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A hot paper muzzles academia

May 14, 2006|Eve Fairbanks | Eve Fairbanks works at the New Republic as a reporter-researcher.

DID YOU THINK there was a controversy in academia over "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," the paper by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer contending that a shadowy "Israel Lobby" -- including everyone from the New York Times and Hillary Clinton to Pat Robertson and Paul Wolfowitz -- has seized control of American foreign affairs? I did too, but let me tell you: We were wrong.

When professors Walt and Mearsheimer (of Harvard and the University of Chicago, respectively) went public with their paper in the London Review of Books on March 23, it seemed the whole world started screaming. From columnists Richard Cohen and Max Boot to historian Tony Judt and Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, public figures battled in the pages of the major papers. Accusations of anti-Semitism and divided loyalties flew. The magazine I work for published three articles on the paper in a single week.

Of course, if the paper caused such uproar in the public sphere, you'd think academia (and particularly the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where Walt is the academic dean) would be, as the Harvard Crimson put it, the ultimate "field of battle." And as far as conspiratorial rumors and unexplained reversals go, it has been.

The Kennedy School pulled its name off the article, nervous to be associated with the argument that an expansive lobby is undermining American interests on behalf of the Jewish state. Bob Belfer, the fabulously wealthy (and Jewish) oil baron who endowed Walt's chair at the Kennedy School, was hopping mad. Angry donors reportedly threatened to retract gifts. Whispers began that faculty relationships were fraying, and gossip circulated that campus forces were plotting to oust Walt from panels and boards. Harvard had to deny that his decision to step down as dean had anything to do with the paper.

But something else happened at Harvard, something strange. Instead of a roiling debate, most professors not only agreed to disagree but agreed to pretend publicly that there was no disagreement at all. At Harvard and other schools, the Mearsheimer-Walt paper proved simply too hot to handle -- and it revealed an academia deeply split yet lamentably afraid to engage itself on one of the hottest political issues of our time. Call it the academic Cold War: distrustful factions rendered timid by the prospect of mutually assured career destruction.

A couple of weeks ago, keeping in mind Henry Kissinger's famous aphorism that academic quarrels are so vicious because the stakes are so small, I began calling around Harvard, expecting to find a major fight flourishing. Spirited exchanges! A divided faculty! Parties canceled! Walt egged!

Instead, most people I spoke to assured me that, at Harvard, there is no controversy. Most everyone, they said, agreed about the paper. But what they all "agreed" on, hilariously, depended on whom I was talking to.

One anecdote illuminated the puzzle. At a faculty meeting, the paper came up, and the department head remarked that she was sure everyone had the same reaction when they read it -- approval. One professor piped up: "No, this article is rubbish!" The room became very quiet. Finally, someone changed the subject. Through moments like these, a de facto consensus developed not to discuss the paper at all.

Most professors I reached wouldn't speak on the record about the flap because they didn't want their feelings to become known on campus. Walt ignored my requests for comment. Harvard's Alan Dershowitz, one of just a few professors who have conspicuously denounced the paper, says that when he was scheduled for a BBC face-off with Mearsheimer, the author mysteriously canceled moments before airtime.

Most fishily, one Kennedy School professor who had previously gone public with his opinions clammed up completely, explaining cryptically to me that even chatting off the record about the paper isn't "the right thing for me to do at this time." Another senior Kennedy School professor admitted that he was baffled by the dearth of discussion of the paper. "We debate everything else here," he said.

The closest we've gotten to open academic argument over the paper is an online petition circulated by Juan Cole, a media-hungry professor-blogger at the University of Michigan, condemning the paper's critics for "McCarthyite race-baiting." It has garnered nearly 1,000 professors' signatures.

But even Cole's petition -- many signers of which haven't read the paper -- exemplifies how, instead of knocking heads over the paper's core argument, it's become acceptable merely to debate drier questions of academic standards. Critics condemn the paper as shoddy scholarship; supporters, such as Cole, insist that the academic world's primary ethic is the right to say whatever you believe.

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