I just finished reading Efraim Karsh's smear job of the infamous Juan Cole in The New Republic, and while the whole thing is a fairly dumb piece, one quote really stuck out. So much so, that I have been forced to create a "Dumb Quote of the Month" Biobrain Award, simply to bring distinction to the sheer dumbness of it. Mr. Karsh is apparently the head of the Mediterranean Studies Programme at King's College, University of London; and this is what that distinguished university produced for our reading pleasure:
Referring to the common belief that western nations are largely responsible for the instability and powerlessness in the middle-east due to western colonialism, Karsh states: These standard assertions not only ignore the active role played by local leaders in the reshaping of their region after World War I, they also overlook the fact that many Middle Eastern countries (Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, to mention but a few) are substantially larger than the country that is often held culpable for their ills: Great Britain.
Of course. Of course! Great Britain is a small country, so it can't be responsible for colonialism or for dividing the middle-east into subservient portions according to British needs. It couldn't have. It's too small. Britain can't be blamed. And India? No problems there. The Empire isn't responsible for that either. I know. I've looked on a map and saw that India is much larger than England. Size matters and Great Britain is just too small to be blamed for anything. As is any country which conquers a larger country. Perfectly acceptable logic.
Life is indeed simple. You can completely dismiss centuries worth of history and evidence, and all by waving your magic wand of logic and telling yourself that it's so. If you don't think something could have happened, it must not have happened. No proof beyond country size is required. Now, I'm not sure if Karsh is implying that Great Britain didn't colonize the middle-east, or if he's admitting that they did, but that they still aren't responsible for the problems it caused. Karsh never said. But he really didn't mean to. It's quite apparent that he's above all that. His rock solid logic is just too strong to deny, and no other thinking is required.
And beyond that, because local leaders in the middle-east also helped to shape (ruin) it, any culpability by anyone else is immediately dismissed. I suppose if you can prove that some African leaders helped capture slaves, then all responsibility of white slavers and slave owners is immediately forgiven. Similarly, if you can show that some Jews helped the Nazi's setup the Ghetto system, or received special treatment for helping control them; that all blame is off the Nazi's too. Responsibility isn't divided up according to specific actions taken, but simply lumped together and dumped at the feet of the victim. And all because some members of the victims' religion or race aided the oppressors.
Wait a minute. Some people DO dismiss slaver responsibility for that reason, though I have not heard too much from people dismissing Nazi responsibility. So I guess Karsh's theory is 2 for 3. Due to native compliance, western nations are not responsible for the plight of the Africans or Arabs, but the Nazis are still responsible for the holocaust. I understand perfectly.
The Rest of the Dumb Piece
Beyond the informative quote, the rest of the piece is a straight-up smear job. He acts as if he is about to dismantle Cole's theories and attitude, but never really gets around to doing it. Rather than argue against it, he describes it using derogatory language, intended to belittle Cole's opinion. He says things like "But, unfortunately, Cole suffers from many other common Arabist misconceptions that deeply prejudice and compromise his writing." And he uses phrases such as "misguided dogma" and refers to Cole's theories as "essentially derivative, echoing the conventional wisdom". Oh, and he can caricature Cole's position on Israel with phrases like "imaginary Zionist cabal". And as we all know, if you dislike what Israel is doing, it must be because you hate all Jews. What other explanation is possible? So Cole obviously hates all Jews too. Ipso facto. (which is Latin for: That's a fact)
Indeed. It appears that Karsh is an adherent to the idea that if you label someone, you own them. And that if you can describe someone in villainous terms, the person must be a villain. By definition. As if labels ARE reality, rather than a construct used to identify and communicate observed reality.
Empiricism and objective reality are turned on their head for Karsh's type. For them, reality is how you describe it...but only if you agree with them. Otherwise, you are forced to follow the rules of proof. Cole has to prove that there's a Jewish cabal trying to use American might for Israel's benefit, or that Westerners are responsible for much of what is wrong with the middle-east. But Karsh needs no proof that Cole hates Jews, or that westerners aren't to blame for the problems in the middle-east, or that Muslims will always hate Jews and Christians, or that God really wants the Jews to have that precious land.
He needs no proof, because he knows that it's true. Proof is what the other guy has to provide, not a fine mind like Karsh. And Karsh's mind is so fine that it is impossible for Cole to be right about anything. He might as well stop trying, because Karsh just ain't going to have it. All of Cole's proof goes straight down the drain when faced with Karsh's assertions and beliefs. That's just how it works.
I confess. I read Juan Cole's site daily and know quite a bit about what he writes. But when I read Karsh's piece, I was waiting for some good anti-Cole proof. I know little of the middle-east, and do rely upon Cole to provide me with many details. So I wanted some juicy proof from the other side to show why I was wrong in believing in Cole. That is, after all, the whole point of Karsh's piece; to get us to stop listening to Cole. And, as an empiricist, I'm always willing to hear why I might be wrong. The past is dead to me, so I'd rather be right in the future than worry about being wrong in the past. To admit you were wrong in the past is merely to proclaim that you're smarter now. And I love being smarter.
But did he come through? Was I enlightened to Juan Cole's grave errors? Not even close. You either were already a believer in Karsh's beliefs, or you weren't going to be converted. For believers, proof is unnecessary and unseemly. Believers don't want proof, they just want fellow believers to say comforting things which confirm their beliefs. And Karsh really came through for them this time.
Beyond his disparaging description of Cole and his beliefs, what actual rebuttal does Efraim Karsh give? Easy. He blames Arabs for their own problems, because they helped westerners harness the middle-east. And he also cites a like-minded scholar who was once denied a doctorate and shunned by the scholarly community for disagreeing with Cole's conventional wisdom. And if they did that, they must have known that they were wrong. Why else would they shun him? We all know that all students are allowed to believe whatever they want, and are graded on the strength of their beliefs; and not on the validity of their claims. Or so I imagine that's how it's done at Kings College, anyway.
Inherent Religious Conflict
And even more importantly, he points out centuries old conflict between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. And that's it. That's all the proof he provides. As if conflict between the religions automatically explains everything going on now. And it might. Just as the centuries old conflict between Jews and Christians also might explain why all Christians continue to hate Jews and why they continue to fight, just as they always have. And just like how our current war in the middle-east can be seen through the lens of centuries old crusades. Just as they did centuries ago, Christians want the holy land back, and that explains why they're fighting the Muslims.
Everything old is new again.
Or do Karsh's rules only only apply to Muslims? I think they do.
And even at that, how does he know that he's right? Because...well because... he knows that he's right. And his opponents, and the conventional wisdom, and the bulk of middle-eastern academia is wrong. And most importantly, Juan Cole's wrong; so we're all wrong for reading his blog. And how does he know. Because he can use disparaging words to describe Cole and his beliefs, and that does it for me. No further rebuttal necessary.
And this is exactly what we should expect from the head of the Mediterranean Studies Programme of Kings College, University of London. Proof and evidence are beneath him. Labels and assertions rule the day. I wonder if I can attend his school. I have very strong beliefs and have a few choice labels for him. I'll get my doctorate yet!