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July 25, 2006

Why not Juan Cole?

The controversy over Yale University's decision not to appoint Juan Cole has taken two forms: Either Cole was unfairly denied because he dares to criticize "the Likud Lobby" (his formulation), or because academic blogging is considered too edgy for a prestigious but staid university. Cole and his admirers, and his academic community, would like to make something besides Cole himself responsible for the fact that Yale decided not to hire him (the "Jewish neo-con lobby" being the scapegoat that supports their political and academic goals), but the primary reason to not hire Juan Cole should be the man's own qualifications.

A university is justified in considering whether a controversial public personality will reflect well on the institution, and should be reassured by the meticulous care with which the scholar conducts himself. Cole calls himself a "public intellectual." We do not know Yale's criteria for its decision, but a university can consider a "public intellectual" a liability if his expertise is frequently faulty, and he isn't dignified, concerned with accuracy, or sophisticated in his intellectual endeavors.

Cole sees conspiracy theories everywhere, especially where they involve Jews and Israel, or CIA machinations. A major university might have tenured professors who exhibit this kind of credulity and intellectual faddishness within their academic circles, but a professor who writes for the public and is a "go-to expert" for mainstream media makes his institution look bad when he regularly engages in this kind of thing.

(To clarify to Daily Kos or Justin Raimondo fans who may be reading this: criticizing "the Israel lobby" (such as it exists) is not the issue. In his public persona, Juan Cole represents his employer. If he makes unsubstantiated claims which partake of the language and assumptions of conspiracy-mongering, he does not come across as a thoughtful academic upholding the tradition of responsible discourse, but as a nut.)

Cole makes offhand comments which can be easily challenged or gross errors of fact on a topic in which he claims expertise, or, when challenged, erases evidence of his mistake and encourages the now-notorious Daily Kos - a partisan and rhetorically extreme blog - to "do oppo research" on his critic, in this case Martin Kramer (who has exposed more serious inconsistencies and errors of fact on Cole's blog). Another example from Michael Ledeen, who carefully follows contemporary Iranian politics. (I'm going to quote this blogpost because the permalink doesn't go right to it. It's on that page but you have to scroll around.)

When [Cole] says: " (the Iraqi election) is not a model for anything, and would not willingly be imitated by anyone else in the region. The 1997 elections in Iran were much more democratic..." he has really disqualified himself from being taken seriously. The 2005 Iraqi elections were wide open. Anyone could form a party and run. The 1997 elections in Iran were a sham. The government decided who could run. The guy who "won," Khatami, was "cleared" by the mullahs after they had purged more than three hundred other candidates.

Perhaps it isn't fair to expect someone who writes as prolifically as Cole, in an informal medium like blogging, to carefully vet everything he produces. But he comes across as careless of his own reputation when he writes things on his blog which he later claims he didn't. Or posts flip accusations for which he has no evidence on disreputable websites, which brought threats of legal action. In response he has made further unsubstantiated statements and innuendo.

Cole is equally careless with the reputations of others.

He uncritically repeated rumors about murdered journalist Steven Vincent's relationship with his translator. He didn't know the people involved, but couldn't resist showing himself off as an expert on Arab culture, and Martin Kramer points out that it was also an opportunity to deliver a posthumous smackdown to Vincent, who had rebuked Cole on his blog.

Vincent's widow was justifiably outraged. Her long excoriation of Cole is eloquent and worth a read. Vincent's book and blog make it clear that he understood the culture he was in, and Cole's response is typically defensive, patronizing and emotionally tonedeaf. And amazingly arrogant, given that Vincent had spent months in Iraq and Cole has never been there.

But Cole's most famous attempt at besmirching character was his insinuation that one of the first Iraqi blogs, Iraq the Model, was created by some shadowy neo-con group, using as evidence the authors' political opinions, and his own ignorant speculations about their internet provider. Michael Totten and Tony Badran thoroughly demolish Cole's rickety logic and condescending Orientalism, but let's let the Iraqi bloggers have the last word:

In Iraq now there are those who are with the change and those who are against it. Each camp claims to be the majority, but even the polls that many people rely on say that the majority of Iraqis want the elections. So do us, while riverbend does not believe in the elections which should put her with the minority, but Dr Cole and Joseph among others still insist that her view represent the majority!

And that is only when they accept that we are Iraqis, as there has been a great amount of suspicion about this too! We, the ones who have put our full true names, allowed to be photographed by a major newspaper like the USATODAY, interviewed by the BBC TV, and have formed a party that has been approved by the higher commission for Elections in Iraq and are forming coalitions with other parties, still have to prove that we are Iraqis. While someone using a pen name with no evidence whatever that he/she is actually living in Iraq is considered to be a "real Iraqi"! Can someone please tell me the philosophy behind such argument? As it has to be philosophy that can only try and solve such a mystery since logic won't possibly do.

The story about the bloggers' internet provider is a bit convoluted, but it is worth describing because it reveals a credulity and carelessness about fact-checking that it is reasonable to assume reflects on Cole's scholarship in general. If his scholarship is impeccable, but he relaxes his standards when blogging, for a bit of juicy innuendo, it is still problematic that the blog is the showcase for his punditry.

Cole got ammunition for his insinuations from a blog called Martini Republic (whose authors' credibility is questionable):

That second, alias domain was registered as a favor to brothers Mohammed, Omar, and Ali by Jeff Reed, who runs a Texas hosting company called CIATech Solutions. The letters "CIA" were cause for suspicion to Joseph of Martini Republic, the author of the post from which Prof Cole spins his insinuations. All this and more is explained in two notes from Jeff Reed that were posted in the comments to the original Martini Republic post at http://martinirepublic.com/item/979. [This is no longer online - Judith]. It turns out the "CIA" in this case stands for Complex Internet Applications.

The irony is that the domain of Riverbend (riverbendblog.com) -- the bitterly anti-American blog by a 20-something Iraqi woman and the blog hailed by Prof Cole as more aligned with prevailing public opinion in Iraq -- was also registered by CIATech.

Juan Cole could have saved himself this bit of baseless paranoia with a simple Whois lookup, and by reading the comments at Martini Republic.

(This is a good analogy for what Cole tried to do.)

Media pundit Jeff Jarvis - who helped the brothers start blogging - excoriates Juan Cole as "pondscum" for wantonly smearing them.

Cole has also embroiled himself in undignified online spats which include personal attacks and justifications for them:

Hitchens came drunk to my talk last year and was incoherent. I was making excuses for his shocking lapse of simple journalistic integrity by hoping that it was the outcome of besotted judgement. . . . Hitchens does not know very much about Iraq, but this sort of silly error was owing to his judgment having been damaged by drink. People saw him swigging away in the hallway before he entered the hall. That is why the point about his drinking problem is not ad hominem. It is germane to his failing faculties and increasingly immoral behavior.

This certainly is ad hominem; it is based on innuendo, jumps to conclusions, and simply doesn't address Hitchens' critique. (Hitchens gave as good as he got (or better), but he's not a university professor up for a coveted job at Yale, and has nothing to lose.)

Again Cole presents himself as a pundit on the politics of a country he has never visited, while sneering at a journalist who has. And his authority on the contemporary Middle East is not absolute. Lebanese native Tony Badran has frequently critiqued Cole's scholarship, and Iraqi bloggers have upbraided him for factual errors as well as innuendo.

Cole doesn't seem to realize that his wild rhetorical swings make him look silly. Or that his conspiracy-mongering and simplistic stereotyping makes him look more unsophisticated than a "public intellectual" ought to be (see the last paragraph of this post).

The fact that Cole blogs is not a problem. Most professors who blog (some of whom contributed to this symposium) maintain a professional demeanor even if they advocate for political causes or touch on personal matters, and are aware that their behavior reflects on their institution. To the extent that they let down their hair, it is not to pick public intellectual fights in a manner which undermines their professional reputations.

UPDATE: I don't follow Cole's stuff on a regular basis - all this is collected over several years as Cole's preoccupations and mine crossed in the blogosphere. So I just ran across this latest example of Cole's pixilated reality, but it's too choice not to share:

The Israelis tend to launch their wars of choice in the summer, in part because they know that European and American universities will be the primary nodes of popular opposition, and the universities are out in the summer. This war has nothing to do with captured Israeli soldiers. It is a long-planned war to increase Israel's ascendancy over Hizbullah and its patrons.
Right. The sophisticated military of a modern state consults American academic calendars before planning campaigns. More where that came from in this post, and the commenters have fun:
Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon pouring over maps with compasses in June 1967.
Dayan: "You know Arik, our economy cannot survive if the straights of Tiran remain closed. And it looks like Nasser will attack."
Sharon: "Listen wait another week. Yale closes in five days and then we only have to contend with Berkeley."
Dayan: "Thinking like that and one day you'll be prime minister."

UPDATE: David White takes us inside the Yale History Department deliberations. Short version: Cole was rejected because of his insufficient scholarship, partly as demonstrated by his factually-challenged blog. However, he only made it to the short list because of his extracurricular relationship with one of the professors:
The story of Yale's consideration of Cole began in January, when the Yale Center for International and Area Studies invited him to discuss Islamic political movements in post-Baath Iraq. At the lecture, Cole enjoyed the vigorous support of Yale Iranian history professor Abbas Amanat, but the two had known one another long before that January day. As members of the Baha'i faith--a 160-year old religious organization that proclaims the unity of all the world's religions--both Cole and Amanat took strong issue with the leadership of the religion as it entered a tumultuous phase in the 1980s and 1990s.

. . . Considering their long-standing, extra-academic relationship and their shared politics, it was hardly surprising when Cole emerged as the search committee's top choice a few months after Cole's January lecture. As a Yale history professor explained, "Generally speaking, a good deal of the fight over who ends up getting a university position is who ends up on the search committee's list of contenders; because that's who the candidate is compared to. In this situation, Cole was the only recognizable, prominent figure on the search committee's list... So what happened here? It was rigged."

Judith | 07/25/06 at 08:08 AM | Categories: - Wackademia

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Oh let's be honest: if Cole were not the prominent, angry, moonbat media/blog voice that he is, he would never have been considered for the appointment in the first place. What exactly has his scholarly production been of late?

Notoriety giveth, and notoriety taketh away. Simple as that.

someone | July 25, 2006 11:23 AM

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