Christopher Hitchens and Juan Cole have been arguing about how to interpret the anti-Israel rhetoric of the Iranian leadership. As I understand it, Cole believes that the Iranians are calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of the territories captured in the 1967 war, while Hitchens interprets them as calling for the violent destruction of the Israeli state and the expulsion or death of its Jewish residents.
Mostly, though, Cole and Hitchens have been arguing about each other. Cole referred to his critic as "Hitchens the orientalist", asserted that Hitchens has a "very serious and debilitating drinking problem", and called him an "asinine thief". Hitchens has called Cole "tenth rate", "the embodiment of mediocrity", and "in need of a remedial course in English", explaining that "his sentences are made up of syntactical train wrecks".
I don't have anything to add to their argument about how to translate Ahmadinejad and Khomeini -- see below for a list of links to primary and secondary sources on this debate, if you want to learn more. My interest is in some of the insults.
The OED defines orientalist as "An expert in or student of oriental languages, history, culture, etc.". Christopher Hitchens has no expertise in oriental languages, history or culture, as far as I know, nor even any particular interest in those topics, so you might wonder why Juan Cole ran his first response to Hitchens under the title "Hitchens the Hacker; And, Hitchens the Orientalist And, "We don't Want Your Stinking War!" And underneath all the insults, the argument is about how to translate and interpret some sentences of Persian, so why is Christopher Hitchens complaining about Juan Cole's English prose style?
The "orientalist" insult is easier to explain. The OED's citations start in 1723:
1723 H. ROWLANDS Mona Antiqua Restaurata 318 We have two learned Orientalists.
1779 JOHNSON Smith in Pref. Biogr. & Crit. IV. 38 The great Orientalist, Dr. Pocock.
As the dates suggest, orientalism began as an enlightenment phenomenon, associated with scholars as diverse as William "Oriental" Jones, a radical Whig who supported the American side in the revolutionary war and learned Sanskrit so as to be able to understand the legal system in Bengal, and Hermann Grassmann, a German secondary-school teacher whose Wörterbuch zum Rig-Veda is still used, and who also made important contributions to mathematics.
Thus "Orientalist" was a rarely-used term of respectful description until 1978, when Edward Said published his massively influential book Orientalism. Said argued that the Palestinians were "the latest victims of a deep-seated prejudice against the Arabs, Islam, and the East more generally — a prejudice so systematic and coherent that it deserved to be described as 'Orientalism,' the intellectual and moral equivalent of anti-Semitism". This description comes from Martin Kramer's highly critical chapter, "Said's Splash". Edward Said put it more categorically: "Since the time of Homer every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric." Said's book was arguably one of the most consequential works of the second half of the 20th century, with an enormous influence on intellectuals from Middle Eastern countries and also on Americans in several academic disciplines.
To recap, then: "orientalist" started out meaning "(European) expert in the Orient"; Said argued in 1978 that all Europeans have always been ethnocentric racists and imperialists, including those experts who pretended to have a purely scholarly interest; and this accusation is apparently so significant to Cole that it has completely washed out the original notion that an "orientalist" is someone who studies the Orient. For him, an orientalist is now simply someone who is prejudiced against the Orient, and specifically against Islam. (A good if mostly irrelevant joke about an orientalist in Egypt is explained here.)
This sort of development, in which a connotation comes to replace a word's original denotation, is common in the history of words. It helps explains many of the cases in which a word's meaning turns into its opposite, as has happened recently with "liberal" and "conservative".
As for the business about Cole needing remedial English for his syntactical train wrecks, that begins with the last paragraph of Hitchens' original May 2 Slate article:
One might have thought that, if the map-wiping charge were to have been inaccurate or unfair, Ahmadinejad would have denied it. But he presumably knew what he had said and had meant to say. In any case, he has an apologist to do what he does not choose to do for himself. But this apologist, who affects such expertise in Persian, cannot decipher the plain meaning of a celebrated statement and is, furthermore, in need of a remedial course in English.
|Hugh Hewitt:||I wonder, what has happened to the left, Christopher Hitchens, in their confusing of sort of personal attacks and slanders with argument?|
|Christopher Hitchens:||Well, I've always thought that attacks of that kind, wherever they come from, were invariably a sign of weakness. I mean, if Juan Cole wrote a piece attacking me, and all I could think of in reply was to say well, he seems like a dope fiend, or a closet case, or a pederast, I would feel that I wasn't really meeting his argument, I mean, that I hadn't replied to the points he'd made against me. The ad hominem is widely and rightly denounced, because it shows a collapse on the part of the person who uses it. They won't reply to your point, they won't reply to your case. And Cole, who is the embodiment of the mediocre, this would not surprise me in the least. I mean, he writes as if he's drunk, because you have to, the sentences are made up of syntactical train wrecks. But I don't think it's alcohol in his case. I think it's illiteracy, simply.|
The wording of Hewitt's question adds to the evidence that he suffers from a serious case of irony deficiency. But the answer made me wonder whether Hitchens might be catching the disorder as well: the "syntactical train wrecks" phrase is in the second of two apparently ungrammatical sentences. So I downloaded the mp3 and did my own transcription, which removes what otherwise would have been a nice instance of Hartman's Law:
|HH:||I- I wonder, what has happened to the left,
Christopher Hitchens, in their confusing
of sort of personal attacks and slanders with argument?
I've always thought that attacks of that kind, wherever they come from, were all- invariably a sign of weakness. If-
if um- if Juan Cole wrote a piece attacking me, and all I could think of in reply was to say well,
he seems like a dope fiend, or a- a
closet case, or a pederast,
um I would feel that I wasn't really meeting his argument,
I mean, that I hadn't replied to the points he'd made against me.
the ad hominem is ri- widely and rightly denounced, because it's- it- it shows
um a collapse on the part of the person who uses it, they- they won't reply to your point, they won't reply to your case.
|HH:||Let's go back to the-|
|CH:||((with)) Cole, who is the embodiment of the mediocre,
this would not surprise me in the least.
|HH:||I- I want to go back to the key # point-|
|CH:||I mean, he writes as if he's drunk, because
you have to- the sentences are made up of syntactical train wrecks.
But I don't think it's alcohol in his case. I think it's just- it's- it's illiteracy, simply.
Hewitt keeps interrupting to try to make a point of his own (which of course for him is the "key point"), and this covers Hitchens' word "with", which rescues the first sentence "((With)) Cole, who is the embodiment of the mediocre, this would not surprise me in the least". And in the second sentence, it's pretty clear that the clause-initial "you have to" is a false start, which Hitchens cancels before going on. With this edit, the result becomes fully grammatical: "I mean, he writes as if he's drunk, because the sentences are made up of syntactical train wrecks".
Though Hitchens' syntax is rescued by more careful transcription, his logic is not. I follow the idea that ad hominem attacks are a sign that more pertinent arguments are lacking; and I follow the claim that Cole lacks more pertinent arguments because he's mediocre; but it's not clear what the quality of his syntax has to do with anything. I suppose that Hitchens means that Cole's alleged stylistic flaws are evidence for the poor quality of his ideas. I've run across this idea before, for example in Somali political poems (called gabay), where explicit analogies between metrical and logical rigor are common; but this is like arguing that someone must be telling the truth because she's got a lovely face. Some people frame cogent arguments in crappy prose, and others say nothing but put it beautifully.
Hitchens puts forward a related argument earlier in the Hewitt interview:
His English is, by the way, very poor. I can't believe his Persian is excellent, because his English is lousy.
Here the argument seems to be that no one could construe Persian prose correctly without being able to write elegant English; Juan Cole doesn't write elegant English; therefore he must not be able to understand Persian. This strikes me as preposterous, frankly. It may not be an ad hominem argument -- though I suspect that Hitchens is much vainer of his prose than of his face -- but it shares the quality of undermining someone's arguments by attacking associated though logically irrelevant qualities.
It seems to me that you can tell something about Cole and about Hitchens from their choice of insults. Cole apparently shares with many other American Middle East experts an urgent need to demonstrate that he is an exception to Said's claim that "[s]ince the time of Homer every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric". This may motivate him to bend over backwards to interpret Iranian threats in a sympathetic way ("... The phrase is almost metaphysical. He quoted Khomeini that 'the occupation regime over Jerusalem should vanish from the page of time.' It is in fact probably a reference to some phrase in a medieval Persian poem. It is not about tanks. ...") It certainly led him to bring out "orientalist" as one of the first insults he slung at Hitchens.
Hitchens, on the other hand, apparently confuses style and substance. Would he have more respect for Cole's arguments if he thought they were better written?
For what it's worth, I agree with Jeff Weintraub's assessment of the substantive issues at stake:
Cole's recent apologetics for the actions and statements of the Iranian regime have become increasingly strained, misleading, irresponsible, and difficult to take seriously. I am afraid that Hitchens's criticisms of Cole in this piece [the Slate article -- myl] are entirely deserved.
If you want to follow the debate in primary sources, here are the main links:
Christopher Hitchens: "The Cole Report: When it comes to Iran, he distorts, you decide." Slate, May 2, 2006.
Juan Cole: "Hitchens the Hacker; And, Hitchens the Orientalist. And, "We don't Want Your Stinking War!" (May 3, 2006)
Juan Cole, "Hitchens not Drunk, Only an Asinine Thief" (Blog post, May 3, 2006)
Christopher Hitchens, Transcript of Radio Interview (May 3, 2006)
Juan Cole, "Cobban on Hitchens" (Blog post, May 4, 2006)
Juan Cole, "Cole/Weisberg conversation on Hitchens" (Blog post, May 5, 2006)
For an evaluation of the content of the argument by a third party who favors Hitchens' side, you could try a series of posts on Jeff Weintraub's weblog:
Jeff Weintraub, "Juan Cole's Iran distortions (Christopher Hitchens)" (May 3, 2006)
Jeff Weintraub, "Michael Young on Hitchen vs Cole" (May 3, 2006)
Jeff Weintraub, "P.S. re Cole, Hitchens and Ahmadinejad" (May 5, 2006)
Some detailed discussion of the contested words by an Iranian who agrees with Hitchens, Tino Sanandaji, is here.
There are many pro-Cole weblog posts, but I haven't been able to find any that say much besides "go get 'em, Juan!" The most serious support for Cole that I've found is a post by Helena Cobban, "Cole, Hitchens, and the threat of a US attack on Iran" (May 3, 2006), but the content of her post is just that she can testify from 35 years of personal acquaintance that Hitchens "has long had a very serious drinking problem", and she has "huge admiration" for Cole's "scholarship and for the personal qualities of caring and commitment that he brings to all his endeavors", and and that she "applaud[s] and completely support[s] the firmly antiwar position he has expressed regarding US policies toward Iran". There's not a word about the specific issues being debated, namely what Ahmadinejad and Khomeini said and what they meant by saying it. If you know of any pro-Cole post or articles that include any contentful analysis of this question, let me know and I'll post the links here.
[Update: Ben Zimmer suggests this:
Bill Scher, " The Importance of Cole v. Hitchens" (The Huffington Post, 5/4/2006)
[Here's another pro-Cole post that offers something beyond cheerleading: "BTC News unearths another Ahmadinejad apologist" (BTC News, 5/7/2006).]Posted by Mark Liberman at May 7, 2006 02:06 PM