Prof. Bayoumi’s Lament

I recently posted on the peculiar strategy employed by defenders of a Brooklyn College committee’s selecting Moustafa Bayoumi’s book, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, as mandatory reading for all first-year and transfer students at the college. As I noted at the time, Bayoumi and his defenders present straw-men arguments, suggest that the only figures criticizing them are on the far-right fringe, or portray themselves (from their positions as tenured or tenure-track professors) as helpless victims. Bayoumi has taken the dodge-and-victimization strategy to a new level, in an essay just published in the Chronicle Review.
“On closer inspection,” Bayoumi mused in his column, “it became clear to me that my detractors”—note that he didn’t qualify his statement to suggest “some” of his detractors—“hadn’t actually read the book.” This interpretation, of course, allows Bayoumi to ignore the kind of devastating criticism offered by people like my Brooklyn colleague Robert Cherry. And while Prof. Bayoumi might not like what I have to say, even he presumably would concede that I have read his book.
“Next I realized how insulting those objections [of critics] were to our students, suggesting that they are unable to form independent judgments of what they read.” By this rationale, no one could criticize a Biology Department that assigned a creationist textbook, since such criticism would be “insulting” to the students forced to read the inappropriately selected text. Of course, the main criticism in this matter was directed not against BC students’ cognitive abilities, but the judgment of a faculty committee that would mandate all incoming BC students read one and only one book—a book whose sole section open to fact-checking (the afterword) contains numerous strained or outright erroneous interpretations.

The Cherry article demonstrates the extraordinarily biased manner in which Bayoumi’s book (ab)uses statistical data, while my post comments on such dubious (or evidence-free) Bayoumi claims as his assertion that between 1987 and 2001, the government’s approach toward “Arab Americans” were “more often [emphasis added] used to limit the speech of Arab Americans in order to cement U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
In any event, Bayoumi’s 1832-word essay can’t even keep its story straight. A few lines after Bayoumi conceded that the college’s book choice attracted criticism from “New York’s Daily News, The Jewish Week, and Gothamist and [was] picked up by The Huffington Post and New York Magazine,” he asserted that “the controversy was driven almost entirely by off-campus conservatives.”
Perhaps Bayoumi considers The Jewish Week to be “right-wing.” Perhaps he even sees the usually Democratic Daily News to be a bastion of conservatism. But Huffington Post as the purveyor of a “controversy . . . driven almost entirely by off-campus conservatives”?
At times, Bayoumi is unintentionally comical. Reflecting his tendency toward portraying himself as a victim, Bayoumi cast the attacks against him as particularly unfair, since he is “downright moderate[] on the political spectrum.”
Really? Bayoumi’s writings combine a victimization ideology (2005: “As an Arab and Muslim man, it’s not only the terrorists who concern me. In a city where calls for racial profiling are becoming increasingly loud, I fear the police, too”) with a bizarre analysis of Iran’s role in Lebanon (2005: “The fate of Hezbollah and their [Iranian-supplied] arms should be left to the Lebanese to decide” [emphasis added]), and, of course, repeated denunciations of Israeli national security policy.
Bayoumi is perfectly entitled to his beliefs. But the typical humanities department is the only U.S. “political spectrum” in which such views are “downright moderate[].”
Only at the end of his 1832 words did Bayoumi concede that maybe—just maybe—something other than anti-Muslim sentiment accounted for criticism of his book’s selection. Still ignoring how his critics might have been troubled by the fact-challenged afterword that formed his book’s intellectual spine, he suggested that “part of the opposition to me may stem from another book, Midnight on the Mavi Marmara, that I have just edited about the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla in May . . . But criticism or acceptance of the Israeli government’s actions shouldn’t determine acceptable speech in the United States.” Describing Bayoumi’s edited volume (which includes contributions from such notable anti-Israel extremists as Norman Finkelstein and Omar Barghouti) as a book “about the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla” is a little like saying that Fahrenheit 9/11 is a film about the Bush administration or Bill O’Reilly’s latest publication is a book about Barack Obama. Each statement is literally true. But each also misleadingly portrays propaganda pieces as reasoned analyses.
The chief goal of Bayoumi’s essay, however, is to cast himself as a victim of a broader crusade against forward thinkers. He even implied that his critics are cut from the same ideological cloth as Sarah Palin’s nativistic attacks on the Park51 project. In a typically self-pitying passage, Bayoumi complained that as he read critics of the college’s decision to mandate all incoming students read his and only his book, he “felt like a fish in a fishbowl. Everybody was staring at a distorted image of me, and all I could do was blink and blow bubbles.”
Well, that wasn’t “all” Bayoumi could do. Thanks to a decision by a committee of his ideological comrades, roughly 2500 freshmen and incoming transfer students had to buy his book or receive a copy subsidized by the college. Those purchases will provide a pretty good bump in Bayoumi’s 2010 royalty check. Victimization, it seems, has its benefits.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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