Ideological Diversity and Intellectual Responsibility in Area Studies and International AffairsSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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With reference to the globalization of university mission, Columbia University's President Lee Bollinger recently wrote,
Reorientation could entail a search for more effective and adequately grounded intellectual and university engagements with the world. But complexity also makes ideological mobilization likely, especially when scholarly commitments to address human and global needs are sidelined before the political contests to which universities appear increasingly subject. Ideology's growing threat to university work has become all too apparent in recent political challenges to area studies.
Area Studies and Culture War
In June 2003, during a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act's Title VI programs that support area studies centers and language fellowships, Stanley Kurtz, a columnist for National Review Online, attacked these centers for their lack of commitment to national defense and anti-Americanism. Following subsequent support from two other think-tank activists and a few civil society organizations extending this concern to charges of anti-Israel bias, and despite the Title VI community's efforts to dispute these charges, legislators recommended establishment of an advisory board to assure that federally supported centers "reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views on world regions, foreign language, and international affairs."
A substantial alliance of educational associations has responded that the critics misrepresent the work of area studies centers. They also argue that the expensive oversight board is neither necessary nor prudent in such fiscally constrained times. Well beyond the lobbyists, however, another movement is growing that identifies this legislation as a new kind of McCarthyism, and part of a larger effort to use political pressure to assure the prominence of certain ideological viewpoints within the academy.
This second counter-movement around academic freedom was born in resistance to the first movement's efforts to use political means to change what they have not been able to realize through academic enterprise. Instead of building their case through scholarly work, these Title VI critics resemble the larger movement to legislate "intellectual diversity" in the university. In both instances, diversity does not emerge as a way to engage a world of "baffling complexity"; instead, this legislation of diversity translates Bollinger's challenge into a mirror of this nation's crudest political contests. To the extent area studies must balance ideological viewpoints it cannot fulfill its scholarly mission, which in turn, will undermine the university's ability to provide expertise to anyone who wishes to understand the world more as it is, and not as they wish it to be.
In contrast to many other more state-centered societies, the U.S. has relied on an independent university sector to produce much of its foreign affairs expertise, of which area studies is an important part. While the federal government's investment in area studies was inspired by concerns about security in the Cold War, it was rooted in the assumption that academic independence was an important check on governmental presumption in the definition of American interest. Those foundation, government and university leaders who helped to forge the alliance that produced federal funding for area studies in the 1950s and early 1960s recognized the value of academic freedom in the production of expertise about the world. The following decades confirmed that wisdom, even as it shook the alliances that produced it.
During the Vietnam War, most academic area specialists opposed U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. Latin Americanists also were aggrieved in that same period when the CIA used academic enterprises as fronts for their work in Chile and elsewhere. These political developments undermined a productive relationship dating from World War II and the first half of the Cold War, when independent scholarship and government policy-makers' needs to know about distant places found common ground in efforts to understand the real challenges of fascism and communism. In the 1960s, however, a significant part of academia came to question whether American imperialism was the principal problem to understand, reviving an earlier American tradition that followed the Spanish-American War.
Current critics of area studies thus are correct to say that there are university scholars who analyze the world in terms of American imperialism, but these critics are definitely wrong to say that this is anti-American. To worry about American imperialism is a very American thing to do, as evidenced by long-standing concerns about American republican virtues. More importantly, the very freedom to assess American policy inspires admiration for American culture and education across the world. Finally, and substantively, the question of American foreign policy is only part of the mission of area studies centers, focused as they are on understanding the historical, cultural and institutional dynamics of change in specific world regions. I am concerned, therefore, that instead of fixing a problem (that does not even exist), the advisory board's charge to assure balance will actually undermine area studies' ability to address the complexity of the world in which we live.
What, for example, does it mean to "reflect" the full range of views on any world region or international issue? Does it mean that we must begin a discussion of the extraordinary numbers of Armenians killed in 1915 with a debate about whether these deaths should be understood as genocide? If so, that political fight would have prevented us from working with Armenians, Turks and others to explore more substantial scholarly questions about the period's chronological and spatial patterns of forced migration and extermination. Even more obviously wrong, does it mean that in discussions of the Holocaust we should assure that those who deny genocide get a fair hearing?
Of course, this isn't the bill's intention, but depending on the board's membership, similar attacks on intellectual responsibility could be the result. And if the reality, or even appearance, of an assault on academic freedom follows, the best U.S. universities may leave Title VI programs to those for whom compromise on core values is not a problem, and whose expertise about the world will hardly serve the national interest so well.
By the time this article is in print, we may have skirted the dangers associated with this bill's proposed advisory board. But that won't mean ideology's danger will have passed. In the face of uncertainties, it is all too tempting to embrace an ideology that denies the world's complexity and revives culture wars that make political contest, rather than scholarly values, central.
Ideological Diversity and the Denial of Complexity
With a campaign begun before the attacks of September 11, 2001, these same Title VI critics scolded Middle East area specialists in the U.S. for their failure to grapple with the appropriate intellectual challenges posed by the Islamic world. After 9/11, the critics' activities became much more apparent for what they are: rather than serious scholarly engagement, they became the mirror image of their own complaint, an ideological invention in a culture war that preys on the anxieties of Americans feeling newly vulnerable. Even more astonishingly, this movement willfully overlooks what has been happening at universities seeking to respond to the challenges of 9/11 and its aftermath.
The University of Michigan is not alone in its commitment to understanding the challenges of religion, security and violence across global contexts, but attending to a few recent events in this series illustrates the dangers of giving primacy to diversity that is more ideologically driven than intellectually responsible. Legislating ideological diversity is dangerous in intellectual life, especially when it ignores the world's complexity in favor of representing two sides to the wrong questions.
1. "Why Do They Hate Us?"
It's comforting to debate this question, but I learned from government, corporate and academic experts on diplomacy and communications in an October workshop on "Persuading Skeptical Audiences" that this is the wrong question if public diplomacy is a real concern. Public opinion abroad actually favors American culture, education and democracy, but people don't like American policies they perceive to affect their communities negatively. If we wanted ideological diversity on this issue, we could have debated whether American foreign policy is correct. Instead, we bracketed questions about the feasibility or desirability of policy change and asked how public diplomacy could be better. That shift enabled us to move beyond political contest to new research questions critical for American foreign policy.
First, how do American foreign policy makers imagine their audience? If people are only skeptical about American policy, good arguments on its behalf may work. But defensive or hostile audiences will dismiss a well-reasoned argument by indicting the messenger's morality, integrity or honesty. Public diplomacy then must sidestep emotional resistance and selective inattention. This requires not just well-reasoned message points, but also a style that wins acceptance by first acknowledging differences and delivering messages in the terms of one's critics. Audiences are then more likely to listen and respond positively.
But how do you know the critical differences? There are data, but not enough good data, on what those differences are. We need to know better who the skeptical, defensive and hostile audiences are, and why they are so disposed. Public diplomacy is not only about effective communication, but about better listening and data collection. In fact, evidence that we are listening and honoring the others' point of view, in combination with actions that match rhetoric, is likely to be the best message possible. It may not be enough to change public opinion, but it will certainly make a better U.S. public diplomacy.
2. "How Willing Was the Coalition?"
Too many American comedians on late-night television mocked the "coalition of the willing" as being filled, beyond Britain, with insubstantial nations coerced into supporting the invasion of Iraq. While Palau's support may not have been so valuable, most leaders of nations liberated from communist dictatorship lined up behind the U.S., with Poland among the first in providing human and material support. Had our February symposium on Poland's involvement in Iraq been guided by the requisites of ideological diversity, we might have focused on what not only the comics but also the Polish parliamentary opposition asked: what did Poland get out of this deal to support America?
Journalist Jacek Zakowski lamented that this was the principal political challenge to the Polish authorities' decision to support the U.S. Tadeusz Iwinski, an advisor to the prime minister, assured us that this was no bargain, and rather an alliance made on principle. And that must be the answer, given the absence of material rewards after occupation and the real costs Poland now suffers as it negotiates its influence in the European Union with those who opposed its alliance with America. The question of willingness therefore may be the wrong question. Principles are a lot more important.
Last summer I visited Barbara Labuda, a former Solidarity activist and currently a minister in President Aleksander Kwasniewski's cabinet. She showed me her open letter to the French, in which she reminded them that the Americans did more to support the Poles' struggle for liberty, a commitment the Poles remembered when Americans asked for their help in the war to liberate Iraq from tyranny. But the struggle for freedom does not only make principles important. It teaches some lessons, too.
After sharing her letter with me, Labuda worried that Americans were doing too little for the health, education and welfare of the Iraqi people themselves since the invasion. To claim victory in war is one thing, but to win with peace requires solidarity with civil society, not just with political leaders with limited legitimacy and potential foreign investors.
Our symposium thus did not focus on what the American comedians and Polish populists would have us debate. Instead, we took the principle of a willing coalition as a point of departure, and considered whether the principles that made the alliance viable are also sustainable. I found one issue particularly interesting, especially in light of Zakowski's concern about the quality of democratic discussion with regard to war's making. If publics perceive ideals to be draped in duplicity and ideological manipulations, can alliances based on principles survive? Yesterday's electoral results in Spain, following the horrific terrorist attack days earlier, only reinforce this concern. A principled foreign policy can survive only to the extent authorities' claims are subject to rigorous discussion and found truthful.
3. "Is Israeli-Palestinian Peace Still Possible?"
There is no more politicized issue in international affairs on U.S. campuses than this question. Given the difficulty in answering this question with easy affirmation and the impossibility of satisfying all invested constituencies, it's tempting for most universities to avoid the question altogether. At the same time, how can the intellectually responsible avoid scholarly exploration of one of the most dangerous relationships in the world?
In a signal act of courage in this climate, the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies and Frankel Center for Judaic Studies recently invited Palestinian and Israeli scholars to address the question. Most of the presentations were quite reasonable and persuasive, discussing the feasibility of, and conditions for, peace. The panel demonstrated that it is impossible to pose the issue in dichotomous terms. There is no single Israeli or Palestinian position on the possibility of peace, and no simple anti-Israeli or anti-Palestinian ideology at work. But I saw how such an impression could be made.
One of the speakers spoke about the essential and inevitable ideology driving the conflict. Of course this was not his own position, but it was the other's ideology that made peace impossible and the destruction of his own nation imaginable. Therefore, he asked, how could we imagine peace even as a possibility? Should we not prepare for an even more brutal onslaught?
I deliberately leave out who raised this interpretation because such an account could have come from either a Palestinian or an Israeli. The point, however, is the danger of "ideological diversity" in this issue. To achieve balance, we should have had this speaker's mirror image, and in that fashion, we could well imagine why war is inevitable. We would have created, in this gesture to a false balance, the very conditions that make peace impossible to imagine. Isn't it better to ask whether we can still imagine peace? For if we can only imagine war, then don't we create a self-fulfilling prophecy in the garb of political realism?
Intellectual Diversity and Responsibility
The legislation of intellectual diversity within universities will change their function. Instead of trying to develop better scholarly approaches for understanding the world's complexity, ideologues will turn universities into places that reproduce the ideological platforms of this nation's political contests. Not only does that distract universities from their primary mission, but it also makes it even more difficult to construct open and respectful dialogues across very difficult issues.
As the examples above illustrate, but hardly exhaust, the University of Michigan is addressing issues critical to the understanding of national security and our humanity's common future. At the same time, our commitment to academic freedom obliges us to move beyond the frame for questions with which any set of political authorities begins. Our job is not just to answer questions better, but to pose better questions, and in that process, generate intellectual diversity with long term and global public value.
It is possible that even those with good intentions will be caught in the culture wars that are being kindled by those whose principal interests lie in ideological mobilization rather than in the promotion of scholarly values with the public good in mind. But then I hope that we all might recall the inspiration offered by Václav Havel and other opponents to late communism. It may be just as important today to find a way to live in truth. And I know we can't find that path when ideological contest shapes the parameters within which we pose our questions.
— March 15, 2004
I have benefited enormously from the comments of many readers, but I take responsibility, in the end, for the essay's limitations. Thanks to Mark Tessler, Brian Porter, Donna Parmelee, Gil Merkx, Marcia Inhorn, Rajeev Batra and Cindy Bank, as well as all those who have advanced our academic mission around religion, security and violence and lamented in common the politicization of area studies with me.
This is part of a much larger and more complicated discussion of intellectual diversity as a political device. For a fascinating analysis, see Stanley Fish, "Intellectual Diversity: The Trojan Horse of a Dark Design," The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 13, 2004; <http://chronicle.com/free/v50/i23/23b01301.htm>.
For the origins of international studies expertise in America, see the very thoughtful essay by Robert Vitalis, "International Studies in America," Items and Issues 3: 3-4 (2002): 1, 2, 12-16; <http://www.ssrc.org/programs/publications_editors/publications/items/Items3.3_4.pdf>.
See Ronald Grigor Suny and Fatma Muge Gocek, "Discussing Genocide: Contextualizing the Armenian Experience in the Ottoman Empire," Journal of the International Institute 9: 3 (2002); http://name.umdl.umich.edu/4750978.0009.301.
For an assessment of the critics, see Zachary Lockman, "Behind the Battles over US Middle East Studies," Middle East Report, January 2004; <http://www.merip.org/mero/interventions/lockman_interv.html>. For a substantial assessment of the challenges facing Middle East studies beyond the political contest, see Lisa Anderson, "Scholarship, Policy, Debate and Conflict: Why We Study the Middle East and Why It Matters," Middle East Studies Association Bulletin 38: 1 (Summer 2004); <http://fp.arizona.edu/ mesassoc/Bulletin/Pres Addresses/Anderson.htm>.
For Havel's own ideas on this, see his "Truth in the Information Age" Journal of the International Institute 8: 2 (2001) http://name.umdl.umich.edu/4750978.0008.201. For an application of Havel's work to the politics of the university, see Michael D. Kennedy, "The Global Politics of Intellectual and Institutional Responsibility," Journal of the International Institute 8: 1 (2000); <http://www.umich.edu/~iinet/ journal/ vol8no1/Kennedy8-1.htm>.