Is This Professor ‘Distinguished’?

Volokh Conspiracy’s David Bernstein posted a scathing review of Eric Alterman’s recent Nation column. The piece purported to analyze contemporary political culture through the prism of Newt Gingrich’s super PAC patron, Sheldon Adelson. Writing in what Bernstein termed a “passive/aggressive” style, Alterman described the casino mogul’s behavior as conforming to virtually stereotype of Jews held by anti-Semites. And yet, Alterman almost mockingly concluded, “Nobody has noted–at least not in public–that [Adelson’s] agenda happens to be the one to which Jews accused of ‘dual loyalty’ or of being ‘Israel-firsters’ are alleged to have dedicated themselves.” (Bernstein did a minimal amount of Google research to disprove this claim.)

A VC commentor offered the following analogy for Alterman’s article: “A conservative black columnist writes a column about a shady, black hip-hop artist/producer giving tons of money to a liberal presidential candidate, purportedly to promote an agenda of affirmative action. The columnist suggests that that the producer’s flaws are of exactly the type that racists traditionally associate with black people, which he then enumerates. The columnist adds that he is ‘thrilled’ that criticism of the rapper never invokes racist themes-even though, in fact, such criticism sometimes invoked the very themes the columnist suggested would be signs of racism, generally among the columnist’s own ideological bedfellows-and suggests that racism has nearly disappeared, and groups like the NAACP should stop raising it in debates on the subject.”

To the extent the column offers an argument rather than simply oozing slime, Alterman appears to be “contributing” to the discourse among far-left critics of Israel, who seek to downplay anti-Semitism as a way of minimizing the motives of Israel critics. After all, he’s implying, if even Sheldon Adelson isn’t triggering anti-Semitic
sentiments, then we no longer need to trouble ourselves too much about such ugly beliefs.

This is the sort of analysis that might be expected from a commenter on the far-left mondoweiss or the far-right VDARE, both of which have their own reasons for dismissing the lasting impact of anti-Semitism. But it’s shocking to see such commentary from a CUNY distinguished professor, the title Alterman has held for the past several years. According to the CUNY website, these appointments are made in “recognition of exceptional scholarly achievement.” A glance through Alterman’s publication list suggests that the quality of mind he
demonstrated in his Adelson essay is not far afield from his general line of argument. That is what counts as “exceptional scholarly achievement” in the contemporary academy?

In response to outside criticism, academics generally retreat to the sanctity of the peer-review process–the belief that, because of their superior training and knowledge, academics are best-suited to determine what constitutes quality in their field. How can that line of argument be reconciled with the fact that the author of the Adelson essay is a
“distinguished professor”?

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.

One thought on “Is This Professor ‘Distinguished’?”

  1. Eric Alterman is a “distinguished professor” in the Brooklyn College English department for the same reason Moustafa Bayoumi is a full professor there. Ellen Tremper, the department chair, wanted it so, and campaigned vigorously and deviously. But in neither case was scholarship a criterion. Their appeal for Tremper was their radicalism. Their presence in her department has helped deflect attention away from its intrinsic inadequacies and continuing failure to educate the students in its courses.
    Frederick K. Lang
    Professor Emeritus of English
    Brooklyn College, CUNY
    Tow Professor, 1996-1997

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