Thursday, June 08, 2006

In defense of Juan Cole (as if he needs it)

I'm an academic and a blogger. So I feel compelled to come to the defense of another academic and blogger, the estimable Juan Cole of Informed Comment. Cole's blog on contemporary Middle Eastern affairs is one of the most highly regarded on the net. Unlike many of the pundits and experts confidently holding forth about the Middle East, Cole actually reads and speaks the languages of the area and is an acknowledged scholar of the subject. By all reports he is scrupulous in his scholarship (which is very specialized) and respectful and fair with his students at the University of Michigan. His classroom is a safe place for expressing ideas.

But he is no shrinking violet. Cole's blog is accurate in its facts, well documented and brutally honest. It is a very political blog, but that is the nature of blogs (including this one). He has been straightforward in criticizing the monumental incompetence that has gotten the US into a catastrophic war in Iraq and fearless in calling Israel to account for its often brutal occupation of the Palestinian state. These two things have earned him the hatred of the neocons, who brought us the Iraq mistake, and the Israel lobby, for whom no criticism of Israel is ever allowed.

Earlier this year Cole was recommended for a tenured position to teach modern Middle East affairs at Yale. The Yale Sociology and History Departments separately approved the offer. This would usually be the end of the matter. But last week, in what was described by some Yale faculty members as a highly unusual move, the University's tenure committee turned the appointment down. The central issue, according to the newspaper The Jewish Week (who described Cole as one of the country's top Middle East scholars), was the political commentary on his blog.
Cole, while refusing to comment on the tenure committee’s vote, told The Jewish Week he believes that “the concerted press campaign by neoconservatives against me, which was a form of lobbying the higher administration, was inappropriate and a threat to academic integrity.

“The articles published in the Yale Standard, the New York Sun, the Wall Street Journal, Slate, and the Washington Times, as part of what was clearly an orchestrated campaign, contained made-up quotes, inaccuracies, and false charges,” he said. “The idea that I am any sort of anti-Jewish racist because I think Israel would be better off without the occupied territories is bizarre, but I fear that a falsehood repeated often enough and in high enough places may begin to lose its air of absurdity.” (The Jewish Week)
The orchestrated attack, involving op ed pieces and letters to large donors to Yale who are Jewish, had the desired effect. Now an embarrassed Yale is trying to rewrite the history of the episode. First, anonymous sources are maintaining that Cole's scholarly work is too specialized to be of general interest. But here's what the Search Committee said:
Political science professor Frances Rosenbluth, who was part of the search committee, said that Cole emerged as a clear choice.

“The committee read his work very thoroughly, in conjunction with the work of other scholars,” Rosenbluth told The Jewish Week. “We interviewed other people, we sent out letters to the field of contemporary Middle Eastern studies, and [Cole] is very highly regarded as a scholar. That’s why the committee made its recommendation.” (The Jewish Week)
They are also floating the absurd idea it wasn't Cole's blog politics but his collegiality that was at issue:
Second, the source continued, Cole appears to lack in collegiality, as his penchant for combative blog entries and personal spats with detractors might make him an unnerving fixture on Yale.
That really made me laugh. I've seen Cole many times on PBS's Newshour and he is invariably low key, respectful and non confrontational when presenting his views. Moreover if a penchant for combative blog entries were a criterion for employability, the Reveres and most of the commenters who make this such an interesting place would be unemployed.

Not one of Yale's better moments, although I am sure alum George W. Bush approves.