Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Attack on Middle East Studies: A Historical Perspective

The Attack on Middle East Studies: A Historical Perspective

Lawrence Davidson

Dr. Davidson is professor of Middle East history at West Chester University.

Throughout American history, the population has periodically indulged in episodes of self- abuse. The abuse usually entails one group of citizens attacking another with the charge of undermining American security and values. These outbursts are usually triggered by war or some imagined foreign threat. One of the more striking aspects of these episodes is their contradictory nature: the very attacks in the name of national values systematically violate the nation's values by undermining the rights and freedoms (such as the right of open dissent) of those subject to attack. These episodes, just a few historical examples of which are given below, occur with something approaching regularity, about once every other generation. They expose a dark aspect of the American culture, lying just beneath the surface and ever ready to erupt.

These episodes began as early as 1798 with the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts. Involved in an undeclared war with France, the U.S. government, then controlled by the Federalist party, passed laws that allowed officials to arrest, hold and deport aliens who were considered "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States." It also allowed the imprisonment of those who published "false, scandalous and malicious writings" against the government and its officials. The legislation and subsequent government actions were used to shut down opposition to the government's policies and thus, in the name of protecting the values of American democracy, those values were systematically violated. This contradictory position was recognized at the time by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, both of whom prepared formal statements of protest and fought continuously against these unconstitutional acts. Nonetheless, it took a change of administration to successfully check the oppression, and by then much damage had been done. Many residents of French nationality or alleged French sympathizers had fled the country, and a significant number of newspaper editors and journalists, including Benjamin Franklin's grandson, had been arrested and imprisoned.


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