Academics and the Government in the New American Century: An Interview with Rashid Khalidi
Lori A. Allen, Lara Z. Deeb, and Jessica Winegar
Radical History Review 93 (Fall 2005): 240-259
Two years after 9/11, just as it seemed that pressure to refrain from criticizing U.S. foreign policy was beginning to wane, a series of events began to worry scholars.
... the most controversial scheme was the passage of HR 3077 in the U.S. House of Representatives, legislation that would amend the renewal of area studies funding by adding a government-appointed advisory board to oversee university centers that receive funding under the Title VI Higher Education Act. The goal, according to the legislation, was to ensure that area studies programs "reflect the national needs related to the homeland security, international education, and international affairs."2 For the first time in nearly fifty years, academics found themselves faced with the prospect of direct government intervention into the content, shape, and direction of scholarship and teaching...
Although the neoconservative assault was of broad significance, affecting a wide range of academics and intellectuals, many scholars of the Middle East experienced its effects most directly due to the region's significance to the United States' post–Cold War foreign policy agenda.
The same kind of virulent attacks as those directed against Said have been leveled at the historian Rashid Khalidi, whose professorship in Arab studies at Columbia University bears the late scholar's name. Khalidi also serves as the director of Columbia's Middle East Institute, which receives Title VI funding and has been accused of promoting anti-American views.
As a respected historian, program director, and scholar committed to public intellectualism—and as a prime target of the neoconservatives—Khalidi is in a unique position to shed light on the increasingly vexed relationship between the academy and the government in post–Cold War, post-9/11 America.
We decided to interview Professor Khalidi in New York in February 2004 to gain some insight into the situation in which we—junior scholars of the Middle East—suddenly found ourselves.
Lori A. Allen, Lara Z. Deeb, and Jessica Winegar: Do you think that the general academic view that people like Kramer, Pipes, and Kurtz are scholarly lightweights played any role in academics' lackadaisical attitude towards the legislation?
I think it should be said that underestimating the new conservativism has now proven to be one of the stupidest things people could possibly do. People underestimate the president, they underestimate the people around the president, and they underestimate the whole radical revolutionary thrust of the core forces of this administration. This is something that is, to my way of thinking, a terrible, terrible strategic mistake: underestimating these people. They are trying to reshape American foreign policy. Some people are stuck in an analysis that says, "The United States through globalization is trying to dominate the world anyway. What's different about this?" Well, these are people who can't see the forest for the trees. They can't see that whatever forms of domination the United States exercised—whether in the Cold War or post–Cold War era, whether through globalization or otherwise—have very little to do with this new doctrine that this administration is putting forward. This is something different. There's a qualitative difference.
Well, the argument is that because of what happened in the United States, the United States is entitled to limit other countries' sovereignty. The United States acted in ways which limited other countries' sovereignty in the past, but it never really publicly and formally claimed that its security required that it make everybody else, if necessary, insecure. It never formally stated that nobody has sovereignty in the world but the United States. It never formally stated that the United States will not be bound by international law, will not be bound by multilateral institutions, which the United States created. The post–World War II structure is an American structure. Yes, it was created by many, many powers, but at its core, it is an American- determined structure. This administration is saying, "Ok, that era was then, this era is now. We do not need these things." And the president is saying, "We don't need a permission slip from anyone." That basically means, "We will not be bound by anything—morality, law, multilateral engagements, and this whole structure of international affairs as it has been created over the past sixty years."
Would you say that the terms of political legitimation are changing?
It's not just the terms of political legitimation. What this administration feels itself able to do in the world is different than what previous administrations have felt. Some people say it's only declaratory. But the war in Iraq showed that it's much more than a declaratory shift. That's my analysis. It's something that has to be worked out more, I think. But incidentally, I think that a lot of people should look very carefully at what the Bush administration says. It bears careful scrutiny. It bears careful textual analysis. And their actions should then be put in the context of their words, and the words of the Max Boots and the Admiral [James] Woolseys and the Richard Perles who swarm around them like a flock of gnats and whose ideas are the fertilizer for this evil, evil plant that's growing in Washington.
I've had arguments with people who say that intellectuals aren't important in this, and that the neocons are just window dressing for the sort of muscular nationalist military industrial complex types like [Dick] Cheney and [Donald] Rumsfeld. I actually don't think that's true. I think that as far as the president, the vice president, and the secretary of defense are concerned, these ideas are actually important.
Perhaps people did underestimate Pipes and Kramer. If so, they made a mistake. Because Pipes and Kramer are not operating on the level of their scholarship. They're operating on a different level. They're operating on a level of public discourse. They're operating on a level of a kind of slimy attack politics, which actually has become a very important part of the right-wing arsenal in the United States. Lee Atwater, back in the days of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr., pioneered some of these tactics of having absolutely no respect for the truth, taking things entirely out of context. Remember [Michael] Dukakis in the tank. You remember Willie Horton. That was Lee Atwater. He was a political genius. What kind of moral human being he was isn't the issue here. He was a political genius. Those techniques, those tactics, have been perfected by people like Karl Rove.
If academics stay back in their ivory tower, well, then they're going to be swept away by a political tide. They can babble on to their hearts' content after academia has been turned into some kind of ghastly right-wing vision. It's not these people [Kramer, Pipes, and the like] who are the guardians of this vision. It's Karl Rove, and the Christian Right, and the neoconservative right wing that really is behind this. The Middle East and the specific concerns of these people [Kramer, Pipes, and the like] have an important role. But this is bigger than that.
Are you suggesting that fire be fought with fire?
No, I don't think fire can be fought with fire for two reasons. First, we're never going to be as good at the kind of mudslinging and the kind of deceitfulness that these people are masters of. There's just no way that we can get so far down in the gutter as them successfully. Now that's not a very moral argument that I'm making, but it's an important point. You're not going to beat them at their game. The second thing is: if any of us have any authority, and I'm not talking about political operatives in the Democratic Party or people who are operating as political activists—they can do whatever they want, I'm not talking about them, I'm speaking now as an academic. If we have any authority, it has to do with not doing these kinds of things, but rather doing what we do, which is trying to figure out what's going on in the world, and using that information to explain things. Ultimately it has to do with some connection to truth. So that's the only role we can play. We can provide truthful material to people who are in politics, but it's a political game, and it has to be fought politically in some measure. We can't fight it directly. But we can help the people who are fighting it, by giving them stuff that's truthful.
Most of what's said about Title VI is a tissue of lies. It is claimed that the centers do not produce people who work for the government. There is not a center in this country that hasn't produced scores, if not hundreds of people, who work for the government. I come upon my own students who work for the government everywhere I go. It's a falsehood. It's a monstrous, enormous, colossal, deceitful falsehood. I mean, what can one say? You cannot fight this by saying something false about them, or false about the neocons. The only way to fight it is by producing lists. It may not work when the Senate finally considers this. It may or may not have impact. If we plunk on the table five pieces of data—chunks a hundred pages each—showing that this allegation is false, that allegation is false, it may have no impact. The political game may go somewhere else. That's another issue. But I think that's the only way that we can respond to this.
We asked Khalidi whether he thought that Middle East scholars should be more concerned about the legislation than others.
Rashid Khalidi: No, I don't [think so]. Even though the attack is being motivated by people who have a particular Middle East ax to grind, ultimately, what it's aimed at is expertise of any sort. The neocons cannot hoodwink the American public if there are people out there who are capable of distinguishing between ideology and reality. And the targets of this are not just the people in the academy. The people in our government who are experts are also targets of the neocons. They are under attack. People within the intelligence community, within the uniformed military and within the State Department, are in fact even more important targets of a larger campaign of which this is only a part. And I know that many people in the academy shudder at the thought that in any way they and the CIA are on the same page. But, in fact, they are, whether they like it or not, in the sense that any form of advice from the real world, any form of grainy, detailed reporting of reality contradicts the faith-based approach that these people are dedicated to. They are operating in a world of illusion, created by this vision of culture, the [Samuel] Huntington vision of cultures and civilizations, which has no relation to reality.11 And the only way they can sell this vision—whether it's of the Middle East specifically or the world more generally—is to rigorously fight any form of expertise. They have blocked off all the channels for advice getting up to the top in this administration. And there's a praetorian guard that keeps—I'm not saying truth, I'm just saying fact—from getting to the top.
We see it with weapons of mass destruction, because it's a scandal. That's true in every respect—everywhere within the government. Now I'm not saying that policy making is going to be good just because facts reach the top. That's a completely different issue. What I am saying is that I think that what is being attempted here is to install a political censorship over the academy such that certain unfiltered views about reality cannot be expressed without a cost being paid. And the same thing is being done within the government.
So you see the amendment to Title VI as part of a broader movement, also exemplified by things like the flagging of NEH proposals that contradict some political view?
Absolutely. And it's a little step towards that kind of thing. Family values. Abortion. Birth control. You name it. Wherever their agenda reaches—and it reaches quite broadly—they must fight against a whole realm of science, and a whole realm of empirically based research. We may not feel terribly committed to [empiricism]. We may feel that we're beyond that, but actually, if they knock that out from under us, we're in real trouble. I mean, we're almost back to witchcraft.
Do you see knowledge production within academia being particularly singled out?
Knowledge production in academia is singled out, because people in academia have a certain amount of authority. [The neocons] have cowed the people in the government. In a way, we're what's left. And they're going after us about the Middle East in particular because they have a particularly aggressive, particularly megalomaniac agenda in the Middle East. But I think it's true across the board. And I think this should not just alarm radical, left-wing, or liberal academics. I think that this is something that should alarm conservative academics. It should alarm any academic.
Rashid Khalidi: Part of the problem is that they [the neocons] are political, and we're not political. The people who are pushing this are not like us, in the sense that they don't represent this extremely disparate collection of private and public institutions, spread all over the United States, who have very little in common in many respects and who are all going off in different directions. Whereas they are a tightly knit, professional group affiliated with the party in power. They go into the Republican House leadership, and they are speaking the same language. They are on the same page. They believe in the same things. That's simply not true of the higher education community, where you have Republicans and Democrats, and neocons and liberals, and radicals and revolutionaries. It includes everybody. And the institutions are all cautious and conservative. And everybody is worried about alienating this senator, or that committee, or this department of government, because the universities are deeply dependent on the government. So why they didn't do what they didn't do, when we come to write the history of it? These will be some of the explanations. Should people be doing more? Yes. Who should be doing more? All the area studies associations should be doing more. All the professional associations, of all sorts, the American Historical Association (AHA), the American Political Science Association (APSA), the American Anthropological Association (AAA). All of the higher education bodies, all the provosts, in all of their configurations—the ones in the Midwest, the Ivies. They should all be taking this deadly seriously. Will they? It depends. You know, this university won't do it because the president feels this way, that university may not because they have a Republican governor who will be angry. . . . You know, there are all kinds of circumstances. But should more be done? Yes. Should it be done more quickly? Yes. Should it not be just a single effort? Yes. Because this is going to be with us. It's not going to die. No one is driving a stake through the heart of this vampire. It's coming back. If it doesn't get passed in this session, it will come back.
Your book is one aspect of your public intellectualism. Why do you think public intellectuals in this country have so little cachet, especially in comparison to Europe?
I'm not sure that they have no clout here. We just have to define public intellectualism a little more broadly. Unfortunately people thrown up by think tanks and the media have to be counted in some cases as public intellectuals. On the Right, largely. I don't think Ann Coulter is an intellectual, and there are many others like that—raving and ranting types. But, you know, there's a political debate going on. And for the first time in a long time, since the sixties, it's being joined from the other side. You go to the average airport bookstore, where all you used to find was Louis L'Amour—and Sarah Peretzky if you were lucky—diet books, and how to make a billion dollars. And [now] you find Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Al Franken, as well as books from the other side, Bernard Lewis, and a great deal of other material. I have to say, Bernard Lewis is a public intellectual. I don't agree with a lot of what he says. But there are actually people on both sides. A lot more now, I think, interestingly enough, perhaps now more than in recent decades. I think it's an entirely good thing.
Are there other reasons why scholars do not do publicly accessible work? Perhaps because it is not validated in the institution?
Oh, of course. And it's not validated within the institution for two reasons: (1) because it would jeopardize tenure, but also (2) because there's a narrow vision of what a scholar and academic is. That you cannot be an activist. You cannot be a political person. And there's a huge wrangle over this in the academy. To what extent should political opinions be expressed in the classroom by the teacher who is in a position of authority? To what extent is the student's learning experience going to be affected by the fact that that student is aware that outside the classroom the professor, with all of her/his authority, has pronounced him/herself on this, that, or the other. I don't know where I come down on these things. But it has to be admitted that this issue of abuse of authority, which the Right is using as a stick to beat us up with, is not entirely illusory. I mean, there is an issue there. We've seen it in gender, and no one disputes it now. Relationships based on unequal power relations are no longer seen as appropriate.
Is it appropriate for a professor to use her/his authority to push opinions? Now, I'm with Edward Said. There's no such thing as opinionless, objective scholarship. Every piece of scholarship comes from somewhere. But I don't think that that means that anybody can say anything in the classroom with the authority of the teacher. You know, is it correct for me to hand out "Buchanan for President" tracts in the classroom as a professor? Obviously not. Should I be handing out revolutionary socialist tracts in the classroom? Obviously not. I mean, as a professor, is it legitimate?
My point is that there's probably a way in which the academy is forcing a kind of mindless conformity on students. But I think there are some legitimate questions to be asked here.
I can tell you that if you are engaged in any kind of politics as a student, you have to be exceedingly sure that the rest of your work is on extremely solid grounds. Because there are people in the academy who will penalize you for having any views, any opinions, any political life outside the academy. And that has to do with an old vision of the objective scholar. Mainly it has to do with the disapproval of the specific opinions expressed in many cases. But that's the way it is.