When Campus-Watch.org debuted on the academic landscape earlier this year, it promptly and predictably sparked a firestorm of controversy. Singling out high-profile professors and colleges it viewed as engaging in apologetics for Islamic extremists and Palestinian terror groups, the organization has been called "McCarthyism" and "terror by association" by its critics.
Originally, Campus Watch included dossiers on professors it viewed as particularly problematic, eliciting cries of 'blacklisting' from critics. The New York Times gave the controversy play, and within a few weeks there was a flood of academics from all over the country asking to be included, a sort of solidarity blacklist volunteerism. Campus Watch promptly yanked the dossiers, though it includes a list of those who requested inclusion in solidarity, and it still issues reports about various campuses.
And Campus Watch is still doing one more thing -- everything wrong.
To be sure, those crying foul over Campus Watch's tactics are crying fools, choosing to write Campus Watch off as McCarthyism rather than respond to the group's underlying criticisms. The problem is, that's just the point.
Take Columbia University for example. Campus Watch took aim at the institution early on, including two of its professors, Hamid Dabashi and Joseph Massad, in its original list of dossiers. The Columbia student newspaper printed a story on the subject, in which Dabashi referred to Campus Watch as "a horrid form of cyber-McCarthyism," echoing what was becoming a standard critique.
Dabashi went further, characterizing the issue as "a war between principles of academic freedom for the cultivation of critical judgment at the service of responsible citizenship on one side, and a useless band of illiterate charlatans on the other." In other words, Campus Watch was assaulting his "academic freedom" as a responsible citizen.
Of course, Dabashi's argument is utter nonsense. Academic freedom, like the First Amendment's protections of free speech, doesn't insulate you from criticism. In fact, the whole concept of academic publishing requirements is designed to force these professors, and their viewpoints, into the spotlight. Criticism is the logical and necessary next step.
Campus Watch draws on information in the public domain, including the quoted statements of professors like Dabashi, and it continually weaves that information into lengthy exposes on just how biased academic professors can be. Since Dabashi and his fellow professors can publish, we must assume they can also read, so one has to question their continual inability (or refusal) to counter Campus Watch's arguments more directly. Listening to a tenured professor whine about being intimidated into silence is perversely amusing, but it's also a cop-out on the professor's part.
It makes you wonder who the useless illiterate charlatan really is.
But most people wouldn't know that and wouldn't care to. The entire debate has shifted from the state of Middle East scholarship in America and the validity of Islamist apologetics to whether Campus Watch is akin to McCarthyism.
Sadly, this is as much the fault of Campus Watch as the professors' successful spin control. By framing its approach in opposition to "activist scholars" and making its central tactic to "monitor and gather information on professors," Campus Watch shifted the debate from the arguments to the professors who make them and set itself up for the comparison to McCarthyism.
Despite reams of substantial arguments against Islamist apologetics and the kind of anti-Israel sentiment Dabashi and his ilk are famous for, Campus Watch hardly makes the effort. Instead it spends most of its time doing one of two things, condemning professors for flagrant quotations and defending itself from the ensuing firestorm.
Click all over the Campus Watch Web site and you'll find little in the way of substantive debate on just why Islamist apologetics is factually bankrupt, let alone dangerous. The creators of Campus Watch simply assumed that you already agreed with them, and then proceeded to indict the other side. That's called preaching to the choir, it accomplishes virtually nothing, and it's not surprising given the two principle players behind Campus Watch: Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer. Both are brilliant men who continue to contribute a great deal to our understanding of the Middle East, and both are notorious for falling into hyperbolic rhetoric whenever they get near a microphone or TV camera. The result is always the same; their legitimate arguments are undermined by their inept presentation. It's as if the Israeli Foreign Ministry trained them.
All of this would be of negligible concern if the issue Campus Watch was designed to address wasn't so serious. When the group states, "College students … are influenced by the tone [professors] set for the debate of Middle East politics on over two thousand campuses," they're not exaggerating. The power imbalance between a professor and a student only exacerbates the frustrating and dangerous effect a professor can have when they choose to use their classrooms as ideological inculcation centers.
All of which is exactly why those who'd like to seriously counter the disturbing anti-Israel bias in academia should start by telling Campus Watch to quietly get out of the way. Their tactics undermine other, more effective, efforts by confusing the debate from one about genuine facts to perceptions of McCarthyism and bogus claims about academic freedom in jeopardy.
It begs the question. Who's going to watch Campus Watch?