Mearsheimer And Walt Again Mearsheimer

Mearsheimer and Walt Again

Mearsheimer and Walt on the “Israel Lobby and American Foreign Policy” stay in the news. The Forward’s Ori Nir did an excellent piece on anxieties in the American Jewish community about Bush’s attempts to tie his aggressive comments on Iran to the protection of Israel.

This is also interesting:

‘ more than 1,000 Americans, most of them university professors, have signed an online petition challenging the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella body of 52 groups that serves as Jewish community’s main united voice on Middle East issues, to “condemn” the “smearing” of Mearsheimer and Walt by several fellow scholars and pundits as “antisemites.”

The executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, Malcolm Hoenlein, said that none of the Jewish organizations in the umbrella group had accused the two scholars of being antisemitic. But Juan Cole, the University of Michigan professor who initiated the petition, pointed out that the Anti-Defamation League has. In a comment on the study posted on its Web site in March, the ADL expressed the hope that “mainstream individuals and institutions will see it for what it is ññ a classical conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish power and Jewish control.” ‘

Eve Fairbanks of The New Republic writes an anti-intellectual, and, I think, actually dishonest opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times about the Mearsheimer and Walt paper. Fairbanks works for The New Republic, which has some excellent reporters but the editorial line of which is set by the quirky, rightwing warmonger Martin Peretz, and apparently Fairbanks is part of his gang.

I’m calling out Fairbanks on an issue of journalistic integrity. She contacted me and numerous other academics on the pretext that she was writing a free-lance article on the controversy over Mearsheimer and Walt’s paper on the impact of the Israel lobby on American foreign policy. Writing a freelance news article is a different proposition than writing an editorial. She did not say she was writing an editorial. A lot of the persons she contacted might have refused to speak to her if she had admitted that she was writing an opinion piece. Apparently, the way American journalism is practiced nowadays, there are no standards of ethics or accuracy for opinion pieces. Fairbanks misrepresented herself to her subjects. (It may be a pattern. See this sad tale of an earlier encounter with her.)

As for the substance of her flimsy and error-riddled “article,” she says she found professors reluctant to speak to her about the “Israel Lobby” piece. Hmm. I wonder why.

Aside from problems of what we might call research design, her whole opinion piece suffers from illogic and a basic misunderstanding of what academia as an enterprise is about.

The illogic comes in from several contradictions. She admits that over 1,000 (actually over 1,500) academics have signed my petition asking the Conference of the Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to condemn the playing of the race card against the authors for simply writing an academic analysis. But she goes on depicting academics as moral cowards afraid to speak out. Doesn’t she recognize what courage it takes to sign that petition after the Washington Post itself shamefully invoked David Duke’s praise of the LRB paper? She dismisses the petition as an example of my being “publicity-hungry.” She then goes on to talk about Alan Dershowitz with no adjectives about him! If academics speak out in defense of the authors from being smeared, they are mere publicity hounds. If they decline to talk to her, they are cowards.

My reading of Mearsheimer’s and Walt’s reticence about appearing in public to debate the paper is that they are aware that the Likudniks will attempt to take the focus off the theses of their paper by personalizing the debate and demonizing them. I think their insistence that the paper be debated, not themselves, is absolutely right, and obviously the Right, including Fairbanks herself, is very frustrated that it can’t get hold of them and “strip the bark off” them in the venerable tradition of Lee Atwater. Of course, the attempt has been made even with them keeping a low profile, but it is harder when the target declines actually to have the moustache painted on in person.

The lack of understanding of academia is apparent in that Fairbanks believes that academics are mainly about opinion and gossip, as, it seems, the Peretz Mafia at the once-great TNR are.

Academic writing is not about personal opinion, though personal opinion does play a role in the genesis of theses and arguments. It is about rigorous research and analysis, subjected to extensive revision, and refereed by editors and expert peers. An academic reaction to the Mearsheimer and Walt paper would involve original further research into the subject, consideration of the theses they advanced and the weight they give them, and a submission to a scholarly journal for (probably) at least two rounds of heavy revision in the light of reactions from 4 or 5 heavy-hitting anonymous referees.

It is this process, of deep research over years, searching analysis, reaction from colleagues, and rigorous refereeing, that produces academic writing. At the end of it, a lot of personal opinions have not survived the research process, since when one researches one encounters new information that changes one’s preconceptions. Other opinions have had to be jettisoned because they could not be proved to the satisfaction of the referees or the editor. (And remember that the referees are typically anonymous and chosen by the editor to represent a range of perspectives).

In the absence of a lot of research and analysis, professors are reluctant to come out strongly publicly on an issue. Within the academy mere personal opinion is not considered important and is even made fun of as mere punditry. Because everyone in the university knows that first-level, common-sense personal opinion is worth little, and no more frequently survives an encounter with serious research than does a war plan survive an encounter on the battleground with the enemy.

The academic reaction to the Mearsheimer and Walt paper will appear in places like the journal of the International Studies Association or Political Science Quarterly, literally years from now. Academia exists in a different time-dimension than journalism. John Mearsheimer is like the theoretical physicist doing basic research on quarks, and Fairbanks’ sort of op-ed writer is like the jingle-writer for Walmart who retails some invention that came out of the basic research.

And, the Mearsheimer-Walt paper would require lots of research to address. A good research project in this regard would be to do in-depth interviews with former congressional staffers on Capitol Hill who are now in other fields of endeavor and might speak freely about how exactly lobbying works on this issue. Talking to former Israeli and Arab ambassadors in Washington might also be enlightening. The Mearsheimer and Walt paper is so wide-ranging in its impact that it might require team work, what the French Annales school called an equipe, to address. That is, an American political scientist might usefully pair with an area-studies expert in the Arab world and an expert on Israel. The three kinds of political scientist get completely different methodological and linguistic training, and each would be necessary to this project.

So, yes, Ms. Fairbanks, academics aren’t volunteering you a lot of personal opinions about the paper. And where they have, they don’t think their personal opinions are what is important. They haven’t had time to research it and many of them won’t know what they think beyond banal basics until they do. And, since the rightwing press has been trying to ruin academics’ reputations for speaking well of the paper, or even just for defending the authors’ right to publish it, you could imagine their nervousness when one of Marty’s gang calls. Just for the record, I apologize to any colleagues I encouraged to talk to Ms. Fairbanks.


Eve Fairbanks’ reply is in the comments section.

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