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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Academic freedom NOW! . . . for right-wing scholars

(updated below)

One of the most annoying victim movements around is the petulant and growing group, led by the odious David Horowitz, which incessantly whines that pro-Bush students on college campuses are treated very, very unfairly because their views are not praised by all that many people and sometimes are even harshly criticized.

As I've written about many times before, the examples of supposed victimhood almost never entail any actual repression of, or institutional punishment for, the expression of unpopular conservative views, but rather, are composed only of disagreement by other students and faculty members which make the right-wing students feel uncomfortable and unloved. In that regard, this whiny movement is nothing more than the mirror image of the worst elements of the PC movement of the 1990s -- while deceitfully parading under the banner of free expression, its true aim is to render impermissible the expression of political views which the conservative students dislike.

A vivid example illustrating their true agenda can be found in the blossoming "controversy" over what appears to be the imminent offer of a tenured professorship by Yale University to liberal Professor of Mideast Studies (and well-read blogger) Juan Cole, to teach at the Yale Center for International and Area Studies and in the Yale History Department. Many Bush supporters are arguing that Professor Cole espouses political views which apparently ought to be off-limits on college campuses, and there is thus a burgeoning movement to induce Yale to reconsider its decision. These efforts, of course, are coming from many of the same circles of sermoniziers who hold themselves out as defenders of academic freedom when they decry the oh-so-terrible reception which greets right-wing views on some campuses.

A lengthy smear piece by two students -- one an undergraduate at Yale (who happens to be Powerline Big Trunk's daughter, whom he calls "Little Trunk") and the other at Harvard Law -- was published yesterday in the New York Sun. The article selects multiple half-sentence snippets of Cole's writing in order to "demonstrate" that he harbors a "deep and abiding hatred of Israel"; that "if it were up to Mr. Cole, the country wouldn't exist at all"; and that he is "best known for disparaging the participation of prominent American Jews in government."

The usual suspects -- some of whom themselves have decried the (largely non-existent) suppression of right-wing views on college campuses -- have jumped onto the bandwagon, urging that Cole not be hired. Sharing the same McCarthyite talking points, they each suggest -- with zero basis -- that Cole even shares the same views as the Taliban; hence: "Taliban Man at Yale may soon have congenial company" and "A Teacher for Taliban Man."

According to the Sun, the indictment of Professor Cole for thought crimes include these accusations:

* His "most frequent public statements and writing - many of which appear on his blog, Informed Comment - have deviated considerably from his areas of expertise";

* He "rarely misses an opportunity to inveigh against Israel";

* He "contends [that] Israel is 'the most dangerous regime in the Middle East' and the primary instigator of the terrorist threat against America";

* "He believes that American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American pro-Israel lobby group that is one of the targets of the Mearsheimer/Walt paper, has Congress in its back pocket";

* "Only last month, Mr. Cole made headlines for effusively praising the Walt/Mearsheimer paper."

Whether those claims accurately describe Professor Cole's views is something I am going to leave to the side. Even if it does accurately describe his views, shouldn't a professor be permitted to express those views on a college campus?

But the attempt here, of course, is not to claim that Professor Cole's scholarship is lacking, but to insinuate, and at times even outright state, that he is a rabid anti-Semite because of his views on Israel. But the column's attempt to depict Professor Cole as some sort of Jew-despising hatemonger is completely negated by the acknowledgement which it is forced to make, at the end, in passing:

Mr. Cole takes pains to demonstrate that he harbors no ill will against Jews per se. It's "Likudniks" (or as Mr. Cole says, "Jewish American Likudniks," or simply, "the American Likud") that he despises. For example, Mr. Cole writes that the "real roots" of the Likud party lie in a "kind of fascism" and that Likud "isn't morally superior in most respects to the Syrian Baath ... it treats at least 3 million people no better than and possibly worse than the Syrian Baath treats its 17 million."

Anyone who has ever read anything written by Professor Cole -- and I have, and I have disagreed with much of it -- knows that the claim that he is anti-Semitic is a baseless and defamatory myth. It is a smear that is achieved only by the depressingly common attempt to equate hostility towards the political agenda of Likud with hostility towards Jews generally, a tactic that is nothing short of disgusting.

This false equivalence is intended to stifle all debate on any matters relating to the Middle East by positing an equivalence between anti-Semitism and a criticism of a specific, minority strain of political ideology. One either must refrain from criticisms of the actions of Israel, and refrain from commenting on the influence asserted by its government over American policy, or else one will be publicly branded an anti-Semite. One is perfectly free to criticize other countries, and even criticize the level of influence their governments exert on American policy (to name but a few, condemning the influence on American policy of China, or Mexico, or Saudi Arabia, is all the rage, including among many of these same people). But the same arguments applied to Israel makes one an untouchable anti-Semite.

The intellectual bankruptcy of the argument is self-evident. It is no different than accusing someone who opposes the French Socialist Party of hating the French, or accusing someone who opposes some South American right-wing party of hating Latinos. Or accusing someone of opposing President Bush of hating America and loving Al Qaeda. This tactic is an inane but destructive character smear that has been allowed to fester for way too long. But it festers because anyone who complains about it guarantees that they, too, will be similarly branded as an anti-Semite or terrorist-lover, and so most people prefer to avoid the issue.

The same people agitating to block Professor Cole's appointment to Yale frequently argue that countries like Iran or Iraq or Islamic extremism generally are the greatest threats to American interests and world peace. They vigorously defend the Israeli government's views with regard to its dispute with the Palestinians, insist that Israeli interests are virtually identical to American interests with regard to the "war" against Islamic extremism, and argue that Israelis are essentially blameless for the general climate of hatred and conflict in the Middle East. And, needless to say, they ought to be allowed to espouse those views, on college campuses and outside of them.

We have seen this repressive tactic applied repeatedly to American political debates over the last five years, and this is merely a specific strain of that tactic which uses the lowly art of character smear in order to exclude opposing views from college campuses.

But many of these same true believers seek simultaneously to render any opposing views prohibited, off-limits at any mainstream institution or college campus. The list of prohibited ideas includes the view that Israel is the principal antagonist of conflict in the Middle East generally, that American interests are harmed when the U.S. defends Israel too reflexively or blindly, and that Israel bears principal culpability with regard to the Palestinian issue. As the reaction to Professor Cole conclusively demonstrates, they want anyone who advocates those views to be blacklisted (and again, I am simply assuming, but not accepting, that those descriptions accurately describe Professor Cole's views).

It does not matter what one thinks about any of those views. Particularly at academic institutions, those issues ought to be debated. And the debates ought not to be one-sided. As I said, I disagree with many of Professor Cole's views. But the very idea that the views he expresses not only places him outside of the mainstream, but outside of the realm of what can be tolerated by a decent society or college campus, is, on its face, completely frivolous. This is not about anything other than trying to impose one's own views as academic orthodoxy and to ensure that one's political views on highly controversial political matters enjoys the status of unquestionable piety.

We have seen this same tactic applied to American political debates over the last five years, and these attempts to prevent Yale from appointing Professor Cole to its faculty are just a specific strain of that tactic, which employs the lowly art of character smear in order to prevent opposing views.

UPDATE: As a random through illustrative example of some of these dynamics, one can look at this post from today by McQ, entitled: " Hypocrisy, Thy Name is Mexico." In the post, McQ aggressively criticizes a statement issued by the Mexican Government opposing a new immigration law enacted by the state of Georgia. McQ objects not only to the content of the specific statement issued by Mexico, but also to the mere expression of an opinion at all by Mexico. McQ thus argues: "frankly, coming from Mexico, I'd suggest they clean up their own house before they begin criticizing others," and he tells them: "Sorry Mexico ... not interested in your opinion of how we handle our business. Especially in light of how you handle yours."

McQ's views are caustic, but I don't think any reasonable person could say, at least based on this post, that he is a racist, that he hates Mexicans or Latinos, or that he harbors a "deep and abiding hatred" for Mexico. He is criticizing the Mexican government specifically and objecting to its attempts to influence American laws. And that's all he is doing.

But imagine if this same post were written about Israel -- that it were entitled "Hypocrisy, Thy Name is Israel" and said things like "Sorry Israel . . . not interested in your opinion of how we handle our business." How many minutes would elapse before hordes of anti-semitism accusations were heaped upon that person, including from many who would likely cheer the same sentiments expressed in McQ's post towards Mexico? That is the rancid double standard on which these smears and blacklists directed at people like Professor Cole have long been predicated. Every country and government is fair game for criticism and expression of concern over its influence except one.

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