It’s Hard to be A Centrist

Charlotte Allen writes in the Wall Street Journal about the creation of ASMEA, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, as an counterweight alternative to the highly-politicized MESA, the Middle East Studies Association.

Towering scholar Bernard Lewis, described by Allen as the "eminence grise" of Islamic studies, is oddly enough the founder of both.  He was prompted to create this new body because MESA’s orientalist "political correctness" stifles true analysis, with all MESA activities – panels, papers, symposia – nowadays evaluated through rigid and cartoonish anti-Israel, anti-US filters.

What is disturbing and perhaps inevitable, as Allen observes, is that ASMEA may end up being hijacked by the opposite extreme.  Few university academics attended the inaugural meeting, perhaps for fear of being ostracized by "liberal" dogmatists that rule today campuses.  Military and defense specialists were prevalent, as were think tank researchers with hawkish "know your enemy" perspectives.  ASMEA Vice-chair Fouad Ajami and Professor Lewis have been vilified as "pro-Iraq-invasion" neo-cons.  ASMEA research may end up equally uncritical and trite as MESA’s, just from the opposite political spectrum. 

A week ago I wrote about a potentially similar development in the area of "pro-Israel" advocacy and lobbying, with JStreet seeking to rise as the flag-bearer of left-wing pro-peace DC US-Israel constituents to counteract their perception of AIPAC as the right-wing, anti-Arab DC US-Israel alliance, potentially leaving less platforms for moderate, centrist voices.

A disturbing pattern emerges making it harder for centrist voices to be heard and represented.  Mainstream moderates may make up the overwhelming majority in almost every area of discourse, but they are often overshadowed by the more passionate extremes, and their natural constituencies ready to embrace a black or white side of the spectrum.

Nuanced, balanced thinking has no natural constituency.

The same problem exists with the media.  News Corp’s FOX and Wall Street Journal are primarily platforms for conservative thinking – and you rarely if ever will see an op-ed contribution that challenges the inclinations of an orthodox readership.  NPR, CNN and The New York Times are primarily platforms for liberal (in the left-wing sense) thinking – and their editorials tend to be painfully unimaginative and caricatured.  (Alas, it also tends to be that the more "entertaining" shows and moderators have definite political slants – whether it’s the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Colbert Report and Real Time with Bill Mahr for the left, or Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly for the right; centrist thinking is much more "boring").

Each media platform increasingly caters to audiences primed for "affirmation" rather than "information" – G’d forbid if some new data point challenges our assumptions. 

It is not just the institutions that are to blame, but all of us as products of these institutions. I am fascinated to notice how "news" developments are interpreted with such extraordinary bias by people who have formed an opinion. 

I remember during the Bush-Gore elections debacle how every development, decision or institution that favored George Bush (US Supreme Court, Florida Administration) was seen as correct by Bush supporters and as an afront to justice by Gore supporters.  Conversely, every development that favored Gore (Florida Supreme Court, Palm Beach or Dade County officials) was viewed as perfectly just and logical to Gore supporters and irredeemably flawed by Republicans.

Over the last two months I’ve also asked Clinton and Obama supporters to reflect on the bias of a news source or behavior from one party or the other.  Almost never does an Obama supporter admit that the Obama campaign may be fallible, and almost never does a Clinton supporter admit that their candidate may have done something wrong.

Lack of critical thinking and unbiased analysis presents a major challenge to society.

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  1. daniel said:

    A version of this post was re-printed as a letter to the editor by the Wall Street Journal.

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