One of those delightful spats between public intellectuals seemed to be nicely developing yesterday, when suddenly everything went dramatically wrong as one of the guys went postal. In an article in Slate, Christopher Hitchens attacked Juan Cole's translation and interpretation of a speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for the elimination of Israel.
He also wrote: "Cole is a minor nuisance on the fringes of the academic Muslim apologist community. At one point, there was a danger that he would become a go-to person for quotes in New York Times articles (a sort of Shiite fellow-traveling version of Norman Ornstein, if such an alarming phenomenon can be imagined), but this crisis appears to have passed."
Hardly a caress, but presumably, after a good mud-sling, both parties could have headed toward the showers and their previous life–Hitchens back to writing and Cole back to teaching at the University of Michigan and worrying about whether a Yale review board will offer him a new job in New Haven. Of particular irritation to Cole was that Hitchens used a passage from a letter he sent to the Gulf 2000 mailing list, which is private and where permission must be requested to quote. That's a reasonable beef from Cole, but he could have responded by simply correcting Hitchens' "inaccurate screed," based on his own declared knowledge of Persian, and asking Slate to publish a rebuttal.
Instead, Cole responded with a savage screed all his own, accusing Hitchens' of having a drinking problem, attacking the Right, the Bush administration, unspecified "US corporations", and much more with no connection to Hitchens' article.
Then there was this:
So sit down and shut up, American Enterprise Institute, and Hudson Institute, and Washington Institute for Near East Poslicy [sic], and American Heritage Institute, and this institue [sic] and that institute, and cable "news", and government "spokesmen", and all the pundit-ferrets you pay millions to make business for the American military-industrial complex and Big Oil.
We don't give a rat's ass what Ahmadinejad thinks about European history or what pissant speech the little shit gives.
I call on university students across America to begin holding antiwar rallies. The only way you can have a war on Iran is to draft the young people. It is you who are on the line. Demonstrate! Demonstrate against the very hint of war! Demonstrate to end the one we've already got! (See Speaker's Forum on Iraq
Here is what the real Iran experts think about the prospect of an Iran war.
Because Hitchens's dirty tricks and lies against me are only the beginning. Whoever stands against the Perpetual War machine will be attacked, slimed, marginalized, and destroyed if the warmongers get their way. I don't care. Thus far and no farther.
One, two, three, four. We don't want your stinking war!
This is the stuff of self-immolation. The Yale review board has said that in considering Cole's application it would not look at his blog, but only his academic achievements. However, this seems to be an increasingly untenable position given that a blog, like any other piece of public writing, is a perfectly reasonable window into someone's methodology and, well, mental balance. Somehow, it doesn't look very good when you react to criticism of something you wrote by calling the other person a drunkard and a thief.
Cole should have known better. When applying for an Ivy League post, do what everybody else does: lie low, stick to the consensus, and don't make an idiot of yourself, until you're inside the walls. My bet is that Cole will soon be hearing embarassed coughs from Yale.
(Full disclosure: I often write in Slate and am a member of the Gulf 2000 list. Neither affiliation has shaped my view of Cole's behavior, which, frankly, speaks volumes on its own.)