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Juan Cole: A Big Brother Plan to Monitor Middle East Studies

Juan Cole, on his blog (March 6, 2004):

Some of you know that some unsavory political forces have convinced the House of Representatives to create a Big Brother committee to police the thought of university professors who write about world affairs. The bill is HR 3077. The main goal of this legislation is to impose an ideological agenda on university teaching, research and writing about issues like the Middle East. The point of the committee is to warp academic study and ensure that independent researchers are not allowed to be heard. But it was precisely the imposition of such ideological litmus tests in Washington that led to the case of the missing Weapons of Mass Destruction and the conviction that Iraq was 3 years away from having a nuclear bomb, both propositions completely false. It would not be doing the United States any favors to muzzle the academics, as well.

I plead with all the thousands of you who have expressed interest in this site and read it frequently, to FAX your senator, or the senate generally, expressing your conviction that this advisory committee be excised from the final bill. The contact information is below. An email is better than nothing, but the FAX is what would get the job done.

The fact is that international studies in the United States is extremely underfunded. Probably Federal spending on it annually is about equivalent to buying two F-16e fighter jets. In the entire country, at all universities and colleges. It is nothing compared to the need. Among the main programs is Title VI, which funds over 100 area studies centers at major universities. But it funds just 15 or so fully fledged Middle East Centers, in the entire country! (A Middle East center typically has 20-30 faculty members who study the Middle East proper since 600 A.D., in various disciplines, though if you add in the scholars who work on the ancient Near East and the people who work on the Caucasus and other related areas, it might come to 60). Actually, usually a lot of the money goes to language fellowships for graduate students. But since nowadays it costs around $20,000 to pay tuition and a stipend even at a state university, you can see that not many students can be funded for Arabic or Persian language study at that rate.

When I came to the University of Michigan in 1984, we were able to give about 20 such fellowships annually. The Reagan administration annually zero-budgeted Title VI, which is to say that Reagan tried to abolish Federal support for things like Middle East Studies altogether, every year for 8 years. Congress always put the money back, but it did not increase it at the rate of inflation. By the late 1990s, the University of Michigan had been denied funding for its Center altogether, and only 2 or 3 graduate students were being supported to study Arabic, Persian, or Turkish. Now, these same old-time Reaganites are coming and saying that we haven't done our jobs and need to be watched.

Although the Middle East is a huge policy concern for the US now, we probably don't have more than about 1,000 full time faculty members who specialize in the area, know the languages, and write mainly about it. That is a tiny group for a region stretching from Morocco to Afghanistan, and needing to be covered for the past 1400 years.

The Neocons would have you believe that the Middle East specialists at universities have fallen down on the job by not all becoming terrorism experts. But none of the Neocons who did Middle East or South Asian studies wrote their dissertations on anything to do with US security, and most still have not contributed to its security--often quite the opposite. Many of them were hand in hand with creating the Afghan Mujahidin and al-Qaeda by throwing billions of dollars at such groups in the 1980s. University professors mainly research in the areas they teach, and most teaching jobs are for history or cultural studies. This is what the students want, and nowadays universities pay attention to student demand. These positions are largely at small liberal arts colleges or private universities, and most are not supported by the Federal government, so I should think those institutions can shape the positions as they please. If the US government wanted lots of Arabists at lots of security studies programs in universities, it should have spent some money on that goal. It did not.

But it is also true that a significant part of the US government is now busily reading the books and articles about the Middle East produced by Middle East academics at US universities. Without that corpus of literature, these brave and dedicated men and women would be flying blind. Doing anything to gut this academic establishment would be extremely self-defeating for a US that is going to be increasingly engaged with the Middle East. The tack of trying to intervene in the region without knowledge of it has been shown to be a disaster.

Frankly, the Federal government doesn't make use of the experts it has. There are only a handful of us who write professionally about Iraq, because for most of our lives it was hard to do field work there or get access to primary sources. I could mention Peter Sluglett at Utah, Yitzhak Nakash at Brandeis, and a handful of others. I don't know about them, but I have never, ever even once been invited to a State Department conference on Iraq. And, as we all know, even if I had been it would not have mattered, since the Neocons at the Pentagon threw all the work Tom Warrick at State had done on the Future of Iraq project into the trash can and prevented Tom himself from going to join the CPA! This is what I would have told anyone who had asked me a year and a half ago about the pros and cons of going to war in Iraq.

So here's the alert:

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee is hoping to take up the Higher Education Act reauthorization in the next two-three weeks. [Note that there is no separate subcommittee on higher education on the HELP Committee, so the bill will be considered by the full committee and then go to the floor.]

Opponents and proponents of the controversial Advisory Board provision have been vigorously lobbying the Senate on this issue. If you have not already written a letter to the Senate or telephoned a message, NOW is the time. Write to your Member on the Senate HELP Committee (see list below), or if your state is not represented on the committee, write to Senators Gregg and Kennedy with a copy to your two Senators. Faxing your letters will ensure timely receipt due to the recent ricin scare. E-mailing is not recommended.

If you want to visit the real world instead of the rarefied atmosphere of K Street, you can get a sense of what an actual Middle East center is and does here.

A. The people who support the "Advisory Committee" argue that there is extreme ideological bias in the teaching about Middle East studies and other area studies fields at US universities. I have addressed many of these charges in my article for the History News Network. Here is what I wrote about Political Science:

Last spring Kurtz implicitly attacked the political scientists at the Middle East Centers at American universities for being postmodernist, leftist, anti-American terrorist-coddlers. The 14 or so tenured professors of Middle East political science at the federally funded National Resource Centers, however, include Leonard Binder of UCLA (who fought on Israel's side in the 1948 war); Joel Migdal and Ellis Goldberg at the University of Washington, Seattle (exponents of the New Institutionalism and Rational Choice, respectively); Mark Tessler of the University of Michigan (with a Ph.D. From Hebrew University, who analyzes survey data quantitatively), Lisa Anderson and Gary Sick of Columbia (comparative politics and policy studies, respectively; Sick is a former naval officer and served on the National Security Council), and so on. Of the fourteen, only one (Timothy Mitchell at New York University) could be considered a postmodernist, and his work on the Middle East from that framework has been illuminating. None of the fourteen has ever to my knowledge supported any sort of terrorism.

That is to say, Middle East political science is an ideologically highly diverse field, with lots of approaches represented. It is not dominated by a single methodology or school, as was falsely charged. The same thing is true for the other disciplines.

HR 3077 mandates that Title VI programs must "reflect diverse perspectives and represent the full range of views on world regions, foreign language, and international affairs."

This language is potentially disastrous.

As Stanley Fish has said, university teaching and research is not about "balance." Our cancer institute isn't required to hire at least a few biologists who believe smoking is good for your health. In research, it is all right to be partisan for the evidence. It is in fact one of the things wrong with journalism and political discourse that there is so much emphasis on "telling both sides of the story." This is a bad approach because many stories have many more than two sides, and some stories only have one true side. Appointing a professor at each major university who would have insisted in early 2003 that Iraq was only 3-5 years away from having a nuclear bomb would not have been an academic advance, but it is the sort of thing the framers of HR 3077 had in mind when they urged "balance."

I teach a course on War in the 20th Century Middle East at the University of Michigan, and as a historian I have to admit that it is a biased course, especially when we get to the 1990s. It is biased because I despise the Taliban and al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and I certainly do not properly give their side of the story. If what the Senate wants is "balance," then we shall have to hire some of those unemployed ex-Baathists to teach Iraqi history at the University of Michigan, to offset my jingoistic pro-American approach. "Reflecting" "the full range of views" would also require us to have more Communist, Nazi, Holocaust-denying and Hamas professors. The Senate should be very careful about putting into statute this language about "balance," because although the committee's supporters want to use it mainly as affirmative action for Republican academics, there are lots of extremist groups in US society that may find ways to use the language perniciously. (Contrary to the hype, there are plenty of Republican academics, and try to find a leftist in any major Economics Department or Business School in the country).

B. The people who argue for the Advisory Board charge "anti-Americanism" in the classroom. But actually what they mean by that if you pin them down is ambivalence about the Iraq war, or dislike of Israeli colonization of the West Bank, or recognition that the US government has sometimes in the past been in bed with present enemies like al-Qaeda or Saddam. None of these positions is "anti-American," and any attempt by a congressionally-appointed body to tell university professors they cannot say these things (or that if they say them they must hire someone else who will say the opposite) is a contravention of the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

c. The "Advisory Committee" that HR 3077 sets up is unneeded. The Department of Education already does oversight of the area studies centers, and gives or withholds money according to whether they meet government goals. Funding a whole extra committee is a waste of taxpayer money and a clear duplication of effort. The Committee explicitly has "investigatory" powers, which it is hard to see as anything other than McCarthyism. Given Republican dominance of all three branches of government, the committee is going to be highly politicized, and some ideologues will probably be shoe-horned onto it.

Most troubling of all, the "advisory board" will have "investigative" powers. These powers are clearly meant to intimidate US academics and administrators, and some institutions are already talking of turning down Federal money rather than submit to such tactics. You decide if the country would be well served by a law that made it impossible for the best universities to even take Federal funds for international studies.

Polite, accurate and thoughtful letters will be useful. Testimonials and anecdotes based on fact can convey a lot. If you are unsure of HR 3077 details, go to: http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=108_cong_bills&doc id=f:h3077rfs.txt.pdf

You can follow proposed revisions by searching on HR 3077 through the "Bill Search" function on the Senate web site.

Also a google search on HR3077 will bring up many sites with many points of view.

For those interested: a recent article in the Village Voice about HR3077?s advisory board: http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0408/solomon.php

A fairly recent op-ed in USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2004-02-16-our-view_x.htm

For more info, go to http://health.senate.gov/committee_members.html
For all senators:
(unfortunately, you have to telephone to get the FAX number)


Judd Gregg, NH
Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
TEL (202) 224-3324
FAX (202) 224-4952

Bill Frist, TN
TEL (202) 224-3344
FAX (202) 228-1264

Michael B. Enzi, WY
TEL (202) 224-3424
FAX (202) 228-0359

Lamar Alexander, TN
TEL (202) 224-4944
FAX (202) 228-3398

Christopher S. Bond, MO
TEL (202) 224-5721
FAX (202) 224-8149

Mike DeWine, OH
TEL (202) 224-2315
FAX (202) 224-6519

Pat Roberts, KS
TEL (202) 224-4774
FAX (202) 224-3514

Jeff Sessions, AL
TEL (202) 224-4124
FAX (202) 224-3149

John Ensign, NV
TEL (202) 224-6244
FAX (202) 228-2193

Lindsey O. Graham, SC
TEL (202) 224-5972
FAX (202) 224-1189

John W. Warner, VA
225 Senate Russell Building
US Senate
Washington, DC 20510-4601
TEL (202) 224-2023
FAX (202) 224-6295


Edward M. Kennedy, MA
Ranking Minority Member
Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
TEL (202) 224-4543
FAX (202) 224-2417

Christopher J. Dodd, CT
TEL (202) 224-2823
FAX (202) 224-1083

Tom Harkin, IA
TEL (202) 224-3254
FAX (202) 224-9369

Barbara A. Mikulski. MD
TEL (202) 224-4654
FAX (202) 224-8858

Jeff Bingaman, NM
TEL (202) 224-5521
FAX (202) 224-2852

Patty Murray, WA
TEL (202) 224-2621
FAX (202) 224-0238

John F. Reed, RI.
TEL 202) 224-4642
FAX (202) 224-4680

John R. Edwards, NC
TEL (202) 224-3154
FAX (202) 228-1374

Hillary Rodham Clinton, NY
TEL 202) 224-4451
FAX (202) 228-0282


James M. Jeffords, VT
TEL (202) 224-5141
FAX (202) 228-0776