Letter Sent to the Spectator Today

Following yet another letter the Spectator printed criticising the issues raised by the film–that makes 6 items, raising the bias tally up to 12-5–I sent the following letter to the Spectator.

I think you did an injustice to Megan Greenwell today by printing Sam Hasleby’s letter which asserted, untruthfully, that quoting me amounted to hearsay.
When the New York Times interviews Seymour Hersh about his conversations with government insiders, it knows very well that such “hearsay” is legitimate. Now, I’m no Seymour Hersh, but I have been dealing with this issue for quite some time and am qualified to say that “several people told [me] about negative
experiences with professors and said that they felt uncomfortable going to department chair Hamid Dabashi because his political beliefs align with those of other members of the department.”
Several people have told me that, and Megan should be free to quote from her conversations with me when they are on the record, especially when she cannot attribute any other quotes because those very same students are to scared to come out about their experiences.
Your printing the letter only legitimized an illegitimate criticism, and that is unfortunate.
What I do think you should be worried about, however, is plagiarism. The article you ran by Adam Sacarny was, in large parts, previously printed, which can also be found here (and added in the extended entry below in case he erases it). It doesn’t matter
that the author of the two was the same person—just like you have to cite your previous work when you write a paper, a newspaper has to fully disclose when an article was previously printed, in whole or in part. What you published, then, can be considered by Columbia’s code of ethics “plagiarism.”
I’m sure that you did not know that, because if you did you probably would have not run the piece, but I hope you’ll be more sensitive to things like this in the future and note the fact in the future.
Finally, if I’m already writing you, I am struck by the fact that you continually print letters attacking the film and the people who appear in the film, but have yet to print any of the numerous articles and letters that I know were sent to you. Sure, you have editorial discretion, but when you print letters as wrong as the one you printed today instead of, say, the letter we sent you twice decrying the racist comments sent to Prof. Massad, one starts to think that you might have an agenda. In fact, you’ve printed more than two times as many articles and letters attacking the film and the people in it than you have from people that think the film raises serious problems. That is a statistical marker for bias. And that could indicate that, as James Romoser wrote in his email to the editorial board last year, you are being “very careful” with MEALAC.
I hope you put balance and truth before any desire to be “very careful.”

Let’s see if they print that.


04.11.04
Columbia Unbecoming: Success by Obscurity
[Rant] — sacarny @ 04:11:50EST
I suspect that every Jew who lived through the Holocaust acutely fears that a new movement will arise to finish off what Hitler started. And with just cause: these people lived through a nearly successful attempt to exterminate their entire religion. As far as I’m concerned, their experience makes that fear, however extreme it might get, completely understandable.
It’s simply a fact that many of the aforementioned people have a lot of money, and so they wield plenty of influence at universities, which often depend on their donations. They’re also rightfully afraid of anti-semitism. Add together their wealth and their fear, and you’ve got a dangerous combination. Just hearing about a few scary minutes of film could dramatically change how they spend their money.
That’s where Columbia Unbecoming, a new “documentary” by The David Project, comes in. The film introduces itself as a plea for academic integrity within the Columbia MEALAC (Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures) Department. After 25 minutes of interviews touting Columbia’s vibrant anti-Semitic professors, students, and clubs, the film concludes with a message that the problem of academic integrity goes beyond the classroom: academic imbalances go hand in hand with racism, sexism, and homophobia. If it had a coherent structure, believable interviews, and cold, hard evidence, then maybe Columbia Unbecoming would achieve its ostensible grand objective of solving the world’s problems of hate. Unfortunately, the producers get lost in their broad strokes and never convince the audience of their details.
At times, the film incriminates itself. One interviewee repeats that a professor tried to silence her by looking into her eyes, mentioning her eye color, and so determining that she wasn’t a Semite. Silence, silence, silence me, she repeats over and over again. Yes, the story she tells is a bit scary, but it only holds up if we ignore the rest of the interview. Initially, she explains that in class she discussed her objection to one of the professor’s points. When class ended, the professor motioned her aside, and the two continued to discuss the issue privately. This professor who was trying to silence and intimidate her – yes, that’s right, silence and intimidate her – apparently was so determined to do so that he spoke with her for 45 minutes out of class.
One wonders if the statements about the student’s Semitic heritage were taken out of context, since taking the events at face value indicates instead the teacher’s great degree of respect for the student. Few professors, in particular few popular professors, are willing to devote so much time to their students. If the professor wanted to intimidate her, why didn’t he yell at her during the class? Furthermore, why did he wait until 45 minutes into their private conversation to deliver the knockout intimidation punch? Were they actually just joking? Had she insulted him?
Beyond this “intimidation” incident, the film has little or no hard evidence of academic integrity failures. Much like the electoral campaigns, it uses talking points in place of pesky verifiable facts. While the editors clearly had a few words which they sought to emphasize, one begins to wonder whether the interviewees knew about them too. Words like “intimidation”, “silence”, and “anti-semitism” pop up all too often in the same contexts. One interviewee in particular sounds like she has rehearsed her lines. Rather than living up to its hype as a hard-hitting and moving documentary, Columbia Unbecoming feels… staged. It’s understandable though, because with only 4 academic incidents to report, all of them of questionable severity, the producers likely needed to manipulate their interviewees a bit.
As the film drags on, it switches themes and gives up on trying to prove any hard corruption in MEALAC. With talking points at full throttle and topicality completely ignored, the painful discussion of Columbia’s rampant anti-Semitism begins. The examples are inevitably ludicrous or exaggerated. One student posts a sign for an Israeli film festival and a Socialist tears it in two. The same student attends a talk entitled “Why Divest in Israel?” and complains that the talk failed to viably present Israeli investment opportunities. Another student claims that when he put up posters mentioning Israel, people drew swasticas on them. However, the film offers no corroborating evidence for his claims, indicating that the producers think lowly of their audience’s reasoning skills, don’t know how to make a convincing argument, or don’t actually have any more evidence. These reasons are listed in order of increasing likelihood, although they should not be considered mutually exclusive.
The film’s case is so shoddy that I fail to see how any critical viewer could leave the theater convinced that MEALAC has violated Columbia’s academic integrity standards. Likewise, the claims of anti-Semitism lack any substance. So why make a “documentary” about a “problem” when piecing such a movie together requires interview manipulation and perpetual running from the facts? Because there’s a whole class of powerful people who get very scared whenever they hear about anti-Semitism. It’s the message that matters, whether it’s true or not. Very few people will actually watch Columbia Unbecoming, but plenty will hear about it. For those who never see the film, all they know is that anti-Semitism has become so rampant on campus that a group of students got together to make a film about it.
Those complicit in the making of this documentary should feel ashamed of themselves. Columbia Unbecoming uses anti-Semitism as a manipulative tool, taking advantage of a painful ideology rather than trying to fight it. I hope that anyone who even suspects of its validity finds a way to watch it, because its success relies on popular ignorance.

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One response to “Letter Sent to the Spectator Today

  1. Adam Sacarny, Plagiarist Extraorinaire?

    Astute readers will remember a certain angry post I made a few months back. Basically, I had written an Op-Ed piece and gotten it published in the Columbia Spectator. The piece crticized the controversial film Columbia Unbecoming. The next day the news…