Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that "Sunlight is the best disinfectant". But certain folks are not happy about the healthy sunlight that CampusWatch is shining on the biases and questionable standards of some Middle East scholars. Some have labeled CampusWatch's work on behalf of truth and academic standards "McCarthyite-style" and a "blacklist". (Meryl Yourish appropriately slams a New York Times report on this controversy)
Let's take a closer look at the some of the scholars who take issue with CampusWatch, and at those scholars' charges of McCarthyism. Over on the website of CAIR we find a letter from Stanford professor Joel Beinin, president of the Middle East Studies Association, advising his "friends and colleagues" (including, apparently, the terrorism-rationalizers at CAIR) about CampusWatch. He includes this excerpt from an e-mail that Judith Butler of UC-Berkeley sent to CampusWatch
I have recently learned that your organization is compiling dossiers on professors at U.S. academic institutions who oppose the Israeli occupation and its brutality, actively support Palestinian rights of self-determination as well as a more informed and intelligent view of Islam than is currently represented in the U.S. media. I would be enormously honored to be counted among those who actively hold these positions and would like to be included in the list of those who are struggling for justice during these times.Wow. That's quite an excited snippet of prose, with 83 words in only two sentences. One wonders what sort of scholar would sign her name to such a rant. It turns out that Judith Butler is not a Mideast expert. She is a professor of Comparative Literature and Rhetoric, specializing in feminisim, sexuality studies and queer theory. Indeed. Is it just me, or does anybody else find it unusual that a professor of Rhetoric could write so poorly? (Never mind the content of the letter, which implies that our Mideast scholars should be struggling for justice and not, say, engaging in scholarship and intellectual inquiry) No, it is not just me. Experts in Butler's field call her writing "ponderous and obscure" or "difficult and unreadable" and say that "it is difficult to figure out what [her ideas] are". One would hope that a tenured professor of Rhetoric, of all things, should at least know how to write readable prose, if nothing else. But it's fitting, I suppose, that one of her books would have the title Excitable Speech
Another letter at CAIR is from Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, who says
...it would be legitimate to write letters of protest to the major news and cable networks protesting that they give Daniel Pipes a great deal of air time. As journalists, surely they are concerned that he is heading up a McCarthy-like campaign of watch lists and so fostering un-American values and attitudes.Yes, it is legitimate to write letters to news organization when you disagree with their coverage. But is Daniel Pipes' campaign really McCarthy-like? McCarthy, recall, was a United States Senator who used the powers of the state to deprive people of their livelihood and to throw them in jail for their associations and beliefs. CampusWatch is an organization of private citizens, who are merely exercising their right to free speech by criticizing the professional shortcomings of certain scholars. It is not "un-American" in any sense of the term to engage in public debate, least of all when some of those scholars whose work is in question are employed by public institutions.
So the reaction to CampusWatch has revealed that the problems in the academy extend beyond the Mideast studies departments. Our public universities also employ rhetoricians who can't write and historians who don't understand history.
UPDATE: Damian Penny discovers more hysteria about Campus Watch from Joel Beinin and his groupiesPosted by Stefan Sharkansky at September 28, 2002 12:24 PM