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September 16, 2010

The Bayoumi Affair and the Academic Status Quo

A few years ago, I did a piece for Inside Higher Ed examining how defenders of the academic status quo responded to outside criticism. I argued that all too often the responses effectively proved the critics' case about the one-sided perspectives that too often dominate the contemporary academy.

The pattern has again manifested itself after widespread outrage greeted Brooklyn College's decision to mandate that all incoming students read one and only one book, Moustafa Bayoumi's How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America. Here's Bayoumi himself describing the controversy: "Brooklyn College selected [the book] this year for their freshman common reading, and suddenly there was a---the right-wing blogosphere lit up with acrimony against the decision, claiming that the book was going to indoctrinate students to a pro-Islam, anti-American point of view---purely ideological kind of attacks on a book that they clearly hadn't read."

Some "right-wing" blogs certainly criticized the selection of the Bayoumi book. But the first prominent criticism of the choice came from Jewish Week. The most eloquent questioning of the college's decision came from the Daily News. Is Bayoumi seriously suggesting that the Daily News and Jewish Week are "right-wing"? And while Prof. Bayoumi doubtless would consider Minding the Campus "right-wing," I wonder how he believes I obtained myriad quotes from a book that I "clearly hadn't read." Demonizing his critics, of course, allows Bayoumi to avoid responding to their substantive criticisms---which he has, to date, declined to do.

One of Bayoumi's English Department colleagues, Karl Steel, opted for the ad hominem attack route common to defenders of the academic status quo. Steel, a graduate of Evergreen State College and a self-described expert in "critical animal theory," asserted that my "accusations of know-nothingism against Bayoumi and the rest of us look a bit silly given that you've provided no evidence that you have any idea what goes on in our department or in our courses."

This comment, to put it mildly, was a non-sequitur: my posts made no mention of English Dept. courses, nor did they accuse anyone of "know-nothingism." That a tenure-track English professor lacks either basic reading comprehension skills or the ability to formulate a basic argument raises some questions about exactly what the committee that hired Prof. Steel desired in a new faculty member.

Then there's John Wilson, author of the anti-Horowitz blog "collegefreedom.org" and a passionate defender of the academic status quo. Wilson blasted my posts for claiming "that there was no surveillance of Arab Americans in the 1990s"; for accusing Bayoumi "of being an anti-Israeli 'extremist' because Bayoumi declares, 'the core issue remains the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination'"; for having "dare[d] to oppose the very concept" of Palestinian self-determination; and for offering a "call for censorship."

Powerful charges indeed. The only problems? My posts, which Wilson presumably read, never claimed that "there was no surveillance of Arab Americans in the 1990s." The posts never linked Bayoumi's anti-Israel extremism (which doesn't seem a particularly controversial description of his beliefs) to his statements about Palestinian self-determination. I have never opposed Palestinian self-determination. And nowhere in any post did I advocate censoring Bayoumi's book.

Another English Department professor, Paul Moses, defended his colleague by faulting me for "committing the same errors here that you honed in on in your critique of the news coverage of the Duke University case. You are making assumptions about people without knowing anything about them." Prof. Moses was gracious enough to respond (twice, and thoughtfully) to my request for clarification, which I very much appreciate. Moses quibbled with my description of the Brooklyn English Department as dominated by themes of race, class, gender, and victimization, correctly noting that his own work doesn't fit into any of these categories; denied that the department exhibited a groupthink or an anti-Israel atmosphere; and chastised me for suggesting the BC English Department was typical. (The latter point Prof. Moses appears to have misconstrued as a particular attack on the department---which it was not---rather than a comment on the discipline as a whole.)

Yet his comment brought to light an item previously ignored in the public commentary on the Bayoumi affair---that the 40-member English Department had voted unanimously to support the decision to have Bayoumi's book be the one and only book that all incoming students must read. Unanimously. What does it say about the range of opinions in the BC English Department---which, as I noted, is hardly atypical of English departments nationally in the pedagogical interests of the professors it hires or the ideological range among its faculty---that not even one of its members dissented from choosing as the one and only book that all incoming BC students must read a book that wildly claimed that between 1987 and 2001, the U.S. government approach toward "Arab Americans" were "more often used to limit the speech of Arab Americans in order to cement U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict"?

The only positive element of the college response came from the upper administration, chiefly college president Karen Gould. (Gould and college provost William Tramontano have been a breath of fresh air following the discredited regime that they replaced.) The Bayoumi book's selection placed Gould in an impossible situation, since bowing to the outside and internal (if non-English Department) criticism---however meritorious that criticism might be---would have generated an uprising from the clear majority of the faculty that side with Bayoumi. Gould, therefore, appropriately went out of her way to distance herself from the anti-Israel extremism in Bayoumi's other work, and signaled that the college viewed the inflammatory (and poorly sourced) statements of the book's concluding section as out of bounds for the mandatory reading assignment. Realistically, she could have done little more---though, of course, the many scarcely credible assertions in the book's afterword form the intellectual spine for its overall arguments.

Overall, though, I fear that Bayoumi's defenders did little to help their cause in their public comments.

Comments (3)

Fred Dobbs:

Did Brooklyn College really "mandate that all incoming freshman read one and only one book"? So does that mean that students who have read more than one book will be denied admission?

I'm troubled by a lot of what K.C. Johnson writes. First of all, he falsely implies that Bayoumi claimed that Johnson "clearly hadn't read" his book. Bayoumi said that about the right-wing blogosphere in general, almost all of whom hadn't read the book, not Johnson. Second, Johnson continues to falsely describe the book as being "mandatory" reading, even though there are no requirements for students to read it.

But Johnson also asserts that in my quick comment on his essay, I lied about what he thinks. According to Johnson: "My posts, which Wilson presumably read, never claimed that 'there was no surveillance of Arab Americans in the 1990s.'" But Johnson did reject Bayoumi's claim that there was substantial surveillance of Arabs in 1990s ("no" surveillance is obviously an exaggeration), and my point was that Johnson's argument was incredibly stupid: "In the 2000 election, a plurality of Arab-Americans voted for George W. Bush; in the 1990s, more Arab-Americans registered Republican than Democratic. Those are hardly the political preferences of an ethic [sic] group alienated by a pervasive sense of victimization flowing from past treatment by the government." Johnson's denial of surveillance against Arabs during a Democratic administration was based on their support for a Republican, which makes no sense. Bayoumi might be wrong, but Johnson's argument is nonsensical and offers no evidence to refute it.

Johnson also claims I'm lying because "The posts never linked Bayoumi's anti-Israel extremism...to his statements about Palestinian self-determination." Really? Here's what Johnson wrote: "Regarding U.S. involvement in the affairs of the Middle East, 'the core issue remains the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination.' For an anti-Israel extremist like Bayoumi, such a statement comes as little surprise." I can't see how that's anything but a link of Bayoumi's anti-Israel extremism to his statements on Palestine.

As for the censorship charge, there is certainly a right-wing censorship campaign to ban Bayoumi's book from the common reading program at Brooklyn College. The only question is whether Johnson supports it, or opposes it. The fact that he refuses to criticize the crusade to ban Bayoumi's book from the program, despite numerous posts on the topic exclusively attacking Bayoumi, certainly indicates his embrace of censorship. If it is an unfair charge, then Johnson can finally say that he doesn't like Bayoumi's views, but he doesn't think it (or any other book) should be banned from common reading programs for being controversial.

R.R. Hamilton:

Given the number of grammatical errors I can see at a glance, it is a wonder any of these people are professors -- and shocking that some of them are professors OF ENGLISH.

First, "honed in on"? The sentence makes no sense even if it were grammatically correct, but for an English professor to say someone is "committing the same errors here that you honed in on in your critique blah blah blah" ... well, it makes me want to do my best imitation of John "You cannot be serious!" McEnroe.

Professors, see here for the simple explanation of why y'all look like idiots when you write: http://rightedit.blogspot.com/2007/09/i-honed-in-on-my-target.html

You know, I am too irritated to list the rest of them. Find them yourselves. And yes, KC, you made (at least) one, too.

This just reminds me that we have a college professor in the White House now ... and he's also an idiot. If America could buy y'all for what you're worth and sell you for what you THINK you're worth, we could pay off the national debt.

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