by Steven Lubet
ONE COMMON attribute of conspiracy theories is the belief that powerful forces, operating behind the scenes, are responsible for otherwise inexplicable adversities and misfortunes. These unseen antagonists’ reach extends into realms such as government, finance, culture, and education, and the absence of actual evidence of their existence or influence is simply taken as proof of the tremendous extent of their power.
Some conspiracy theories are based on religion (“the Jews”), some are based on politics (“the Commies”), and some are simply mystical (“the Illuminati”), but they share in common this belief that a sinister hidden hand is manipulating events for the benefit of the conspirators and to the detriment of everyone else. In contemporary America, for example, we need look no further than the internet to read about the presumed “crisis actors,” who allegedly travel from locale to locale pretending to be the victims of mass shootings, as part of a “Deep State” conspiracy to “take away our guns.” Although no actual “crisis actor” has ever been discovered, that simply proves the sneaky effectiveness of the conspiracy itself.
Unfortunately, however, not all conspiracy theorists are marginal kooks. Sometimes they occupy positions of legitimacy in government, commerce, education, and other institutions. The late Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) provided a well-recognized case in point.
In the early 1950s, Irving Peress was an unassuming dentist with a successful practice in New York City. In 1952, during the Korean War, he was drafted into the U.S. Army with the rank of captain. When required to submit a loyalty oath, Peress asserted the Fifth Amendment and refused to say whether he had ever been a member of the Communist Party. This naturally triggered an investigation by the Army. Nonetheless, and while the investigation was pending, Peress was promoted to major.
These events came to the attention of Sen. McCarthy and his henchman, Roy Cohn, who viewed the promotion as proof of Communist infiltration in the Army. McCarthy and Cohn launched an investigation, demanding to know “Who promoted Peress?” They claimed that Peress was “the key to the deliberate Communist infiltration of our Armed Forces” and that the promotion had been authorized by a “silent master who decreed special treatment for Communists.”
In fact, Peress’s promotion had been effected pursuant to a federal statute, the Doctors’ Draft Act, which required physicians’ ranks to reflect the level of their pre-induction experience. Peress’s promotion could still have been delayed due to the investigation, but it had slipped through the bureaucratic cracks, as the investigating and promoting authorities had not communicated with one another. The perfectly reasonable explanation — a typical military SNAFU — was not acceptable to McCarthy, who famously saw Communists “under every bed.” The Army even admitted committing “blunders” regarding Peress, but McCarthy pressed the case, telling Brigadier General Ralph Zwicker, who had been Peress’s commanding officer, that he was “not fit to wear that uniform.”
All of this was a prelude to the Army-McCarthy hearings, which eventually led to McCarthy’s censure. The Peress case is now mostly forgotten, but it is still a good example of a conspiracy theory at work. McCarthy was convinced that influential Communists were at large in the Army, and he inflated an understandable administrative misstep into proof of a wide-ranging conspiracy.
MCCARTHY is mostly a punchline today, but his approach to conspiracy theorizing lives on in the claims of radio host Alex Jones, the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, and others who believe that secret enemies are in control of government and other institutions. It is more than a little surprising, however, that an otherwise responsible academic organization such as the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) seems to have accepted a more contemporary conspiracy theory, blaming outside influence — not Communists under the bed, but rather Zionists behind the bookcase — for the temporary suspension of the Edward Said Professorship search at Fresno State University. The perfectly simple explanation of the event — mishandled administrative complications– was rejected by MESA in favor of a story about “caving to racism” due to unspecified external pressure, for which there is no actual proof.
On June 2, 2017, MESA falsely accused the Fresno State University administration of violating “generally accepted academic procedures and standards and thereby undermin[ing] academic freedom” by suspending a search for the Edward Said Professorship in Middle East Studies. In an open letter to Fresno State’s president and chancellor, MESA alleged that the university had been “unduly influenced” by “inappropriate and prejudicial comments,” and suggested that the administration had “’caved’ to racism because the four finalists were of “Middle Eastern ethnicity.” That was an extremely serious charge, lodged by MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom, but it was simply not true.
The underlying controversy surfaced on May 21, 2017, when Vida Samiian, Fresno State’s former dean of humanities and an emerita professor of Middle East Studies, announced her resignation from the university in protest of the suspension of the Said Professorship search. In a statement posted on her Facebook page, Samiian attributed the closure to a “documented campaign of harassment and intimidation of search committee members [conducted] by Israel advocacy groups.” Fresno State officials denied the charge, explaining that the search had been postponed for procedural and administrative reasons that had nothing to do with either the finalists’ ethnicity or outside lobbying. MESA did not accept the explanation.
Stressing the “Arab and Muslim origins” of the four finalists for the position, the MESA letter –signed by then-President Beth Baron and Executive Director Amy Newhall — asserted “good reasons to believe” that the search suspension had been prompted by prejudicial comments from unidentified Fresno “faculty colleagues and emeriti.” Although it did not mention Samiian by name, the MESA letter included obvious references to her Facebook statement, both with and without quotation marks.
THE MESA LETTER was quite evidently premised on the suspicions expressed in Samiian’s resignation, without considering contrary sources. Pursuant to the California Public Records Act (CPRA), I recently obtained the university’s full 458-page file on the suspension of the Said Professorship search, which reveals that MESA made no written inquiries or document requests from Fresno State administrators before posting its open letter. If MESA representatives had ever sought to verify Samiian’s statement, they would have learned that virtually the entire substance of the complaint was untrue (as I previously set out in considerable detail in The Forward), and that their own letter was therefore groundless.
For example, the MESA letter states that there had been no administrative concerns about search procedures under the Academic Policy Manual “until the names of the four finalists, all of whom are of Arab and Muslim origins, were announced and invited for campus interviews,” thus implying that ethnic prejudice had played a role in the suspension. In fact, as is plainly evident in the Fresno State records, procedural problems in the search process had been raised internally for months prior to the suspension. (A selection of relevant documents can be seen here; the full set is posted here; all of the CPRA requests are here.)
Likewise, the MESA letter notes that “the Anthropology Department had unanimously voted to house the prospective hire,” without acknowledging that the Edward Said Chair had been designated for an appointment in the College of Arts and Humanities, which precluded, under the administration’s view of the existing search authorization, an appointment in the separate College of Social Sciences.
The MESA letter also includes a statement from Fresno’s Professor Joe Parks, who was the Equal Opportunity Representative on the search committee, expressing his belief that “the administration ‘caved’ to racism because the four finalists were of Middle Eastern ethnicity” — but the quoted passage was actually lifted directly from Samiian’s resignation letter. In a later interview with the local news site GV Wire, Parks admitted that he had heard about the alleged outside intervention from Samiian, and all of his information was therefore “second hand.”
As the dean of the College of Arts and Humanities repeatedly told Samiian before the search was closed, it was not possible “to reconcile the discipline [of the finalists] within the college.” The eventual appointee, he explained, would have to be “capable of participating in all functions” of the home department, including the RTP (retention, tenure, and promotion) process, which would not be possible for a social scientist, no matter how well qualified in their own field.
It is clear from the university documentation that the search was suspended due to inter-departmental turf disputes completely unrelated to the ethnicity or religion of the candidates. There was absolutely no communication, much less interference, from outside groups, pro-Israel or otherwise. This information has always been readily available to MESA, both before and after it accused Fresno State of caving to racism and undermining academic freedom.
In contrast to MESA, several adamantly anti-Israel advocacy organizations have proven themselves far more responsible. Both The Electronic Intifada and Palestine Legal requested the Fresno State documentation pursuant to the California Public Records Act. After receiving the materials, neither Electronic Intifada nor Palestine Legal made any public charges of outside pressure against the university. Having taken the time to learn the facts, both groups put aside their suspicions and admirably refrained from leveling false accusations.
ON THE OTHER HAND one of the finalist applicants, posting anonymously at a website called Abolition, accused Fresno State of practicing “proceduralism” as the “loophole for backdoor politics.” The posting continues in classic conspiracy-theory stye:
The strength of the Israeli lobby lies in not always acting as outside pressure but also in functioning from inside institutions thanks to individuals who occupy gate-keeping positions, and from the strategic position of the insider post, enact their commitment to Israel in and through everyday administrative tasks. At a certain level, this is unsurprising. But increasingly ideological support of Zionism has led to everyday negation of anything Palestinian that crosses their desks and scope of power. And since these quiet forms of violence are not readily traceable, the onus continuously falls on those suffering discrimination to prove the same cause in each and every case.
While through freedom of information it is in some cases possible to know of the ‘outside’ pressure against critique of Israel, it is highly difficult to document the working of figures ‘inside’ a given institution. Key individuals who know well the legal formalities can ensure ideological opposition is executed in such a way that no one can prove what undergirds the process of cancellation. Or how such actions would enact the wishes of other faculty members who cooperated to find such loopholes. This is precisely how anti-Palestinian discrimination becomes business as usual, beyond the spectacle.
The quiet workings of gatekeepers on the ‘inside’ function alongside visibly public techniques to smear critics of Israeli state policy with anti-Semitism and to criminalize the non-violent civil tactic of boycott when invoked as part of opposition to Israeli state policy.
The beauty of a fully developed conspiracy theory is that virtually everything — including contrary facts and even the complete absence of evidence — can be reinterpreted as confirmation that stealthy forces are operating silently in the shadows. In another bit of intellectual gymnastics, the finalist blamed a conspiracy of silence for the fact that not a single faculty member (other than Parks, and we know where he got his information) has independently confirmed Samiian’s account: “perhaps a gag order has been imposed on any faculty contradicting official narrative regarding the search.”
In other words, the Zionist lobby is so powerful that it does not even need to do any actual lobbying to get its way; rather, it can exert clandestine control over university administrators solely by virtue of its very existence — furtive and invisible as it may be.
ANYONE can make a mistake, so MESA’s hasty endorsement of Samiian’s complaint is somewhat understandable. And at least the MESA letter was relatively restrained, compared to the open letters signed by various advocacy organizations and individuals, some of whom blamed imaginary “bullying by Zionists” and “strong lobbying from the American pro-Zionist lobby” for closing the search.
It is incomprehensible, however, that MESA has resolutely declined to correct the record. I sent multiple emails to Professors Baron and Newhall, over a period of several weeks, detailing the erroneous accusations in their letter and offering to provide them with the full Fresno State file so that they could check the documents for themselves. Regrettably, I have received no response.
According to its website, MESA is “a private, non-profit learned society that brings together scholars, educators and those interested in the study of the region from all over the world.” Its Mission Statement promises to promote “high standards of scholarship,” “public understanding,” and “intellectual exchange,” while the Committee on Academic Freedom “seeks to foster the free exchange of knowledge as a human right.” These crucial values were badly compromised when MESA publicized groundless charges of racism, intimidation, and outside interference at Fresno State, and the problem has been exacerbated by MESA’s ongoing refusal to look at disconfirming evidence.
MESA members will no doubt bridle at the comparison to Joseph McCarthy, who had no redeeming qualities and, it need not be said, no scholarly accomplishments. But in this one instance, the symmetry is nonetheless evident: In both the Peress and Fresno cases there was an unsupported accusation of malign influence on an institutional decision, followed by a stubborn refusal to consider any alternative explanations.
Fresno State’s suspension of the Said Professorship search may have been ill-advised and unnecessary, or due to a misapplication of its own rules, just as the promotion of Peress was apparently an administrative mistake. But the assumption of conspiratorial manipulation — by Communists or Zionists — was baseless in both cases.
It is a sad day when a respected academic organization pays so little attention to facts, and sadder still when it declines even to look at disconfirming information. Conspiracy theories, alas, will do that to you.
Steven Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor and director of the Bartlit Center for Trial Advocacy at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. He last appeared here with “Antisemitic Faculty: What Is To Be Done?” His books include Interrogating Ethnography (Oxford University Press), John Brown’s Spy (Yale University Press), and Fugitive Justice (Harvard University Press).