Wednesday, January 01, 2003

allright. perhaps that was god's intervention. a blog just disappeared. i just wrote this huge thing chock full of neuroses, mainly dealing with anxiety about graduate school and spending a lot of words simply saying that i was going to start writing about martin kramer's _ivory towers on sand: the failure of middle eastern studies in america_. the intended goal of this exercise is to formulate a brilliant response to the following georgetown essay question: "a typewritten essay, not exceeding 750 words, analyzing what you consider to be the most significant situation, problem, or development in society, politics, economics, or culture of the Arab world today." so let me just start doing it.

reading _ivory towers on sand_ (_itos_ for short here) was one of the more enjoyable experiences i have had over the last few weeks. there was a serious amount of giggling that resulted from some of the comments kramer makes. on page 106, he is in the midst of a diatribe on the crisis of confidence that apparently exists betwixt ME Studies departments and the government of the USA, and is detailing how some academics in Middle Eastern Studies departments criticize think tanks. as proof of how outrageous this is, he states the following: "In 1993, 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." It was comforting for the new mandarins to think that no such "substantive knowledge" existed outside their carefully patrolled perimeters." this is really good arguing. the criticism seems to make perfect sense, and it even does have a fundamental legitimacy. but then i started giggling: guess which think tank kramer works for and published this piece? The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

part of the problem with kramer's _itos_ is these kind of arguments, which do have a sense of validity to them in some ways, but given kramer's professional position and how much he would personally benefit if the united states government and the middle eastern studies gang actually subscribed to some of the views he espouses. (and i use the word "gang" because the way kramer describes the Middle Eastern Studies Association [MESA] and academics in regional studies departments, you would think it is a "gang.") throughout the text, kramer makes a theoretical argument based on the idea that middle eastern studies in the united states has "failed." this word and its various permutations, such as "failure" and "fail", appears over and over again. as the philosophical basis for the usage of said terminology, kramer uses the inability of me studies to accurately "predict" the course of middle eastern history, politics and society in the mid to late twentieth century. if this argument were applied more broadly, kramer would essentially be suggesting that if scholarship has not succeeded in correctly assessing and predicting events, it is a failure.

i just realized that this idea of predictability determining whether or not something is successful is very important in legal systems. in dershowitz, he writes that in a good justice system, one should be able to predict a judge's verdict based on the history of jurisprudence. there should be relatively few "surprise" verdicts. it appears that kramer is applying this type of rule to scholarship: if something that happens is a surprise to "experts" in any given field, the field itself must be flawed. while this is true in the judiciary, it cannot so quickly be applied to academic circles dealing with regional studies.

kramer goes after many of the prominent figures associated with middle eastern studies. he specifically targets edward said, criticizing both the theory of orientalism as described in said's work of the same name and the effect which kramer perceives said's work has had on the field of middle eastern studies. he also criticizes john esposito, and in a passage on page 49, he includes a paragraph which suggests that esposito is almost just an academic opportunist: "If most of the American public were concerned by the possible emergence of "the Islamic threat," he would get them to read his book by titling it The Islamic Threat."

his criticism for such figures is under a more general theory which suggests that middle eastern studies in the united states doesn't really understand islam, and that when academics criticize the media of misrepresenting or distorting the religion, they are often overreacting or simply living in some sort of 'willful denial' of what islam is. "No one outside academe believed that American stereotypes were to blame for the Muslim movements that lived up to them." (48) he continues by suggesting that academics responded to "every act of violence against Americans with denunciations of American ignorance and bias." this is one of kramer's arguments which oversimplifies a very complex situation.
-he says that academics not participating in the media and making comments denouncing american ignorance lead itself to an increasingly small group of scholars and members of think tanks becoming the main pool from which television news networks drew commentators on situations involving the middle east, and then area studies scholars cried foul. this could be very true. but it does leave out a very important part of the equation, which is the nature of the major news outlets in the united states. these are networks oriented toward soundbytes, which are geared to the goal of ratings. covering an entire story or truly giving any situation takes time, and time is the one thing most americans and the news networks are not necessarily willing to give to a commentator. it should not be surprising that anyone who knew an undergraduate education's worth of information on the middle east would not be so quick to sign up for programs organized in this way, with talking heads yelling back and forth at them. 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.
-there is general confusion within american society about any criticism of the united states or its citizens as being some form of anti-patriotic activity. anyone who even attempts to contextualize an event such as september 11th finds themselves on a scarlet letter listing of questionable folks by the heritage foundation. it seems also commonsensical that if you read the bill of rights at any point, you would think that exercising your right to free speech, even if it is to criticize your government, could possibly even classify you as MORE patriotic. i suppose this is arguable, but i think that throughout kramer's work he comes down very hard on people who criticized the united states or america, as if criticizing a population's general almost admitted ignorance about a different culture or what appears to be a flawed foreign policy alone means that one's life scholarship is problematic.
-the idea that regional studies programs in the united states do not truly understand islam is one that must be addressed. to make this argument, kramer gives as evidence the fact that one school of thought within those who studied that middle east was that islam could be a democratizing force. he says that because islamic leaders movements have not lead to democracy, this entire school of thought is essentially hogwash and only proves that these scholars do not really understand islam. he specifically points to the 1979 islamic revolution in iran and the resulting repressive theocracy as evidence that islam does not lend itself to democracy, human rights, etc. i'm thinking back real delicately through my undergraduate education...the tobacco protest of around 1892 (where's my fact checker) in iran proved that the ulama could be a mobilizing force when a ruler (nasir al-din shah in this case,) enacted policies which would harm the livelihood of the people. the institutions and hence power of islam provided a basis for a relative revolt against monarchy. see: protestantism & the american revolution. of course, books are written on this topic. so i will get straight to the quick of it: if kramer's suggestion that this school of thinking is wrong because it simply hasn't occurred, i am dying to go ask him about my future financial situation, because he must know the future as well in order to guarantee that this could never happen.

perhaps more damning to kramer's arguments than any of this are his own mis-predictions. 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." on or around december 18th, 2002, msnbc reported that around 1600 muslim men who went in to fix fairly routine visa and passport irregularities found themselves locked in a warehouse, denied counsel. Americans, in their basic fairness and respect for due process indeed. there's more: in a passage on page 77, kramer claims to debunk an analysis of joel beinin's in which beinin states that there is not a great likelihood within the next ten years that an israeli government will come to power which will try to resolve the arab-israeli conflict by giving the palestinians statehood. beinin wrote this in 1988. in response, we have kramer:
"It did not even take a full ten years to prove Beinin wrong in every particular. In the decade following publication of his grim forecast...Israel launched no aggresive wars. Instead it recognized the PLO and turned formerly occupied territory over to exclusive Palestinian control. Politicians across the Israeli spectrum either welcomed or resigned themselves to the inevitability of a Palestinian state." remind me---was it the fall of the year 2000 in which what beinin suggested would occur within ten years happened, or started to happen? his name is ariel sharon.

what is dangerous about martin kramer's work is that when you look in the back of the book, you gaze at the list of names associated with the think tank that published these ideas and your eyes lock onto the names of paul wolfowitz (current deputy secretary of defense) and james roche (secretary of the air force). these men are helping form u.s. policy. i think we may have found the biggest problem for the arab world today.


Post a Comment

<< Home