“Censorship, Surveillance, and Middle East Studies in the Contemporary United States” by David A. McMurray

McMurray, David A. (2005). “Censorship, Surveillance, and the Middle East Studies in the Contemporary United States”. In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (pp.173-185). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.

David A. McMurray opens the eleventh chapter by recalling the story of an encounter with “an angry college student in the military reserve” while he and a « rag-tag bunch of middle-aged pacifists » (p.173) were protesting for peace in front of their small town’s court house as they did every evening at 5pm since 9/11. The student stopped his pick-up truck in the middle of traffic and yelled at the group of pacifists that their protest made him sick; they “could enjoy the freedom to stand there and tear [the] country” while he had served for ten years in the army to protect this very freedom. That night, McMurray went home “unable to figure out what made the student so angry – even as he seemed to recognize our right to be there protesting” (p.173).

I am not war supporter but I can imagine myself in the position of the soldier who yelled at McMurray and his group. This student has been raised to be patriotic (through practices such as the Pledge of Allegiance per example), sent oversea, been at war, had his friends or classmates killed, saw civilians die. Perhaps it is not so complicated to figure out what made him angry. As he saw the protesters, he most likely interpreted it as a message of confrontation, as saying that all he did was vain, that his friends died for nothing. It also contradicted the message of the constitutional state. Put into context, the student-soldier’s position is perhaps easier to understand. There was some disagreement during our discussion in class regarding McMurray questions on the soldier’s attitude: “Wasn’t he making our point? Wasn’t he deriding for us exercising the freedoms he claimed we all enjoyed thanks to him?” (p.173). One side argued that the soldier was also exercising his freedom of expression and the other argued that the soldier was trying to negate the peace protesters’ freedom of expression.

McMurray told the story in the context of his introductory anthropology class on the Middle East studies and did not receive the response he expected. Worse, he “never really recovered the class’s good will” after this episode. McMurray draws a clear distinction between him and the male students sitting in the back because through their divergence of opinion (p.174) and singles out supporters of the troops as “the guys in the back”, typically understood to be the spot occupied by the least interested students even though this is not always the case. Eventually, thanks to “the boys in the back” for having opened his eyes to “the presence of such forces” (p.174), McMurray “came to discover that there had been a serious intrusion of reactionary, jingoistic political forces into the university” (p.174). From there, the chapter focuses on the repercussions of right-wing attacks against Middle East Studies on American campuses after 9/11 (p.174).

More specifically, McMurray describes the “post 9/11 attack strategy” as a “demonization of the whole field with the targeting of individual specialists” (p.174). This attack strategy has been mainly carried out by Daniel Pipes, Harvard educated historian and political commentator, and Martin Kramer, an American-Israeli scholar currently president of Shalem College in Jerusalem and author of the book Ivory Tower On Sand (2001). Daniel Pipes was given a recess appointment by George W. Bush in 2003 (p.176) after his appointment to the board of directors of the U.S. Institute of Peace was protested by Democratic leaders. He also promotes the findings of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit global policy think tank located in Santa Monica and formed to offer research and analysis to the U.S. armed forces by Douglas Aircraft Company.

McMurray writes that “the use of student monitors to carry out classroom surveillance” (p.177) was initiated during the Reagan era. The RAND Corporation also has connections to the Heritage Foundation, inter alia, through its staff and the latter regularly tweet pictures and inspirational memes of Ronald Reagan. The RAND Corporation also collaborates with the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation. Interestingly, Lisa Anderson, past president of the Middle East Studies Association, and who according to McMurray was influenced by Kramer and Pipe in her “decision to publish her negative assessment of [an aspect] of Middle East Studies” (p.179), also served on the board of Carnegie Council on Ethics in International Affairs from 2000 to 2010.

McMurray names other “fellow Middle Eastern Studies bashers” such as Stanley Kurtz and David Horowitz, an ex-leftist turned conservative, now promoter of the Academic Bill of Rights and co-founder of the David Horowitz Freedom Centre. The centre runs websites such as Students for Academic Freedom and Jihad Watch. However, large sections of the McMurray’s chapter are concerned with Pipes, the founder of Campus Watch (2002), a website with the pretension of monitoring anti-patriotic academic activity and classes, and which is thoroughly denounced in the chapter. One of my colleagues and/or classmates, depending on whether or not the reader considers us graduate students as anthropologists, pointed out that McMurray was actually named on the website as a one of those who requested to be listed in solidarity with the targeted professors. There was some confusion in the class about whether or not McMurray had mentioned that he was on the website. The text is composed in a way that some of us thought we had read that he was, and some of us did not remember having read so. The only reference is to his “named fellow travelers” on the website (p.181). I am curious to know why McMurray has chosen not to explicitly mention that he had given his name to be on the list and what consequences this might have had for him.

Unfortunately, McMurray brings little data to clearly evaluate the repercussions of the attacks on the Middle East Studies, something he acknowledges (p.182). He recalls comments of unnamed colleagues, but there is no other form of data. One of McMurray’s colleagues told him how she was “feeling less secure” about the content of her classes and that such questioning “[crossed] her mind with greater frequency” (p.182). However, McMurray concludes in the next paragraph that with regards to “internalizing censorship”, he was not sure that her colleague’s case could “provide much in the evidence of any change due specifically to Kramer and Pipes” (p.182). Indeed, perhaps his colleague’s feeling less secure was not only a consequence of Pipe’s Campus Watch list, but rather a reaction shared by many in response to the government and media propaganda about Islamic terrorism that was unleashed on all communication channels after 9/11. The day the Twin Towers collapsed, the United States redefined their conception of Islam, Muslims, and anything of Middle Eastern origin and this has had repercussions on all disciplines, and on every aspect of American international relations.

McMurray’s chapter touches on many interesting subjects such as the relation between the military and civil society, the growing collaboration between universities and philanthropic organizations funded by the right-wing, their influence on federal funding, the practice of naming and shaming. On the downside, it explores none in depth, most likely because these subjects are too complicated and too contentious to be described in a single chapter of a book designed for undergraduates. No solution is proposed either; no form of rapprochement or dialogue between the left and the right appears possible. How come the left is not able to get as much funding as the right? Is it because it does not have the support of big corporations? If so, how to compensate for such lack without depending on federal funding? Could universities create sustainable and profitable social ventures, either in their own countries or abroad? Could they host panels where the left and the right meet to resolve social and economic problems and create communication channels between both camps through a focus on common goals? How could a « rag-tag bunch of middle-aged pacifists » organize a strong, collective response to the attack of the right-wing? How are the members of the right-wing with leftist tendencies to respond? Should they make a website to denounce the right-wing holding on the major universities? Should they try to reach out to a larger public through publications and media?

Another question is whether McMurray actually believes a response is necessary. His conclusion on the consequences of attacks on Middle East Studies by public personalities like Pipes and Kramer is not quite clear: “It would appear that Kramer an Pipes on their own have not had a profound effect on the field or on the practitioners of Middle East Studies. In spite of their advocacy, altering the research being done so that it becomes more policy relevant does not seem to be happening” (p. 181). And on the next page: “So, in sum, it would appear that pundits who specialize in attacking Middle East Studies have had mixed results when it comes to affecting professors, research, or the larger field” (p.182). McMurray is correct in his final conclusion, and perhaps the most important phrase of the chapter: “However, something more serious may be shaping up at the institutional level” (p.182). Indeed. And more serious analyses are needed, not to keep the right or the left out of universities as it is just not going to happen, but to develop ways of working in collaboration, and to find ways to set our political allegiances aside in order be pragmatic and to fix practical problems. But then, when the presidency is a family affair, and it seems to be the case in so many places (I am writing to you from the Dominion of Canada and I am a subject of her Majesty the Queen, and I guess, of Will and Kate), where elections are rigged and citizen vote is almost a joke, I have my own doubts about what can actually be done. I don’t know if the conservatives’ ascension will be constant as their funding is reaching new heights, or if the economy will eventually crash and turn the political tide, perhaps not for the best, as it has usually done throughout history. But a careful in-depth analysis of that “something more serious” will allow whoever is interested in addressing the issues to be better prepared.

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