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Dismissing Academics

What much of the public and the government want from academics, PhDs and experts is a source of legitimation for their predetermined beliefs when it comes to contentious issues. There are relatively few who are willing to be persuaded in one direction or the other within a limited time frame. Professor Williams' testimony for the defense in this case is one of those instances where the audience is very open to varied interpretations and analyses. The audience in this case, a jury of US military officers, is not the audience most experts deal with. Often the audience can be considered "hostile." They will only internalize what they want to hear and the rest will be disregarded by whatever means necessary. 

Both sides of the political spectrum (even those in the middle) can be guilty of this at times. For example, an academic gives his opinion on some current event/controversy and some of those who disagree (and are unable to independently access contradictory analysis) resort to street tactics: "Must be some Marxist self-loathing Ivory Tower professor," "Probably a neo-con," "I wonder who funds his studies?" "Is that name Jewish?" "I bet he works for or wants to work for the government," "He clearly hates America," "Neo-colonial academic imperialist." etc... As ridiculous as some of these accusations seem, they might actually apply. An academic might just be a Marxist, or Jewish, or a conservative who votes Republican. Pointing that out doesn't disprove their argument, but it sure takes a lot less effort.

In regards to professor Williams' role in the defense of Hamdan, the prosecution did not go after Williams in a way that one who wasted years of their undergrad studies on Law & Order reruns might expect. And in the "court of public opinion" Williams has not, that I have noticed, faced any attacks on his motivations. This is likely because the Hamdan case, while very important in many regards, did not register much in the mainstream media. If the case was of a higher profile in the eyes of the public, might the expert witness have faced some attacks? 

And that points to the dilemma that many academics face: what opinions does one want to publicly express? From my limited experience as a postgrad student I have noticed that some friends and students from other departments with whom I am acquainted have the habit of forgetting the 75% of the comments I make that criticize government policy, while remembering the 25% of the comments made in which I'm in basic agreement with the government. And what is being said behind one's back? I overheard a conversation in the US where one PhD student's qualified support for continued troop presence in Afghanistan was dismissed by several other PhD students as the opinions of a "fascist." Later that year another student's opinion were dismissed with the comment that she was a "communist." So I guess everyone on campus can be reduced to being fascist or communist when one needs to dismiss their opinions. 

That is the context for experts-in-training who are very far removed from public discourse. Now the extreme opposite are those well known academics who make significant contributions to the public discourse with their opinions. Good examples would be Juan Cole and Bernard Lewis, who are frequently subjected to attacks from right and left, respectively. This episode, in regards to perception of expert opinion, has played out as well as possible: an expert witness whose background made it impossible to disregard his testimony as the biased rantings of an "anti-American professor." Nonetheless, I expect the general trend in public discourse, especially online, will be  true to cliche, of attacking the messenger rather than seriously attempting to deconstruct the analysis.   

Christian Bleuer is a PhD student at the Australian National University and writes at Ghosts of Alexander, a popular blog on Afghanistan issues.

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