When my brother and I were teenagers, my dad used to have a joke about how we should be made to hold up “irony” signs when we said something around the dinner table that we didn’t intend to take seriously. Maybe I should start using one for Noah Pollack’s benefit. He’s apparently an admirer of the work of Martin Kramer, who holds the view that the mainstream of the field of Middle East Studies does bad work. Or, as Pollack puts it, that “they’ve become enamored of post-colonial academic fads.” Because Kramer thinks their work is bad, he takes the view that the views of mainstream scholars in the field should be marginalized in our discourse and our policy process.
I disagree, and glossed this ironically as the view that “the problem with U.S. Middle East policy is that it’s unduly influenced by people who are knowledgeable about the Middle East.”Pollack then decides to prove that if you take that literally, it’s not literally true.
At any rate, if you were sitting around in December 2001 looking at the dispute between the Middle East Studies mainstream and the Kramer-style revisionist camp, you might have a hard time making up your mind. The mainstream is the mainstream, and there’s a lot to be said for following the academic consensus. The consensus, however, could be wrong. Maybe academic fashion really has just gone astray. Fortunately, though, we’ve actually had the experiencing of living now for the past five or six years in a country that’s made drastic policy decisions in the Middle East that have been heavily influenced by interpretations favored by people and institutions — Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes, Martin Kramer, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, etc. — firmly in the revisionist camp. It’s all turned out to be a huge disaster.
By contrast, while mainstream Middle East Studies folks (Juan Cole and Marc Lynch probably the ones best-known to the blogosphere) haven’t been right about everything, their commentary over these years has held up quite well. It looks like maybe the mainstream views are mainstream because they’re correct! It’s also telling that in many respects what Middle East Studies scholars have been telling us about the Bush administration’s policies is broadly similar to what international relations scholars have been telling us. But as I say, at this point the proof is in the pudding, and the revisionist pudding is terrible.