Thursday, March 31, 2005

My professors get slimed
One of David Horowitz's sleazy attack poodles has written an outrageous article smearing Professors Brendan O'Leary, Clark McCauley, and Ian Lustick of the University of Pennsylvania. Lustick has been slimed by this crew before, particularly by Dan Pipes and his band of grade-grubbing whiners at Campus Watch, but this is the first attack I've seen on O'Leary, and it's indicative of the incredibly low-level of discourse and intellectual honesty on the contemporary right.

Brendan O'Leary is a professor with a very long track record of seeking to understand and mitigate ethnic conflicts from Northern Ireland to Iraq. He spent a great deal of 2004 in Iraqi Kurdistan, courageously risking his life as a constitutional advisor to the Kurdish negotiating team during the creation of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) that now serves in effect as Iraq's interim constitution. But the author of this risible piece of yellow journalism, Jacob Laksin, has reduced O'Leary's career to one course that he teaches at Penn, as well as some out-of-context quotes from the turbulent days after September 11th. However, even after setting the bar for his attack so very low, Laskin clearly hasn't done even preliminary research to back up his allegations.

Laksin first chooses to smear O’Leary’s conduct of “National and Ethnic Conflict Regulation,” a course I took as a graduate student, and for which I now serve as a teaching assistant. Laksin writes:

However, as a closer look at U Penn’s course syllabus reveals, the “Peace Studies” program exists at the Ivy League school in everything but name.

A case in point: A U Penn course called “National and Ethnic Conflict-Regulation.” A leftwing amalgam of political science, comparative politics, international relations and public policy, U Penn’s National and Ethnic Conflict-Regulation course purports to examine the ways in which governments respond to ethnic conflict. In keeping with this aim, it surveys those corners of the earth, past and present, where national and ethnic conflicts have flared with the greatest intensity: Northern Ireland, South Africa, Nazi Germany, and, curiously, the United States. Students with an interest in the troubled Middle East, however, will be in for a disappointment, in that there appears to be only one conflict in the tumultuous region meriting serious scholarly study: Israel/Palestine.
Though course descriptions do not disclose a syllabus, UPenn’s choice of professor reveals much about the direction of the course. This spring, it will be taught by Brendan O’Leary, a political science professor at Upenn.

Notice that Laksin has not even seen the syllabus, which is available for anyone to see through the Political Science Department’s web page (I will not link without O’Leary’s permission). Any kindergartener with Internet skills could have found this document and determined whether or not O’Leary is a “terror apologist.” And anyone who has spent more than 3 minutes in one of his classes will attest that his no such thing. Unfortunately, Laksin either did not try to contact anyone, or he was unsuccessful. My guess is the former. He also seems not to have obtained for himself any of the scholarly writings for which O’Leary has become well-known in academia. Several of those articles easily contradict Laksin’s spurious conjectures about O’Leary’s attitude about al-Qaeda and related organizations.

I am continually amazed at the narrow-mindedness of these right-wing inquisitors. Laksin finds it “curious” that the United States is included in the study of ethnic conflict and is stunned that Israel-Palestine highlights the study of Middle Eastern national and ethnic conflict. Does he deny that there are conflicts over race, language, ethnicity, and culture in the United States? But even here Laksin is just dead wrong – the current incarnation of the course includes a number of readings and lectures about the various conflicts in Iraq, and I believe the content of those materials would absolutely blow his little mind. He would certainly have trouble fitting them into his childish Pro-American/Anti-American dialectic. And it’s not just Iraq that is included from the region – students have also learned about Lebanon and Turkey, and are invited to do research about ethnic conflicts in the aforementioned states, as well as Iran, the Sudan, and yes, Israel-Palestine.

But of course Laksin and Horowitz are not interested in getting their facts straight. Their patented smears are predicated almost entirely on out-of-context quotes, and second-hand information, out of which these modern day McCarthy’s spin a tall tale of anti-Americanism and betrayal. Including the actual syllabus from one of O’Leary’s or Lustick’s courses would make the claims of these character assassins transparently false. Their attacks are designed not to engage the professors in legitimate dialogue about substantive issues of politics and conflict, but rather to permanently stain their reputations and to encourage the chip-on-the-shoulder behavior of radical right-wing student revolutionaries.

And what of these out-of-context quotes? They serve as Laksin’s smoking guns in his indictment of O’Leary’s political attitudes, but a closer look reveals them to be quite mild indeed. I believe this is Laksin’s key paragraph, writing about September 11th:

Nor was a military response appropriate, according to O’Leary, who called on Americans to “think carefully before supporting large-scale retaliatory jihads.” Rather, he suggested that the United Sates reflect upon its own role in fuelling the rage of Islamists, insisting that, “it must be asked why hatred of the U.S. is so fierce in these locations.” The question presented no difficulty for O’Leary himself, who identified American foreign policy toward the Middle East and American support for Israel as the prime culprits. True, O’Leary granted, some of the terrorists’ rhetorical attacks against the United States had little basis in fact. “But,” he went on, “U.S. foreign policy before and after the Cold War has propped up authoritarian regimes. And it has, to the abiding humiliation of the Islamic world, supported Israel, right or wrong--and Israel is not always right.” On the subject of whether America’s supposedly deplorable history justified the murder of innocent civilians, O’Leary did not speculate.

Do you see the trickery here? Laksin claims that O’Leary believed military action was not appropriate, when the quote the author has resurrected says nothing of the sort. O’Leary merely recommends caution, asking leaders to “think carefully.” Does Laksin believe that we should not think carefully before undertaking military invasions of other countries?

I fail to see what is so heart-stoppingly outrageous about the rest of those comments. Does Laksin dispute that the U.S. props up authoritarian regimes in the region? Is saying that Israel is sometimes wrong somehow anti-Semitic? And notice too that O’Leary’s lack of “speculation” about whether 9/11 was justified is used against him in a slick act of rhetorical sleight-of-hand – the reader is left with the impression that O’Leary believes the attacks of 9/11 were justified, an outrageous slander on his character which is completely unsubstantiated. And finally, the fact that perceptions of U.S. foreign policy in the region and support for Israel underlie most of Middle Eastern anti-Americanism is a well-established empirical fact, replicated in one opinion survey after another, that Laksin does not even try to contest.

Laksin’s attack on O’Leary (and of course Lustick and McCauley, which I do not have time to rebut) is par for the right-wing course. Juan Cole calls it a “google smear” since well-funded propaganda organizations like Frontpagemagazine are able to have their articles ranked highly in any google search. These utterly baseless smears then become common currency, mostly because Laksin’s lies and innuendo will not be fact-checked by most readers. Thus without even reading one of his syllabi, conducting an interview, or doing even a rudimentary survey of his academic research, Laksin can successfully impugn the reputation of one of academia’s leading scholars on ethnic conflict. If Horowitz, Laksin, and their fellow mudslingers are willing to do this to a man who put his neck on the line trying to salvage the mess in Iraq, just imagine what they would be willing to do less professionally secure academics and graduate students.

The answer is “anything.”


At 2:42 AM, Blogger Stacey said...

As someone who also took O'Leary's course as a grad student (and we should note that this is HIS class, not Penn's, since he pioneered it based largely on his research), I could not agree with you more on the sloppy and malevolent injustice here.

As to the question of what happens to grad students? Well, I posted an excerpt from an Beirut colleague's email in which it was mentioned that the ISRAELI media was reporting that Israeli defense officials were discussing security scenarios with the Kataeb in Beirut. As a result, people called for physical violence against me. Really.

In other words, the people who are more than happy to read my condemnations of takfir and the violence that it engenders, are equally willing to engage in a similar discourse when the "excommunicable speech" violates their sensibilities. Yeah.

I'm afraid that the current political environment (and, quite frankly, the active strategies of people like Laskin) are creating the kinds of intellectual red lines that will ultimately produce a joke of an educational system. In Egypt, people are still taught that Egypt won the 1973 war (since to say anything else would brand one a Zionist). What will our inexorable truths become?

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