National Humanities Medal to Bernard Lewis . . .

Generally there is just too much going on to follow all of it in the news, let alone understand it. complains that historian Bernard Lewis’ being honored with the National Humanities Medal is a problem, labeling him a denier of the Armenian genocide. He was found to be so by a French court (does that increase his appeal to Bush?).

Lewis’ work is influential — here is a 2004 Washington Monthly piece by Newsweek correspondent Michael Hirsch, pointing out that Lewis is the guy who probably first coined the phrase “clash of civilizations” with regard to international relations with modern Islamic nations. Is he just one more Princeton University faculty member, like Ben Bernanke, who happens to have the ear of the President?

Teachers of history certainly should be familiar with the controversy over the Armenian genocide, its relation to post-World War I history, its salience in European politics today, and its effects on U.S. history (and especially U.S. literature — think William Saroyan, George Deukmejian, etc.). I admit I know very little about Lewis. I don’t know enough about him to make a judgment on whether the charges of the Armenian partisans are fair.

In my previous post I noted the rise of a superstar natural history prof, in England. Here in the U.S. the National Humanities Medal was awarded to nine people and one institution — one of the people is a Nobel Prize winner — and the news sank like a small, round stone in a small pond, without making much of a ripple.

If we can’t name some of the stars among historians and others in the humanities, are we doing our jobs? Are our newspapers and broadcasters doing their jobs if we don’t get this news?

Did President Bush honor a denier of the Armenian genocide? Our future relations with Islamic nations and peoples may depend on the answer. I don’t know. Do you?

Here is Lewis’ biography from the awards press release:

Bernard Lewis is considered by many to be the greatest living historian of the Muslim world. He has pursued his primary interest, the history of the Ottoman Empire, producing groundbreaking works including The Emergence of Modern Turkey, The Political Language of Islam, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, The Jews of Islam, and Islam and the West. His most recent publication is From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East. Other titles by Lewis: The Crisis of Islam: Holy War & Unholy Terror; What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East; Western Impact and the Middle Eastern Response; A Middle East Mosaic: Fragments of Life, Letters and History; The Multiple Identities of the Middle East; and The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. Born in London, England, in 1916, Lewis became attracted to languages and history at an early age. Lewis’s interest in history was stirred thanks to his bar mitzvah ceremony, during which he received as a gift a book on Jewish history. He graduated in 1936 from the then School of Oriental Studies (SOAS, now School of Oriental and African Studies) at the University of London with a B.A. in history with special reference to the Near and Middle East, and obtaining his Ph.D. three years later, also from SOAS, specializing in the history of Islam. During the Second World War, Lewis served in the British Army in the Royal Armoured Corps and Intelligence Corps in 1940-41, and was then attached to a department of the Foreign Office. After the war he returned to SOAS, and in 1949 he was appointed to the new chair in Near and Middle Eastern history at the age of 33. In 1974 Lewis accepted a joint position at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, marking the beginning of the most prolific period in his research career. In addition, it was in the United States that Lewis became a public intellectual. After his retirement from Princeton in 1986 as the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Lewis held many visiting appointments. Lewis has been a naturalized citizen of the United States since 1982.

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3 Responses to National Humanities Medal to Bernard Lewis . . .

  1. edarrell says:

    Noll is a historian, and not necessarily favorable to the administration policies or usual notions of “evangelical” — he’s been very critical of creationism, for example.

    But there does appear to be a trend there, doesn’t there? The NEH doesn’t show the medals on their website yet. I thought that curious, but it may be just from budget cuts and a lack of personnel.


  2. J. L. Bell says:

    I’ve read analyses of this medal-granting ceremony that suggested the White House press office downplayed the event because two of the recipients—Lewis and Fouad Ajami—were among the “intellectual authors” of the administration’s Mideast policy. According to this theory, the press office feared this would be perceived as similar to George W. Bush’s medal ceremony for George Tenet, praise for Donald Rumsfeld, etc.

    The other medal winners include the Hoover Institution and Mark Noll, “one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America,” so the choices do seem to reflect this administration’s intellectual preferences.


  3. RobW says:

    Lewis is an idiot. Although even some of his detractors suggest he is a useful source on the Ottoman Empire, his other contributions to the intellectual sphere are almost uniformly worthless. Apart from his genocide denialism, there is, as you mention above, the fact that he inspired Huntington’s witless Clash of Civilisations thesis. Lewis often argues that Europe must “re-christianise” and appears to have bought into that “Eurabia” gibberish. He recently predicted that Iran would launch a major offensive on September 22 because this was the anniversary of Mohamed’s ascent into Heaven. You’ll recall how accurate that prediction was.

    Lewis is one of those people who argue that the present catastrophe is to be understood by examining events that occurred centuries ago, while ignoring recent history that more credibly explains the situation. Thus, the rise of “radical Islam” is a product of a recrudescence of longstanding Muslim antipathy to the West, and not at all the product of the last fifty years of history, including the longstanding Cold War strategy of suppressing and subverting nationalism and leftism in the Middle East and Muslim Third World, while aiding and abetting the most reactionary elements of the Islamic religious Right to further that aim. Lewis’ position on this issue is somewhat amusing, as that latter set of policies was one he endorsed at the time (see chapter 3 of Robert Dreyfuss’ Devil’s Game). He is the reductio ad absurdum of Orientalism. He thoroughly deserves the endorsement of the current U.S. government.



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