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The Mideast Wars at Columbia University

 Columbia University in New York City has been in the news this month, thanks to some collegiate rivalry along the lines of Palestinian and Jew.  From both sides come attacks, slanders, accusations, insults, and indignations, all paralleling the similar issues in Israel and its neighboring Middle Eastern states.  Nobody, however, has yet died from the current frenzies on the otherwise idyllic campus atop Morningside Heights – a fact which doesn't lessen the vitriol metastasizing there.  Academic quarrels may seem mere "civil strife," as Auden put it in his 1946 "Under Which Lyre," his Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard University, but they can be "just as mean / And more fanatic."

The intellectual brutalities at Columbia have mixed together professors and students on both sides, and have stimulated outside organizations as something more than additional cheerleaders.  But outsiders have long stirred this quarrel in its original Old World version – not least being the U.S. government's continuous military aid for the Israeli state, allowing it to fend off its Arab neighbors and grow its occupation of Palestinian lands.  A newer factor for the import of these wars here has been the growth of departments of Middle Eastern studies in American universities.  Columbia has a large one, with thirty three faculty now in the department largely founded on the genius of the late Edward Said.  And, like Said, most of these tilt in sympathies against the Jewish state, America's military support for it, and the continuing take-over of Palestinian lands.

Journalists covering the Middle Eastern wars at Columbia may agree on these as key background facts, but all miss another factor for the steady turn of these hostilities:  the handicapping that comes from deadly habits in all our academics.

Our academics learn above all to be objective, and dispassionately dedicated to their disciplines.  They have learned to detach into specialist protocols.  All departments withdraw into their own procedural methodologies, all isolated from all others.  This is called being professional.  The most-sophisticated systems of getting full-time positions, conferencing honors, committee chairs, tenure, and promotions radiate empowerment for those in them.  They guarantee escalating pay scales, fringe benefits, and awaiting pensions.  Within each discipline, everybody knows the special conceits of vocabulary, tropes, and linguistic registers that signal its traditions and its borders.  Professors pride themselves for communication skills they presume – especially for their intricacies for quoting, referencing, and footnoting.  When anyone triggers any particular issue, arsenals of erudite ammunition lay available for response.  Thus the wars at Columbia University may so easily ensue.  Thus the historically-tinged sets of terms from one side elicit predictable responses from the other.  The mutual provocations soon set all throbbing into their respective gyres of righteousness, and the air thickens, as it has above Morningside Heights, with traceries of cliché, slogans and jargon, and reiterations of historical fact.

None from either of the two sides, however, yoked as they are to each other, can ever be surprised by the other.  It's an old story – how our antagonistic opposites become part of ourselves.  Husbands and wives do it all the time.  Most of us in various parts of our lives wear our heart on our sleeves to the degrees that we lose our ability to respond to "others."  We see them less as "others," more – like warts, perhaps – as further parts of ourselves.  And we cannot see how greatly we may be making a mechanism of ourselves.  We fit a very old script as we lapse into older grudges, inherited suspicions, and half-baked notions – a script that replicates itself by us in it.  Our good professors sink in it, too.  All our authorities get too serious about themselves as they conflate themselves with whatever system gives them their authority.  But it's still a story – our oldest one:  we reducing ourselves and all "others" to our solipsistic projections onto them.

How to see "others"?  This is a different story – lots of different stories, obliging us to be open to seeing ourselves as perhaps in some originating story, and obliging us, too, to have at least the decency of necessary humor to enjoy seeing others also in their analogously original and subsequently many-layered roles.  Humor helps – but you won't find much of this at Columbia University these days.  Or most any other universities.   Corporate environments all ("follow the money"), they more resemble those royalties of the world so interbred as to cripple them all in redundant gene pools of mutant drooling.

Over the years I have watched our dear souls in so-called higher education and continued to expect exceptions from among them.  Many, after all, write books decrying war, genocide, and the ruts of religion, nationalism, and ethnicity.  Many publish paeans to diversity, tolerance, and multi-culturalism.  So I have often contacted these people – dozens of them, at all our best universities and think tanks.  And, like Charlie Brown trusting that this time Lucy is going to hold the ball, I, too, have ever re-learned the one predominant fact.  Academics live in a world where they expect often to be at the front of a room, or central to a seminar table.  They often expect all eyes on them – never for they themselves to take seriously others in the room as having parts of their lives with any bearing on the syllabus material.

Charlie Brown's a good guy, and as he has never given up on his sweet red-headed Lucy, so I persist.  Academics could link to others in the room.  So I have devised a little test:  that we count how often in discussion or lecture they refer to any of their students.  Reference doesn't count if it's just another rhetorical prop.  It counts only when another story emerges, one which may add to the course.

Making this application – one story to apply to another – requires literacy.  Poets can do it.  Novelists, short story writers, and memoirists can.  Scenarists and playwrights. Musicians.  And film and theater directors and their editors.  Literacy occurs widely:  all arts of locating one person or something inside of or alongside another.

It normally doesn't happen, however, in academia – not even in those baubles called Masters of Fine Arts programs, where most learn but newly ornamental ways to screen out all the other disciplines and screen out peers, too.  Our "best and brightest" haven't changed since David Halberstam traced their arrogance and crippling thirty-some years ago.  They have learned to be in love with a safe world, where disciplinary material never connects to anything outside well-demarcated parameters – and certainly not to real human "others."  Our "best and brightest" are loathe to cite students – an unimaginable leap for the ethically hermaphroditic – because actual human beings pose dimensions outside those of corporate careerism.  Professors may flatter themselves that one may if one likes step outside one's niche.  But if you listen, you'll see no references to "others."

And yet our good, liberal professors like to appear open, in touch, and enlightened.  When they look at the Middle East, it's easy to bemoan the Bush administration's obvious arrogance and unpreparedness in invading Iraq.  It's easy to excoriate retro Americans in their SUV, shopping mall, fast food franchise, cul-de-sac subdivision, and superhighway sprawl culture – as it is for red staters to deny the dictatorships around the world long propped up by American militarism for the sake of our happy sprawl lifestyle. Easy, too, for our "Christian" patriots not to see or care how so many abroad hate us for how our government has hurt them, their lands, and cultures.

Yes, our public-relations politicians, advertisers, and marketers have taught us our entitlements and myopias.  But more than they have, our good professors have taught and modeled our conceits of bubble imagination.

We have no profession in America – or the world – more humanly dishonest, reduced in imagination, and chilled in the calculations of careerism than these, our corporate academics.  As Auden had Voltaire say of their predecessors in his poem, "Voltaire at Ferney," they were then as they are now "itching to boil their children," itching to reduce all to their own closed roles.  Shed of the patience – let alone enjoyment – to see "others" as relevant, we too may be only irritated if others intrude.  We, too, may want to shake them off, as drivers in sprawl America do with their middle fingers every day, as the dear intellectuals are doing similarly this month at Columbia University.

Who are "others"?  The question – the very grammar – again reduces us – this time to labeling, and to expecting that "they" will only do the same to us.  Thus solipsism projects our fraudulent images of ourselves on "others."  Essaying Differences says we can do differently.  We can see much more of "others" (and ourselves) when we begin to see how we are all ever acting, always linked in stories, but visibly so in the many-layered terms of our cultures – our varying styles of clothing, food preparation, landscape, housing, and travel.  These express us actually, as our literature, film, and music do theoretically.  But our values show in all the styles we inhabit, though we yet sink with the reduced souls of "higher education."

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