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Notes of a Rebel Professor By: Prof. James R. Russell
Harvard Salient | Wednesday, March 22, 2006


In March 2003, I gave a lecture in the Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) at Columbia University. It was a job talk: my partner of a quarter century lives in New York, my hometown, and I figured I might as well apply for the long-vacant chair in Armenian Studies that was once more being advertised. My lecture presented a small philological discovery—that a pig-herder and rapist named Argawan who debuted in an Armenian epic poem dating to the time of Christ reappeared in a much later Ossetic epic, Nartae. An interesting, if not earth-shattering, study— but I was not prepared for the passions of a few members of the audience. One professor declared that such scholarship, with its implication that one culture might influence another, was a deplorable relic of imperialism, hegemonistic in essence. I replied that the comparative method, though susceptible to misuse, is indispensable to philology and is not intrinsically conspiratorial. As we were leaving, another professor came up to ask me whether I was a Dumezilian—that is, a follower of Georges Dumezil, who thought there was broad continuity in social structures between Indo-European cultures— and expressed her relief at my assurance that I was not. ("Senator, I am not, nor have I ever been, a Dumezilian.") For that would be, she said, hegemonistic. Now, how many times, gentle reader, do you hear the word "hegemonistic" in a day? I'd just heard it twice in an hour.

The rest of the day passed pleasantly enough, as one strolled down corridors festooned with posters depicting a map of Israel dripping blood or inviting one to celebrate the legacy of Edward Said; I conversed with postgraduates in a student lounge decorated with a poster of a kaffiyeh-swathed Hamas terrorist (sorry, I mean, "militant"). Only two members of the search committee came to lunch; and on the way back to Kent Hall from the Faculty Club one wondered aloud to me why I'd bothered to apply for a job in a place where anti-Semitism had become "mediaeval." In the end, MEALAC nominated for the job a junior faculty member who had been refused tenure by an ad hoc committee several years earlier. The search had been a charade. The nomination was rejected again, no appointment was made, and to this date no applicant has heard from Columbia. In the year that followed one's lecture in the through-the-looking-glass world of Columbia's Stalinism without Stalin, MEALAC made the headlines. One professor told a girl she couldn't be a Semite because she had green eyes. He later denied saying anything, but it sounds true to form: years before, he'd told me after the assassination of Anwar Sadat that the Egyptian president had met the fate of a traitor; and through the Gulf War, he had harangued his colleagues on how Israel should not exist. Another professor made an Israeli student stand up in class to be verbally abused. The press reported one such incident— a student whose boyfriend was in the class has told me that there were in fact several. Yet another professor in the department made violently inflammatory remarks about Jews in Al Ahram. Columbia's administration eventually was forced to take note of the scandal. It placed the MEALAC department in receivership, but under the tutelage of professors in other departments who were close to the faculty members accused of these offenses and shared their views. An investigatory committee, likewise weighted with left-wing and anti-Israel extremists, exonerated the accused: A New York Times editorial condemned the committee's work as a whitewash.

My association with Columbia goes far back. My father is a graduate of the College and Law School; my mother, a Columbia Ph.D. in Chemistry. I was Salutatorian of the Class of '74 and a Kellett Fellow; and I taught for twelve years in MEALAC as Lecturer, then Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor. Two of my courses were listed among the top ten for 1991 in the Columbia-Barnard Course Guide. In 1992 I was denied tenure: since I was offered the Harvard chair in Armenian Studies a year later, I do not think my scholarship or teaching were at fault. Two senior colleagues told me that I simply belonged to the wrong race.

David Horowitz's The Professors       

I also thought my experience was unusual; but as we learn from David Horowitz's superb book, the inmates have taken control of the lunatic asylum that is academia today. Misery loves company: if you're a sane scholar in this business, the book will at least cheer you up, at least at first, until you remember this is a book, not about Heidelberg in 1934 or Moscow State University in 1937, but about America in 2006. The book begins with an account of Hamilton College's invitation to Ward Churchill to deliver a lecture (for $3,500 plus expenses). Churchill is a tenured professor at the University of Colorado and was chairman of his department. He does not hold a doctorate. He claimed to be an American Indian—that was a lie. The Rocky Mountain News maintains he has plagiarized the work of others. In the 1970's he trained the Weather Underground in the use of weapons and explosives. He regards the 9/11 terrorist attack as a just penalty visited upon "the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers". Hamilton, after immense pressure, including the protests of one student whose father died in the World Trade Center, withdrew its invitation. The AAUP has declared its official support for Churchill, and he has since toured many campuses, receiving everywhere a hero's welcome from large crowds.

This is not an extreme example. Horowitz demonstrates that it is routine for American universities to grant tenure to people who are under-qualified or unqualified, provided they meet an ideological standard imposed upon various disciplines in the humanities. It is de rigueur to decry America as the fons et origo of every evil, from the oppression of Blacks, women, gays, and Native Americans to the fouling of the planet and the fomenting of war and misery around the globe. Israel, too, must be derided as the sole villain in the Middle East conflict: as the Israel-bashers have gained confidence, their imagery and rhetoric have assumed the features of old-fashioned anti-Semitism. Correspondingly, one may not criticize Islam or the Arabs for offenses inexcusable in others: I recall a poster of the Arab students' society at Columbia around 1990 depicting a hook-nosed Israeli soldier bayoneting a crucified Palestinian. It hung in the MEALAC office for some days before I removed it, to the consternation of the staff—and, doubtless, to the detriment of my future career on Morningside Heights. (It did not matter that some years before I had asked my Literature Humanities students not to use an assigned edition of the Inferno that contained a crude modern drawing of Muhammad dismembering himself. I did not want to hurt the feelings of a Muslim pupil and friend. But Islam was not the cause of the day then. You can't win.) It also harms one's chances of employment if one is an overtly devout Christian, or a political conservative. How things have changed! A teacher of mine recalls that in the early 1960s, candidates for positions at Smith were interviewed on Friday and served pork at lunch, to weed out Jews and Catholics. I wonder which foods are verboten to Hegemonists. And academic writing itself has come to reify these political positions: the impenetrable jargon of "gendered" studies decrying "patriarchal" phenomena and so on. The purpose of such "cultural studies" is to make what is disputable opinion look like the hard technical data of exact and indisputable scientific research. It is a way of imposing orthodoxy and stifling dissent. That is not really new, in a roundabout sort of way: in the early 1950's, the Soviets decided "Western" genetics (scil. science) wasn't Marxist, so Trofim Lysenko obligingly cooked up a set of irreproducible experimental results showing that genetic traits could be acquired during one's life and passed on. The Russian mistake was to dress up bad science in political jargon. Nowadays it is fake scholarship in the service of a vicious political agenda that is gussied up with the borrowed terminology of science.

The body of Horowitz's book is a kind of rogues' gallery. As a professor of Armenian studies, I've met over my lifetime hundreds of survivors of the Armenian Genocide and have read scores of testimonies in Armenian and other languages. I've also traveled to Eastern Anatolia and spoken with Turkish and Kurdish farmers who spoke freely of the massacres. Often the ruins of Armenian villages and even quarters of whole cities are untouched. So I note with appreciation the inclusion of Hamid Algar, a professor of Persian and Islamic studies (and, for the record, a superb scholar) who in 1998 spat on members of the Armenian Student Association at UC Berkeley. He is quoted as having said to them: "It was not a genocide, but I wish it were, you lying pigs...You stupid Armenians, you deserve to be massacred!"

Juan Cole of the University of Michigan is criticized for his anti-Zionist conspiracy theories, but that scarcely exhausts Ann Arbor's charms: a colleague who applied for a job in Armenian studies there recalled to me being told they would not hire anyone planning to talk about the Armenian Genocide. Rejecting a number of fine young scholars with training in Armenian language, literature, and history, they hired a scholar of anthropology whose Ph.D. dealt with UFO sightings in the Soviet Armenian republic. If the little green men land in Michigan, though, they'll either have a lot of fun or, more likely, run for their flying saucers and leave this galaxy at warp speed: Professor Gayle Rubin (p. 307), 1988 Woman of the Year of the National Leather Association, has written thoughtfully about "boy-love" and "fistf**king", and has deplored women's lack of phallic power (a problem easily remedied, I should imagine, by a visit to Hubba Hubba on Mass Ave.).

And then, there is Prof. Amiri Baraka, poet laureate of New Jersey (the bard of Camden must be spinning in his grave like a top), Professor at Rutgers and Stony Brook and author of such immortal musings as these: "Most American white men are trained to be fags." "Rape the white girls. Rape their fathers. Cut the mothers' throats." Columbia's Middle East Studies program held a gala for Baraka's 70th birthday— presumably in recognition of such strophes as "I got the extermination blues, jewboys. I got the Hitler syndrome figured." The relatively long section on Hamid Dabashi, Professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia's MEALAC, with its catena of violently racist rants against the Jews, Israel, and America, is horrifying enough. What makes it worse is the background Horowitz does not provide: Columbia was once a great center of Iranian studies. Professors A.V. Williams Jackson and Louis Gray taught the Zoroastrian high-priests, Ervadji Pavry and Dhalla. Dale Bishop, Chris Brunner, Ehsan Yarshater, Prods Oktor Skjaervo, your obsedient servant— we were Columbia's Iranists. Dabashi was a respectable scholar once, too, and I thought him a friend. But It would be unfair to single out MEALAC: Horowitz devotes an entry to Columbia's feisty anthropologist Nicholas De Genova, who has called for "a million Mogadishus" and explained that "the only true heroes are those who find ways that help defeat the U.S. military" (p. 123).

At Syracuse, where once Delmore Schwartz held court to Lou Reed, you can now take an accredited course on Lil' Kim and parse such texts as "Niggas... betta grab a seatgrab on ya dick as this bitch gets deep,/ Deeper than a pussy of a bitch 6 feet stiff dicks feel sweet in this little petite." Nathaniel Nelson reports that the instructor announced on the first day of the course "Political Philosophy: Plato to Machiavelli", "My name is Michael Vocino and I like dick" (p. 346). The candid Mr. Vocino, a tenured full professor in his fifties, is writing a Ph.D. dissertation on the TV series South Park. Ann Arbor, we've got a phallic power problem.

On page 365, Horowitz reaches Chapter 2, which deals with background to the no-confidence vote against President Larry Summers of Harvard in March 2005. He reviews the case of Cornel West and African-American Studies and the controversy over women in science and concludes: "the entire purpose of the censure was to suppress a politically objectionable (but scientifically grounded) idea." The affair "demonstrated the chilling power of a radical minority on the university's faculty." The chapter does not consider Summers' condemnation as anti-Semitic in result if not intent of a petition for Harvard to divest from Israel; but I think this statement galvanized radical faculty opinion against him. The book was published before Summers' resignation: it records only his attempts after censure to rectify the errors of which he had been accused. But it is now plain that nothing he could have done would have saved his presidency.

As I understand it, liberalism has to do with freedom. As a boy I marched for civil rights: that meant equal opportunity and integration, not affirmative action, Black separatism, and the licentious advocacy of violence. When as a college student I fought for gay rights, I wanted homosexuals to be able to express the love we naturally feel without fear of violence, ridicule, or condemnation; I did not have in mind the imposition of "queer theory" on the study of literature, or the accreditation of college courses on, well, on the stuff you have just read. It has been distressing to witness the Left's misguided take on foreign affairs morph into full-blown, murderous anti-Semitism, coupled with an utterly illogical worship of political Islam, which is anti-homosexual and misogynist just for starters. But the Left has always flirted with totalitarian violence and has indulged in an easy demonization of America that relieves one of the need to think with greater complexity and depth about the problems of our world. Most of the 101 academic rogues of Horowitz's list would probably describe themselves as liberals, but nothing could be more illiberal that their censorious intolerance. They abuse their position of authority and the captive audience of the classroom to impose their views on students, often neglecting at the same time to teach the subjects for which they are paid. They abuse academic standards to hire and promote those who think as they do: as Horowitz shows, professors with little or no scholarly merit are often at the top of their departments, even of professional associations. And God help those of us who do not think as they do— or who do not meet other criteria. I once applied for a job at CCNY. My application was never acknowledged. When my mother, who worked there, inquired, a colleague replied "Why did he even bother? He's the wrong color." Of course one of CCNY's stars at the time was the estimable Prof. Leonard Jeffries: "Jews are a race of skunks and animals that stole Africa from the Black Man" (Horowitz, p. 234).

A problem we face is that of terminology. Words like "liberal" and "Left" actually mean today the opposite of what they once did; while "conservatives" on American campuses are a dissenting, often disenfranchised minority who believe in freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, fair hiring practices, and so on. They tend to oppose the murder of Jews, the practice of slavery, female circumcision, and, of course, destroying office buildings full of working people with airplanes full of more working people. (Among the "little Eichmanns" working at the WTC when "the chickens came home to roost" were men and women from my old neighborhood, Washington Heights: Dominican immigrants who worked as janitors, as cooks at Windows on the World.) Let's start by calling things by their right names: Horowitz's 101 professors are bigots, racists, apologists for murder, fascists, traitors to this country.

And what is to be done about them, once the public is informed about them? Do America's lawmakers want public money (that is, our income taxes) to go to pay the likes of Ward Churchill or Amiri Baraka? Do parents and alumni want to fund private universities that hire people like Hamid Dabashi and Joseph Massad? There are students who are sick and tired of relentless indoctrination, of bogus scholarship and silly courses that take the place of real learning. Their voices should be heard.

After my lecture at Columbia in 2003, I returned to Cambridge. I am fortunate to have an academic job: I know a number of people who, because they were Jews, or white men, or conservatives, failed to secure professorships and their careers were truncated or destroyed. Horowitz in his final chapter describes how he collected his data, and avers he could have written a book about a myriad, rather than a hundred. But what disturbed me most, and what convinced me New York was no longer my home, was not the derision within the gates of Columbia University, but the banality of indifference outside.

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James R. Russell has been the Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University since 1993. Previously, he taught at Columbia University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.


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