Academic Freedom, my tuches

Tonight, a friend sent me a an email that had been floating around a local university campus. The email decried a potential lawsuit, threatened by MEMRI’s head, Yigal Carmon, against Juan Cole and potentially U of Michigan for publishing false information about MEMRI in an article. The email proceeded to urge all its readers to “preserve academic freedom” by writing a strong letter to MEMRI opposing any threats of a lawsuit against an academic and his institution.

This all began when MEMRI translated Osama Bin Laden’s last video. That’s the one that arrived at Al Jazeera, the station that loves broadcasting messages from terrorists and images of their atrocities (unless the images show cerrtain Muslims being so evil that they’d kill the head of a human rights organization who has been assisting their compatriots for 30 years), during the final days of the recent elections. Among other things, he says that Al Qaeda will attack states that support Bush.

MEMRI translated the word for states to mean, well, “states,” as in Texas, Oklahoma, etc. Cole felt that they were wrong and the word means states in the sense of sovereign countries. But Cole didn’t stop there. Cole proceeded to discuss MEMRI as if badmouthing them would buttress his point. For absolutely no reason, he accuses them of having $60 million in funding, cherry-picking articles to create an over-all negative and distorted impression of Arab media (he brings up the KKK as it relates, in his opinion, to certain Israelis), and of being a PR machine for the Likud. He also says a few other things that are quite offensive

In other words, “You guys are Israeli Right Wing shills with lots of Jewish/Israeli money behind you, some racist feelings toward Arabs, professionalism that sucks, the wrong kind of people leading you…and therefore can’t be trusted to translate the word ‘states’ properly.”

Now, at this point, this story is all over the blogs across the Internet, in emails circulated all over university campuses, and I’m sure will hit some mainstream media soon.

So I went to visit his blog. Juan Cole which is fairly active blog with, as I understand it, quite a bit of traffic. Cole seems to have a certain anti-Israel perspective – I would even call it nasty – of the type one hears in circles of the far and center-left Left. Cole is a full professor of some standing at the University of Michigan and is well respected for his views on Islam and the Arab world, and as a result also garners respect in many Leftie and Democrat circles.

Since this story has been hitting blogs across the Internet, many Palestinian supporters and others on the Left who might have a beef with Israel, are using this issue to attack MEMRI’s credibility. One would guess that this is because MEMRI is very effective at bringing to light many issues and attitudes within the Arab world that stand in contrast to our values here in the U.S. Finally, there is a reason to lash out at them: their supposed unreasonableness and heavyhanded tactic against an academic.

Unfortunately, however, it appear that Cole did not put the type of academic scrutiny one would expect into the article he wrote and in his comments about MEMRI. He basically admits as much in his response to the MEMRI letter. Yes, he shows bluster, but he also backs off gingerly from his claims. Then again, even as he backs off a bit, he attacks again. Consider this gem which is directed at Yigal Carmon who was a former intelligence agent for Israel:

Israeli military intelligence is used to being able to censor the Israeli press and to intimidate journalists, and it is a bit shocking that Carmon should imagine that such intimidation would work in a free society.

What’s funny is that it is patently obvious that he’s wrong in his assertions, but MEMRI was right to be worried because his posts are spread all over the Internet. In fact, once he has posted something in the “blogosphere” (a fancy way of saying “in the public realm”), it will get spidered and enter the search engines. From now on, people will assert that MEMRI gets $60 million in funding and is affiliated with the Likud because a prominent university professor said so. MEMRI did not help themselves by threatening to sue, because he has made them out to be ogres while he is a victim of suppression of free speech.

This may affect MEMRI materially since as a registered non-profit (501(c)3), they may not have certain political affiliation. If somebody in the IRS happens to learn about these accusations, it could cause MEMRI unwarranted problems.

The pro-Cole forces are asserting that it’s perfectly fine to post false information, even when an easy Google search will provide accurate info, on a blog, because, well, because it’s a blog.

They are also asserting that it’s okay for an academic, who is relying in part on his university’s reputation and money to assure himself of a particular type of career, to enjoy the fruits and respect accorded an academic, but if he chooses to post derogatory and false comments about an organization, and the organization reacts angrily, then it is his freedom of expression being violated. Therefore, he has no obligation to truth, only to self-expression.

I think Cole deserves to be punished in some way for besmirching an organization just because his argument about the definition of a particular word differs from that of an organization that happens to be on the opposite side of the Israel-Arab debate. He will get away with it because a lawsuit makes little sense here and because there are enough Lefties out there and people who subscribe to wanton Jewish/Israel control-of-the-world conspiracies that a lot of noise is being made about how MEMRI is trying to squlech free speech.

It’s sad to see how people are rushing to defend his lies about, and their repercussions on, an entity that can be criticized, but not for the reasons he has given. The idea of academic freedom is abused when it is used as a shield to defend outright lies.


  1. Evan Gahr

    4/22/2005 at 5:32 pm

  2. TM

    4/22/2005 at 5:55 pm

  3. Evan Gahr

    6/12/2005 at 4:02 pm

  4. Don Jenner

    8/21/2006 at 8:34 am

  5. bruce david

    8/21/2006 at 8:44 am

  6. Carl from L.A.

    5/26/2007 at 11:45 pm

  7. themiddle

    5/27/2007 at 4:31 am

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *