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Surf Culture Can Teach You A Lot About the Middle East. Seriously.

Image via Wiki Commons.

A few weeks ago I attended the Transnational American Studies conference in Lebanon sponsored by the American University of Beirut (AUB). This was the fifth of AUB’s biennial American Studies conferences, and I went to this one having heard positive things about the previous four. I was not disappointed. The conference offered the same enviable combination of intellectual stimulation, warm camaraderie, and cultural appeal for which the earlier meetings had come to be known.  I had a wonderful time and learned a lot, as did, it appeared, the dozens of other scholars in attendance.

Most academic conferences come and go while making nary a peep in the non-academic world.  One might have expected something similar with a relatively small meeting in Beirut, but, it seems, an American Studies conference in the Middle East just weeks after the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions presented too perfect a target.  For those who see the academy as little more than a bastion of out-of-touch radicals bent on the destruction of Western civilization, the online program apparently proved enticing. Sure enough, with the conference barely underway, Jeffrey Goldberg took one of the first swipes, publishing a comical piece for Bloomberg that mocked a number of the panel and paper titles, including those related to Israel’s use of GLBT rights (“pinkwashing”) and outreach to American Indians (“redwashing”) to sanitize its record of occupation and repression.  Goldberg’s “favorite offering,” however, was a paper on “settler colonialisms across Antarctica and Palestine,” whose abstruse abstract, he warned his readers, presented a “difficult slog.”

Fair enough.  Goldberg is hardly alone in lamenting the unnecessarily dense and impenetrable jargon that colors some academic writing. Many of us in fact share his frustration.  But little of this gratuitous theorizing was on display in Beirut, at least in the sessions I attended. That was not really Goldberg’s principal concern, however. His larger beef was political.  He feared that the paper was “building a case for the forced expulsion of the Jews to Antarctica” -- it wasn’t -- which he inflammatorily claimed was “an idea that would sit well” with some in the “Lebanese audience.”  More broadly, Goldberg complained in a reference to what Iran and “its proxy force” Hezbollah have apparently done to Lebanon, “[t]here is nothing on the schedule of this conference to suggest that these academics, so enthralled by Western sin, will have anything to say about what is going on right under their noses. The indigenous rights of Antarcticans, however, will be defended.”

Goldberg was not alone in lambasting the conference.  Washington Post foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher took to Twitter to sarcastically demean the Antarctica paper’s author as “clearly America’s foremost public intellectual.”  Mike Doran of the Brookings Institution joked that “[w]e shld give clemency to Snowden, but only on the condition that he attend every panel at every major Am Studies conf.”  Jonathan Marks of Ursinus College criticized the “hogwash” presented in Beirut for the Manhattan Institute’s online Minding the Campus project. And Rod Dreher used the website of the American Conservative to debase the biennial meeting’s “beyond absurd” sessions.

“The world is on fire all around them,” Dreher spewed, “and these intellectuals want to sit in their leftist salon, discussing the kinds of cultural politics that aren’t relevant outside Western humanities faculties. You go to Beirut as the entire Middle East convulses with war, religion, and revolution, and you talk about … surf culture?” That last dig was a reference to a paper entitled “From Pamela to Palestine: Kelly Slater and the Politics of Surf Culture.” I should know. I am its author.

The easy thing to do at this point would be to weigh in with all the reasons I think Dreher is wrong.  He obviously didn’t read the abstract to which he linked. If he had, there is no way he could have so glibly dismissed the paper, which dealt in considerable part with the use of surfing in grassroots peacebuilding efforts between Israelis and Palestinians and Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, unless -- and I suppose this is a distinct possibility -- he were being intellectually dishonest.  And he obviously ignored those parts of the conference program, such as Jeremy Scahill’s presentation, film, and memorial lecture, that did not conveniently fit his mischaracterization of the meeting. Like Goldberg, Fisher, Doran, and Marks, Dreher did not attend the conference to hear the papers for himself. Yet this did not stop him from suggesting they were worthless.

Dreher’s comments are instructive for at least two unintended reasons, however. First, they illustrate the extent to which “culture,” broadly defined, is too readily dismissed by segments of the punditocracy. If it wouldn’t fit in the staid pages of a Brookings report, it apparently isn’t worth discussing, they seem to believe. And second, the comments evince the belief that surfing is simply a mindless pastime that has nothing to tell us about the modern world. Whether this is a function of negative cultural representations of surfers (think Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli) or Dreher’s residence in Louisiana, far from the nearest center of surf culture, is unclear. But whatever the reason, Dreher is certainly mistaken. Surfing, I argue in a new book, in fact offers a fascinating window through which to view some of the most consequential developments of the last two hundred years, from American empire-building in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Pacific to Cold War cultural diplomacy and corporate globalization. That a paper on surf culture in the Middle East should appear at an American Studies conference in Beirut is, I would argue, entirely appropriate. As is the presentation of work on -- and I’ll include here only the papers I heard -- the Israeli courting of American Indians, settler colonialisms, and transnational 9/11 memorials -- all topics that managed to outrage several members of the commentariat glancing at titles from halfway around the world.