Exploiting a tragedy (updated)

As soon as the shocking and tragic news from Norway hit the airwaves, it was entirely predictable that various right-wing Islamophobes would type first and think later. They were so eager to exploit the tragedy to peddle their pre-existing policy preferences that they blindly assumed the acts had to have been perpetrated by al Qaeda, by its various clones, or by some other radical Muslim group.

This is the sort of bias one expects from an ideologue like Jennifer Rubin (who gets taken to task for her rush-to-judgment by James Fallows here). Sadly, it is also not out of character for the supposedly respectable Wall Street Journal, whose editorial page has been a reliable source of threat-mongering and distortion for years. Even as Norwegian officials were cautioning that they had no reason to suspect Islamist groups, the Journal was plunging ahead with an editorial entitled "Terror in Oslo," which drew the following utterly bogus conclusion:

Norway certainly did not buy itself much grace from the jihadis for staying out of the Iraq war, or for Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg's demand that Israel open its borders with Gaza, or for his calls for a Palestinian unity government between Fatah and its terrorist cousin Hamas.

Norway can do all this and more, but in jihadist eyes it will forever remain guilty of being what it is: a liberal nation committed to freedom of speech and conscience, equality between the sexes, representative democracy and every other freedom that still defines the West.  For being true to these ideals Norwegians have now been made to pay a terrible price."

Given that remarkable statement, the Journal's editors must have been deeply disappointed to learn that the person who was actually charged in the case, Anders Behring Breivik, was not in fact a jihadi, a critic of Israel, or even a Muslim. Instead, he is a right-wing Norwegian Islamophobe who is reportedly obsessed with the dangers of multi-culturalism and a contributor to extremist websites like Jihad Watch and Atlas Shrugs.  In other words, he's the sort of person who might well subscribe to the Wall Street Journal not for its coverage of the business world, but for its predictably hardline editorial "insight."

As I write this (Saturday noon EDT), the editorial has still not been removed from the WSJ website and no apology or retraction has been issued.  The Journal and its editors are obviously free to continue to sow the seeds of hatred and paranoia, but the rest of us are equally free to view them with appropriate contempt.   And let us also take time to reflect on Norway's sorrow, and to remember that hatred and violence can erupt from many directions.

UPDATE:  Obviously aware of the egg on its face, the Journal has posted a rewritten version of the editorial on its website here. Note the marked absence of any apology for its initial rush-to-judgment. You can find a fascimile of the original editorial here. And for an interesting commentary suggesting that right-wing hate-mongering websites might have contributed to the murderous mind-set behind the attack, see Paul Woodward's War in Context here.

Stephen M. Walt

International affairs and the 'public sphere'

What role should academics play in public discourse about major social issues, including foreign policy? I've taken up this issue in the past, as has FP colleague Dan Drezner. The Social Science Research Council has a continuing project on the topic of "Academia and the Public Sphere," and they asked me to contribute an essay on the topic of "International Affairs and the Public Sphere." It just went up on the SSRC website, and you can find it here.

Briefly, in this paper I argue that academic scholars have a unique role to play in public discourse -- primarily as an independent source of information and critical commentary -- as well as an obligation to use their knowledge for the betterment of society. In particular, university-based scholars should resist the "cult of irrelevance" that leads many to limit their work to a narrow, obscure, and self-referential dialogue among academicians. But I also argue that greater involvement in public life has its own risks, most notably the danger of being co-opted or corrupted by powerful institutions who may be eager to enlist academics to help them justify policies that will benefit those same institutions. "Speaking truth to power" is not simple.

The article also includes six recommendations for improving academic participation in the public sphere. They are:

  1. Give Greater Weight to Real World Impact when Evaluating Individual Scholars and Academic Departments
  2. Encourage Professional Associations to Honor Public Impact
  3. Encourage Younger Scholars to Participate in Policy-Related Activities
  4. Engage Policymakers and Knowledgeable Citizens in the Research Process
  5. Convince University Administrators to Value Participation in the Public Sphere
  6. Broaden the Discussion of Academic Ethics and Responsibilities

I lay out the rationale for these suggestions in the paper, and you'll have to read it for yourself to find out what they are. But here's the bottom line:

If scholars working on global affairs are content with having little to say to their fellow citizens and public officials and little to contribute to solving public problems, then we can expect even less attention and fewer resources over time (and to be frank, we won't deserve either). By contrast, if the academic community decides to use its privileged position and professional expertise to address an overcrowded global agenda in a useful way, then it will have taken a large step toward fulfilling its true social purpose. Therein lies the good news: the fate of the social sciences is largely in our own hands.


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