A thank you to The Claremont Review of Books and Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs for creating a special link to a review I wrote on Humanism and Democratic Criticism, one of Edward W. Said’s posthumous books and a template for the problems we are now seeing at Columbia University and elsewhere.
I wrote about Joseph Massad, one of Said’s disciples, here. The difference between Professor Massad and Edward Said is one of intelligence. Said was brilliant at constructing political causes out of "humanistic practice." His personality was informed by a sort of demotic form of nineteenth-century Romanticism. He relied on the claims of "otherness" in order to slide over the shallowness of his arguments. Joseph Massad, however, is rather more dimwitted than all that, but he does an (unintentional) service in exposing the underlying thugishness of Saidian logic. The meandering rhetoric--let alone madness--of Massad’s personal manifesto, published on Columbia’s computers, should be cause alone for questioning his employment at a top university. He arguments are not meant to foster debate but crush debate by abnegating a student’s rights to a fair discussion. How can you debate a madman, or at least mad arguments? Professor Massad has taken away not just the freedom of speech by the freedom of discussion from students, all the while claiming that he (a tenure-track professor) is the beleaguered agent facing down intimidation (from powerless students).
Such claims seems to be a common tactic for Said’s followers, and Massad is not the only one to employ it. Take a look at this report of Massad’s colleague Hamid Dabashi. It started when a student emailed this message to Professor Dabashi (after Dabashi wrote this article about a trip to Palestine, er, Israel):
I have rarely seen such a revolting excerpt of anti-Semitism as your article in Al-Ahram. Your article implies no right of Israel to exist. ... As an Israeli citizen, I welcome the right of Palestinians to have an independent state and a capital in East Jerusalem. At the same time, you clearly deny (and you are not even a Palestinian) my right to have a country.To which Professor Dabashi responded:
I consider this slanderous harassment a conduct unbecoming of a student of Columbia University towards a member of the faculty whom he has never met or known. I bring this defamatory attack against a Columbia faculty to the judicious attention of your respective offices. Given the military record of this person, I also feel physically threatened. I would be grateful if Columbia Security were also to be informed of this slanderous attack against my character and appropriate measures taken to protect my person from a potential attack by a militant slanderer.
University professors must be held to a higher standard than their students, for the simple reason that they hold a great deal of power over their students. If Professor Dabashi thinks that disagreement from a student is "slander... by a militant slanderer," should there be a place for him in higher education? But whether President Lee Bollinger and his administrators will have the will to question such behavior in any serious way is another matter. Just scroll down at this link and you can see what administrators are made of. University Provost Alan Brinkley wisely consulted Dabashi that he saw "nothing threatening in [the student’s] message." But then Brinkley goes on to write, "however unfair its conclusions might be." I’d be curious to know what Brinkley saw as "unfair" in the student’s comment. Probably nothing. He only saw a need to continue Columbia’s policy of appeasement towards ideologues masquerading as scholars. Edward Said was such a master at this, his performances could bring you to tears. Massad and Dabashi somehow manage to do considerably less in the same role.
2/1/05 NOTE: Thank you to Martin Kramer for pointing out errors in my original post. For an expert take on the Columbia story, be sure to visit his website.