May 5, 2006

On the Juan Cole - Christopher Hitchens Feud

Left: Professor Juan Cole; photo by historymike

A vicious virtual debate is raging between Juan Cole, the Richard Hudson Research Professor of History at the University of Michigan, and Christopher Hitchens, author, journalist, and socialist-turned neoconservative.

The source of the feud is an article Hitchens penned for Slate. Hitchens accused Cole of being an "apologist" for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. His smoking gun: an excerpt from a private email sent by Cole to a private online forum in which Cole debated the accuracy of a translation of one line of an Ahmedinejad speech.

The email in question - which Cole considers to be "theft" - details Cole's reading of the infamous statement of Ahmadinejad in which the Iranian leader supposedly called for Israel to be wiped off the map. Here are Cole's remarks:

Ahmadinejad was not making a threat, he was quoting a saying of Khomeini and urging that pro-Palestinian activists in Iran not give up hope-- that the occupation of Jerusalem was no more a continued inevitability than had been the hegemony of the Shah's government.

Whatever this quotation from a decades-old speech of Khomeini may have meant, Ahmadinejad did not say that "Israel must be wiped off the map" with the implication that phrase has of Nazi-style extermination of a people. He said that the occupation regime over Jerusalem must be erased from the page of time.

Again, Ariel Sharon erased the occupation regime over Gaza from the page of time...I personally despise everything Ahmadinejad stands for, not to mention the odious Khomeini, who had personal friends of mine killed so thoroughly that we have never recovered their bodies.

Left: Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens referred to Cole in his attack piece as a "a minor nuisance on the fringes of the academic Muslim apologist community."

In response, Cole made the following statement in a rebuttal on his excellent blog Informed Comment:

Well, I don't think it is any secret that Hitchens has for some time had a very serious and debilitating drinking problem. He once showed up drunk to a talk I gave and heckled me. I can only imagine that he was deep in his cups when he wrote, or had some far Rightwing think tank write, his current piece of yellow journalism. I am sorry to witness the ruin of a once-fine journalistic mind.

Cole has since apologized for the assumption that Hitchens's well-documented propensity to remain inebriated for most of the day somehow interfered with his ability to critique the argument, but reiterated that he considers Hitchens an "Asinine Thief."

I will set aside the question of any merits in the article by Hitchens for the moment. I think that Cole's rebuttals destroy any pretense that Hitchens could claim toward bringing intellectual force to the debate on the true meaning of Ahmadinejad's comment, at least far better than I could.

What most disturbs me is the McCarthy-esque character assasination that Hitchens attempts to commit on Juan Cole. Admittedly, the historian has been against the war in Iraq, but he is far from being a radical leftist.

In addition, Hitchens makes the ridiculous claim that Cole somehow is not qualified to be an expert on the modern Middle East, since his traditional area of specialization is nineteenth-century Middle Eastern history.

Sorry, Hitchens - historians cover a lot of territory in their work, and Dr. Cole knows more about all periods of Middle Eastern history than you will ever master. That statement is akin to me, a lowly Midwestern writer and graduate history student, calling into question Hitchens's renowned expertise on triple malt scotch (sorry, I could not resist the temptation - off to the woodshed).

I have had the pleasure of attending two lectures given by Dr. Cole, and also had the opportunity to speak with him when he visited Toledo last October. I briefly toyed with the notion of working with him at the University of Michigan when I applied to the school's PhD program, although the UM graduate committee's decision to not offer me an graduate assitantship made that a moot point.

Cole is a voice of reason and intellect in a debate that is littered with the inflammatory rhetoric of radical elements on the right and left. I listened to him politely chastise audience members at a lecture who wrongly assumed that, since he was against the war, he must be a radical leftist.

Cole is now being targeted by forces on the right in an effort to sabotage his opportunity to teach at the Yale Center for International and Area Studies and in the Yale History Department as a tenured professor.

Despite the proclamations by some on the right, it is indeed possible to oppose the war and yet be a loyal, patriotic American. Dr. Cole, despite his anti-war views, is no radical extremist; he is simply one of America's most knowledgeable sources on the Middle East, and it is a sad commentary on our times when a voice of reason is slagged as an apologist for terrorists and repressive regimes.


Lisa Renee said...

blogwars...sigh...the theft part is bothersome but I've seen way to many of the "big boys" go after each other. Then of course all of their supporters join in the fray.


historymike said...

Hitchens, though, is way out of his league on this one.

Dr. Cole is eminently qualified to critique the translation of the Ahmedinejad statement, while Hitchens relies on an English translation in the NY Times.

True, this is a blog war of sorts, but attacking the credibility of such a renowned expert on the Middle East was buffoonery on the part of Hitchens.

I do admit, though, that I am a "supporter" of sorts, although I qualify this by noting that I base my support on meeting (and reading the work of) Juan Cole.

By quoting Cole's translation without his denunciation of Ahmedinejad, Hitchens engaged in the sort of sleazy, non-contextual journalism that should never make the light of day in a high school newspaper, let alone a peridoical with a readership in the millions.

M A F said...

Mike, well done. Of course I must admit that I am biased in favor of Cole. I was in the same neighbors garage of Thurs. night and Hugh Spewitt was once again focusing his attack upon Juan Cole.

I am glad to see that you have joined "the fray."

Anonymous said...

I don't know anyone that takes Hitchens seriously. The left disowned him, and the right doubts his sincerity.

Lisa Renee said...

I do have to agree with one of the comments made on Cole's blog as to why this clarification as to the translation of the phrase "wipe Israel off the map" was not made a huge issue earlier. It also points out one of the key problems with the US media, they don't bother to make sure a translation they are promoting is accurate.

Personally I think Cole would have had stronger standing had he concentrated on the violation of confidentiality in regards to the email rather than making the statements he did about Hitchens alcohol use.

historymike said...

Yes, Cole's off-the-cuff remark about Hitchens's legendary tipping detracted from his overall argument, although I am sure that in his anger at being attacked he felt a sense of righteous indignation.

Name withheld to protect the guilty said...

Some commentators have also noted that Cole is applying for a job at Yale...and the nastiness of this exchange has really hurt his chances.

CMAR II said...

Informed commentators (those for whom Farsi is a first language) seem to be in agreement that Cole was out in the weeds with his analysis of Ahmedinejad's speech.

As for Hitchens's calling Cole an "apologist" for Iran's vile government, I've speculated for sometime now that Cole is in its *pay*. HERE

historymike said...

Do you have any evidentiary basis, CMAR II, for your assertion that Dr. Cole "is an agent in the pay of Iran's theocratic animal-farm regime"?

That is a particularly serious charge that essentially accuses Cole of treason.

CMAR II said...

Do you have any evidentiary basis...for your assertion that Dr. Cole "is an agent in the pay of Iran's theocratic animal-farm regime"? That is a particularly serious charge that essentially accuses Cole of treason.

FIRST: I doubt it is "treason" since as far as I know there is no law against taking money to say nice things about Iran or anybody else. Is it disloyal to the US? Well, only to the extent that openly considering one's country to be an evil imperialist entity is disloyal. Is it dishonest not to reveal that association? Sure it is. But Cole is not a famously stand-up guy; he has never issued retractions when called on the carpet for being an ignorant poser. To wit, when Ali of "Free Iraqi" thrashed him for disseminating a phony history of Fallujah that was stripped from a Saddam propaganda movie, when speculated that the "Iraq the Model" brothers were CIA fronts, and when he disseminated the claim that journalist Steven Vincent (married) was murdered in an honor-killing for deflowering his Iraqi interpreter.

As to your question whether I have evidentiary PROOF, well, I don't have copies of Cole's bank records if that is what you are looking for. And anyway if I did, the issue would no doubt turn to how evil I am to have to have purloined them.

My CONVICTION is based on the fact that Cole from time-to-time goes way out of his way to exonerate Iran with tortured logic. This latest reparte (which Cole claims was an initial draft he had planned for wider publication) is another example of that, coming at a time when Iran is trying to expunge or explain away the last year of "Kill All Jews" declarations. (as I explained here)

Lisa Renee said...

I'd be interested in finding out a third party expert that had no connection to either of them so that the most important issue of this could be reviewed.

Which to me is what is the actual translation of that statement?

So far most of the blog wars (as most end up) isn't about fact or even the main point but how both sides can best insult the other one.

sharinlite said...

I wonder? If we, right or left, could find a disinterested third party to tell us the truth, would we listen and believe it?

Of course the hard part is finding a human on the face of the planet that would want to get in the middle of the nastiest bit of "discourse" I've come across in my lifetime. We'd probably shot the third party!

P.S. "nastiest bit..." refers to the current hate going on in the West towards the West.

CMAR II said...

Lisa Renee said:
"I'd be interested in finding out a third party expert that had no connection to either of them so that the most important issue of this could be reviewed."

How about this third-party observer:

I am Iranian, and I can tell you Cole is wrong...The intent [of Ahmedinejad's statement] is to make Israel cease to exist. The word map is not literarly in there, but “wiped of the map” is a less exagerated translation that Professors Cole's translation is underreporting...[As for] the context: Here Cole is not a little of the mark, he is insane and ignorant."

How about Leftist and Cole fan, Jeff Weintraub:

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 are entirely deserved. And that's not all. What Cole has been saying about the Iranian nuclear program can most charitably be described as
disingenuous. (E.g., "The IAEA found no smoking gun."--which denies a claim no one has made, and which Cole is smart enough to realize is entirely irrelevant to the real issues.) Perhaps Cole's concern about a possible US attack on Iran--which could, indeed, lead to disastrous consequences--is pushing him over the edge, but that's no excuse. He should get a grip on himself--and on reality."

Dariush said...

A) A Kurdish Iranian-American ("Sanandaji") is hardly a "third-party observer".

B) Jeff Weintraub is to "leftist" as Wee Willy Kristol is to "conservative."

Dariush said...

Saying that Cole is on the Iranian government's payroll is pure character assassination.

On the other hand, saying that Hitch is on Rupert Murdoch's payroll is fact -- since he has written numerous pieces now for the Weekly Standard and made many appearances on FOX News.

The administration has been beating the wardrums against Iran for a while now... Hitch is just heeding his master's call.

CMAR II said...


A Kurdish Iranian-American ("Sanandaji") is hardly a "third-party observer".

I'm glad no one here would think of racial stereo-typing. You forgot to mention that a dirty Jew ("Weintraub") is by definition not a neutral observer on Iran either.

Weintraub ("a democratic socialist") would no doubt consider the allegation that he is no "real" lefist to be character assination as well.

Identifying Cole as the Iranian government's stooge might well be character assassination (in Cole's case I only wish it could be so devastating), but that doesn't mean it isn't right on target.

Dariush said...

I had the privilege of meeting Cole last year, after a speech at Georgetown. The man's knowledge of Persian, Arabic and even (to a lesser extent) Urdu and Pashtun is very impressive. We conversed in Farsi and he was able to detect my, by now faint, Esfahani accent, as well as my friend's Bandari accent.

His post is not just a thorough refutation of Hitch's bullshit, but also an impassioned appeal against the insanity of the administration's drive to war.

What's amazing to me is how much of an object of hate, how much of an Emmanuel Goldstein figure, this soft-spoken unassuming academic has become to the bed-wetting, fear-and-hysteria-driven right.

Hitch at the very least, is a step above such lightweight "intellectuals" as Jonah Goldberg and John Podhoretz, who, by all rights, should be digging ditches were it not for the fact that they are posterboys for nepotism.

Dariush said...

CMAR II: "I'm glad no one here would think of racial stereo-typing. You forgot to mention that a dirty Jew ('Weintraub') is by definition not a neutral observer on Iran either."

(rubbing fingers together to indicate the world's smallest violin playing a tune just for you)

Dariush said...

These are some of the best analyses of the new, and not so improved, Hitchens that I've come across.

Norman Finkelstein - "On Christopher Hitchens"

Dennis Perrin - "Obit For A Former Contrarian"

George Scialabba - "Farewell, Hitch"

And, of course, there's the indispensable Hitchens Watch blog.

It's interesting to go back and read some of Hitch's earlier (pre-"Day That Everything Changed") writings. Some the criticisms he levelled at others now seem as though they were written in front of a mirror.

This, for example, about the odious Krauthammer:

"In the charmed circle of neoliberal and neoconservative journalism, however, 'unpredictability' is the special emblem and certificate of self-congratulation. To be able to bray that 'as a liberal, I say bomb the shit out of them' is to have achieved that eye-catching, versatile marketability that is so beloved of editors and talk-show hosts. As a lifelong socialist, I say don't let's bomb the shit out of them. See what I mean? It lacks the sex appeal, somehow. Predictable as hell.

"Picture, then, if you will, the unusual difficulties faced by Charles Krauthammer, newest of the neocon mini-windbags. He has the arduous job, in an arduous time, of being an unpredictable conformist. He has the no less demanding task of making this pose appear original and, more, of making it appear courageous. At a time when the polity (as he might well choose to call it) is showing signs of Will fatigue, it can't be easy to write an attack on the United Nations or Albania or Qaddafi and make it seem like a lone, fearless affirmation. An average week of reading The Washington Post op-ed page already exposes me to appearances from George Will, William F. Buckely, Jr., Jeane Kirkpatrick, Norman Podhoretz, Emmett Tyrrell, Joseph Kraft, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, and Stephen Rosenfeld. Clearly its editors felt that a radical new voice was needed when they turned to the blazing, impatient talents on offer in The New Republic -- and selected Krauthammer. I dare say Time felt the same way when it followed suit. We live in a period when a chat show that includes Morton Kondracke considers that it has filled the liberal slot."


"Charles Krauthammer used to work as a speechwriter for the ridiculous Mondale. Ordinarily, he underlines this bit of his resume in order to show that he is a former bleeding heart, knows the score, has been an insider, has seen the light, has lost his faith and therefore found his reason -- all the familiar or predictable panoply of the careerist defector."

Lisa Renee said...

Dariush, are you able to translate the original statement?

If so, I do believe you would translate it accurately.

Dariush said...

If this was the actual wording of the statement:

"bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad"

then Cole's translation is accurate.

Bayad = must

az = from

safheh-ye ruzgar = pages of time or pages of history

mahv = disappear or vanish

"shavad" is hard to translate into English. Kinda like a future tense of "happen". There's no real word for it in English.

Dariush said...


Cole really does know his stuff when it comes to Middle Eastern languages.

Don't let the empty posturing and sound and fury of the other side make you think otherwise.

Hooda Thunkit said...

Well, I'm convinced that I have no way of knowing what in the Hell everyone is taking sides about, and I don't mind admitting so.

Lisa Renee said...

That's why I asked you Dariush, because I don't play into all of the postering by either side. I prefer to cut to the chase, look at the direct facts.

I tried (failed but tried) to learn how to read arabic so that I could be able to at least guess at some of the translations rather than depend on others because we all know everyone has their own agenda. If there is a bias, and there is a choice it's obvious people are going to possibly even without considering it lean to their bias.

Thank you, I appreciate your honesty very much.

Dariush said...


As Bill Scher notes, even the Mossad outfit MEMRI has posted a translation of the speech which is accurate and nearly identical to that of Cole's:

""'Imam [Khomeini] said: 'This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history.'

And this from an outfit that is quite explicit in its desire for the US to fight yet another war in the Middle East on behalf of Israel.

Makes you wonder if "our" media has an agenda of its own, one which has nothing to do with the false paradigm of "left vs. right".

CMAR II said...

Cole really does know his stuff when it comes to Middle Eastern languages.

Then Cole is deliberately distorting, much as it seems likely you are doing when you provided a terse, literal translation without any analysis of context (the "hardly third-party" Sanandaji managed to do that.

You also did not address the fact that Ahmedinejad has made no attempt to correct the record (so far as I know), nor has any Iranian in Iran or expatriot until the good Dr. Ferret-face proffered his analysis. The bureaus of International newspapers throughout the world, many if not most headed by native Farsi speakers, all managed to agree on the most meaningful English translation of President A.J.'s speech, but somehow all got it wrong until Cole stepped in.

This is not the first time Cole has pulled something like this, and that is why I believe him to be an agent of the Iranian government.

CMAR II said...


On Friday, Weintraub backed up his assertion that Cole had been publically stating the same things in public that he said in the Gulf2000 list (although, it turns out Gulf2000 posts are not considered private even by the participants).

He reiterates this regarding Cole's hyper-literal, distortive analysis of Ahmedinejad's speech:

"[When Cole says] 'His statements were morally outrageous and historically ignorant, but he did not actually call for mass murder (Ariel Sharon made the "occupation regime" in Gaza "vanish" last summer) or for the expulsion of the Israeli Jews to Europe.'

"I can't resist the passing comment that Cole keeps repeating that Gaza analogy, but it's pretty weak. I'm sure he knows perfectly well that ending the "occupation regime" in Gaza and ending the "occupation regime" in Israel (i.e.,ending Israel) are entirely different things."