American population?"
YES! The education of the general American population is the FUNDAMENTAL responsibility of American academics. It is their whole raison d'etre! If the American public is indeed ignorant, then they are unquestionably to blame. Mr. Subliminal's effort to shirk this responsibility by pointing a petulant finger at FOX News must be treated with the scorn that it deserves.
Mr. Subliminable - 3/9/2003
"Should we really be surprised that most Americans would believe what their government tells them, and the mass media transmits to them?"
"Yes, perhaps in the heat of an election season, when Bush, Rumsfeld, etc. were campaigning around the country, the people "heard or read" that Saddam was "involved" in the 9/11 attacks. And they told the Pew pollsters that."
Just to keep the discussion in perspective, these are the only comments that have any bearing on the original article by Mr. Kramer. If you recall, Mr. Kramer excoriated Juan Cole for daring to suggest that the American media are anti-intellectual. I argued that by breeding ignorance, the media were indeed anti-intellectual. You are now confirming that the media do have the capacity to breed anti-intellectualism - ignorance. This is precisely my point. If you now confirm this, then you are quite explicitly agreeing with me.
Nobody is saying that Americans suffer from inferior genes, if that's your fear. I am, however, saying that Americans, being only human, are susceptible to propaganda and misinformation, which in the United States happens to be aggressively disseminated by irresponsible, jingoistic media, not to mention an irresponsible President. You've just confirmed that "mass commercial media" are implicated. I wholeheartedly congratulate you.
As to your heroic efforts at dutifully scanning the media to uncover a conspiracy theory, I'm surpised you missed the unusually frank admission by our very own ally, Tony Blair, that there is no link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda:
Now, if you're bothered at the shocking idea that somebody just might consider Americans ignorant, I really can't help you there. That's just a personal grievance that no amount polling or rhetorical gymnastics will cure. Incidentally, I personally have very little reason to believe that ordinary Americans are competent on national or international affairs. Again, I don't think this is due to inferior genes. I think it has to do with a profoundly anti-intellectual culture, of which Bush is dishearteningly emblematic. Blaming it on Democrats is, I think, about as anti-intellectual as blaming it on aliens. There are multiple factors that contribute to the abysmal story of American anti-intellectualism. Mass media are, to say the very least, only part of the problem.
Mike Socolow - 3/8/2003
Some poll results (again, more recent than ones cited by Mr. Subliminable) (Quinnipiac, Feb. 4, 2003):
19. Do you think President Bush has presented enough evidence showing why the United States should use military force to remove Saddam Hussein from power, or would you like him to present more evidence?
Presented enough evidence: 39%
Should present more evidence: 59%
Don't Know/No Answer: 2%
20. Before deciding whether to attack Iraq, do you think the United States should or should not give United Nations inspectors a few more months to search for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons there?
Should give more time: 59%
Should not give more time: 37%
21. What do you think is more important - for the United States to move quickly against Iraq, even if that means acting without international support; or for the United States to gain international support, even if that delays action against Iraq?
Move quickly: 24%
Get international support: 71%
I ask Mr. Subliminable: do these poll results represent "absurd" or "ignorant" positions held by the American public? Are these poll results "symptomatic of the larger network of anti-intellectual, jingoistic media in the U.S."? Again, I would love to see a poll taken in the last six weeks that supports the assertions of Mr. Subliminable.
Mike Socolow - 3/8/2003
Thanks for the cite of the Pew Poll. Let's begin by looking more closely at the question asked by the pollsters:
"Q.36F1 And what's your opinion, based on what you've heard or read: Do you believe that Saddam Hussein helped the terrorists in the September 11th attacks, or don't you
think he was involved?
66 Helped the terrorists
21 Was not involved
13 Don't know/Refused
Do you see any obvious problems with this question? First: "what's your opinion" (not "do you have any information about whether....") Second: "based on what you've heard or read" (i.e. based on what you've seen on television, read in your newspaper, or what your friend has told you about what they have heard or read) Third: "Do you believe that Saddam Hussein helped the terrorists in the September 11th attacks, or don't you
think he was involved?" (why the "or"? Are these mutually-exclusive categories? Could he or his secret services not have had an agent meet with Mohammad Atta in Prague and yet still not be aware of the details of the impending attacks? Isn't that an option as well?)
I think the poll only "proves" one thing: that Americans read or heard a lot about Saddam Hussein being "involved" in the September 11 attacks last October.
Why? This is obvious. Last October the President made war with Iraq a campaign issue. He, and candidates he supported, spoke about it everyday. Voters - and the media - were told by the US Government that Iraq and Al-Qaeda were connected. Did the media have independent sources to refute this Republican campaign assertion? Why didn't the Democrats come out publicly and state what you seem to accept as fact: that there is - and was - no connection between Saddam Hussein's regime and Al-Qaeda? Why blame the messenger if you don't like the message?
You seem to be blaming the audience for the message that was communicated by the government, and transmitted by the mass media. Is this fair? Should we really be surprised that most Americans would believe what their government tells them, and the mass media transmits to them?
I'm surprised that the exact opposite is true: after the election season, it appears that the Saddam/9-11 link had - or has - very little staying power. The people (as of late February - see my earlier post) seem to clearly differentiate Osama bin Laden's network and the Iraqi government - despite Bush's efforts to conflate the two. Perhaps the media - out of the campaign mode, where they are played like a fiddle - are willing to question the assertion a little more. The Democratic Party certainly seems more forthcoming about separating the two....
Now: to your central point:
"my point was to question **WHY** the American people believe what they do. Why do (or did) such a vast number of Americans believe that Saddam had anything to do with September 11th? Where did they get such absurd ideas? Are we to assume that mass media play no role whatsoever in breeding this ignorance?"
Why "do (or did)"? Doesn't that weaken your argument substantially? Yes, perhaps in the heat of an election season, when Bush, Rumsfeld, etc. were campaigning around the country, the people "heard or read" that Saddam was "involved" in the 9/11 attacks. And they told the Pew pollsters that.
More importantly: Do you believe that "this ignorance" is contemporary? Do you believe a poll TODAY would find that a majority of Americans believe Saddam Hussein was "involved" in the 9/11 attacks? But again, the problem is with the question's wording: I think its quite possible that most Americans would say their "opinion" "based on what they have read or heard" is that Saddam was "involved" in the 9/11 attacks.
American public opinion is NOT - as of this poll of February 24-26 conducted by Gallup - in favor of going to war without UN approval:
This, despite Bush's efforts to convince the American people that we will act alone if necessary. What about "the ignorance of the American people" on this point?
This gets to my final problem with Mr. Subliminable's arguments: People he disagrees with have "absurd" ideas or are "ignorant." I can honestly profess that I do not know whether Saddam Hussein was "involved" in the 9/11 attacks. I believe I am more informed than most Americans. I scan several daily newspapers, weblogs on both the right and the left, and media websites (including ones like Mediachannel.org, and TAPPED which support Mr. Subliminable's main points).
The reason I still cannot commit to a position on Saddam's involvement with 9/11 is because I am "ignorant" of the inner workings of his secret police apparatus. I do not have any idea of what kind (if any) communications occured between Al-Qaeda and Hussein's regime before September 11th. I'm not willing to "close the book" or assume that that chapter in history has been written yet. I do believe that the purported meeting in Prague between Atta and Iraqi agents was a sham. That's why Bush has dropped it. I wish I could share Mr. Subliminable's certitude on this point. As someone who considers themselves liberal, I do hope Mr.Subliminable is correct, and that we can ultimately establish absolutely NO pre-9/11 connections. But as a liberal, I also know it does no good to blame the media and treat the American public disdain. If this really worked, Noam Chomsky would be president.
I would recommend the work of Daniel Hallin - in particular "We Keep America On Top of the World" - for anyone interested in this question. Hallin's conclusion (simplified): that the media simply follows arguments within the government. If there is no real - read: elected political - opposition to controversial policies, the media (he looks spoecifically at TV News, where most Americans get their news) will relegate public opposition to a place "outside the sphere of consensus." If enough elected powerholders disagree with a policy, the media will emphasize the split in the government, which allow the issue to enter the arena of mass debate.
Conclusion: blame the Democratic party - and George Bush. Maybe even blame TV news & the mass commercial media for its political limitations. But treat the American audience with a little more respect...
John Moser - 3/8/2003
Here is "Mr. Subliminal's" argument: Martin Kramer works for a think tank, hence he is a "failed academic," and, moreover, he fails to do proper homage to the great Edward Said, hence his viewpoint is unworthy of serious consideration. Are we to take this as the view of an "accomplished scholar with genuine academic and intellectual integrity"?
I have no idea if Mr. Kramer ever aspired to an academic post, nor do I know if "Mr. Subliminal" teaches at a college or university. However, I find it interesting that academia is today the only field where failure to find a position is viewed by academics as a moral failing. One can be an auto mechanic, a salesperson, or factory worker, and if one fails to find employment then intellectuals are quick to blame capitalism. However, let someone with a PhD not land an academic job--and remember, academia has a much tighter job market, and is far more dominated by an ideological orthodoxy than the private sector--and this person is dismissed as an ignoramus. Shameful.
Rafael - 3/7/2003
I tend to agree with Mr. Furnish on the fact that many historians and social scientists (especially the latter) have become some sort of "new age" researchers, immersing themselves on topics that can only be described as mental masturbation while on drugs. The "role of Ottoman eunuchs in imperial administration" sounds like a very down to earth subject compared to others I have heard about.
This being a free country, these historians and social scientists are free to do research on whatever they want, and that's fine with me. However, they would have much more influence and impact on government and society if they studied less esoteric and contrived subjects.
The space these academics leave open is then occupied by the likes of Mr. Kramer, Mr. Pipes, and countless ideologues, charlatans, and activists of different colors that claim to be "experts" on the Middle East.
Rafael - 3/7/2003
There was a report on the media some time ago (I just wish I could remember where I saw it) about a poll asking americans about the nationality of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
A huge percentage of the people (more than 50%) answered that some of the hijackers were from Iraq, which is completely false, obviously. This shows how much the facts are distorted as time passes by. And politicians know that you just need to repeat a lie often enough for a vast majority of the people to take it as a fact.
Mr. Subliminable - 3/7/2003
I'm referring to a poll by the Pew Research Center, "Americans Thinking About Iraq, But Focused on the Economy", October 10, 2002, which states:
"Clearly, the president's major arguments in favor of taking military action against Iraq are resonating with the public. Eight-in-ten Americans believe Iraq already possesses nuclear weapons or could soon obtain them. Two-thirds think Saddam had a hand in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And by an overwhelming margin (85%-8%), the public believes that in order to deal with the threat posed by Iraq, Saddam must be removed rather than disarmed and allowed to remain in power."
Of course, I perfectly accept that American public opinion will change with the evolving political situation. I think W's unpolished conduct in recent months has greatly contributed to his declining public image. However, my point was to question **WHY** the American people believe what they do. Why do (or did) such a vast number of Americans believe that Saddam had anything to do with September 11th? Where did they get such absurd ideas? Are we to assume that mass media play no role whatsoever in breeding this ignorance? (ex. http://www.fair.org/press-releases/iraq-weapons.html, http://www.fair.org/activism/iraq-myths.html)
The point of mentioning FOX News, by the way, was largely rhetorical. FOX News is just symptomatic of the larger network of anti-intellectual, jingoistic media in the U.S.
As far as how ignorant the American public is, precisely, would be difficult to estimate. These links provide some indication. I'm sure you could find others:
It's Mr. Subliminable: http://www.aoshingo.com/dubya/audio/sublimibabble2.wav.
Mike Socolow - 3/7/2003
Mr. Subliminal (nice name: one of my favorite SNL characters, by the way) makes statements that do not appear to be supported by public opinion polls. For instance, a key point in Mr. Subliminal's argument is that:
"When most Americans think that Saddam Hussein was behind 9-11, then we should be criticizing the media for propagating such disastrously dishonest ideas. "
Is this true? Do most Americans conflate Osama bin Laden's attacks with Saddam Hussein's regime? Apparently not. According to this TIME/CNN Poll, reported on February 24, 2003:
"Many Americans are worried that the President has taken his eye off the ball, that he has yet to fulfill his promise to root out the perpetrators of 9/11. By 2 to 1, they see Osama bin Laden as a greater threat than Saddam."
"56% said sending U.S. military troops into Iraq would increase the number of al-Qaeda attacks in the U.S."
If FOX News had such power to shape the opinions of the American people as Mr. Subliminal claims, then why does 56%
of the population think America is "headed in the wrong direction" and only 35% say it is "headed in the right direction"? (according to CBS News Poll cited below, conducted Feb. 2003) The CBS News poll includes this question:
"IRAQ, NORTH KOREA OR AL QAEDA: WHICH IS THE GREATER THREAT TO PEACE?"
"The number that says Al Qaeda is the biggest threat has risen slightly in the last month."
Finally, this Zogby Poll appears to confirm the CBS poll. It shows that between February 10 and February 21, those polled who thought that "the greatest danger to U.S." was al-Qaeda jumped from 32 to 34%, while those arguing that Iraq was the greatest danger fell from 30 to 25%. This at a time when the Bush Administration, and the Fox News channel, were beating the drums for war with Iraq.
I believe these polls demonstrate that most Americans are not conflating Saddam and the September 11th attacks. I welcome (actually, I look forward to seeing) any poll that verifies the accuracy of Mr. Subliminal's point about the ignorance of the American public.
The CNN/TIME Poll can be found here:
CBS News Poll:
Mr. Subliminable - 3/7/2003
I don't think you're even trying to understand my point. The article was not even remotely serious to begin with. To debate a perfectly empty gripe like Mr. Kramer's would be as meaningful as debating the threat of aliens to our planet. Of course, one could debate it. But, what purpose would it serve? Again, the article should be understood in light of Mr. Kramer's general aim, which is to fabricate 'crises' in American academia and then pretend like they're actually serious.
Once more, where do Americans get the idea that Saddam was behind 9-11, from American scholars of Middle Eastern studies or from FOX News? Are American academics to blame for the scandalous ignorance of the general American population? Even more fantastically, is Mr. Kramer suggesting that FOX News has more integrity than American academics? Or is he perhaps suggesting America would be better off with no American scholars of the Middle East at all? Or, better yet, perhaps America would be best off with a proliferation of Mr. Kramers in the departments of Middle Eastern studies? Forgive me for failing to take seriously the implications of his Mr. Kramer's article.
Ryan - 3/6/2003
"[H]uge numbers of Americans do indeed suffer from a severe plague of anti-intellectualism."
I wonder what you would have said if someone wrote a great many of a certain minority group "suffer from a severe plague of anti-intellectualism". But it’s always fair to bash the Americas cause they deserve it.
It seems that you are part of the problem. Why don't you debate the issues that Mr. Kramer has brought up instead of calling him silly? Maybe its because you are the one who is plagued by a severe case of anti-intellectualism?
Mr. Subliminable - 3/6/2003
This can't possibly be a serious article. When major media pay more attention to the opinions of "experts" from think-tanks (which are, generally speaking, forums for failed academics like Mr. Kramer), rather than accomplished scholars with genuine academic and intellectual integrity, then yes - the media are complicit. It would be far more honest to say that the media, rather than academics, have let down the country. Academics can hardly be said to have the vast influence upon ordinary Americans that mass media enjoy. Most Americans have never heard of Juan Cole. Most Americans have, however, heard of FOX News, whose lunatic jingoism is incomparably more influential upon ordinary Americans than serious scholars whose books will be left to the shelves of university libraries.
Furthermore, huge numbers of Americans do indeed suffer from a severe plague of anti-intellectualism. Amongst industrialized nations, Americans are at the very bottom when it comes to knowledge of the world. We have, in fact, a scandalously ignorant population, due in no small measure to American media. When most Americans think that Saddam Hussein was behind 9-11, then we should be criticizing the media for propagating such disastrously dishonest ideas. To suggest that American academics are behind the problem is to be severely deluded. It is to have one's priorities perfectly upside down.
Mr. Kramer's silly article should be viewed in light of his over-arching gripe, which is his self-debasing resentment towards the monumental impact of Edward Said landmark study, Orientalism. Mr. Kramer is upset that American academics have largely shed their Eurocentric, Orientalist disposition. He's upset that American universities tolerate criticism of Israel. He's upset that Middle Easterners now often teach Middle Eastern studies. Since academics won't take him seriously, he's forced to publish silly articles like the one above, not to mention tirelessly promoting himself through his own website - http://www.martinkramer.org. Mr. Kramer would not be compelled to resort to such debasing means of self-promotion were taken seriously by his colleagues. He is, as Columbia's Professor Hamad Dabashi described, a failed academic.
Tim Furnish - 3/5/2003
As usual, Martin Kramer hits the nail on the head. Studying anything remotely relevant in the field of Islamic/Middle Eastern history was, at the institution where I did my doctorate (Ohio State) derided as "newspaper" history. Far better to study the role of Ottoman eunuchs in imperial administration or anything to do with gender roles. Oh, and of course anything dealing with "discourse," "subaltern identities" or "modernity." Ack. And 9/11 doesn't seem to have made much of a dent in the post-modernist, Saidians' thick skulls.