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MESA’s Truth By: Pierre M. Atlas
Indianapolis Star | Monday, November 27, 2006


BOSTON -- When discussing a controversial issue, what does it mean to be "fair and balanced"?

This question confounds not only journalists but academics as well. What does it mean to bring "balance" into the classroom or into scholarly discourse? Should all perspectives be given equal weight? Do all perspectives deserve equal weight?

As I write this I am attending the 40th annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association. MESA is the premier international academic society for those who study all aspects of the Middle East, its history, peoples, languages and cultures. More than 2,000 scholars are here from around the world, professors and graduate students representing numerous academic disciplines.

Walking through the halls of the conference hotel one hears numerous languages, including French, Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and Hebrew. MESA is a dynamic and multi-voice organization, and its conference aims at providing a safe space to discuss controversial issues in a scholarly manner.

At least, that's the goal. Given the enormous diversity of its membership and the intensity of the crises in the Middle East today, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the quest for academic "balance" can get lost in the shuffle. And that, of course, begs the question: How do we define academic balance?

At a roundtable discussion on last summer's Israel-Lebanon war, the five panelists, some from Lebanon and some not, expressed nuanced differences when discussing Lebanon's internal politics. But they uniformly condemned Israel's actions in the war as "aggression," and repeatedly referred to Hezbollah's actions as "resistance." Supporters of Israel argue that Hezbollah started the conflict, and thus it bears ultimate blame for the war's costs. But the panelists expressed a view held by many in the Arab world that Israel has a long history of aggression against Lebanon, that it was looking for any excuse to start the war last summer, and that the United States gave it the green light.

One panelist showed pictures of the war's massive destruction: numerous shots of Lebanese neighborhoods flattened like pancakes, bridges blown apart beyond all recognition, and weeping mothers at funerals of civilian Lebanese killed by Israeli bombs. There were no pictures -- or even any mention -- of the hundreds of Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israeli cities. Lebanon suffered the bulk of the war's destruction, and more than 10 Lebanese were killed for every one Israeli. But does that mean that Israeli suffering should be ignored completely?

Most of the audience's questions were sympathetic to the panelists' point of view, but not all. One MESA member asked why there was no Israeli perspective on the panel, and if this disparity was appropriate at an academic conference. He was told that they did not see the need to have an "Israeli apologist" sitting beside them.

I asked why the speakers labeled Israel's attacks on Lebanese cities "aggression," but called Hezbollah's attacks on Israeli cities "resistance." Doesn't that suggest that some civilian deaths are valued less than others? Although I didn't get a direct answer, one panelist made the morally problematic assertion that the quantity of deaths made Israel's actions "worse" than those of Hezbollah.

The five panelists flatly rejected the notion that they should seek "balance" on this issue. They said that, as scholars, what mattered was that they "speak the truth," rather than give equal time to all sides.

But whose truth? Conservative pundits often accuse academia of the "crime" of postmodern thinking -- of denying that basic facts and certainties exist. This, they say, leads to moral relativism.

But "truth" is often multi-faceted, consisting of different and sometimes incompatible perspectives. All of history's totalitarian movements, secular and religious, have begun with people believing that they possessed "the Truth" with a capital T. Scholarly discourse, at its best, articulates and acknowledges different understandings of the truth, and thus serves as an antidote to such absolutist thinking.

I sat stunned as the panelists asserted that there was only "one truth" to the Lebanon conflict. In that moment, my MESA colleagues sounded more like the conservative attackers of academia than the progressive, postmodern thinkers they thought themselves to be.

Atlas is assistant professor of political science and director of the Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian College.

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