I ran into an older, retired Israeli colleague who is a fine scholar in his field. We hadn’t met for 25 years and agreed to have coffee in a nearby Tel Aviv cafe. In the ensuing conversation I learned some key things about why current intellectual and political discussion is such a wreck.
The retired professor has read nothing I’ve written. He is on the left-wing politically, in the historic non-Communist sense, but his work has always been first-rate and untouched by any political slant. In addition, he has worked amicably with people of different views.
And that’s why I was dismayed by his first question: “Are you left-wing or right-wing?”
I sighed, partly because I hate this starting point of dividing people into two categories. A more appropriate question would have been: “what do you think of … ?” To classify someone is to decide in advance to agree or disagree with whatever they say. To ask someone their view makes it possible to listen and think about the quality of their ideas.
A scholar or analyst, whatever his personal views, should do work that is beyond politics.
Many years ago I wrote a scholarly article on American radical professors of the 1930s and 1940s. I was almost unable to find a single case in which anyone had even been accused of politicizing their academic work or classroom teaching. They viewed such behavior as inappropriate, and perhaps some were worried about how being outspoken might hurt their careers. At any rate, even during the McCarthy era people were pursued for their organizational memberships and not their classroom behavior.
Today, all those old issues of professional ethics have vanished. Professors may spend most of their time being propagandists: throw away scholarly standards and energetically persecute dissenters.
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