Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat :
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Aswat Asharq Al-Awsatt since 1987

Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : Western Universities: A Double Invasion 

If you visit Paris these days, you may run into solemn-looking youths distributing a tract that’s says: “Palestine is fighting for all of us!” or tagging this message on the walls: “Stop Genocide in Palestine!”

They introduce themselves as university students, young scholars who are supposedly training to become the nation’s political guides and mentors.

However, you soon found out that their understanding of political issues, including the current war in Gaza, is a reflection more of street politics than academic methods. In other words, the street and its politique de la rue in French, have invaded the university or at least part of it that wears the label of “humanities”, a witches’ brew of once academic subjects corrupted by ideology.

The street’s way of doing politics, tagging slogans on the walls, distributing leaflets, burning tires and dustbins, and setting flags and effigies of figures you don’t like on fire has replaced the traditional, admittedly tiresome, debates, discussions, essay writings, and what in the 1960s protests was called “teach-ins”.

I first caught a glimpse of the street invading the faculty at the American University in Washington in the early 1980s when Dr. Hamid Mawlana a professor of journalism invited me to give a talk on my experience as a reporter. Being used to the strict protocols and dress codes of old European universities, I was surprised to see students appearing in shorts and T-shirts, while some drank coffee in styrofoam cups or giggled with neighbors. We could have been in a Starbucks, which didn’t exist at the time.

A decade later I had a similar experience when Jean-Louis Terrier invited me to give a talk on the Iraq war at Ecole Nationale d’Administration - the school designed to train France’s future ruling elite - then still located in Paris. Despite the presence of some students observing a certain dress code that an old fogey like me imagined necessary for an academic occasion, it was clear that the street had crept into the academy.

What was curious in both cases was the prejudicial approach to the subjects raised. The questioners were already certain that they knew the answers to the questions they asked because they had heard or read it somewhere in the streets including in cafes. They sought confirmation for their prejudices.

In Washington they seemed convinced that the media were controlled by you-know-who and that the only true reporters were “investigative journalists” seeking to unmask politicians who were puppets for shadowy puppet-masters. The two Washington Post reporters who starred in the Watergate saga were role models. It made no use telling the students that all the two heroes did was to publish what “Deep Throat” fed them. Nor was it any use to remind them that a similar saga wouldn’t have started without Daniel Ellsberg stealing the Pentagon Papers.

In Paris, too, the students already knew all the answers.

Fast forward to these days.

This is how a Professor at New York’s Columbia University encourages the protests against the war in Gaza: “Students have always been on the right side of history at Columbia University and other universities since the sixties. Today we honor those students who opposed an illegal and shameful war of genocide in Indochina in 1968, and Columbia University honors them...and one day what our students did here will be immortalized in the same way.”

In other words, the US had gone to Indochina to kill all the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, for this is what genocide means.

We heard echoes of that in Paris.

One lecturer at Political Science Institute was telling a radio reporter that Benjamin Netanyahu would settle for nothing but genocide of Palestinians as if the hapless Israeli premier were Genghis Khan with absolute power and no one in Israel to rap his knuckles.

In US and France at least, it is not only the street that has invaded the “humanities” departments. Another invader is the theological seminary which inspires the method. If the academy or faculty are supposed to focus on raising questions, the seminary is designed to provide answers, answers even to unasked questions.

The academy recognizes no absolute truth and no concepts and theories that can’t be questioned, doubted and challenged. The seminary on the other hand starts by setting what is known as the kerigma, the proclamation of absolute and unalterable truth. Everything else is categorized as henid, vague notions that, like an effervescent tablet in a glass of water, dissolve into an irrelevance of being-and-not being.

The crisis in Western universities is further complicated by the advent of wokery, a corrupted secular version of the seminarian’s sympathy for the innocent scapegoat, a sympathy extended to all real or imagined victims of injustice. While the seminary is chiefly interested in the text, faculty ought to be equally interested in the context. In many “humanities” departments in Western universities, however, the text comes from propagandist pamphlets written by polemicist professors while the context is regarded as a mere diversion from the truth.

Shakespeare said it best: “Now confusion has made its masterpiece!”