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KC Johnson vs. the commonplace campus radical–Mr. Obama’s neighborhood

Until a couple of weeks ago we were supposed to be stocking up on information for “Decision 2008” (a lot of the best stuff seemed to be on “Indecision 2008”, though). According to columnist William Kristol, Sarah Palin was doing her part, “helping the American people understand ‘who the real Barack Obama is’” by raising questions about Bill Ayers, former Weatherman and current Distinguished Professor of Education. A week before the election, she and John McCain were working hard to secure the release of a video held hostage by the LA Times—stuff the American people needed to know about Ayers and “yet another radical professor from the neighborhood,” Rashid Khalidi. It was a great service to voters who needed to figure out who to be more afraid of before they could make up their mind.

If you google obama ayers khalidi, what comes up is mostly the ranting of people already certain about who to be more afraid of. It was in the interest of the Republican side to make the most of the two professors’ radicalism and their ties to Obama, and anyway, radical professors are a favorite specter of the Right. The academic world’s reflex to circle the wagons and shout “McCarthyism” is represented by the fulsome petition at, and the list of over 4000 names under it. But not all Obama supporters were sympathetic to Ayers and Khalidi, and the first line of defense from his camp was to downplay the connection.

I noticed one person conspicuously trying to play on both sides of the fence, to make the most of the radicalism but downplay the connection—KC Johnson. Inside Higher Ed tags him as someone who’s “frequently criticized academe for a lack of political diversity” when he’s dragged in for balance in an otherwise soft-headed article “In Defense of Ayers”. In fact he approached the controversy about Obama’s radical pals the same way he’s approached the Duke lacrosse case, not as a critic but as a crusader rooting out the extremists of the academic Left. As I’ve pointed out ad nauseum about his lacrosse-case stuff, his crusading mentality reduces people and issues to cartoonish black-and-white, and his reasoning, evidence, and rhetoric are all compromised. His defense of Obama shows how in the grip of it he is, because it’s not really a defense, it’s an attempt to capitalize on the controversy in order to promote the academic culture war as a Democratic party agenda.

Inside Higher Ed picked up Johnson’s take on the controversy from a post on Cliopatria, a group blog on the History News Network. I imagine that one reason the blog exists is to give academic historians a place to editorialize, but it’s a shame to see it used as a soapbox for misrepresentation and simple-minded polemics—my opinion hasn’t changed in the months since my testy exchange with Ralph Luker, the chief blogger over there. A premise of the site is that “history is complicated,” and behind this controversy are the complicated histories of several complicated people. Ayers went from being a fugitive militant radical to being a key player in Chicago school reform, apparently acceptable in that context to establishment figures from both parties. Khalidi was attractive to the International Republican Institute (chaired by John McCain) in the mid-90s because of his “coolness to the PLO” but a decade or so earlier was apparently, despite his denials, speaking for the PLO (I like this post by Ron Kampeas, Washington bureau chief for the Jewish news organization JTA, grappling with the ambiguity after being forced to back down from defending Khalidi against the PLO-spokesman charge). Johnson wants the two as poster boys for academic extremism—not exceptional but typical—so it served his purpose to leave intact the simplistic and superficial impressions that were already in circulation and contribute a little spin of his own to the caricature of Khalidi. All in all it does nothing for Obama but it’s a nice little gift to the Republican operative Johnson quotes who wants Obama to “own his friendships with individuals that are in some cases anti-American, anti-Semitic and pro-terrorist.”

A couple of days after it went up on Cliopatria, Johnson posted a modified version of the commentary on his lacrosse-case blog, Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW), and the rhetoric and agenda-driven reasoning are ramped up somewhat in the process. The same thing happens with another KC Johnson polemic that initially went up on Cliopatria, this one about a couple of Brooklyn College professors who’ve been petitioning on behalf of Syed Fahad Hashmi, a former student detained on terrorism charges. In that one, the crusading logic is even more obviously in the drivers seat, especially in the rewrite, which panders to DIW loyalists with cheap rhetoric that Johnson couldn’t get away with on Cliopatria (I hope). The funniest part is a line about statements made by Hashmi’s supporters that “read as if cribbed from a defense brief.” Has anyone covering a legal controversy ever written more “analysis” that sounds like a defense brief than Johnson?

[For more on the Hashmi case, read the next post. There’s a response to this paragraph from KC Johnson in the comments.]

The tribalism runs deep in DIW. Wherever you look over there, including at the legal teams and their arguments, one side seems to have cornered the market on whatever’s honest, decent, sensible, and worthwhile. Mike Nifong’s efforts were pathetic and dishonest enough that an unbalanced impression of the criminal investigation is probably unavoidable. But Johnson’s treatment of the ongoing lawsuits has the same cheerleading slant. The way he describes “The Duke Motion to Dismiss”, it’s cynical legal maneuvering, or else “(scarcely credible) p.r. spin” straight out of Creative Writing 101. The “powerful response” from the plaintiff’s attorney, on the other hand, is beyond reproach or even criticism—no legal maneuvering there. It may be that Duke’s position is so weak that it can’t do anything but grasp at straws. But it’s hard to believe that such a lopsided characterization is the result of serious analysis. I haven’t tried to size up the lawsuits, but on one point I happened to look up, both sets of plaintiffs offer pure spin.

Though it’s toned down, Johnson brings the same attitude to his support for Obama. During the primaries a major focus of his Cliopatria posts was the disingenuous and muddle-headed nature of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Among the variations on the theme, “Clinton’s Rhetoric and Reality” has her making absurd claims of sexism in her concession speech, “Clinton’s Constitutional Conundrum” has her pandering to Guam and Puerto Rico, and “The Clinton Dozen” details the “latest in [her] campaign’s effort to play the race card.” And then there’s the other Clinton, who, in “Bill Channels Wilentz,” “[advances the] bizarre thesis that Obama, not the Clintons, played the race card in the nominating process.” I expect that a lot of the criticism is fairly well founded, and it often comes with interesting historical tie-ins. But like the DIW account of the lacrosse lawsuits, the overall impression is that only one side is playing politics.

Johnson is very good at framing a controversy or dispute so that he can efficiently sort the good/right/true from the bad/wrong/false and play them off against each other, or just dwell on the bad, which is more typical. Things can get ugly if the frames overlap, though. A bad joke that a mutual reader tried to post to DIW shows how ugly: “just to rib [Johnson], I wrote ‘Can’t we all get along?’ and suggested that perhaps he and Crystal [Mangum (the accuser in the lacrosse case)] should get together to co-host a rally for Obama.” Plenty of crude humor makes it through Johnson’s “lightest of touch” comment moderation, but this time, somehow, it didn’t.

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In his analysis of “Obama and the Khalidi/Ayers Attacks,” Johnson tries to play in both the culture-war and campaign frames and finesse the clash. It seems to have been an opportunity that was too good to pass up. His argument, in a nutshell, is that Ayers and Khalidi are so unexceptional and integrated in the “groupthink academic environment” that Obama couldn’t be expected to avoid them. In other words, the depth of the problem turns out, somehow, to be his candidate’s excuse. Oh, and by the way, the Democratic party better get with the program, because it was their “poor record in promoting diversity of thought and pedagogical approach on the nation’s college campuses” that made Obama vulnerable in the first place. Talk about having your cake and eating it too!

On DIW it’s “The Lacrosse Case & the Khalidi/Ayers Controversy.” Here’s Johnson letting Obama off the hook—text removed from the Cliopatria post is overstruck, text added for DIW is bracketed.

For the GOP attack to work, Ayers and Khalidi have to be viewed as exceptional figures[—wholly unlike nearly all other professors]. Obama’s judgment can hardly be questioned if his “buddies” were not marginal characters but instead people who are like [resemble] lots of other academics, especially since Obama lived in an academic neighborhood (Hyde Park) and spent several years teaching at the University of Chicago Law School.

Yet the truth of the matter is that the basic [pedagogical and academic] approaches of Ayers and Khalidi fit well within the academic mainstream. Ayers is, after all, a prestigious professor of education (hardly a field known for its intellectual diversity, of course [as I have explored elsewhere]). Khalidi was of such standing that Columbia hired him away from the U of C, and named him to chair its Middle East Studies Department. From that perch, [he presided over a wildly biased anti-Israel curriculum, even as] he informed readers of New York that students of Arab descent—and only such students—knew the “truth” about Middle Eastern affairs.

I lived in Hyde Park for six years, and I can’t tell you how many of my friends turned out to be unrepentant terrorists. Or, well, maybe I could… but I don’t have any political ambitions, so never mind. The DIW commentariat was no more more impressed than I am by Johnson’s clumsy sleight-of-hand, which insults not only the reader’s intelligence but the candidate’s as well. It would be understandable if it took a while before Obama realized that the Education professor putting together that big grant was once wanted for planting bombs in federal buildings—even in academia, believe it or not, that’s a singular bio. But Khalidi’s involvement with the Palestinian cause was ongoing and obvious, and over time it was the basis for conversations that included, by Obama’s account, “consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases.”

My impression is that Johnson’s fans mostly brushed the lame excuse aside. Rantburg sums up the real message of the post:

Prof. Johnson is certainly correct about the American academy: once you venture away from the hard sciences, you encounter a world in which people like William Ayers, Rashid Khalidi, Ward Churchill and others like them are not just ordinary and common-place, but both accepted and powerful.

David Thompson thumps the same drum but at least has a little more imagination in conjuring up outrageous academic villains—after all, his banner promises comic books, and what could be more entertaining than vanquishing “far left fantasists” intent on “‘groom[ing]’ youngsters with the ‘correct’ political outlook”? (it’s a lot more fun than the actual research, that’s for sure).

The bone Johnson throws to DIW readers in the passage I quoted is the comment about Columbia’s “wildly biased anti-Israel curriculum.” Elsewhere, the revised version is sprinkled with references to Duke’s all-purpose band of extremist stick figures, the so-called “Group of 88.” Khalidi is, in Johnson’s account, not only overvalued and hostile to America’s true friend in the Middle East but also ready to pass dismissive and self-serving judgment on the students he’s supposed to be teaching. If that sounds a lot like the “Group” profile, well, lo and behold, a few paragraphs later Johnson reads his tea leaves and declares that “[i]f Khalidi or Ayres were employed at Duke, doubtless they would have joined the Group of 88.”

Johnson doesn’t give a link to that New York magazine article, but when I tracked it down I found that Khalidi’s comments are not nearly so clear-cut. True to form, Johnson whittled them down to just the bullshit that suits his agenda.

“Most kids who come to Columbia come from environments where almost everything they’ve ever thought was shared by everybody around them,” [Khalidi] says. “And this is not true, incidentally, of Arab-Americans, who know that the ideas spouted by the major newspapers, television stations, and politicians are completely at odds with everything they know to be true. Whereas kids from, I don’t know, Teaneck. Or Scarsdale. Or Levittown. Or Long Island City. Many of them have never been exposed to a dissonant idea, a different idea, as far as the Middle East is concerned. And so you have a situation where it’s going to be problematic.”

Whatever this is, it’s absolutely not a blanket claim that one group owns the “truth” and the other doesn’t. The essence of it is that one has experienced more dissonance than the other, which doesn’t seem like such a controversial claim. Are the Jewish-American kids who go to Columbia more likely than the Arab-Americans to come from a relatively homogeneous community in which they’re well integrated? I believe they are. And are the students of Arab extraction more likely than the Jewish ones to encounter views on the Middle East that clash with their own views? Yes—public and political opinion in the US is overwhelmingly pro-Israel. Now just because Khalidi’s basic claim is plausible doesn’t mean it’s right, and even if it is right the differences between the groups might not be as stark or as significant, in practice, as Khalidi seems to think—that’s where my skepticism really kicks in. But there are all sorts of ways to object to this passage without misrepresenting it.

The article is about the controversy over the classroom behavior of professors in Columbia’s Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC). It’s well worth reading—the reporter, Jennifer Senior, gives a good account of both sides. Khalidi is quoted extensively. He’s “passionately invested in the future of Mideast studies,” and therefore on the defensive, since he sees the charges against his department as a “huge club” that’s being used to attack the field as a whole. But he doesn’t dismiss the charges, which date from when he was still in Hyde Park palling around with Obama.

“You know,” he concludes, “it could be the case that there are students who have serious grievances and it’s the case that threats to our academic freedom have developed over the last two years. This is a situation where you have to assume it’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Johnson’s analysis of “Obama and the Khalidi/Ayers Attacks” was a daredevil attempt to walk and chew gum at the same time. He failed miserably—not a surprise, since his heart wasn’t really in it in the first place. His talents run in the opposite direction, towards mind-numbing moralistic either/ors, and in that department the differences between him and Sarah Palin are mostly a matter of vocabulary and accent.

{ 6 } Comments

  1. RoseMontague | November 21, 2008 at 07:38 | Permalink

    I liked KC’s conclusion to his Clio article (the conflict of interest notes). It is clear that he is indeed, very conflicted. The quote he used from Mark Bauerlein was interesting as well: “when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs”. For some reason that reminded me of the DIW blog. Having posted comments recently on his blog that is moderated “with the lightest of touches” and then not seeing my comments appear gives me a new understanding of his conflicted nature. His Clio article seems to say that it is OK to be critical of people like Ayers and Khalidi as long as it is from the perspective of being critical of the academic left and certainly not from the standpoint of “educating” the American voter. I could be wrong about this as many conclusions are hard to find much less understand. Take for example this quote from LieStoppers Underground:

    Some Islamists in the Muslim world have made statements about Barack Obama. They has characterized him as the House Negro.

    My only conclusion is that Barack Obama brought this on - and he is to blame for this.

    ~   ~   ~

    I thought the conflict-of-interest disclaimer was interesting, too. It was probably appropriate, although I don’t think anything would have kept him from writing an informative commentary that didn’t need a disclaimer. But almost everything he writes about academia needs a disclaimer, really. The Bauerlein “groupthink” thing has been a mantra on DIW, and I agree that DIW itself has borne the idea out pretty well.

  2. wayne fontes | November 26, 2008 at 16:16 | Permalink

    David Thompson thumps the same drum but at least has a little more imagination in conjuring up outrageous academic villains—after all, his banner promises comic books, and what could be more entertaining than vanquishing “far left fantasists” intent on “‘groom[ing]’ youngsters with the ‘correct’ political outlook”? (it’s a lot more fun than the actual research, that’s for sure).

    For some one who was so disturbed by Thompson’s lack of curiosity; his “Joy of Not Knowing Very Much” I’m disappointed by the fact you linked to TR’s post. While students political self identification doesn’t change much their views on specific issues sure do. To call conservative critics liars seems to be awfully strong language when the details of the study support the claim being made. Am I applying to stringent a standard to TR? Perhaps so, but then I think The NYT has a distinctly liberal bias and tend to be skeptical of many of the stories they publish. They seem to have a particularly difficult time concerning how to interpret statistics and studies.

    Speaking of TR were you aware that she has erased her original Duke Lax post? You weren’t too happy when KC erased one of his posts. I believe your exact words were:

    [snip—see below]

    TR has returned to the Duke case many, many times over the past couple of years. It has a much longer tail across the internet. There’s actually quite a number of comments concerning the treatment she received from KC’s more (ahem) strident followers. Don’t you think people deserve to see what started the whole dust up?

    I don’t see the connection between academic freedom and criticism of professors such as Ayers and Khalidi. Neither is in any danger of loosing their jobs and in the case of Ayers the question of how a terrorist/communist becomes a professor of education feels legitimate to me. I’m not certain why the left feels the need to defend fringe lunatics like Ayers or Ward Churchill. The very act of defending individuals like Ayers gives credence to the criticism from the right.

    PS I’m experimenting with Zoho and I have no idea how the formatting will transfer. You might find some of their apps useful.

    ~   ~   ~

    Who called conservative critics liars? I sure didn’t, and I wasn’t even thinking it, and I don’t see how the accusation can be read into TR (Tenured Radical’s) post, either. Thompson, in my opinion, insulates himself pretty rigorously from complexities and practicalities when he gets into the academic culture-war thing. As far as I can tell he’s completely sincere, though. Taking up the research, even to debunk it, would be a step forward , but as I explained, though, it’s not likely to be as entertaining as running another episode of the academic freak show.

    No, I wasn’t aware that TR had erased the post that brought on the wrath of the blog hooligans. I agree that it’s a shame she did, because it is interesting and illuminating to be able to trace her involvement back to its source. Presumably she had her reasons, which I could second-guess, but won’t.

    I snipped out the “exact words” of mine that you quoted, though. It may have been my foolishness that led to them being published, but it wasn’t my choice, and I’m not going to discuss them. Anyone who wants to can follow this link to get the whole story, and I imagine Debrah would be happy to take up the thread if you want to have a conversation. But the parallel you were drawing is not a good one. TR erased a significant post, and that’s definitely grounds for criticism. Johnson, on the other hand, quietly erased an absurd and overblown fantasy—an embarassing one, in retrospect, I would think—about the airbrushing of history by some anonymous functionaries at Duke. The irony is deep, and it was magnified for me because I was in the process of posting my criticism of his post about airbrushing when I found out that he’d just airbrushed it. In what I was about to post, I had written that “I have to give Johnson credit for keeping DIW’s historical record intact, though. He’s left this post up, complete with updates and corrections…. I would have been sorely tempted to pull an Emily Litella‘never mind!’—and then pull the post.”

    It may be that the stupid remarks you wanted to quote are the reason the post reappeared—without that episode I’m not sure Johnson would have been aware that I’d noted its disappearance. That would be my one and perhaps only real accomplishment writing this damned blog.

    The formatting came through just fine.

  3. Robert Zimmerman | November 29, 2008 at 17:48 | Permalink

    A few things. I put the off-topic ranting of Ralph and Clyde on the extras page. Clyde thinks that my big complaint is that “[KC] Johnson is being unfair to Duke, Durham, and the Group of 88” and that I “want [him] to “present their side.” I don’t think Johnson would be capable of presenting their side even if he wanted to, and I don’t recall framing any of my criticism as a matter of fairness—it’s not my point at all. It would be nice if his criticism met some basic intellectual standards, but I don’t write about him with the expectation of changing how he goes about his business.

    Speaking of KC Johnson, in the comment thread on DIW he commented about this post.

    I’ve noticed that Prof. Zimmerman often employs expletives in his posts about me.

    He did, however, raise one substantive issue in his very long post: “In that one, the crusading logic is even more obviously in the drivers seat, especially in the rewrite, which panders to DIW loyalists with low-ball rhetoric that Johnson couldn’t get away with on Cliopatria (I hope).”

    I thought I would explain why the Cliopatria post differed from the DIW post. The differences between the two posts were marginal—and the differences between the arguments of the two posts insignificant. The “rewrite” was associated with neither “low-brow” (as in, the use of expletives in a post) nor “high-brow” rhetoric but with my decision to pay more attention in the DIW post to Wahneema Lubiano and other members of the Group of 88.

    Since DIW is a blog about the lacrosse case and its effects, it seemed reasonable to me to focus on the lacrosse case angle of the petition in my DIW post. This approach placed a spotlight on the peculiar definition of due process presented by Prof. Lubiano, and so I can see where my decision upset Prof. Zimmerman, who has ferociously defended Prof. Lubiano for several months. I apologize for causing him any consternation.

    I don’t now why these things always come with an insincere and unwanted apology—it’s a funny habit. And I don’t know where he got his definition of expletive. My understanding is that an expletive is a word that adds emphasis but “contributes nothing to the meaning” of the sentence (quoting Wikipedia). Johnson’s posts, of course, are full of expletives like the “of course” at the beginning of this sentence—something I wrote about a few months ago.

    I did have a meaning in mind, and “low-ball” was a poor word choice. “Low-brow” wouldn’t have been any better. My mistake, as usual, was getting too fancy. “Cheap” does the job just fine—the cheap rhetoric is, for example, the gratuitous reference to “Pete (‘floating phallus’) Sigal,” which would probably raise eyebrows at Cliopatria. There are a couple other examples in my latest over-long post. But I’ll take this opportunity to make the correction—everything I write could use an editor, so I’ll take what I can get.

    In what I just posted I’ve said quite a bit about the differences, marginal or not, between the two versions of KCC’s post.

  4. dukeprof | November 30, 2008 at 12:26 | Permalink

    Please give up this reharmonized nonsense. Your just making Duke look bad.

  5. dmg | December 1, 2008 at 11:57 | Permalink

    Succinct S U C C I N C T is the word you are searching for-

  6. wayne fontes | December 1, 2008 at 13:20 | Permalink

    The first sentence of TR’s post is below:

    Just a day before the election, another piece of scaffolding invented out of whole cloth by conservative liars — I mean, intellectual activists — crashes to the ground: the notion that liberal college professors are indoctrinating their students.

    I don’t think the reader needs to actively read anything in to that sentence to conclude the TR has called conservatives liars. The phrase “to make up out of whole cloth” means to lie and to insert the Jim Romesque “errr I mean intellectual activists” was done for comic affect not because she felt conservatives hadn’t lied. Yes, I realize that if pressed TR would say she doesn’t mean all conservatives.

    The formatting doesn’t seem to have come through. The link to this article showing that students’ specific views on political issues shift to the left during their four years in college is missing from my comment.

    No I don’t have any desire to have a conversation with Debrah. I had my say one time and Debrah responded exactly as I expected.

    Thompson, in my opinion, insulates himself pretty rigorously from complexities and practicalities when he gets into the academic culture-war thing. As far as I can tell he’s completely sincere, though. Taking up the research, even to debunk it, would be a step forward , but as I explained, though, it’s not likely to be as entertaining as running another episode of the academic freak show.

    I agree it’s easy for Thompson to provide another episode of the academic freak show two or three times a week. Fresh material constantly pops up. But I’m wondering how much research one needs to do when the topic de jour is Quantum Feminist Mnemotechnics: the Archival Text, Digital Narrative and the Limits of Memory. Read the comments on this one and I think you’ll find they are much more entertaining than the usual dissection of an academic stick figure DrThompson routinely performs.

    ~   ~   ~

    You’re absolutely right on the liar thing—obviously I didn’t read TR’s post that carefully. The (largely) conservative criticisms about indoctrination don’t strike me as lies. And she doesn’t look very closely at the research—your link to The Washington Witness is good as a counterpoint.

    I still like her post as a whole. One thing that comes through in it, and in many other things she’s written, is that she’s a good, engaged, and conscientious teacher. As a teacher, I find the assumptions behind a lot of the criticisms about liberal indoctrination to be insulting. It’s a personal reaction and not something I’d expect anyone else to put a lot of stock in. But with that perspective it’s hard for me to get too worked up about TR’s flippancy on the issue.