a bone-chilling message to academics who dare to become PUBLIC intellectuals 06.13.2006, 8:43 AM
posted by bob stein
Juan Cole is a distinguished professor of middle eastern studies at the University of Michigan. Juan Cole is also the author of the extremely influential blog, Informed Comment which tens of thousands of people rely on for up-to-the-minute news and analysis of what is happening in Iraq and in the middle east more generally. It was recently announced that Yale University rejected Cole's nomination for a professorship in middle eastern studies, even after he had been approved by both the history and sociology departments. As might be expected there is considerable outcry, particularly from the progressive press and blogosphere criticizing Yale for caving in to what seems to have been a well-orchestrated campaign against Cole by the hard-line pro-Israel forces in the U.S.
Most of the stuff I've read so far seems to concentrate on taking Yale's administration to task for their spinelessness. While this criticism seems well-founded, I think there is a bigger issue that isn't being addressed. The conservatives didn't go after Cole simply because of his political ideas. There are most likely people already in Yale's Middle Eastern studies dept. with politics more radical than Cole's. They went after him because his blog, which reaches out to a broad general audience is read by tens of thousands and ensures that his ideas have a force in the world. Juan once told me that he's lucky if he sells 500 copies of his scholarly books. His blog however ranks in the Technorati 50 and through his blog he has also picked up influential gigs in Salon and NPR.
Yale's action will have a bone-chilling effect on academic bloggers. Before the Cole/Yale affair it was only non-tenured professors who feared that speaking out publicly in blogs might have a negative impact on their careers. Now with Yale's refusal to approve the recommendation of its academic departments -- even those with tenure must realize that if they dare to go outside the bounds of the academy to take up the responsibilities of public intellectuals, that the path to career advancement may be severely threatened.
We should have defended Juan Cole more vigorously, right from the beginning of the right-wing smear against him. Let's remember that the next time a progressive academic blogger gets tarred by those who are afraid of her ideas.
ben vershbow on June 13, 2006 12:15 PM:
At the small symposium we held last November at USC (and which Juan attended), John Mohr, a sociologist at UC Santa Barbara, described academic blogging as the "marshaling and redeployment of intellectual capital." This I think gets to the heart of why Yale finds Juan so threatening. Granted, there may have been other factors in his rejection, but I agree that it seems primarily about the dislocation of power -- the power of speech -- from its usual institutional channels: suspicion of Juan as a profligate spender of the academy's intellectual resources, as a wild and dangerous conduit to the public sphere.
manan on June 13, 2006 5:05 PM:
Blogging seems to be at the top of the conservative position against Juan. This should galvanize us into action but strangely I have seen little evidence so far
sol gaitan on June 15, 2006 12:59 PM:
I think there is a bigger issue that isn't being addressed. The conservatives didn't go after Cole simply because of his political ideas. There are most likely people already in Yale's Middle Eastern studies dept. with politics more radical than Cole's. They went after him because his blog, which reaches out to a broad general audience is read by tens of thousands and ensures that his ideas have a force in the world. Juan once told me that he's lucky if he sells 500 copies of his scholarly books. His blog however ranks in the Technorati 50 and through his blog he has also picked up influential gigs in Salon and NPR.
When people chose to participate in a public forum, or even in the more "private" social networking sites, they are potential subjects of inquiries by prospective employers who can use that information to justify their rejection. This practice has become routinely enough to warrant special counseling services at colleges, advising students who are about to join the work market to make sure they "clean" up any sexually or politically explicit trail they might have left in cyberspace (For Some, Online Persona Undermines a Résumé by Alan Finder, New York Times, June 11). Surveillance is one of the many uses of the Internet, and unfortunately one that will characterize our era.
Juan Cole's prominence makes his a cause célè bre, and unfortunately, it is cases like his that will stir enough action to bring academia to openly recognize that a blogger's voice can be neither silenced nor ignored, and that if they are going to use it as hidden criteria for not hiring, they should recognize blogs as valid publications and add them to their standards for hiring. The influence of informed and serious debate, such as Cole's, cannot bring anything but a refreshing voice to the clichés tainted by private interests that fill public discourse. This, in itself, is the pursuit of truth with which academia should be concerned.
Bloggers are here to stay, and they are being taken seriously by large segments of society, including mass media, and politics. Adam Nagourney reports in "Gathering Highlights Power of the Blog" on the New York Times (June 10, 2006) about the rising influence of bloggers in politics, at least for the Democratic Party, at a recent convention in Las Vegas:
There were the bloggers -- nearly a thousand of them, many of them familiar names by now -- emerging from the shadows of their computers for a three-day blur of workshops, panels and speeches about politics, the power of the Internet and the shortcomings of the Washington media. And right behind them was a parade of prospective Democratic presidential candidates and party leaders, their presence a tribute to just how much the often rowdy voices of the Web have been absorbed into the very political process they frequently disdain, much to the amazement, and perhaps discomfort, of some of the bloggers themselves.
Nagourney concludes his article noting that:
As became clear from the rather large and diverse crowd here, the blogosphere has become for the left what talk radio has been for the right: a way of organizing and communicating to supporters. Blogging is nowhere near the force among Republicans as it is among Democrats, and talk radio is a much more effective tool for Republicans.
Isn't it symptomatic of academia's conservatism that when they chose to pay attention to a blogger they do it from the standpoint of talk radio?