Saturday, March 11, 2006


The new McCarthyism: First they came for the Arabists ...

Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, has decried in a number of his writings the assault on academics, especially those in the field of Middle Eastern Studies who have difficulty concluding that the Israeli government is acting to promote peace in the region. Taking a position that is even vaguely pro-Palestinian can get you in hot water with the Israeli agents provocateurs in our society who have the resources to make life miserable for the lowly college professor. Cole identifies these efforts to intimidate as the new McCarthyism.

Perhaps the attacks on professors of Middle Eastern Studies partly explain the dearth of students of Arabic. In December 2004 Cole offered some reasons for the shortage of Arabic scholars:

5) The recruiters for the US security agencies don't want Americans who have spent long periods abroad, lest they have developed local sympathies. This foolish approach excludes the most knowledgeable US citizens....

6) The recruiters even advise Americans studying Arabic not to go on summer or semester-long study abroad programs, since apparently even that much living outside the US could permanently injure their loyalty to their country. But such study abroad is essential to gaining fluency!

7) Being involved in Arabic studies and Middle Eastern studies in the United States is extremely controversial and often leads to character assassination, and you just have to have an iron constitution to put up with all the junk that gets thrown your way by the bigotted....

Not only is being misrepresented and smeared painful to most people, but trying to be even-handed on the Middle East will get a person called "racist" (i.e. insufficiently enthusiastic about Ariel Sharon), Orientalist (insufficiently enthusiastic about radical Muslim fundamentalism), or "terrorist-lover" (i.e. insufficiently enthusiastic about aggressive imperial warfare by the Bush administration). Since such epithets can harm careers, any sensible person would just stay away from Middle Eastern languages, or study something safe like Spanish.

Well, with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and the general tilt to the Left throughout Latin America, Spanish may not be as safe a language as Cole supposed. It appears that professors of Latin American Studies are beginning to come under fire.

According to Caroline An, writing for the Daily Bulletin of Ontario California,

A Pomona College professor said he believes his academic freedom was violated when he was interviewed by counterterrorism investigators about his ties to the Venezuelan government.

Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor in Latin American studies, said two detectives with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department questioned him Tuesday for nearly 25 minutes at his office about whether he had any contact with the Venezuelan embassy or consulate recently.

The detectives said they were interested in compiling a profile of the Venezuelan community in America and that other academics would be interviewed as well, Tinker Salas said.

Questions also included where a gathering place would be for community members ...

Chilling? You bet! But the cops always leave a little room for farce—

... and the location of the nearest consulate or embassy.

"I was very surprised by the questions they asked because they are public information," Tinker Salas said. "They could get that information on Google."

Professor Tinker Salas, of course, is making the good faith assumption that the police were actually after information.

Although the interview was conducted by members of the LA County Sheriff's Department, it was apparently held at the behest of the FBI, which promptly confirmed by denial its intent to intimidate —

In a written statement Friday, the FBI said its state, local and federal task force partners routinely conduct interviews and shouldn't suggest any wrongdoing on the part of the interviewee.

"The purpose of the interview was to seek information. There was no intent on the part of the FBI, regarding the timing or location, to place the professor, his students or Pomona College in an uncomfortable situation," the statement said.

A tactful inquiry

So regarding the timing and location, just how did the police go about the interview?

Tinker Salas, a Venezuelan native and American citizen, said students waiting outside his office were interviewed and was alarmed when he saw a copy of his profile from the college's Web site in their notebooks.

"I could hear the buzz from outside, and I began preparing myself for who was coming through the door," he said.

John Macias, a first-year Ph.D candidate, was one of the students waiting to speak with Tinker Salas. The detectives were obviously not students and aroused suspicions immediately.

"They just stood there and observed everything," Macias said. "After they went in, we knew something was wrong."

Nothing to suggest even a hint of an intent to intimidate, would you say?

Venezuela, a major exporter of oil, is not known as an exporter of terrorism. It is, however, exporting certain Leftist ideas that are considered anathema by the Bush administration. Could Professor Tinker Salas be a fellow traveler?

Tinker Salas said that the detectives asked numerous questions about terrorism. He told them that the Venezuelan community doesn't support terrorism.

"At the end of the questioning I asked them what they were fishing for," he said.

Tinker Salas said that as critic of U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America, his statements, through his books or comments in the media, were the reasons he was targeted. He viewed the incident as the larger erosion of civil liberties in the wake of Sept. 11 and the recent wiretapping of U.S. citizens, he said.

What actually set the FBI in motion is unknown. The account of the incident by Richard Winton and J. Michael Kennedy in the LA Times suggests that Tinker-Salas's contribution to a story in the press might have been to his detriment—

Tinker-Salas figured in a Christian Science Monitor story last month dealing with whether Iran and Venezuela could forge a political counterweight to U.S. power.

But his most radical thought, as given in that story, is that—

People see a certain hypocrisy in US actions, and what we're seeing from people like Chávez and Iran's president are attempts to exploit that," says Tinker-Salas.

Pretty strong stuff.

The police intimidation merited a response from Venezuela—

The Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela considers this incident a violation of the freedoms of expression, thought and academic inquiry, and views the move as a desperate attempt to link Venezuela to terrorism. The Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela also believes this incident draws comparisons to the Cold War, when academics and activists were regularly questioned and intimidated by government officials for their political views.

The new McCarthyism.

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