Politics & Policy

Cole Goes On

The "debate" continues.

Wow, this is not how I planned to spend my time (and if you haven’t been following any of this stuff, it’s probably too late to care now). Juan Cole, dashboard saint of lefty Middle East experts, says I’m continuing to embarrass myself by arguing with him. On this, I think we’ve achieved a rare note of consensus. This is one of those fun Internet fights between two people who do not like or respect each other and the more I learn about Cole from people who know about him, the more I think he’s not worth the effort. The difference, I think, is that Juan thinks his feelings are dispositive–I am Juan Cole, therefore if I say Jonah’s a maroon it must be so–while I’ve tried to actually stick to the arguments.

Cole begins by trying to move the terms back to where he likes them: his insults and ad-hominem attacks. In this case, he seems mostly convinced that he won because I didn’t engage in a debate about whether or not I am an idiot and know-nothing. He even begins by saying, “Let us see what has been established. First, I alleged that Goldberg has never read a book about Iraq, about which he keeps fulminating.” Yes, that’s right doc, the foremost “established” fact is that you made a silly insult. That I didn’t respond to it on your terms is proof that it must be true. This reminds me, Professor: I wanted to ask when you stopped buggering your goats. I’ll interpret any non-response as an admission you’re still doing it.

Meanwhile, my point was: Whether or not I am an idiot, the substance of what Cole had written was wrong and inconsistent with what he had said before. I have now lost respect for most–though not all–of Cole’s fans who’ve emailed me over the last few days, but I do wish they would consider this point in good faith. Cole somehow believes that what matters most are his barbs. See how many times he says “I challenged…” or “I alleged…”–more often than not, the thing he challenged or alleged was simply my unworthy stature to have an opinion.

Cole claims not to understand why I’m not interested in debating him on “Middle East issues”–or perhaps he really doesn’t get it. Let me spell it out again: I think Cole is the sort of bullying professor most of us have encountered in one way or another. He belittles those who dare to question his expertise. I simply have no doubt that a face-to-face debate with him would resemble the online version: It would come down to him quizzing me on the names of Shiite clans or something else just as trivial as a distraction. Cole is a disingenuous man, and on this point the paper trail is as long as the road to Damascus. Oh wait, Dr. Cole: Is that a long road? I don’t speak Arabic so I don’t know for sure. And while my reputation in some quarters may be that of a warmongering idjit or sophomoric maroon my honesty has not been in doubt. With him, it seems to always be. See one small example here and here.

For example, Cole sees it as very revealing that I never took his “how many books have you read?” bait. This struck me as a transparent example of the sort of man he is. It was a dumb, obvious trap. No matter how many books I could list, he’s obviously read more–and written more. If he hasn’t, the University of Michigan should revoke his tenure. Once I offered up my reading list, he’d then puff out his chest and have a chuckle. But now that he’s done engaging me in print, I will once again be perfectly honest: I don’t know how many books I’ve read on the Middle East, in whole or in part (deadline journalists sometimes need to read only relevant chapters). But I can tell you some of the standouts: Several books by Bernard Lewis, particularly Islam and the West. The Closed Circle by NR’s own David Pryce-Jones. The Threatening Storm by Kenneth Pollack was great if, alas, flawed in hindsight (and I have his new book on Iran on the pile). I loved A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin and consult it often. And Republic of Fear by Kanan Makiya had a deep impact on me. There are others, but you get the point. I also read lots of newspapers, magazines, blogs–i.e. the same sources Cole relies on to discuss current events in Iraq–and talk to people who know more than me. In short, I am exactly what I pretend to be, a relatively well-read and informed opinion journalist.

But now that I’ve taken the bait, let me ask: What, on earth does my bookshelf have to do with whether or not his comments on the Iraqi election were inconsistent and silly? Nothing. More revealing, he says that he expected me to lie about the books I’ve read. I think this says more about him than me. He’s accustomed to lying to win points and he expects others to do the same. He still insists that I conceded he was right about Iran when I never did any such thing.

He then drags in this goofy argument that I’m “anti-intellectual” because I don’t defer to him. “An argument that judgment matters but knowledge does not is profoundly anti-intellectual.” I agree. Which is why I wrote: “Don’t get me wrong I believe in expertise and the value of books.” But Cole still sticks to this notion that questioning his judgment is synonymous with being anti-intellectual. That is astoundingly arrogant and really quite dumb.

Cole writes:

Goldberg is now saying that he did not challenge my knowledge of the Middle East, but my judgment. I take it he is saying that his judgment is superior to mine. But how would you tell whose judgment is superior? Of course, all this talk of “judgement” is code for “political agreement.” Progressives think that other progressives have good judgment, conservatives think that other conservatives have good judgment. This is a tautology in reality. Goldberg believes that I am wrong because I disagree with him about X, and anyone who disagrees with him is wrong, and ipso facto lacks good judgment.

Cute, but this is in fact a point I made about James Wolcott, who does do exactly that. And it’s a point I’ve made about Cole himself (I think it’s funny the great scholar is cribbing my arguments, but I’ll take it as flattering). As countless readers have noted, Cole has been making the logical fallacy of appealing to authority, in this case himself. But for the record, it is his judgment that is in question. That was the point of my original one-paragraph criticism of him, which caused him to get his knickers in a twist in the first place. I think he’s displaying crappy judgment when he says the Iranian elections were “much more democratic” than the Iraqi ones and when he dismisses those same joyous elections as a mere “referendum.” (By the way, for a terrific analysis of the elections, I recommend Kanan Makiya’s op-ed from yesterday’s Journal.)

Now, finally, the sage of the Great Lakes is offering some substance to back up his position. Of course it comes after the stuff he really cares about–insults. It’s his attempt to look reasonable. I particularly like this line: “But I did not say that Goldberg’s judgment is always faulty.”

Perhaps Cole could recount the times when someone he considers “a fearmonger, a warmonger, and a demagogue” and a “maroon” to have shown good judgment–other than when they’re blowing up Israeli kids or generally kissing up to him?

Anyway, he goes back to trying to defend his original view that the 1997 Iranian elections were “much more democratic” than the Iraqi ones. To do so he doesn’t invoke any of the dusty Arabic tomes or newspapers he reads so well. But he does invoke a Judith Miller Hardball appearance. What was all that stuff about Cole getting his information from more authoritative sources than any I had access to? Is Hardball now in Arabic? I don’t have any brief against Miller myself, but it seems to me she’s not exactly a great source for someone like Cole to hang his arguments on considering how many times Cole has disparaged her.

On the whole, I think he’s got the losing side of this argument, but I cannot imagine readers haven’t made up their minds by now. He then goes on to the chickenhawk stuff…yawn. And then he defends the view that I’m a warmonger for supporting the war but his hands are clean for saying he couldn’t really oppose it and that the lives lost before May were worth it. Uh, ok. But what makes me a warmonger, he suggests, is that I continued to support the occupation. He writes that “lives lost after about May of 2003 were often lost unnecessarily and as the result of bad Bush administration policy.” Okay, that’s a reasonable point I guess. But when did I ever say that the occupation was handled perfectly? See here, for example. I know I’m a “dime a dozen pundit” but I don’t get it. And on that point, I think this batty statement says a lot about where Cole is really coming from:

But Goldberg is just a dime a dozen pundit. Cranky rich people hire sharp-tongued and relatively uninformed young people all the time and put them on the mass media to badmouth the poor, spread bigotry, exalt mindless militarism, promote anti-intellectualism, and ensure generally that rightwing views come to predominate even among people who are harmed by such policies. One of their jobs is to marginalize progressives by smearing them as unreliable.

This comes back to his delusional statement that I attacked Cole to keep him from warning America there was a lively debate between “hardliners and conservatives” in Iran which would convince Americans not to go to war.

Cole is messianic and Manichean. I don’t have any agenda to silence or marginalize the guy. I simply wanted to call attention to the fact that a well-regarded scholar said some silly things. He did. His vanity couldn’t handle it and so he exploded with invectives and more silly statements.

Anyway, I do think my judgment is superior to his when it comes to the big picture. So, I have an idea: Since he doesn’t want to debate anything except his own brilliance, let’s make a bet. I predict that Iraq won’t have a civil war, that it will have a viable constitution, and that a majority of Iraqis and Americans will, in two years time, agree that the war was worth it. I’ll bet $1,000 (which I can hardly spare right now). This way neither of us can hide behind clever word play or CV reading. If there’s another reasonable wager Cole wants to offer which would measure our judgment, I’m all ears. Money where your mouth is, doc.

One caveat: Because I don’t think it’s right to bet on such serious matters for personal gain, if I win, I’ll donate the money to the USO. He can give it to the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade or whatever his favorite charity is.


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