The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has demanded an explanation from Yale University about whether the George W. Bush administration interfered with or intimidated the university prior to Yale’s rejection of University of Michigan professor and polemicist Juan Cole’s application to teach at Yale. (Curiously, MESA neglects to mention the failure of Juan Cole’s job application at Duke the same year, where professors found him arrogant, self-serving, and superficial).
The tempest in the teapot reignited after James Risen published a piece in the New York Times citing a single disgruntled CIA agent trying to sell a book suggesting the White House had demanded the CIA investigate Cole. Now make no mistake: If the CIA investigated a U.S. citizen, that is both illegal and unacceptable and should result in firings and legal sanction. In this case, however, the claims don’t pass the smell test. Risen too often lets his own politics interfere with his judgment about the motivations of his limited array of sources.
Regardless, Cole latches onto the spurious allegation to suggest this was the reason he stopped getting invited to seminars, and that the petering off of invitations had nothing to do with the fact that unlike hundreds of other academics and area specialists, Cole had never been to Iraq and so could not discuss issues dispassionately and with the precision needed. Lee Smith did a great job highlighting the silliness of Juan Cole’s claims to be a free speech martyr.
Let me add two other points, though, which highlight the hypocrisy of both Juan Cole, and MESA’s selective notion of academic freedom.
1) Should MESA truly value free speech above politics, should it not then condemn none other than Juan Cole who demanded the FBI investigate a fellow professor with whose politics Cole disagreed? As Cole wrote in 2004: “FBI should investigate how [Professor Walid] Pharis, an undistinguished academic with links to far rightwing Lebanese groups and the Likud clique, became the ‘terrorism analyst’ at MSNBC.”
2) Likewise, while Cole said he was disinvited from events, after the FBI arrested former Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin on allegations he shared sensitive documents with AIPAC, Cole bragged about how he had spurned Defense Department invitations to discuss Iraq. “In a conversation with me, Franklin indicated that he was in very close contact with Wolfowitz, and he offered to get me an audience. I said, “You don’t read my web log, do you?”
If MESA places free speech above politics, it might want to explain why it did not sanction Professor Cole for demanding the FBI investigate a rival. And Professor Cole himself might want to explain why he accuses the government of blacklisting him when it appears the blacklisting went the other way around.