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Juan Cole, Saving America from its Quagmire

9. December 2004 • Scott Trudeau
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U-M professor and well-known blogger Juan Cole is speaking tonight on the topic “Saving America from its Middle East Quagmire.”

What’s Next in Iraq? : An Open Forum
Thursday, Dec. 9th 7-9pm
East Quad, @ the corner of E. University and Hill St., room #126

Featuring a talk by U of M Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History

Juan Cole on “Saving America from its Middle East Quagmire.”

Comments by:
Javed Nazir, UM Human Rights Fellow and RC Lecturer
Tom Collier, Retired Colonel and Military Historian


> Cole’s blog: Informed Comment
> ArborUpdate, July: Juan Cole in ‘Michigan Today’

  1. I am still horrified that this guy teaches at UM…Perhaps the most blatant anti U.S./anti Israel professor the U has…
       —BJS    Dec. 9 '04 - 01:55PM    #
  2. I’ve taken his “War in the 20th Century Middle East course, and found Cole very fair, rational, and unbiased. Why do you find him so anti-Israel and anti-US? Because he has dared (heaven forbid) to be critical of those governments’ actions (along with those of just about every government involved in the region over the centuries!)? I think anyone who has actually taken one of his courses would find him an intelligent academic, not some sort of raging ideologue.
       —Brandon    Dec. 9 '04 - 02:22PM    #
  3. “Why do you find him so anti-Israel and anti-US?” -Brandon

    i think you already answered that question:

    ”[I] found Cole very fair, rational, and unbiased.” -Brandon

    i’m so bored with the u.s.a.,
    ari p.
       —Ari P.    Dec. 9 '04 - 03:50PM    #
  4. You know what – having taken a class with Anton Shamas (a Palestinian (anti-Israel)) as well as with several other less then pro-Israel profs. I will say that Cole’s class is VERY differnt. At least when I took it – he presented ONE side of hte story (whcih is particularly a problem when the final history is yet to be written), and was not receptive to “alternitive views” – going as far as to tell someone that while that person coudl have that view, it wouldn’t work on an exam.

    That is why this guy shouldn’t be teaching – not becuase he critisizes America. So does J. David Singer (and he also critisizes Israel) but at least JDS engages in honest intilectual debate.

    THis guy – just a hack. One who can make himeslf famous – but still a hack.

    Back to learning my rights,

       —David LIvshiz    Dec. 9 '04 - 04:39PM    #
  5. oh – and I am not sure that comparing marianite Christians to Nazis is a very honest and intilectually worthy comparison.
       —David LIvshiz    Dec. 9 '04 - 04:40PM    #
  6. Might I add that him sending a “cease and desist” letter and threatenign of suit to Martin Kramer and Daniel Pipes – for simply exposing him for who he is – is completely ridiculous and unprofessional/unacademic.
       —BJS    Dec. 9 '04 - 05:15PM    #
  7. You know – somewhere i think i heard that “truth is an absolute defense to libel.”

    I’d love to be the lawyer with that case. and if Cole is smart he’ll stop it there, b/c if this goes to litigation (which btw is public) – it is HE not pipes who is on trial. :)
       —David LIvshiz    Dec. 9 '04 - 06:01PM    #
  8. yeah, daniel pipes, knowns a lot about being professional and fair:

    Palestinians need almost as much to be defeated by Israel as Israel needs to defeat them.
    (Jerusalem Post, April 25, 2001)

    The presence and increased stature, and affluence, and enfranchisement of American Muslims…will present true dangers to American Jews. (Address to the American Jewish Committee, October 21, 2001)

    Western European societies are unprepared for the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and maintaining different standards of hygiene…All immigrants bring exotic customs and attitudes, but Muslim customs are more troublesome than most. (National Review, 11/19/90)

    now, i know some of you will argue that muslims ARE infact dangerous and that they’re customs are bad and that the palestinians need to be driven into the sea, but, at the very least, if you are going to accuse someone of being anti-israel because they dare criticize that sacrad state, then, please chose a better hero than daniel pipes, someone who is the epitome of hateful and biases and unfair and unprofessional…

    on my fourth cup of joe,
    ari p.
       —Ari P.    Dec. 9 '04 - 06:41PM    #
  9. I continue to be fascinated by those who immediately attack and attempt to defame anyone who speaks in a critical fashion on this issue. One would think that if the speaker really had nothing of import to say, people would simply ignore them. Communication overridden by conviction?
       —Marc R.    Dec. 9 '04 - 06:42PM    #
  10. Mark – the issue isn’t criticism of Israel, or the United States. its about intillectual honesty and academic freedom. Social Science is NOT math – there is NO right or wrong answer – and as such to tell somoene – you can’t put that answer on my exam cause i disagree, nor express that view in my class – is a stifling of academic freedom. THAT IS WHAT IS WRONG.

    It would be just as wrong for pro-Israel professors to say that pro-Palestinian views can’t be raised in their class, or to grade pro-Palestinians students down for being pro-Palestinian.

    I disagree with his views, but they are HIS views. I do find his CLASSROOM behavior objectivly unacceptable.

    Ari – as for you. Come on. First of all – Pipes has a point – when he says that Europe is not ready to deal with mass Muslim population. iTs hardly a radical idea. in light of the murder of two high profile politiicans in Holland, and the French School issues – its clearly an issue.

    Moreover – i do not expect Pipes to be fair. He is a political HACK. and not a professor. Standards of behavior differ. Wouldn’t you agree?

       —David LIvshiz    Dec. 9 '04 - 06:55PM    #
  11. livshizzle,
    i think the egregousness of that particular quotation rests in his disrespectfulness, by that i mean his chosing to charactize “brown skinned people” as smelly criminals who eat ikky food…

    as for standards, in my ideal democracy, i hold statesmen and activists to a pretty high standard…without that standard our democracy withers (which it is doing), i think pipe’s failure achieve even the lowest level of integrety (given his public status) is a blow against him as a professional-whatever-he-is…

    waiter! a refill please,
    ari p.
       —Ari P.    Dec. 9 '04 - 07:14PM    #
  12. For my opinion on this matter, read today’s piece in the daily by Suhael Momin – AND THROW IT IN THE GARBAGE.
       —BJS    Dec. 9 '04 - 07:45PM    #
  13. excuse me, i meant yesterday’s
       —BJS    Dec. 9 '04 - 07:46PM    #
  14. David,
    Fair enough point about the classroom approach. I can’t speak to it because I’ve never been in his classroom. However, you have to consider that Cole may consider the more (for lack of a more diplomatic word) excessive views of others to be a form of ‘intellectual dishonesty’, such as Israeli policy being exclusively based on the premise of self-defense, which any objective viewer can tell you is simply not the case.

    And I think this is, in fact, the prima facie situation in which there will never be a wholly right or wrong answer. However, much of the vitriol spewed at Cole and others like him over this problem (such as Chomsky; and some of the respondents in this thread are no exception) has far more to do with silencing their dissent, than changing their opinion.
       —Marc R.    Dec. 9 '04 - 10:56PM    #
  15. I know Juan Cole and have seen him speak, but haven’t been in one of his classes.

    However, based on my years teaching at UM, I will say this: students’ views of what consitutes a defensible “opinion” and what actually constitutes a defensible opinion are often two different things. In my classes, you’re not really entitled to your own opinion unless you have evidence. And you’re not really entitled to an overarching opinion-an academic opinion-unless you have taken in a large body of evidence from multiple sources.

    So, in my mind, when an American undergraduate who doesn’t speak or read Hebrew or Arabic thinks that his/her “opinion” of what’s going on in the Middle East exceeds in viability that of someone who reads, and therefore understands documents in, both of those languages, I’m suspicious.

    And I’m not saying that this is the case for anyone in this discussion, but it was the case in an awful lot of the classes I taught.
       —AP    Dec. 10 '04 - 11:55AM    #
  16. Ari – I wasn’t aware you tought classes.

    First in responce to Mark. I am not sure that Cole gets to be the “judge” of excessive here. even if we take the average pro-Israel Likud supporting student – that view is most definetly not extreme. It is endorsed by 400+ members of Congress, adn the US executive branch, not to mention is the view of over 70% of Americans. Now – that may not make that view correct – but it clearly also means its not out of bounds.

    Moreover, while Cole is not obligated to agree with these views, in a conflict so polarized, and without a clear cut wright and a clear cut wrong – he is obliged to make an effort at telling both stories. He doesn’t have to do so in his body of work (scholarship) but in teaching – he does.

    As for Chomsky, et all – you know I used to think the way you do, until i came to law school. quite a few profs at NYU (where i go to school) hate Bush and Chomsky equally (and ironically for the same reasons). The problem eople have with Chomsky isnt’ that he dares critisize the US (plenty of people do it) but in how he does it.

    Ari – as for american students, etc not knowing about the conflict. I am not sure how one goes about determening who has the “knowledge” to speak in class and who doesn’t. The reality is – you can always challenge students to support their opinions – in a polite and respectful way – without calling them stupid.

       —David LIvshiz    Dec. 11 '04 - 12:42PM    #
  17. ummm, i’m not AP…just for the record…i think we’ve had this problem before…

    apfully yours,
    ari p.
       —Ari P.    Dec. 11 '04 - 12:51PM    #
  18. in response to the chomsky comment:

    my beef is that he takes credit for the ideas of others…


    the point is that he made the ideas of the modern left accessable to the common public, as in expose these complex ideas in the popular idiom…not to mention that he is brilliant linguist, as opposed to livshiz, who once spelled american with a 4…

    that is why he is a revolutionary figure in american thought…(i’m not refering to livshiz here, so stop smiling you silly little monkey)...

    ari p.
       —Ari P.    Dec. 11 '04 - 01:44PM    #
  19. DL is so right on this one, IMHO.

    also, just went to the profs blog, most recent post is basically update on the mess in Iraq, followed by this (talking about a muslim who killed a U.S. soldier over there);

    “The assassin said that he felt that Jones-Huffman “looked Jewish.” The fruits of hatred sowed in the Middle East by aggressive and expansionist Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza against the Palestinians and in south Lebanon against Shiites continue to be harvested by Americans.”

    uh, yah, nice jump there.

    Now, about those expansionist Israeli policies?? Uh, anyone know a place where information on this veiwpoint or even better the great profs opinion on such. What was it, 6 wars all started by the Arab world besides one pre-emptive strike (actually used like a pre-emptive strike should be).
       —Just a Voice    Dec. 12 '04 - 12:09PM    #
  20. AP is me, Alyssa, not Ari.

    Following up both on what I wrote and on the succeeding posts: it’s interesting that the pro-Likud position that David attributes to 70% of Americans, 400 members of Congress, etc. is not the majority view in Israel.

    The Israelis I know (and I know a few, including several who did the required military service) have way more complicated, sophisticated views of what’s going on there than have most of my students (frankly, than do I as an American).

    I’m reminded of a class I was teaching in which, during a discussion of early 20th century Zionism, a student who had previously identified himself as Jewish insisted that no Jew would ever argue against the existence of Israel as a religious state. Interestingly, the Bundists had taken precisely this position during the pre-WWII period, and I had literally just finished talking with an Israeli friend who favors a “one-state solution” in Israel today: the creation of a secular, democratic state as the solution to the current conflict. When I pointed this out, the student was silent for a while, then accused my friend of being a bad Jew. My point is that USY trips to Israel over summer breaks do not a sophisticated analyst of the Middle East create.

    Among other things, most of the Israelis I know-and I’m not talking “one-state solution” Israelis here-have shared Cole’s emphasis on the inflammatory impact of the settlements. I think the way he worded the bit that JAV has quoted here leaves him open to charges of following the internal logic of anti-Zionism, but that doesn’t change the fact that most of the Israelis living in the region agree that the settlements are a disaster. They were established without a coordinated plan and require extensive defense by young Israelis whose religious fervor doesn’t match that of those living in settlements (who are often exempt from service themselves). Just because 400 members of Congress don’t agree doesn’t make them right.

    What I’m getting at is: there may be “no clear cut right and wrong” overall, but there are many areas wherein right and wrong are actually very clear-cut. Settlements in areas that don’t belong to Israel: bad. Suicide bombing: bad. It’s not wrong for someone who has an informed view of the conflict (and again, I’d set the standard for “informed” as, at a minimum, being able to read and speak the two major languages of the region, and understand the documents produced in them) to come down firmly in one place or another in class, assuming that they explain how they got there.

    In general, I don’t agree that professors must present “both sides” of a conflict in class. For one thing, there’s usually-as here-way more than two “sides”. I think professors have an obligation to note when controversy exists over interpretation, perhaps to briefly address the merits of the major competing points of view, and to give students resources for investigating the points of view that are not extensively discussed. But some points of view don’t deserve to be dignified with a great deal of class time, and profs are within their responsibilities to teach in a way that reflects this.

    Just for instance-in my own field, US history, there’s some movement afoot among very far right conservatives, especially in the South, to minimize the mention of slavery in the teaching of the Civil War. I’m not talking about teaching the version of the war that also gets to the big constitutional issue-the roles of state vs. federal governments. I mean actively arguing that a period of slavery was necessary and positive for the development of American capitalism, and not mentioning it much beyond that. This is an extreme position held by a small minority of people, but including some very influential ones. Does this “side” deserve discussion in my version of the US history survey?
       —AP    Dec. 12 '04 - 03:15PM    #
  21. David,

    I do not believe that Juan Cole said to a student, in your words

    “going as far as to tell someone that while that person coudl have that view, it wouldn’t work on an exam.”

    I have never been in his classroom either, but this sounds like a thirdhand rumor at best, circulated by someone who disagrees with his very clearly expressed politics. If Cole actually said this and you heard it firsthand, that would be one thing, but if you don’t have firsthand knowledge of it then you are actually slandering him (used in the ethical not legal sense), even within the broad parameters of blogs. Alternatively, if he did say this then it seems very relevant to know actually what the view in question was that would be beyond the pale, because there are some arguments that are in political circulation that simply cannot be supported by any reasonable evidence and would not “work on an exam.” This sentiment might have been as much a favor to the student as the sinister censorship that you present. I assume the truth is probably much more complicated, probably along the lines of what AP has laid out above, that arguments made in papers require evidence not just ideological certainty.
       —Matt    Dec. 12 '04 - 04:40PM    #
  22. Matt –

    I was the student he said it to me. and if you want to go ask Cole, he is obligated to keep the exams – if you read my exma and ask people who know me you’ll see that what I write on the exam is not what i believe.

    Secondly, the question was whthe ror nto the Israeli policy as establisehd by David Ben Gurion, after the completion of the armistance talks was agreesive and expansionary. While an argument exists, and could me made that it was (Israel refused to return to UNGA 181 lines, was agressivly engaging in hot pursuit of terrorists) and equally plausible case exists that BG was nothing but conciliatory (there were the engotiations with Nasser in 1954, a standing invitation to negotaite iwth any of the arab states, and various outreahcs for negotations at the meetings of the Comintern.).

    The bottom line here – is that it could be argued either way – and most scholars (take Tesler for example, or if you dont’ like him there is alwasy Halidi at NW) who conceede that it simply is in the eye of the beholder. In any case – it is not acceptable to tell a student no.

    MOreover, the ONLY time when an academic is allowed to say something like that is when it is a question of fact. i.e. a professor can tell a student – i respect yoru view that 5 times 5 is 50, but its wrong on the exam. However, whenever we are dealing with the social science and humanities – places where, especially after the post-modern revolution, there is no wright or wrong – it has to be, in my view, an EXTRA-ordinary circumstances to tell that to a student.

    As for Slander – i am not so concerned. He choose to build his reputation and he can live with it. While the man is a brilliant translater (in particular of the “prhophet”), he is a crumy profesor , and a dishonest intilectual.
       —David LIvshiz    Dec. 12 '04 - 07:06PM    #
  23. I’m wondering what the stakes of this claim really were. How much difference does it make whether something that happened that long ago was “expansionary” or not? It strikes me as one of those questions that is of great interest who want to prove “fault” for the whole mess on one side or another, which would be one reason why, if I were a prof, I’d be a little put off by someone who seemed passionately committed to one analysis of it or another.

    If I were Juan, I would have dealt with it by saying that an exam answer that recognizes the controversy would be okay, but one that spent a lot of time hammering on the idea that there is one right answer to this question is likely to be focusing on the wrong thing.

    I also passionately disagree that the “post-modern revolution” means that there is no such thing as right or wrong, particularly in the humanities. Evidence matters. And it would matter on an exam I graded.
       —AP    Dec. 12 '04 - 07:40PM    #
  24. AP –

    THe reason it matters, is that Cole, throughout the three lectures, kept laying the entirety of the blame on Isreal. THe question like: “explain the development of hte ME conflict b/n Israel and the Palestinians/Arabs” – can be answered in many ways, but he wanted one answer.

    as for the argument of right/wrong in humanities. Yes evidence matters. If i look hard enough, i can find evidence for just about everything. There is very little that someone who is well informed and inteligent could not argue at a collegel level class and get an A. Whether that coresponds to what really happend, is a second question.
       —David LIvshiz    Dec. 12 '04 - 08:00PM    #
  25. But David, you might answer such a question in a way that acknowledges the complexity of the debate without compromising your own beliefs. For instance, the essay might be boiled down to: “Multiple historical events, nearly all of which have been perceived in ways as divergent as the ways in which the current conflict is perceived by the two sides. For instance…”

    All I can say about the latter is that in fact there is a great deal you could have argued in my classes, intelligently and with information, and not gotten an A.

    One of the reasons why someone might pursue advanced academic training is the belief that that training helps one develop skills in analyzing evidence and reaching conclusions about important problems. (Graduate work isn’t the only way to develop these skills—just one of them). I just don’t believe that every analysis is just as good as every other. None of my colleagues in the history department ever did either, FWIW.
       —AP    Dec. 12 '04 - 08:11PM    #
  26. AP –

    First of all – yea you’re right. My point was that only ONE side was presented in class, and when a student suggested an alternative responce the student was told: “you’re welcome to that opinoin, but that will not be accepted on the exam”. That right there is a problem.

    As for the second point. Sure, absolutely – not every argumetn is as good as any other. And that is true whether you are arguing about history, law, philosohpy or political science. However, in the social sciences and humanities – becuase there is no RIGHT or wrong answer the way there is in the hard sciences or mathmatics, there is considrably more flexebility – presisely becuase reasonable minds can differ. that combined with an explosiion of schoalrship has made it fairly easy to tell a narative that is compelling and well supported and yet incorect.

    This is particulary true of undergarduate classes where a student is not required to reseach using primary sources, but often rely on secondary sources. So, to give an example. I can write a great paper indicating that Hitler’s attack on Russia on June 22, 1941 was in fact a case of “anticipatory” self defense – beucase Stalin was intending to attack him. By referencing books by indivduals like A. Suvorov and other “new historians” i can make that case. Well enough for an undergraduate class. And yet, if we then take the next step and start doing primary source research (and i don’t mean newspaper articles, but actual archival reserach) we discover that the paper I just wrote is incorrect. My only point is – when we deal with history it is very hard to determine who is “wright” and who is “wrong”

    In a broad introductory class – it is HIS responcibility to make sure that all major points of view on an unsettled question are presented. and in this way i tink that Juan Cole fails as an instructor. That was most certainly something he didnt’ do. (now, ftr, i’d say that its perfectly okay for him to present only his view in an upper class seminar – though, even there he is required to treat his students with resepct and dignaty).

    ok, back to the exam…

       —David LIvshiz    Dec. 12 '04 - 09:21PM    #
  27. livshiz is prone to exaggerate (to say the least), and juan cole has the tendincy to have opinions (not a crime)...

    for example, i know that livshiz wasn’t a ‘victim’ of juan cole’s bias because i distinctly remember livshiz boasting on about how well he did in his class…so while cole may have argued against livshiz, he didn’t suffer academic harm for standing oppositional, absolving cole from the aforementioned crime…

    i am liberal academia,
    ari p.
       —Ari P.    Dec. 13 '04 - 12:50AM    #

    I got an A. however, i also put on the exam, word for word, what he wanted to hear, even though i disagreed with the conclusoins, reasons, and policies he advocated.

    My problem is NOT that he has an opinion. Goodness, that is what makes the man an academic, its that a) he tought only one side of a controversial issue and b) when confrotned with an equally plausible alternative he specifically said it was not an acceptable answer – no matter how well I would support it.

    Ari look at it this way. What he does is the equivalent of a Con law professor not teaching the probelms with Roe v. Wade. Its politically an option, but the students are cheated out of a better understnading of con law. (since i am dealing with ari – I am pro abortin, just saying that the Roe decision is hardly a model of legal perfection).

       —David LIvshiz    Dec. 13 '04 - 02:03AM    #
  29. “Yes evidence matters. If i look hard enough, i can find evidence for just about everything.”—Livshiz

    “Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything…”—Homer Simpson
       —Scott T.    Dec. 13 '04 - 12:02PM    #
  30. David,

    Thanks for clarifying the identity of the person you cited. My own view is that a student’s paper ought to be cognizant of the complexity of any historical debate. Without getting into the politics of the Middle East, it seems unavoidable to me that any reasonable assessment will place some responsibility on all sides, and then the argument is really about the degree and the details.

    I still find it hard to believe that Cole teaches his class in such a way that places all blame on Israel and none on Arabs. Even a quick glance at his blog suggests that he highlights the complexity of the issues. But even in the unlikely case that your description of him in the classroom is completely accurate, you seem to be implicating yourself in the sense that you wanted to write a paper arguing the conciliation version over the expansionist version instead of assessing the larger debate.

    If you wrote papers and disagreed with all of your own arguments, this seems to me either a type of cowardice or intellectual uncertainty or a lack of imagination in not being able to see a contested middle ground between your political opinions and what you believed to be the professor’s.
       —Matt    Dec. 13 '04 - 08:57PM    #