Campus Comedy

A bogus controversy over McCarthyism continues


It's axiomatic that when somebody says he wants a level playing field or, worse, a balanced and honest discussion, he really means he wants to see his opponents forcibly silenced, executed if possible. A tragic-comic-absurdist-farcical demonstration of this principle has been the recent campaign by a league of academics against Daniel Pipes' Campus Watch.

If you are unacquainted with academic politics, indifferent to the philosophical debate on the Middle East, or in any other way a productive member of society, the fight over Campus Watch may have passed you by. Late last month, Pipes, the feisty Middle East commentator and head of Philadelphia-based think-tank Middle East Forum, launched the site as a corrective to what he calls "the intellectual failure of Middle East studies, the tendency toward political extremism, the intolerance of alternative viewpoints, the apologetics, and the abuse of power toward students." The site included a compilation of "dossiers" on eight offending professors, and a page inviting students to fink on teachers who cross the line.

If the site's Cold War terminology was clearly provocative, the response from academics was equally intemperate. "This is a campaign of terror and intimidation," Hamid Dabashi, a Columbia professor of Middle East and Asian languages and cultures and one of the original eight academics targeted by Pipes' dossiers, told the Columbia Daily Spectator on Monday. "First maliciously misrepresenting the totality of our views and thus identifying us as anti-Americans and then sending their lunatics allies our way to harass us are Gestapo tactics once used against German Jewish intellectuals. I am honored to have joined their rank."

"The well-tried and tested 'bin Laden Option' of 'suicide attacks' on academic institutions is being adopted," Abdelwahab El-Affendi, a senior research fellow at the University of Westminster, wrote recently in the Beirut Daily Star. "Those engaged in these attacks will commit academic suicide, for they will forever lose their credibility and no academic will ever want to work with them. However, in time, they may create enough mayhem and intimidate enough people sufficiently to destroy and disorient key academic institutions and hamper their input on the debate on the Middle East."

El-Affendi picks up a common theme in the reaction—dinging Pipes for being outside the university system. Many of the attacks on Pipes described him as a "failed academic," and in the controversy's most memorable insult, Dabashi, in a joint appearance on MSNBC's Donahue, Dabashi called him a "charlatan" and stated, "You have not written one sentence worth reading twice."

The most frequent, and least surprising, set of charges has referenced a certain hard-drinking, red-baiting, tail-gunning Senator from Wisconsin. Nearly every critique of Campus Watch has tagged its lists as McCarthyite, its philosophy as a new McCarthyism, and its tactics as worthy of McCarthy. The goal of the site, opponents say, is not to challenge or improve the targeted academics but to silence them. Pipes replies in kind. "The charge of McCarthyism is really an attempt to shut us down," he told the Columbia paper.

Last week, the posturing over Campus Watch came full circle. A group of 100 academics had for the past month been expressing sympathy with Pipes' subjects by requesting their names be added to the list of un-American professors. Pipes has now obliged them, so that a comprehensive list of apologists for terrorism—or at least of campus self-promoters—is now available.

With few exceptions, commentators have taken the claims of one side or the other at face value. Martin Kramer, a Pipes associate whose book Ivory Towers In the Sand began the debate over Middle East studies last year, sums up the controversy with the apostrophe "Thank you, Campus Watch." Stanley Kurtz, in a fevered but rambling essay for National Review Online, claims, "An important new organization that promises to focus public concern on 'blame America first' bias in the academy is in danger of being discredited," before ending with a defiant "Long live Campus Watch." On the other side, Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, the war on terror's Mr. Bill, says the Pipes effort is "grotesquely" named and calls its dossiers a "contemptible McCarthyite list."

Sensible people enter this sort of controversy cautiously or not at all. But it's worth assessing the competing charges. The academics' case against Pipes is thin at best. If Dabashi's insult is correct, Pipes is guilty of writing prose that's easy to read. To criticize Pipes' lack of academic credentials is a poor argument, since one of Campus Watch's explicit criticisms is that a professor with unacceptable political views would not be allowed to build up the necessary résumé. It's also misleading; Pipes is or was a more valuable scholar of the Middle East than the epithet "polemicist" implies. His early book Greater Syria is to my knowledge the only widely available study of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, an important force in Levantine politics and a major player in the Lebanese civil war, but a group almost entirely unknown to the happy millions who have little familiarity with Orthodox Christianity in the Middle East. He seems to be the only person in America who waited for arrests to be made before pontificating about the Beltway sniper. It may be true that Pipes has in recent years traded in his research work to craft an overly simplified television personality with a repetitive set of talking points—a figure not unlike the Crypt Keeper or Starhustler Jack Horkheimer—but is that not a familiar career track for scholars whose work clicks with a wider audience?

Pipes' accusations of widespread campus radicalism also warrant some skepticism. At a mid-level state college in the early 1990s, I took a class called "Arab-Israeli Conflict," taught by a rabbi who, while conscientious in his presentation of opposing ideas, was hardly a font of anti-American or anti-Israeli rhetoric. (Our teacher repeatedly promised to bring in a Palestinian as a one-day guest lecturer, but somehow that plan kept falling through.) I may not be the best person to judge whether there's a pan-Islamic conspiracy afoot in academia; my experience may have been unique, or campus politics may have changed drastically in the past decade.

In any event, if Middle East scholarship is as extreme, hermetic and intolerant as Pipes claims, that may only prove how insignificant it is in the wider theater of ideas. Bernard Lewis' books are bestsellers; Kramer has ready access to the Wall Street Journal opinion pages; Pipes is a fixture in print and electronic media. The Middle East professors, by contrast, are in the same position as postwar academic composers of serial music, who responded to popular indifference by making a virtue of their own marginalization. None of Pipes' original gang of eight would have gotten public attention at all if Campus Watch hadn't pointed them out. That doesn't mean they're immune to criticism—another of Pipes' and Kramer's points is that not enough attention is being paid to academic extremism—but it hardly makes them a threat.

Which brings us back to Joe McCarthy and the promiscuous invocation of his legacy. Does either side in this discussion have grounds to claim McCarthyism? If we define McCarthyism as a smear campaign with the capacity to block or destroy the careers of its targets, the answer is a resounding No. Both sides would clearly like to be able to wipe out the opposition. In the most famous case of professorial extremism, Berkeley graduate student Snehal Shingavi warned: "conservative thinkers" to stay away from his course on the nonexistent topic of "Poetics of Palestinian Resistance." Pipes is no stranger to silencing himself, having written a column urging media, think tanks and politicians to "close their doors" to American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee spokesman Hussein Ibish— a tactic the New York Press called "pathetic, undignified and all-too-obvious," since it came soon after a TV debate in which Pipes ended up shouting "Shut up! Shut up!" at Ibish. Each side would like to silence the other; what matters is that neither can.

Like most debates, this one demonstrates the healthy futility of debate. If you were a Pipes partisan before, you're now convinced that Islamo-fascists and pro-Palestinian maniacs are running rampant among America's intellectual class. If you were a Pipes hater before, you're even more persuaded that he's a demagogue now. Fans of political cockfighting will also find enjoyment in the exchange.

More broadly, what has been discredited in this discussion is the practice of shouting McCarthyism whenever somebody criticizes you. It's tempting to rehearse the age-old drama of, on the one hand, anti-American tenured radicals corrupting the nation's youth, and on the other, know-nothing demagogues making a hash of complex philosophy and stamping out honest inquiry. Nothing of the sort is going on here. We may in fact need an update of Mike Godwin's Hitler constant, with a corollary that the first person to use the word "McCarthy" in a debate automatically forfeits the point. Barring such a rule, it's hard to see how this debate will end anytime soon. Thank you, Campus Watch, for engaging a struggle of ideas so intense and nail-biting it deserves its own commemorative chess set.