Friday, June 06, 2008

When academics stray

Every year an assembly of British academics gathers to pass a motion condemning Israel and attempting to introduce a boycott against academics, universities, and colleges in Israel. It never goes off the agenda, not even after last year's fiasco when the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) passed a boycott motion only to be told by their national executive that it would be illegal to implement it. Nothing daunted, they have come back this year with another variation on a tired but increasingly racist theme. Things have been worse ever since the more moderate Association of University Teachers (to which I used to belong) merged with the more left-wing and radical National Association of Teachers in Higher and Further Education, producing the UCU.

This singular evil, this smug, politically-correct hatred of one tiny country has, for reasons I do not fully comprehend, become more serious in the UK than anywhere else in Europe, North America, or Australia/New Zealand. Since the 1960s, when I first attended university, a sea-change has overcome academia across a range of subjects, but mainly English literature, sociology, philosophy, politics, history, geography, anthropolgy: indeed, most areas within the humanities. Several things happened. Many subject areas became politicized as Marxists and feminists (and radical feminists) slowly took over departments. Later, with the decline in support for Marxism, two new sources of radical thought were introduced, post-colonialism and post-structuralism. What characterized these disciplines and philosphical stances — feminism, western Marxism, phenomenology, nihilism, post-structuralism — was criticism of and even hatred for dominant Western philosophy and culture. Alongside this came political correctness, which sided with the view that the ideas of the Enlightenment were contemptible, that Westerners were all racists and colonizers, and that 'victimhood' conferred a status that elevated people above those who were more successful. Edward Said's 1978 book 'Orientalism' started the ball rolling for post-colonial studies. We were all crazy about it at one time. When it appeared, I had just been trained as an orientalist, and like others in my field I read it avidly. We didn't see the flaws in his arguments back then. Like Marx and others, he had sensible things to say. But like Marx and others, he turned his general observations into a form of ideology (which later grew into post-colonialism). Said's ideas were first aimed at the orientalist enterprise of observing and recording the Islamic east, but now they are applied to quite different situations, such as the Spanish/Portuguese conquests of South America or colonial congtrol of Africa.

Significantly, Said, though himself not much of an expert on the Middle East, concentrated on Western portrayals of the Islamic world. He showed how writers distorted the realities of people in Muslim countries, either romanticizing them (mainly in the 18th and 19th centuries) or defining them as irrational, obsessed with sex, or fanatical (particularly in the Middle Ages). He argued that Orientalist painters idealized their subjects, making Eastern scenes colourful and infused with unWestern passions. And that novelists and poets (like Moore) drew on sources like the often-translated Arabian Nights to create fantasies that passed for realism. Well, some of this was true, so we all started looking more critically at our writing, which was, on the whole, a good thing. However, Said's emphasis on the Islamic world or, to be more accurate, the Middle East elevated the region to the status of primary victim of Western imperialism. This was further emphasized in Said's other writings about the Palestinians and his proclamation of himself to be victim number one. Even if 'Our house in Jerusalem' had actually belonged to an uncle, while Said was brought up in Cairo (where his father owned a prestigious business) and educated at an English-speaking school (and went on to use the conqueror's language to forge a successful career for himself within the Western university system), Said manoeuvred his own character as a Palestinian to front stage. And with himself, the Palestinians as the doyens of refugee-hood, passive under the cruel yoke of Israel subjugation, innocent vicitims of the imperialist carve-up of the Ottoman empire. No word of criticism of Ottoman colonialism: the bad boys were the British and French, because they had an agenda, and that agenda was to bring the Crusades back and to take control of the Middle East for ever. Israel was their secret weapon, the ultimate colonializing power.

I think it was through Said and the later success of post-colonial studies, alongside the theories of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and other post-structuralists, that gifted the wow factor to modern academic thinking about Israel and the Palestinians. Academics are often sad creatures, not readily sociable, many of them personifiations of nerdiness. English literature was once a domain for the study of obsure and uninteresting texts from the Battle of Maldon to the Book of Marjory Kempe to unreadable modern novels of angst, self-loathing, and social deprivation. Suddenly, in the 1970s, there came from several directions ample opportunity to be interesting and controversial. You could claim that a play by Shakespeare was no different in substance from the telephone diretory; you could apply radical feminist theory to literature and get rid of the canon of DWDs or Dead White Males (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Dryden, Yeats, Blake, Keats, Wordsworth, Dickens, Hardy, Joyce, Lawrence... it went on and on). And with a little extra effort you could get rid of Jane Austen because she didn't make a grovelling apology for slavery in Mansfield Park or write female characters who spurned the attentions of male oppressors right to the end. In fact, you were obliged to look out for every obscure African, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese or Algerian author in order to show your credentials as a right-on postcolonialist. Then, studying texts could be equated with studying film, and film studies got taken on board as another discipline within which to oil all the same prejudices.

There was something else as well. Ideology became more important than the factual basis of the topic under scrutiny. On coould scarcely find a more perfect example of this distortion than in the work of the anti-Zionist Israeli writer (I won't call him an historian) Ilan Pappé. As Janet Levy and DR. Roberta Seid put it: 'Pappe's scholarship is questionable and subject to much criticism by respected historians. He dismisses the legitimacy of historical facts and rewrites history to support his ideologically determined agenda. He has admitted to the predominance of the Marxist worldview in defining conclusions and outcomes, by asserting that "we do [historiography] because of ideological reasons, not because we are truth seekers.' '(Ilan Pappe, Advocate of Israel's Destruction', Front Page Magazine, 24 November 2004). Likewise, Seth J. Frantzman calls Pappé's work "a cynical exercise in manipulating evidence to fit an implausible thesis."

I have come across this sort of thing often enough in the past, not so much with Marxist or post-structuralist writers, but with writers belonging to different religious groups, notably Islam. It is impossible to find a Muslim narrative about the Prophet or Islamic history or religious leaders that does not twist historical fact to fit a 'higher' narrative. Given that much writing about Israel and much condemnation of the Jewish people today comes from Muslims, and given the growing centrality within departments of Middle East Studies of committed Muslims, it is easy to see how new narratives have been written, narratives that blind that very large portion of academia which knows next to nothing about Islam, Judaism, or Middle East history, including the history of Israel.

There's another thing that stands out in much modern academic discourse, infected as it is by the content and style of the French theorists, and that is the obscurantist quality of writing in the humanities. Often, writing is simply impenetrable. And, as Nick Cohen so cogently puts it: 'Writers write badly when they have something to hide'. If you had sat, as I have sat for three years, in a room with a string of undergraduates, postgraduates, and academic staff, you would know that the hardest thing to get across is that you don't have to over-elaborate your writing to get your ideas across, that simple English using short sentences and plain words is much more effective. It's easy to write jargon and its easy to imitate the meaningless bletherings of a Foucault or a Derrida, and it's easy to fool people into thinking what you say makes sense. It's much harder to understand what you want to say and to explain it to someone who knows nothing about the subject. Clarity of thought precedes clarity of diction, muddled thought expresses itself in vague and pretentious language couched in long words and neologisms. Read Derrida and then read someone like Karl Popper. Many regard Popper as the greatest philosopher of the last century, and I would agree. But he was also a great prosae stylist who could explain difficult propositions without getting himself or his readers in knots.

I think these things all join up. A lack of respect for facts, a lack of respect for language, and a lack of respect for simple morality. When academics find it hard to condemn terrorism as terrorism, praise hatred and call it legitimate political expression, and single out for vituperation the only democracy in the Middle East, it's a sure sign they aren't thinking straight. Surely this is the irony of these boycotts, that they should be spearheaded by academics of all people. Academics are supposed to have been taught how to use their minds. A great many do. But a host of left-wing post-structuralists and post-colonialists, who have been taught how not to think by thinkers whoi love obscurity, have forged ahead to be the standard-bearers of a new ignorance. The hatefulness of radical Islam doesn't faze them in the least. Just as Ken Livingstone was able to give the finger to his gay, feminist, and Jewish allies when he decided to embrace the notorious anti-Zionist, anti-gay, and anti-feminist Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, so these hardcore illiberals abandon all pretence to morality and progress. They admire a group like Hamas that would eat them alive if it got the chance. They defend Iran, a country that bans some religious minorities from its universities and calls it freedom. They condemn Israeli actions without once citing the context within which those actions take place. But what do facts matter? They make their minds up, despise open debate, and clamour to break the law against discrimination.

The oddest thing of all is why this is such a British thing. After all, there's plenty of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on US campuses (see the excellent study Uncivil Society), yet US academic organizations, including the heavily Saidean Middle East Studies Association, have condemned British excesses. The French actually produce the sort of philosopher I've been talking about, and they have a very active left wing, but they haven't called for a boycott. Nor has anyone else in Europe, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. Now, I really can't explain this. If anyone who reads this can, I'd be grateful for their views.