Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Talk About Mercenary: Horowitz and Co. Strike--out--Again

One of this year's howler understatements: a hallmark characteristic of David Horowitz and company's Students for Academic Freedom is its casual relationship with the truth. No surprise, yes? This, however, marks a particularly outrageous departure from anything remotely like journalistic integrity-one that I think we ought to scream from the very tops of our ivory towers.

On December 17th SAF posted a New York Sun story about a Princeton student, Francisco Nava who was allegedly assaulted-allegedly-for his conservative beliefs. Writer Annie Karni describes the incident:

"An outcry from students and faculty at Princeton University is rattling the campus here after a student who is leading a movement to instill conservative moral values among undergraduates was physically attacked Friday, beaten, and rendered unconscious in a rare incidence of violence within the Ivy League.
The incident is prompting an outcry from conservative students and faculty who say they feel singled out by the Princeton administration and the majority of the student body, who have remained silent in the face of what many say is a politically charged attack.

A politics major from Texas who is a junior, Francisco Nava, was assaulted about two miles from campus in Princeton Township by two black-clad men who pinned him against a wall and repeatedly bashed his head against the bricks, he told the student newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, in an interview."

Trouble is, the only thing true about this story is that Nava is a conservative politics major from Texas. That's right, and as I pen this, the story's still running at SAF. Here's the story from the AP wire yesterday morning, December 18th:

"A Princton University student who argued that his conservative views were not accepted on the campus confessed to fabricating an assault and sending threatening e-mail messages to himself and some friends who shared his views, authorities said Monday. Princeton Township police said that Francisco Nava was not immediately charged with any crime, but that the investigation was continuing. Nava claimed to have been assaulted Friday by two men off campus, police said. But he later confessed that scrapes and scratches on his face were self-inflicted, and that the threats were his work too, said detective Sgt. Ernie Silagyi. A spokeswoman from the Ivy League university said punishment could range from a warning to expulsion, was pending Monday."

That's Monday, December 17th, which means that the SAF folks likely knew that Nava's story was at least suspicious when they ran Karni's piece. And indeed, this pans out as well. A cursory Google search of the story reveals that it was unraveling by later Monday. Yet here we are Wednesday morning, the 19th, and not only has it not been pulled from SAF, no apology to their (however erstwhile) readers has been issued for having run it without investigating the facts it in the first place.

In fact, the whole thing's even uglier: in the Sun article, Karni reports that Nava "wrote a death threat using an anti-homosexual slur, the Web site reported this morning. Mr. Nava's roommate at Groton was a founder of the Gay-Straight Alliance, according to the Web site. ‘Evidently he did it once when he was a student at the Groton School,' a professor of jurisprudence, Robert George, confirmed to The New York Sun." Yet despite the fact that suspicion tainted Nava's story right from the beginning, it's announced on SAF as if it were a done deal: "Violence Rattles Princeton."

Here are the facts: Nava was not beaten (at least not by anyone but himself); he was not beaten unconscious; he has a history of fabricating just this sort of drama; people knew it. Honestly, what else can we infer from this other than that D-Ho and company will grab at absolutely anything in order to trash academia? That when SAF folks got wind of a possible beating of a conservative student from an Ivy League school, they became psychotically giddy at the prospect of getting to, well, beat up a big name university? They did get this much right, Nava is a conservative student; from the AP wire:

"Nava, a 23-year-old junior politics major from Bedford, Texas, found himself at the center of one campus controversy recently when he wrote a column for the student newspaper criticizing the school for giving out free condoms, which he said encouraged a dangerous "hook-up culture.""

But this hardly matters. Nava had ample opportunity for conservative political activism at Princeton. As Karni points out, "[w]ith an active Republicans Club, a pro-life club, three major Evangelical groups, and the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions that is led by Professor George, Princeton University is considered one of the Ivy League's more conservative campuses." In other words, for Nava, these opportunities weren't good enough so he faked a beating to get Princeton to stop offering free condoms. For Horowitz and company, however, the story doesn't end there. So hell-bent on destroying academia as we currently understand it, no school is off limits for a SAF attack-even those, like Princeton, who'd seem a little closer to their apparently condom-free (not to mention gay-free) vision of American higher education (not that this is necessarily true of Princeton; conservative students groups need not be composed of Horowitz-crazies).

So here's my take: A graduate of the David Horowitz School of Political Opportunism and Moral Self-Righteousness, Nava deployed a strategy worthy of his own on-line "teachers"-he lied in order to make it look like conservative students are getting a bad deal at Princeton. Scrapes, cuts, and all, he just didn't lie well enough to be convincing. But as Horowitz' bedfellows go, he's now paid his membership dues to that erstwhile brother (and sister)hood at SAF.

Lucky young man.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

New Years Resolutions, Property Taxes, and Corporate Greed

In the spirit of the coming new year, and inspired by Joe Bageant’s riotous Deer Hunting with Jesus, I’d like to suggest a holiday resolution: Let’s disabuse ourselves of one big myth that’s bedeviled us for too long, one whopper that divides our communities and threatens our children’s educations.

The myth I have in mind is that property taxes are the primary culprit for home foreclosures. This is false, and accomplishes nothing more than playing the foil for those who’d put an end to that bulwark of democracy, publicly funded education. Proposals like the School Property Tax Elimination Act of 2007 are designed to under-fund public education, the consequences of which would be felt most painfully by those who can least afford them. Districts like Benton whose teachers offer high quality education at bargain basement prices would be among the first to feel the fallout of such ill-advised and unnecessary measures—ill-advised because a boon for big business is hardly relief for the working poor; unnecessary because the more responsible culprits are not hard to find. They’re just not folks we can point to—like our neighbors.

It doesn’t take the rocket scientist to see that corporations like Exxon, Walmart, the HMOs, and the big pharmaceuticals have an open hand in our wallets. We blame the unions for demanding the expensive stuff we all want—livable wages, decent working conditions, health insurance—because the costs encourage the outsourcing of labor to places like Mexico and India. But then we resent what’s in fact the direct consequence of our failure to organize for better, namely, the very wages that insure we’ll never be more than a paycheck away from foreclosure—God forbid we get sick. We’re walking contradictions looking for someone to blame—and who better than teachers? Those unionized state employees who get to enjoy the suspicion meted out against the “book smart”? To the rejoinder that Exxon is just how free enterprise works, no it isn’t. They and others enjoy substantial government subsidies and tax breaks—all at our expense.

It’s not surprising that nationalist hate groups gain a foothold on our frazzled nerves; when your among the 47 million Americans without access to healthcare, living on the minimum wage, driving a “POS,” and working night shift for the pay differential, it’s got to be a comfort to think it’s someone else’s fault. And in some important ways, it is. The trick is to see that the fault is not your neighbor’s (unless your neighbor’s Exxon/Monsanto/Blue Cross), and that the enemies those fear-mongering “patriots” make up for you—“leftists,” liberals,” “feminists,” “gays,” “democrats,” “atheists,”—are intended to convert you from being your neighbor’s neighbor into being the neighbor whose righteous anger needs a target. Still, the property tax myth only works when it’s all stirred up by an equally mythical nostalgia, you know, the chicken-in-every-pot story. Never mind that this America never existed for many citizens. It’s still the story that makes the “haves” cling ever more tightly onto what they know they could lose to credit card debt. The “have-nots” are the ones who unionized, agitated for civil rights, and demanded equal pay for equal work. They’re the ones that nationalists like the Renew America folk vilify for taking away “our” America.

Make a New Year’s resolution: Don’t buy simple-minded hype that makes your neighbor into your enemy. Ask yourself the harder question: Where do the nickels and dimes really go? If the answer is gasoline, medicine, doctor appointments, it’s not your neighbor who’s your enemy; it’s the institutionalized greed concealed by slick propaganda like “Falling prices,” “We’re here to help,” and “Beyond Petroleum.”

Wendy Lynne Lee

600 words

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Jamie Glazov's Frontpagemag Interview with Professor Daphne Patai

I wonder if Professor Daphne Patai appreciates what strange company she keeps sidling up to David Horowitz and including herself among the ignominious likes of Ann Coulter and Rick Santorum in support of Islamofascism Awareness Week (IFAW). Strange bedfellows for an academic with her credentials—especially given Horowitz’ slapdash relationship with the truth and Coulter’s unquenchable thirst for attention. For Pete’s sake, Professor Patai, it’s not academic smugness that compels my query; a few minutes of honest research makes it abundantly clear that Horowitz’ “Freedom Center” is about anything but freedom.

Don't get me wrong, I neither support nor condone shouting down or otherwise disrupting pretty much any invited speaker to a campus—even Horowitz, Coulter, or Rick Santorum—however it may be that future historians are likely to record their rants as psychotic. I can hope that the legacy of IFAW will be that campus groups will be more thoughtful about whose solicitation to speak they’ll accept. I can certainly wish that student groups, especially the Young Republicans, will see that they’ve been exploited to ends they may really not endorse, and I can hope that Horowitz’ unprepared, incoherent, and adolescent ramblings at Columbia ends his speaker tenure there. Ahmadinejad may be dead-in-the-water wrong, but he neither rambled nor whined. Horowitz did. Nevertheless, if we, the critics of Horowitz and company, wish to be taken seriously—and I think we must be—we must also encourage the rational engagement that befits us as scholars and academics. After all, we in fact stand on the side of free exchange—and that’s what makes Professor Patai’s interview with Jamie Glazov so peculiar and disappointing.

I should point out that I’m no fan of anyone’s religious fanaticism. In fact, part of what I think the Horowitz camp just doesn’t get (or to which they’re willfully blind) is that what many of those noisy protesters at the IFAW “presentations” were trying to expose is the egregious hypocrisy involved in singling out fanatical Islam as if it were the world’s only example of religiously motivated oppression and terroristic violence. This is, of course, laughably false as is amply demonstrated in the work, for example, of Joe Bageant, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett—not to mention many of the feminists Patai ignores. What makes this point even more poignant, however, is that two of the above pundits, Coulter and Santorum, are poster children for Christian Nationalists whose message is clear: Our (Christian) fanaticism is the right fanaticism and your Islamic fanaticism is the wrong fanaticism. God’s on the side of our anti-Semitic, racist, heterosexist oppression, not yours.

In her interview with Glazov, Patai asks: “Do these students not understand that radical Muslims are serious? Have they failed to notice that these Islamists act on their beliefs and kill those who do not agree with them? And that their targets include political dissenters, Jews, Christians, other Muslims, homosexuals, writers, filmmakers, women who are thought to have transgressed, apostates, critics, infidels of all kinds – the list goes on and on.” Patai criticizes what she perceives as a failure particularly of Women’s Studies academics to interrogate Islamic religious fanaticism, but she fails to ask the same questions about fanatical Christianity: “Do these students not understand that these Christian ideologues act on their beliefs and have killed those who don’t agree with them? That their targets include political dissenters, Jews, Muslims, other Christians, homosexuals, writers, filmmakers, women, apostates, and infidels of all kinds?” It’s not like we have to go back to the Inquisition or the Boxer Wars to find these examples. Coulter’s promotion of the forced conversion of Muslims to Christianity and her stunning remarks about how Christians are perfected Jews is cut of the same cloth as the Jihadist’s “striving in the way of God.” As Bageant puts it in Deer Hunting with Jesus, “The push toward theocracy and the infiltration of mainstream Protestantism by religious extremists was one of the biggest underreported political stories of the second half of the twentieth century” (p. 168). Right on Bageant; how could Patai miss this? She’s not living in the outback. She lives in Massachusetts—and has access to books and the Internet.

Am I paranoid to think that it might just be the ideological coup of the 21st century that the hysteria fomented by Horowitz and his minions serves an exceptionally effective dual purpose? First as a smokescreen to distract our attention away from the Freedom Center’s real agenda, namely, to exorcise academia of academic freedom and to substitute right-wing indoctrination for real scholarship and pedagogy? Second, to create an enemy in Islam so vile that it can be utilized as a recruiting tool for Christian Nationalists? Horowitz can point it out until the cows come home that he’s Jewish, but this fact didn’t raise a peep of protest from him over Coulter’s patently anti-Semitic remarks to Donny Deutsch—who’s also Jewish. But Maybe I’m nuts and Horowitz isn’t driven by ideology at all, just crass opportunism. In either case, Patai ought to know better than to encourage either his anti-Constitutional martyrdom or his fixated narcissism.

Patai claims to be (or has been) a feminist scholar. Fine, I take this at face value. So then how then can she ignore the wealth of feminist scholarship and criticism of religion? Many feminists are loathe to single out Islam for the special condemnation that Horowitz demands and, apparently, Patai endorses. But, as she should know, to do so would be a grotesque misrepresentation of history. As feminist scholars of religion show, there’s plenty of blame to go around, especially with respect to the oppression of women and indigenous peoples (for a partial list of these scholars please see this post). How can Patai have missed scholars like Saba Mahmood? Is it because she thinks that the only feminist scholarship worthy of the name is work that condemns in totality everything Islamic? How is this scholarship at all, and not just ideological declaration? History is vastly more complex than the “us against them” mentality Horowitz and company invite, and it’s just mystifying why Professor Patai would descend to what she knows is not merely simplistic but, in being so, false. Islam isn’t that special, it’s just a superbly convenient foil for the mission of the opposing religious fascism.

Horowitz’ aim is certainly not the bolstering of Women’s Studies programs. No, he’s quite clear: Women’s Studies is a nothing but a tool for recruiting the man-haters of the next generation’s feminists and should, as such, be eliminated. Does Patai endorse this too? Seems self-destructive, but apparently so: “As far as I can tell, there is not a great deal of teaching of a critical kind going on in women’s studies programs about Islamic fundamentalism and the particular dangers it represents, or about how Sharia operates in countries where it is enforced.” Really, Professor Patai? Or is it that a professor’s responsibility is to get her/his students to think for themselves about such religious practices—no matter whose they are—as opposed to simply telling them whom and what to condemn? Does Professor Patai really think that fanatical Isalm is the only threat to global stability? I find this hard to imagine given that religion itself is only one part of a much larger story which includes, for example, the end of Peak Oil, the growing abyss between the global wealthy and the global poor, and the daunting human population shifts portended by global climate change.

She continues: “It’s been more than ten years since I parted company from the women’s studies program at my own university, out of dismay at its narrow politics and lack of intellectual seriousness. But I still follow the field and read what academic feminists say and how they define their programs, and I participate in discussions on the Women’s Studies E-mail List (WMST-L). I can tell you that identity politics continue to prevail, and this means that everyone is supercautious about which groups may be criticized, which not, and who is entitled to make criticisms.” Really? Last time I checked, these lists were quite lively with debate. Perhaps what Professor Patai sees as “supercautious” is what I’d call mutual respect for differences of opinion—and the desire to keep the dialogue going. Perhaps, like Horowitz—though sadly—anything short of “us against them” damnation doesn’t rate for her as an adequate response to Sharia. I would, of course, love to see her evidence for this failure.

Instead what I come away with from this interview is hypocrisy. Professor Patai appears to have signed on to the Horowitzean mission to repress accounts of Western history that implicate the United States or Christianity—or men—in the manufacture of contemporary religious fanaticism. But history articulates a far more complex and nuanced vocabulary than what propaganda machines like IFAW would have us speak. The issue here is not whether feminist analyses of religious fanaticism are adequate; that’s the kind of scholarly quest Professor Patai has opted to jettison in favor of the undemanding vocabulary of “us against them.” No, the issue is how a seasoned professional could fail to see that behind the thin veil of propaganda like IFAW lay not a shred of concern for the status of women—Islamic or otherwise—but instead a vision of “how things ought to be” that puts Horowitz and Ahmadinejad in the same bed. Patai concludes the interview with a lament: “I’d like to make it clear that I still believe being a professor and scholar is a noble calling, but it will remain that only as long as we don’t turn it into politics. I’m dismayed that many academics have abandoned a commitment to their profession as anything other than a venue for their political activism.” In other words, scholarship resistant to professing the “right” politics of Horowitzean nationalism isn’t scholarship. Where’s you evidence, Professor Patai? What double speak, and how disappointing.

Wendy Lynne Lee

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