Freedom of expression 101

In Martin Kramer’s “Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America,” he chronicles the scandal of U.S. government-sponsored centers of Middle East studies. For decades, these centers have trafficked in anti-Americanism and discounted the threat of terrorism. The federal investment in such academic research has fostered a deliberate misunderstanding of the Middle East and promoted ideological interests at odds with American security. Last September, the Middle East Forum, the think tank that publishes Kramer’s Middle East Quarterly, launched a Web site to document the crisis in Middle East studies and to promote honest scholarship.

Many academics can’t stomach such scrutiny.

Shortly after the forum’s Web site appeared, Middle East studies scholars began decrying it as a “McCarthy-style campaign” and a “gross attack on the freedom of expression.” The Middle East Forum, they argued, threatens academic freedom. Such charges were especially bizarre coming from the postcolonial theorists, who have even invented their own slur, “Orientalism,” to dismiss the work of scholars who disagree with their theories and to intimidate Western academics into accepting any criticism of Islamic society as tantamount to bigotry.

Indeed, after Sept. 11, 2001, rhetoric emanating from the academy ranged from the peculiar (“Towers are symbols of phallic power,” explained one linguistics professor) to the outrageous (Terrorism’s “ultimate cause is the fascism of U.S. foreign policy over the past many decades,” insisted a professor of English). But when the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), another prominent group interested in promoting quality scholarship, published a study on such responses, they, too, were greeted as McCarthyites.

Both ACTA and the Middle East Forum acknowledge scholars’ rights to free expression, merely reserving for themselves the right to question and criticize. Surely such debate is supportive of the academic enterprise; any institution committed to truth and open inquiry should not excuse its faculty from having to defend their arguments.

A large segment of academe, however, does not believe disinterested scholarship is even possible. Any claim of “truth,” it says, is inevitably a product of some parochial viewpoint or political interest. “Objective” truth doesn’t exist; history consists of disparate “narratives,” all equally legitimate.

In such an environment, there is no possibility of debate because there is no independent standard by which to judge arguments. There is no difference between disagreement and censorship; all one can do is insist on one’s own narrative and suppress opposing views.

One naturally wonders how academics who spend their time obsessively trolling others’ scholarship for evidence of racism, sexism or homophobia can suddenly be outraged when their own work is cited for anti-Semitism or a “blame America first” mentality. Yet it is clear that many intellectuals invoke “academic freedom” not to protect the ideal of disinterested inquiry but to shield their own ideological agendas from public scrutiny.

When professors attack their critics as McCarthyites, it is they who are trying to silence dissent through intimidation. Today, when ideas can have especially threatening consequences – our most potent enemy in the war on terror is itself an ideology – we should not let anyone squelch open debate.

Steven Menashi is a public affairs fellow at the Hoover Institution and associate editor of the Institution’s Policy Review.