Khalidi observations misinterpreted

By Jeff Friedman

I just became aware of Daniel Rosenthal’s gross misrepresentation of my letter to the MAROON Viewpoints section (“Khalidi Discussion Mistaken,” 11/14/03). The degree of misrepresentation leads me to only two possible conclusions: Rosenthal is unable to closely read and understand my letter, or he has an agenda that he has chosen to advance regardless of its applicability to my letter. Specifically, Rosenthal wrote that I “employ the bizarre strategy of comparing Khalidi to murderers,” and that I “imply that Khalidi has no academic qualifications, and suggest that Khalidi is an agent of foreign governments.” The fact that I said none of these things leads me to believe Rosenthal is using me as a straw man to make his own arguments in favor of Khalidi.

I made a series of comments about the faculty’s reaction to Khalidi’s departure to Columbia. I felt that their assertions of Khalidi’s value to the University and the academic community could not be accepted on faith and needed to be grounded with evidence. Rosenthal conveniently omitted the fact that I was responding to faculty comments (expressed in the MAROON column and quoted in my letter) and simply asserts that I was describing Khalidi directly. So when I say that negative publicity about Khalidi’s public statements is not automatically a positive thing for the University and compare it to publicity following Leopald and Loeb, Rosenthal accuses me of comparing Khalidi to a murderer (as opposed to comparing two examples of negative publicity). Again, this can’t be simple ignorance or an inability to comprehend my point. Rosenthal must be deliberately misrepresenting me to advance his own agenda.

In the second nasty misrepresentation, Rosenthal again accuses me of comparing Khalidi to a murderer, this time Osama Bin Laden. I wrote that Dorman’s quote (which I included in my letter), was “applicable to virtually any polarizing figure,” even Bin Laden. There’s no way Rosenthal missed that I was commenting on Dorman’s quote not Khalidi himself, but again he considers this a description of Khalidi (as opposed to a description of another polarizing figure who would fit Dorman’s generic praise).

Rosenthal demands a recitation of criticism of Khalidi’s public statements and the effect they have had on students in the University. He cites the absence of such examples in my letter as proof that they do not exist. I chose not to make a divisive argument about Khalidi’s statements (I specifically say that it is immaterial to the point of my letter) and I’m not going to be suckered into it here. Let it suffice that the link I provided in my letter (which Rosenthal obviously didn’t follow), goes to Campus Watch’s recitation of such accusations against Khalidi from students at the U of C. I also referenced the previous discussions on the topic in last year’s MAROON. But Rosenthal’s comment that I provide “no examples,” shows his own laziness (or personal agenda) not my lack of referential evidence. On a related note, I have no idea what connection the positive Kirkus and Library Journal reviews of Khalidi’s last book (which Rosenthal’s cites) have with the supposed positive role controversial professors serve on university campuses.

Rosenthal continues in this vein with his assertion that my references to other’s comments are in fact my own comments. He sloppily glosses my questioning of the diversity of viewpoints in NELC as a statement that NELC lacks diversity. I said that the lack of a single negative opinion or doubt expressed by any member of NELC in regards to the supposed value of a controversial professor could signify a lack of diversity in the department. I also cited an article that makes this accusation of the MELAC department at Columbia to which Khalidi has departed. Because I do not know the opinions of every member of NELC (only those in the MAROON article I was responding to), I very deliberately did not say that they all hold the same opinion. While I am cautious about avoiding statements I do not know to true, Rosenthal deliberately makes statements he knows are false.

Rosenthal takes my concerns about the potential negative effect a professor’s polarizing views can have on their students and rewrites it as a moronic rhetorical question: “how can Khalidi’s views be both polarizing and the same as everyone else’s?” Obviously I do not think Kahlidi’s views are the same as “everyone else’s.” I think views that encourage polarization and distortion must be rejected (as Rosenthal’s exemplify) in favor of “true debate [which] would require a forum where divergent points of view are analyzed, supported by evidence, and the merits of each weighed.”

I’m sure by now you get the point. I can’t even guess why Rosenthal accuses me of doubting Khalidi’s academic qualifications. I didn’t. I don’t. And I haven’t read anyone else who has. I also didn’t suggest he was an agent of foreign governments, although I reference an article that said Saudi Arabia contributes to the Said Chair at Columbia. It’s one hell of a leap to go from chairing a position that accepts contributions to being an agent, but as usual, Rosenthal is happy to make that leap on my behalf.

I wish I could simply ignore Rosenthal’s letter, but a student on campus today asked me why I described Khalidi as a murderer. Rosenthal’s distortions are harmful and not just to my reputation, but also to values we as U of C students should place on honest debate.

I very carefully framed my letter to avoid any comment on Khalidi’s views and raise the real question of whether hiring professors like Khalidi is valuable because of their controversial views not just their academic chops. Rosenthal’s response was typical of the “debate” created by Khalidi’s presence: he so distorts my statements that he completely misses my point. His tactic is particularly shameful since the goal of my letter was to point out that such dishonest attacks are harmful to our university. If Rosenthal is any example, the supposed value of professors who generate controversy must be looked at more closely. We can’t substitute deceitful attacks for reasoned discourse and debate. Just because demonizing anyone who disagrees with you is commonplace in popular news media doesn’t mean it should be accepted at the U of C.