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boundaries of academic freedom

Reader comment on item: [Hamid Dabashi:] Columbia University's Hysterical Professor

Submitted by Michael Weiss, M.D. (United States), Dec 2, 2004 at 14:23

Dear Dr. Pipes:

Thank you for disclosing this disturbing incident in the Middle Easter Studies Department at Columbia University. The words and behavior of Professor Dabashi and the bland response of the Columbia Provost raise serious questions regarding the ethics and mission of a university. The importance of these issues -- transcending the irrational or scurrilous behavior of one particular member of the faculty -- arises from the notion that boundaries of hate speech are unenforced if the speech is directed against an ostracized group (Israelis and Jews).

There is a slippery slope from tolerance of anti-Semitic language in the academy to imposing double standards on Israel (witness the speading acceptability of divestiture petitions) to denial of human rights to Jews. Eroded boundaries of hate speech will ineluctably lead to eroded boundaries against physical intimidation and worse. Professor Dabashi's repeated claims to self-perceived victimization provide a psychological mechanism to justify (and even ennoble) his own violent ideation and advocacy.

Professor Dabashi's stated concern regarding the prior IDF military service of the complaining graduate student may seem a bizarre red herring, but in fact is of central importance for its historical resonance as a Blood Libel. It would come as no surprise should a review of other writings and statements by Professor Dabashi make this connection explicit. It would be of further interest to explore whether in his classroom the good professor tolerates or denies independent and lively debate of ideas different from his own. And if not in the classroom, then why in society at large?

Professor Dabashi's rant is part of a larger cultural trend in the American academy and in many parts of Europe. The language of Islamic victimization enables the exploitation of liberal values (such as academic freedom) to bypass tacit limitations on what constitutes acceptable speech or behavior. The danger here is not mere hysteria but the shared psychopathology of a genocidal movement. From this perspective the hijacked airplanes of 9-11 and the hurled accusations of the self-described 'Dabashi the Victim' are two sides of the same coin.

What of the rights of students at Columbia University to study the diverse cultures of the Middle East without harassment? In particular, what of the rights of an Israeli graduate student in the sciences to study in an environment free of implicit but virulent threats to his family and neighbors back home? This -- and not the shrill complaints of Professor Dabashi -- ought to be of concern of the Provost. He is after all the chief academic officer of a great university with a tradition of commitment to the history of Western civilization.

Michael Weiss, M.D.
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