Knowledge is Power
Two points I'd like to touch on from the ever productive and astute digby, currently dominated by tristero:
Another article from Foreign Policy , seemingly just an innocuous roundup and overview of scholars is equally subtle and chilling. Take a look at this chart of the leading lights in foreign policy studies . As the article notes, "nearly all are white men older than 50." I'll add to that that there is not a single native Arab speaker on that list and at least two of the so-called wise men in foreign policy -Huntington and Fukuyama - hold what can only be described, in the kindest terms, mostly worthless opinions. Women may join the list soon, the article notes. That's all to the good, but the level of sheer mediocrity of the "scholars" on this list is astonishing, and is not likely to change much if one or two of the worst names are replaced by capable women.
When asked what region was most strategically important to the United States today, a resounding 58 percent answered the Middle East and North Africa. Yet, only 7 percent of U.S. international relations scholars specialize in the region. This gap may explain why the American intelligence community is still advertising for Arabic speakers.
Honestly, my first response was to laugh. Having just spent a long time with a bunch of old, white men who do this stuff for a living, I suppose my initial response is, "Yeah, but have you seen these guys?" But that's just rude. So I'll try to be serious.
Basically, like practically anything else in "reality," there are two main reasons why our society pays so little attention to the scholarly project and the diversity and production therein. The first is money- no one ever got rich writing a book about Islam or peak oil. Not rich in the sense that has to do with power. You are rich and you get to write about these things, or you say what the rich want you to say about them, but you don't tussle with Halliburton by writing about why what they're doing in Iraq is fucked.
If you don't know any scholars, true scholars and not appointed (pointy headed?) rich men living a life of genteel poverty, go find and adopt one. A woman or person of color would really appreciate it. Take them out to dinner once a month and perhaps buy them some shoes. But beware: you won't find many women or people of color at the "important" schools. Usually, the "best" departments concerned with the Middle East are filled with mentoring old white men teaching pre-old white men. Who date like old men already....but I promised I wouldn't do that. Most of the most successful scholars are not really poor or middle class.
The other reason why there aren't a lot of diverse and critical voices speaking out today in the media or at the "important" departments is because the Middle East is hard. Hard to fathom from our cultural perspective, hard to understand because of "difficult" languages, hard to relate to our "Judeo-Christian" worldview, hard to perceive without the ugly filter of American-style racism. There are other reasons, but until recently, it was also very unsexy to study the Middle East. Arabic is a harsh sounding tongue to most American ears, it's "backwards" and doesn't use "proper" letters. I think the degree to which Islam permeates the cultures of the Middle East is also slightly repugnant to a large group of neo-liberally minded students, who embrace things like American feminism and modern economics.
In short, it's much more fun to study something like French literature or even biology, and especially Western political history and culture, than it is to study the Middle East. Go to a school that offers a full division or department and staffs it with tenured faculty, and you may run away laughing or depressed.
Put frankly, there just aren't that many dynamic, social, compassionate, charismatic people studying the Middle East. There are an increasing number of politically-minded climbers, looking to get creds leading to posh jobs with oil companies and the military. There are mostly an embattled group of people who are a tad puzzled by the attention they get today, and who are frustrated by the ways in which their work has been incorrectly appropriated. There are a few who work openly and unabashedly for Cheney and the warmongers. Of course, this last group is greatly overrepresented in our Media, and since Bush, increasingly come from what I'd call weaker departments, but the heavy hitters from the "best" places are in this group as well.
Also, it's worth mentioning that like a lot of less popular fields, getting your creds in an area of the Middle East takes time, and money. You've got to put in at least five years of language work to truly grasp one of the many languages of the region, and that's on top of your other graduate work. If you really want to know what's going on, you should probably study more than one language. Many times, the tongues of the region aren't even similar or related- doubling your study time.
Also, there's not so much funding, not when you total all the students who need it and all the faculty who deserve it. There is plenty for those who are hand picked by an oil interest or politically motivated department, but you're probably not surprised to hear that it usually goes to white men, many of whom don't really need the support. Plus, it's important to travel. Check out the cost of a ticket to Turkey or India and tell me how a student living of $10,000 a year in loans can afford that with frequency. And we're not exactly creating a nurturing environment for native students to come here and enrich our appreciation of their cultures- the number of foreign students in the US has dropped in the Bush years, along with financial support for them. So we get a lot of rich, ex-pat and Western-educated "locals" in our grad programs.
The vast majority of scholars, even at the most "conservative" places, aren't really fans of Bush or this war. I'd say that for the fields of the Middle East and the Academe in general. But like everything else in the Age of the Bush Crony, Middle Eastern scholarship has been co-opted and corrupted by an elite few. I hesitate using the word "elite," as I tend to agree with Tristero that many of the "top" scholars speaking and writing today are effectively worthless. I make this complaint as someone who knows intimately the burden of serious study with scholarly standards; it seems to me that too many of the nation's "leading" intellectuals don't have the basic creds to hold the title. IIRC, several of PBS's academic voices have been busted for plagiarism, and you don't want to know how many "important" scholars of the Middle East don't even speak the languages. Don't get me started on the dillettante qualities of the pundits. People should recognize that if they really want to know what's going on in the Middle East, they're just going to have to pick up a dry, peer reviewed university journal and slog through all the boring details. Believe me when I say: we told you so.
I want to note that I was in the majority during the time before the war, vast quantities of scholars across disciplines opposed it and said very vociferously said why it was a mistake. And those scholars who were somewhat in support of it were lied to; I can almost forgive them for their foolish trust in Bush. None of them expected the destruction and human cost, brought on by an unimaginable lack of concern for the heritage of knowledge and culture of Iraq that Bush has since shown. But I do not excuse the whores. Like their less cerebral media cousins, "scholars" supporting the war today are nothing more than sycophants and political climbers. It is only that the rest of the scholarly community is prevented from speaking in the mainstream public discourse that more people don't realize that the warmongers are in fact a minority.
Because it has strong departments, my school saw a tremendous upswing of student interest in the languages and cultures of the Middle East. I wonder how many of them will make it all the way through the time consuming and expensive course of complete graduate study. Probably not one in ten. But for those who remain, when the war has made the mess it's going to make in the region, I wonder how they will savor the opportunities. Hopefully, there will be a democratic president who values critical academic discourse and encourages and supports that kind of input. But I don't doubt that the TV and print media will continue to favor "scholars" who work for think tanks and other obviously partisan or biased organizations. Nerdy, wordy, poor people like me will continue to talk to each other...and perhaps a few of you on our blogs.