There's a nasty war of words going on between University of Michigan history prof Juan Cole and journalist Christopher Hitchens. Cole, an expert on the Middle East and Islam who recently appeared on the cover of this rag ("Juan's world," MT, Feb. 22), is an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq. Hitchens, one of the most erudite reporters we've ever read, originally made his mark as a far-lefty but has been a major supporter of the Bush regime's attack on Iraq from the outset.
In a recent Slate column (slate.com) denouncing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hitchens took Cole to task for supposedly distorting what Hitchens described as Ahmadinejad's expressed desire to see Israel "wiped off the map."
In his Slate piece, Hitchens described Cole as a "minor nuisance on the fringes of the academic Muslim apologist community."
When interviewing Cole for our story, we asked him about the "apologist" label some were sticking on him.
"I do a lot of consulting in D.C. with counterterrorism people about how to get rid of al-Qaida, so I don't think it's plausible that I'm an apologist for Muslim extremism," he replied. "I spend a good deal of my career trying to understand it and trying to defeat it. So, I think it's a sleazeball kind of rhetorical tactic, and I don't think it actually has any purchase."
We thought that a pretty good retort. But Hitchens (hitchensweb.com) apparently doesn't read MT, because he was all over Cole for supposedly going soft on the Iranian prez a guy Cole had previously described as being, among other unsavory things, "despicable" and a "fascist."
But this time around Hitchens was pouncing on Cole for statements Cole made in an e-mail sent to a private discussion group and leaked to Hitch. Cole expressed outrage that the post was used as ammunition in the Slate piece, and suggested that Hitchens may have been under the influence of alcohol to do such an ignoble thing.
Then Hitchens' pal Andrew Sullivan, a former editor of The New Republic magazine who has described himself as a "South Park Republican," came to the defense of his friend, saying he was there as Hitch finished the piece attacking Cole, and that hooch wasn't involved.
To which Cole commented in his blog (juancole.com): "I had so hoped that the purloined e-mail and the bizarre characterization of my argument, and the attempt of this Western journalist who is clueless about reading Persian texts to correct my philology, was the mere result of too many whiskey sours taken too early in the morning.
"I see that instead it is mere asininity and lack of character."
We've rarely seen Hitchens bested in a duel where the weapon of choice is rhetoric, but it looks to us like the advantage goes to Cole in this one.News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]