Several interesting issues arise in this set of interrelated comments by faculty from the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies. I focus mainly on the comments of Professor Shalom Goldman, in which he draws an analogy between mid-twentieth-century McCarthyism and public critiques of university faculty in Middle Eastern studies today ("Subversives," Academic Exchange, February/March 2003).
Professor Goldman begins his comment with a discussion of the McCarthy era in American politics, a time when many faculty members lost their jobs over ideological disputes. This analysis is irrelevant to the rest of his comments. In today's climate, no one is being threatened with loss of a job. Professor Goldman makes no claim that this is occurring. While McCarthyism was harmful, debate is not advanced by likening every criticism of an academic viewpoint to McCarthyism.
Further, he argues that the failure of policy makers to rely on college professors "trained in the languages and cultures of the area" is a "new type of McCarthyism." This argument does not logically follow. The essence of free information exchange in society is that all voices be heard; when one set of voices wins the debate this is not a form of repression. Professor Goldman believes that professors should dominate the public debate. If they do not, however, it is because either they have failed to communicate or because decision makers have rejected their arguments. A more effective response is to hone one's arguments or to think of more persuasive ways of presenting them, or perhaps to reexamine one's conclusions, instead of trying to disqualify those who are winning the debate at a particular time.
Professor Goldman asserts that the discussion of the Middle East is dominated by representatives of think tanks who are not academicians. (He compares this to the 1950s non-academic experts on Communism. He does not mention that history has demonstrated that these non-academic experts had the better of the debate about the merits of Communism. Non-academics were more critical than academics of Communism, and history has shown the more critical response to be correct. ) He argues that "a think tank with a very explicit political agenda wouldn't be the place to seek unbiased information." Although think tanks have agendas, they do not force their agents to agree with them. Rather, they seek trained people (often with "PhDs from prestigious institutions," as Professor Goldman indicates) whose research and thinking have led them to agree with the position of the think tanks. In today's world, it is by no means clear that the positions of think tanks are more biased than positions in many university departments, which often have political agendas of their own. Indeed, the rise of the conservative think tanks may be a response to the perceived one-sidedness of academic debate. (I should disclose that I am associated on an adjunct basis with some of the organizations that Professor Goldman may have in mind. In no case has this ever led me to change an opinion, nor have I ever been asked to do so.)
Professor Goldman also criticizes The Middle East Forum, which operates a website (run by Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer) that posts writings and comments by faculty in Middle Eastern studies departments. He seems to believe that this is a violation of academic freedom. But academic freedom implies the right of others to criticize one's beliefs. I myself have been known to make controversial arguments (as in this comment), and I would be quite happy to have these posted (by friends or enemies) on the web because in that way my arguments would get additional attention. If I did not want some argument publicized, I would not make it.
There is a fundamental inconsistency in Professor Goldman's remarks. On the one hand, he wants professors to be more influential in policy making. On the other hand, he does not want professors to be criticized for their views. But the essence of policy making is a rough-and-tumble debate. If we want to be influential, we must be willing to engage in this debate. We cannot privilege ourselves by asking for influence without accountability, and accountability in policy debates means that our arguments will be severely and publicly criticized in ways that we may view as unfair.
In his comments, Professor Devin Stewart contrasts the academic style of debate with debate in the public arena: "argue points rather than making emotional appeals;" "evidence rather than hearsay;" "abide by the rules of logic and decorum" ("Why are we here?" Academic Exchange, February-March 2003) He makes valid points, but if we want to influence policy we cannot set the rules, and if we want to enter that forum, we must expect the negative form of argument to be used. If we cannot tolerate this sort of argument, we should not expect or ask to be influential.