Friday, January 03, 2003

allright, so if you've read my absolutely insane post from 1/1, you know i'm writing about martin kramer's _ivory towers on sand_ for my graduate essays. you also know that my writing suffers when i'm going crazy about the act of writing pieces that really have to be amazing. so anyway, i was flipping my lid as usual about what i was going to do about the nyu joint MA journalism/near eastern affairs essay, which had no word limit but required answers to the following topics/questions: tell us about your background, describe your body of work, what would you like to write about, what do you find interesting, which writers do you enjoy, which do you dislike, which magazines or newspapers do you read? there were more too. so i went with the just write about something and my voice will come out tactic. this is what came out, after about six hours. at least four of these were spent seriously discussing the in's and out's of some of the paragraphs with sir joseph. it's pretty obvious which ones we couldn't get to because of my deadline. still one of the best things i've ever written.

An Argument on Quicksand

Many perspectives can be argued effectively and intelligently, but this alone can not qualify the perspective as one based in understanding. _Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America_ by Martin Kramer is an example of such a perspective. As its subtitle suggests, the piece attacks the effectiveness and relevance of Middle Eastern studies programs in the US. The author cites various reasons for this thesis. While each point Kramer makes deserves to be addressed, I have chosen to focus on two elements of his work in order to offer your graduate program a perspective on who I am. These two elements are: identifying the source to provide context to his arguments, and addressing his discussion of Middle Eastern commentary in the media.

Kramer argues that Middle Eastern Studies programs in the United States need serious reform and that the U.S. government should evaluate Title VI of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which provides part of the funding for these programs. On page 126, he states that the current Middle Eastern centers “contribute nothing to American power, but they amply express it” and that they “meet no practical need, yet the...flourishes of ideas they shelter both stimulate and provoke, even as we know them to be absurd.” Kramer specifically criticizes what he refers to as the “insularity” of the philosophical basis for the programs within the United States, arguing that Edward Said’s work Orientalism, a work whose theory and evidence Kramer takes contention with, has had too much influence on the field. He cites the varying sources of funding for the programs, which include Arab governments and dignitaries, as a concern. Kramer argues that these factors, amongst others, influenced and continue to influence the opinions and work of academics involved in Middle Eastern Studies by making them inherently more “pro-Arab” and willing to give Islamist movements more credit than they are due. It is suggested that these academics became increasingly hyper-critical of U.S. policy toward the Arab world and less cooperative with the U.S. government, hence making relevance of their work dissipate. He also argues that when these academics were consulted by the media about news events occurred concerning the Islamic world, they responded to "every act of violence against Americans with denunciations of American ignorance and bias."

Whether one agrees with Kramer or not, it is necessary to first evaluate the source of these ideas. Kramer himself is of course the main framer of these concepts, but it is important to note that the publisher of these ideas is the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank which includes on its Board of Advisors the following people: Reagan Cabinet Member Jeane Kirkpatrick, George W. Bush Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and George W. Bush Secretary of the Air Force James Roche. The Founding President of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy is Barbi Weinberg, a vice-president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Although generalizations are dangerous, it would not be too unreasonable to at least classify this particular think tank as conservative.

Partly because of this association, one must question Kramer's motivation on the larger issue of a crisis of confidence between members of Middle Eastern Studies departments and the United States government. He presents as part of the evidence for this "crisis" the fact that at least one academic has criticized the think tanks that have become increasingly influential in U.S. foreign policy. On page 106, he writes that “[it] was comforting for the new mandarins to think that no such "substantive knowledge" existed outside their carefully patrolled perimeters." His energetic focus on this issue indicates that other interests might be at play here. It is clear that the raising of this issue poses a conflict of interest. Not only does he work at a think tank, but the comments he uses to demonstrate academic criticism of think tanks were directed specifically at his place of employment (and the institution that published his book): “Stanford's Joel Beinin wrote that one particularly successful think tank, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, had gained its influence despite the "minimal involvement of scholars with substantive knowledge of the region."

What Kramer is arguing here, however, has important repercussions in how the media covers the Middle East. He suggests that when academics criticize the media of misrepresenting or distorting Islam, they are often overreacting or simply living in some sort of willful denial about what Islam really is. "No one outside academe believed that American stereotypes were to blame for the Muslim movements that lived up to them." He states that academics failed to participate in media coverage of events for ideological reasons, and then cried foul when an increasingly small number of scholars and members of think tanks became the main pool from which television news networks drew commentators. While this observation does have some validity, Kramer is greatly oversimplifying a complex situation.

There is no discussion of other influences on network news producers besides the theory that they allegedly could not get academics to participate. With the end of the Gulf War, the war that was fought on CNN, the major news outlets became increasingly driven by the format of a twenty-four-hour news network. This required quick news and analysis, making news programs one soundbyte after another. While this type of reporting has its merits, covering an entire story or giving any situation a real context takes time, and time is the one thing many Americans and most news networks are not necessarily willing to give to a commentator. It should not be
surprising that anyone who aware of the full complexity of the Middle East would not be so quick to sign up for programs organized to submit to a fast pace, with talking heads yelling back and forth. It also should be pointed out that it wouldn't be surprising if the news producers, who also had to consider ratings, would start to pluck "characters" from think tanks and other places, people who would espouse a radical point of view just to say they're right, without necessarily accounting for the general history of any given area or the event itself. That is an economic reality which could clearly motivate the general trend of commentary on news networks outside of any other reason, and it is something Kramer chooses to ignore.

Kramer also suggests that many academics wrongly criticized American knowledge of and dealings with the Middle East. He argues that they were too quick to suggest significant prejudice exists against Arabs in the US. On page 51, he states, "When 'some Muslims' were found guilty [of the first World Trade Center bombings], there was no chill of fear, and no new anti-Semitism. Americans, in their basic fairness and respect for due process, saw the bombing trial as a straightforward criminal case." But discrimination against Arabs and Muslims demonstrably exists, just as racism in general has been a problem for American society. Despite the "basic fairness and respect for due process" held by most Americans, concern that representations in media might create a hostile environment for Arabs and Muslims (or anyone who happened to like either) was not without merit. On September 11, the networks quickly picked up footage of Palestinian children cheering in support of the terrorist attacks. This footage enraged the American people, and with good reason. Instead of trying to give this cheering context, news anchors simply shook their heads and looked disgusted with what they saw. At that highly charged and emotional time, no leading opinion-shaper pointed out that these were children who could have a problem fully understanding the tragedy. Later on, networks gave airtime to commentators who argued about this footage, but damage had already been done. Showing the When, Where, and What of the story without the Who and the Why left a great many Americans even more angry at the Middle East in general.

The Middle East is the cradle of civilization. It is also the cradle of global conflict. These two realities are not coincidentally linked. As a global leader, the US has a responsibility to educate its citizens in a way that prepares them to meet that awesome responsibility in generations to come. Thus, the federal government allocates funds to Middle Eastern Studies departments, as provided by Title VI of the NDEA.

In _Ivory Towers on Sand_, Kramer agrees on the necessity of study but tears apart the activities of scholars in these departments. He argues that they fail to truly understand the region and therefore offer distorted and incomplete analysis. Unfortunately, he goes about this argument very simply, failing to address evidence that run contrary to his opinion. In the end, this makes him less persuasive. This trap is common, especially when trying to assess a region as complicated as the Middle East or the issues surrounding it. Rarely does one find a writer -- academic, novelist, journalist, or playwright -- achieving a level of discussion that indicates the beginnings of a real understanding. Notable exceptions exist, of course. One example I recently encountered was an article in the New York Review of Books by Amos Elon called "Israelis and Palestinians: What Went Wrong"; another, a favorite, is the play Via Dolorosa by David Hare.

I do not begin to think that I can achieve here what I have sought to demonstrate Kramer failed to achieve in his book. The flaw in Kramer was not his lack of knowledge but his conviction; I hope to study in pursuit of understanding, not just information to help me prove what I already think I know. That understanding is what Elon and Hare have begun to achieve, and what I hope to pursue in this program and my career after.

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