Juan Cole and Yale

There has been a minor kerfuffle over the last few days over Yale’s hiring of Michigan historian Juan Cole, best known these days as the author of the controversial Informed Comment blog, for a prestigious contemporary Middle East studies chair.

This morning, WSJ columnist John Fund weighs in.

Mr. Cole’s appointment would be problematic on several fronts. First, his scholarship is largely on the 19th-century Middle East, not on contemporary issues. “He has since abandoned scholarship in favor of blog commentary,” says Michael Rubin, a Yale graduate and editor of the Middle East Quarterly. Mr. Cole’s postings at his blog, Informed Comment, appear to be a far cry from scholarship. They feature highly polemical writing and dubious conspiracy theories.

While there’s no doubt Cole in polemnical, the idea that he has “abandoned scholarship” is rather absurd. For one thing, one could argue that interpreting current events through an expert lens for the mass public is scholarship and provides a greater service than writing obscure articles read by a handful of other experts, mostly to cite in their own obscure articles. Moreover, Cole has continued to publish at a more than reasonable rate for a tenured full professor. If one looks at his CV, one finds nine book chapters or articles written since 2005.

In justifying all the time he spends on his blog, Mr. Cole told the Yale Herald that “when you become a public intellectual, it has the effect of dragging you into a lot of mud.” Mr. Cole has done his share of splattering. He calls Israel “the most dangerous regime in the Middle East.” That ties in with his recurring theme that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee effectively controls Congress and much of U.S. foreign policy. In an article titled “Dual Loyalties,” he wrote, “I simply think that we deserve to have American public servants who are centrally commited [sic] to the interests of the United States, rather than to the interests of a foreign political party,” namely Israel’s right-wing Likud, which was the ruling party until Ariel Sharon formed the centrist Kadima Party. Mr. Cole claims that “pro-Likud intellectuals” routinely “use the Pentagon as Israel’s Gurkha regiment, fighting elective wars on behalf of Tel Aviv.”


Mr. Cole says that he is often unfairly attacked for being anti-Semitic, when in reality he claims he is only critical of Israeli policy. But Michael Oren, a visiting fellow at Yale, notes that in February 2003 Mr. Cole wrote on his blog that “Apparently [President Bush] has fallen for a line from the neo-cons in his administration that they can deliver the Jewish vote to him in 2004 if only he kisses Sharon’s ass.” Mr. Oren says “clearly that’s anti-Semitism; that’s not a criticism of Israeli policy.” (Exit polls showed that 74% of the Jewish vote went to John Kerry.)

Actually, it’s neither a criticism of Israeli policy nor of Jews but rather of the Bush administration’s political motives. And, while I disagree vehemently, the idea that diaspora politics is a major factor in U.S. foreign policy did not originate with Cole and has longstanding provenance.

Mr. Cole appears to be the only prominent academic in America to have embraced “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” a highly controversial paper by John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard. Mr. Cole told the Chicago Sun-Times yesterday that the paper argues the “virtually axiomatic” point held by the rest of the world that a “powerful pro-Israel lobby exists.” The result is that “U.S. policy toward the Middle East has been dangerously skewed.”

Of course, Mearsheimer and Walt themselves are incredibly well respected prominent academics in their own right. And, given that being tarred with the brush of anti-Semitism is the apparent price of engaging the discussion seriously, it is hardly a wonder that others have not come out publically to defend it.

Mr. Cole wants to enforce his own taboos on free expression. In February, he told the Detroit Metro Times that the federal government should close the leading cable news channel. “I think it is outrageous that Fox Cable News is allowed to run that operation the way it runs it,” he said in summarizing his view that Fox “is polluting the information environment.” He went on to claim that “in the 1960s the FCC would have closed it down. It’s an index of how corrupt our governmental institutions have become, that the FCC lets this go on.”

Again, I disagree with Cole here on policy grounds. But he is right as far as it goes. Until the expiration of the Fairness Doctrine, networks could not openly espouse partisan positions without giving equal time, free of charge, to the opposing view. Not only could Fox News not have existed in its current format then but neither could modern political talk radio.

Cole’s views make him something of a radical even by academic standards. But I have never met a Middle East Studies professor who exhibits a neutral scholarly demeanor. The discipline tends to attract passionate partisans. Whether that’s a good thing is debatable, to be sure, but it’s a reality.

If we are going to argue that distinguished academics whose political views we do not like are unfit for hire, conservatives will have little ground to stand on when they find their own attacked. That’s a very dangerous precedent.

Further, as we have seen with Supreme Court appointments, we will reward those who avoid creating a paper trail. While I disagree with the lion’s share of Cole’s conclusions, providing informed comment for public discussion is undeniably a worthwhile endeavor for subject matter experts. We don’t want to create a chilling effect whereby academics avoid blogging for fear hiring committees — let alone editorial boards and bloggers — will start combing through the archives for the most outrageous things typed in hasty reaction to a breaking news story.

Update: Steven Taylor agrees with and expands on some of my thoughts above. He notes, too, the unfairness of Fund’s “equation of a potential Cole hire by Yale to their admission of Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi (the former Taliban spokesman) as a student.” (Although, as I noted when Fund first raised Hashemi’s case, I’m not all that exercised about it, either.)

Ed Morrissey agrees with Fund, saying, “Yale should take into account his actions and his rhetoric, which not only express the most radical of academic thought but also go against the values of education and free debate in general.” Aside from the comments about Fox News, though, it’s not clear how this is so.

This strikes me as amusing, though, especially in the context of a Middle East Studies program at an Ivy League institution:

Cole recently appeared on the Yale campus to take part in a “teach-in” to protest the Iraq War, an activity that will no doubt take up much of the professor’s time if hired by Yale.

While I tend to think teach-ins rather silly, the man has apparently conducted precisely one of them in his academic career. As compared to other ways tenured professors spend their time, it’s hard to argue that this is too big a drain on his time.

Fund even quotes Noam Chomsky as questioning Cole’s judgment, and when someone gets to the left of Chomsky, that is a remarkable achievement.

Not much doubt about that. Then again, were Chomsky applying for a Linguistics chair and I were (for some odd reason) on the hiring committee, he’d get a campus invite. One puts up with a certain amount of eccentricity, let alone ideological drivel, if highly accomplished scholars are on the market.

To use a sports analogy, there’s a reason Terrell Owens signed a big money contract and Freddie Mitchell is still on the streets, despite both being big mouthed former Philadelphia Eagles wide receivers.

Update 2: Juan Cole argues, persuasively, that Fund’s article contains “a large number of falsehoods,” and flat denies that he ever called Israel “the most dangerous regime in the Middle East.”

Update 3: Bill Quick comes to bury Cole, not praise him:

I can’t stand Cole. He’s a well-known and widely mocked and despised figure in the right-blogosphere for his left wing and pro-terrorist views, but he’s a legitimate blogger, and I’m not sure the WSJ is right to conflate his blogging with his scholarship. Blogs are a different sort of beast, and to hold them to the standards of peer-reviewed academic publication is ridiculous. I suspect this is just more of the MSM’s subterrenean “do as we say, not as we do” war on blogs, in which they attempt to hold blogs to standards they would not, and have never, held themselves.

There’s something to that, to be sure. Presumably, part of Cole’s attractiveness to Yale is his status as a name brand. His blog surely contributed substantially to that status.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. whatever says:

    Would you be in favor of hiring professors who said the Holocaust didn’t exist? Is there no line someone with “professor” in their title can’t cross and pay the consequences for?

  2. What has Cole said or written that is equivalent to Holocaust denial?

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that there are some distinctions to made here, James. Dr. Cole is a legitimate scholar of Middle Eastern (particularly 19th century Iranian and Iraqi IIRC) religious movements. Over the last couple of years he’s been bootstrapping that into more general Middle Eastern expertise.

    Does he have legitimate scholarly credentials more generally? I have no idea whatever. It would seem to me that his credentials in contemporary Middle Eastern politics would be an issue for the faculty hiring committee to consider and, if they’re actually there, he’d be a real addition to Yale’s faculty.

    The bootstrapping concerns me. From reading his blog and reading criticisms of his blog from other Middle Eastern scholars who don’t share his political views I believe the concern about the bootstrapping is legit.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Dave: That’s a fair point, although clearly not the main beef people have with Cole. Unfortunately, expertise creep is an occupational hazard of public intellectuals.

  5. Yehudit says:

    Cole’s history in the blogosphere making unfounded accusations and conspiracy-mongering in general. Includes links to Martin Kramer and Tony Badran, who critique Cole�s Middle East expertise.

    Many academics use blogs as platforms to push a point of view, nothing wrong with that, but in Cole’s case the “paper” trail shows serious incompetence. There are numerous examples of Cole saying things that aren’t true, even in his own area of expertise. And his performance in the blog world is that of a kook.

  6. TK says:

    Being criticized by Chomsky does not make Cole “to the Left” of Chomsky. That’s just stupid. I read Chomsky’s critique of Mearsheimer and Walt’s essay, which I assume is where the “questioning” of Cole’s judgment comes in, and it’s nothing of the kind. Chomsky, consistent with his political stance, does not see outside groups like AIPAC “influencing” US elites, though he does see them acting in concert when their interests align, which is the case most of the time in US-Israeli relations. Chomsky points out instances where US elite interests and Israeli policies diverged, and the impotence of “the Lobby” when they did so, to rebut the idea that the tail wags the dog in US-Israeli relations, rather than the other way around. This is a purely factual disagreement on an issue which, if it didn’t involve Israel, would be wholly uncontroversial.

    If anything, a critique that posits that well-funded lobby groups influence government policy in a democracy is much more mainstream and centrist than the Chomskyan argument that the US political system exists largely to benefit the interests of a ruling class. But this kind of nonsense is what one comes to expect from people of limited reading skills.