Media Blog

The Intellectual Bankruptcy of Juan Cole

There’s regular-ol’ media stupid, and there’s Juan Cole stupid. And he turns the stupid dial all the way up to 11 in his latest.

Sept. 9, 2008 | John McCain announced that he was running for president to confront the “transcendent challenge” of the 21st century, “radical Islamic extremism,” contrasting it with “stability, tolerance and democracy.” But the values of his handpicked running mate, Sarah Palin, more resemble those of Muslim fundamentalists than they do those of the Founding Fathers. On censorship, the teaching of creationism in schools, reproductive rights, attributing government policy to God’s will and climate change, Palin agrees with Hamas and Saudi Arabia rather than supporting tolerance and democratic precepts. What is the difference between Palin and a Muslim fundamentalist? Lipstick.
McCain pledged to work for peace based on “the transformative ideals on which we were founded.” Tolerance and democracy require freedom of speech and the press, but while mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, Palin inquired of the local librarian how to go about banning books that some of her constituents thought contained inappropriate language. She tried to fire the librarian for defying her. Book banning is common to fundamentalisms around the world … .

Juan Cole is a genuine scholar, a professor at a real university. So why is he simply recycling largely discredited humbug from a viral e-mail? What’s next, writing an essay in the Financial Times about amazing transactional opportunities in Nigeria?
One by one:
1. Sarah Palin, to the best of anybody’s knowledge, has never actually tried to censor anything, or to ban any books. She asked a librarian a reasonable question about what would be done if somebody — say, a taxpayer — objected to something shelved in the taxpayer-supported library. This isn’t an unreasonable question. If libraries are going to be supported through taxes, then taxpayers have a legitimate interest in what is done with their money. If a town library decides it doesn’t want a copy of the complete works of the Marquis de Sade on its shelves, that’s not censorship. The book isn’t being banned. You can write it, read it, publish it, sell it, own it, give it away, share it, advertise it, print up a million copies and hand them out on the mean streets of Wasilla. No library will contain every book, and there are all sorts of legitimate factors that can go into making that decision. I’m guessing that the Collected Works of David Duke are not found in many public libraries, maybe not even at the University of Michigan. That’s not censorship; that’s good taste.
But setting aside that argument, Palin did not ask to have any books removed, nor did she try to fire the librarian for fighting her on the issue. Palin asked for the resignation of most of her town’s department heads when she was elected (paying special attention to those who had supported her opponent in the election, no doubt). She said she intended to shake up local government, and she read the riot act to the head librarian, the police chief, the head of public works. Cole is peddling lies here. (Maybe he should see if the Wasilla library is interested in his fiction.) It’s a bit late in the game for Cole to be pretending that he doesn’t know this; anybody with two minutes on their hands can find out that these claims are documentably false.
Some of the books Palin is said to have wanted to ban from the library weren’t even published at the time she was mayor.
2. Palin has not said that she wants to teach creationism in the schools. In fact, she has explicitly said that she sees no reason it would have to be part of the curriculum. She has said that she thinks students and teachers should be able to talk about the ideas involved in the disputes surrounding the teaching of evolution. This is called free discourse, and some of Cole’s fellow academics are in favor of it, as were the fellows who wrote the Bill of Rights.
3. “Reproductive rights” is a funny phrase. If there’s one thing nobody is worried about in re the Palins, it’s whether they can reproduce. They’re obviously a pretty fecund clan, and the governor supports other people’s right to reproduce, too. She is anti-abortion and thinks it should be illegal in most cases. Most Americans think abortion should be banned in all circumstances or most circumstances. Are they all fundamentalist kooks, too?
4. “Handpicked running mate” is pretty lame language. Are there vice-presidential candidates who aren’t “handpicked”? What do the Democrats use, a lottery? Drawing straws?
5. She did not attribute any government policy to the will of God. She did pray, at a prayer event, that our government’s policies are in accordance with the will of God. This is part and parcel of that crazy fundamentalist theology summarized by the words: “Thy will be done.” What’s the alternative? Praying that our public policies violate the will of God? Is it really controversial for somebody to hope that we’re doing the right thing?
6. Climate change. Cole is arguing that Palin is akin to Muslim fundamentalists. Where exactly does Osama bin Laden stand on climate change? I’ll admit to being stumped on that one; global warming does not seem to be a major part of the al-Qaeda agenda, unless they have climate change in mind when they rave about driving the Jews into the sea, and they really mean drive the sea into the Jews by melting the polar ice caps. If there’s been some sort of Arabic translation error, maybe Cole can correct it. Maybe not.
On the other hand, Palin did fight against efforts to restrict the operating hours of bars, which doesn’t seem all that Talibanesque to me.
One could write 10,000 words on the concentration of nonsense Cole manages here. As a negative achievement, his piece is stunning — the journalistic equivalent of creating a black hole in a lab, but a black hole made of densely packed buffoonery rather than matter.
So what’s the difference between Juan Cole and an honest scholar? It ain’t lipstick.