OK. Who ARE the MESA Thought Police?

28 Sep


Readers have wanted to know.  I explain below.

MESA is the Middle Eastern Studies Association, an organization like the AAA for anthropologists or the MLA for – well, for practically anybody these days – that brings together American scholars of the Middle East.

The Thought Police (TP), are agents of that association charged with maintaining ideological correctness and compliance among the members of their community. They are not nearly as active now as they once were, largely because the ideological and intellectual climate has changed so radically in the past couple of decades, but they are still a body to be feared and respected in my opinion.

What did it used to take for them to open a file on you? Well, almost anything. Just being a Westerner (the definition of which was random and usually made up as they went along and according to circumstances and whim) immediately made you a potential target…or looking too WASP-y…or too inside-the-Beltway…or having a high-and-tight or any similarly military haircut.  Or, even if you’re from the region, but because you’re a Near Eastern Christian, and your immediate emotional attention is automatically drawn to Christianity’s losing struggle for survival there before it’s drawn to other regional issues that may also concern you deeply, or if you even suggested that life for non-Muslims in a Muslim world was not, historically or now, always paradise, you were immediately a potential target. If, out of intellectual affinity, or just your personal affective structure as a New Yorker, you exhibited as much concern for how Zionism is bad and morally destructive for Jews as you do to the painful suffering of Palestinians, chances are there’d be a file on you. If you weren’t falling over yourself during the 90s – burdened by post-colonial guilt and the most stupid, simplistic revisionism — trumpeting the superiority of Islamic civilization and its sophistication, and proclaiming the long-buried truth that all the learning of the classical world had been preserved in Baghdad and Damascus and Cordoba…ad nauseum (yes, there, and in a dinky provincial town called Constantinople….) or if you were caught even suggesting, heaven forbid, that maybe — just maybe — Arabs had simply conquered what were already the most sophisticated and civilized parts of the Greco-Roman and Sassanian worlds, or you weren’t apologizing for the Crusades, or if you didn’t immediately accept at face value the bloated claims of tolerance — completely unsupported by the historical record — that Islam often makes for itself, you were a target. If you weren’t willing to immediately “understand” any response of the Muslim world to the depredations of colonialism-neo-colonialism as — if not a legitimate form of resistance — as at least something that needs to be seen “in the context of…” you were immediately suspect.

You don’t necessarily need to be an Arab or an Arab-American of some sort to rise in the ranks of the TP. But Turks are usually too patient and soft-spoken to be as ruthless as necessary to make effective agents, and Iranians and their South-and-Central Asian cultural protégées are usually too invested in their dignity and aloofness — the whole cult of ta’arof and tahzeeb — to get down and dirty in the way necessary. To really make it to the top of the MESA TP, that famous Arab poetic sensibility, and the ability it gives to indulge in baroque rhetorical excess and some strategically used vein-popping anger and ranting, is usually a prerequisite.

But despite having clearly inherited those ranting skills, most TP agents are, tellingly, of the more déracinés strata of the societies they come from, or are ethnic-Americans embarrassed by their parents’ white wish, so a great deal of their zeal comes from the screamingly obvious need to overcompensate. So one of the more central elements or characteristics of this sociological profile is the TP intellectual’s inability to take religion seriously into any critical calculation of events, trends and processes in the region that is his oh-so-passionate object of concern. So, if you did have a reasoned philosophical critique of Islam, and even if it were only one very small part of your much larger intellectual apprehensions about monotheism generally,* there was no possible way to engage them on that level. Because they’re really just a bunch of “more-royalist-than-the-king”, middle-class white-boys-and-girls, raised in a spiritual vacuum without the vaguest of metaphysical impulses or yearnings, they simply think of religion as epiphenomenal, in the most retrograde, reductive Marxist manner of thinking imaginable, and your “critique” would immediately be reduced to just a façade for your racism and anti-Muslim prejudice. Don’t even expect to be listened to.

What could or can they do to you? Well, if you’re not in academia yourself, aside from how generally unpleasant and abrasive they will succeed in making any kind of interaction with them, they really can’t do much. But that abrasiveness is unpleasant enough an experience to want to make the weak-kneed run and hide; and the most “weak-kneed” especially includes non-Middle-Eastern or non-Muslim academics in the field who are terrified of professional marginalization and loss of funding. Otherwise, you’ll simply be subjected to intolerable, self-righteous tirades. (One bridge over the humor-desert of Turkey that I always felt bound Greeks to Arabs was a similar sense of sardonic wit and irony and infectious jokiness – but absolute, literal-minded humorlessness is a prerequisite to being a TP agent.) You’ll be assaulted with hostile silence and disdain. If you’re not among the weak-kneed and you continue to challenge them in some way, they’ll resort to that cheapest weapon in the professional intellectual’s arsenal – the pulling of academic rank: “Do you even know anything about the Middle East, Niko?!?”  Well. Yeah. Actually habibti, for a layman, I kinda do. Or at least enough to be able to formulate an intelligent question or set of intelligent questions about certain things that you – despite your credentials – seem to be having an extraordinarily difficult time in answering. So maybe that inability on your part should be more the object of your focus and not what you’re convinced are my prejudices and hatreds. Ultimately, complete ostracism was the maximum punishment, with no regard for the social or personal intimacy previously established and which you thought might soften the tone of the discourse and make more productive talk possible. None of that mattered or came into play. How could the warmest of friendships compete with the shrill thrill and smug, self-satisfaction that being a successful TP agent gave one? No contest.

It sounds like a man’s job, but that’s deceptive. This is because at the height of the TP’s influence over its environment in the 90s, it had, as its allies, a certain kind of rough-sandpaper feminism, and that period’s politically correct pedantry, that could only be truly drawn together into a successful act of rhetorical terror by a woman, and it’s the memory of the TP women of that time that still sends chills down my spine.

Times have changed. They’re not nearly as powerful in their reach as they once were. The “events of 2001” – as I’ve taken to calling them, since all other monikers seem to me too loaded with extraneous crap — took a lot of wind out of their sails, because even they had to face (though till this day they’d down a pitcher of cyanide before they admit it) the fact of the excesses to which their political positions (“positions…” rage mostly) had been giving tacit – however indirect – approval. (And this despite the immediate – before the smoke had even started clearing — blossoming of the rich Sontagian “chickens-coming-home-to-roost” discourse that they could have taken shelter in.) At first they acted like cornered animals, lashing out and gashing and slashing in whatever manner they could. They then took asylum in the “not the right time to talk about this” position. (For those who always think it’s “not the right time” to talk about something, any time, it turns out, is the wrong time; they just want to wait until, hopefully, the issue or challenge goes away.) Eventually they grew more and more silent. And then they got jobs. And then starting hitting fifty. And probably menopause.

I don’t think about them much today. But at the height of their powers and reach back in the day they were a true terror. And I would rather have faced the Spanish Inquisition or maybe even the horrors of the Yezhovshchina, than be confronted with them and their ferocity again.

Lyubyanka_The Lubyanka, former KGB headquarters in Moscow. (click)


* On what “my story” is religiously — a word I don’t like to use but am forced to resort to — something other readers have wanted to know…I’ll have more to say at some point soon.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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