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Academic Freedom & and Systems of Power


Take Latin American studies. There’s a professional association (LASA) and many outstanding specialists. In the 1980s, Central America, particularly Nicaragua, was the Big Story.

After all, we even had a National Emergency called by the brave cowboy Leader hiding in the White House in panic because the Nicaraguan army was only two days driving time from Harlingen Texas. Typically, when the Leader declares priorities, it reflexively becomes the Big Story for the media. That reflects the internalized understanding that the task of “objective media” is to serve power interests, not popular interests.

A very dramatic example today is Social Security vs Health care. The Dear Leader has declared that destroying (called “reforming”) Social Security is the priority, so the media declare it the “hot topic,” and focus on it, reflexively. They read the polls that show that health care is by far the most serious popular financial concern, with an “astounding” 6% (the word is that of the quite conservative Gallup
analysts) saying they are satisfied with it. But that doesn’t matter — though it takes scarcely a moment to understand Bush administration priorities, adopted reflexively by the media (which, to be sure, allow some criticism, but that is hardly the point).

Same in the 80s. Central America, particularly Nicaragua, was the “hot topic.” There was a spectrum of opinion allowed. In the national press (where the studies are in print, if you want to check), the spectrum for Nicaragua ranged from hawks (step up the war and destroy the devils who don’t follow orders) to doves (violence isn’t working well, so we have to turn to other means to restore “regional standards” and return Nicaragua to the “Central American mode” — that is, the standards and the mode of the US-run terror states that were carrying out vast slaughters, torture, and every imaginable form of barbarism). Usually, when some region becomes the “hot topic,” the media can turn to the universities for “experts” who will say what is required. In this case, it didn’t work. The scholarly profession knew too much about the topics, and commonly had concern for the people they worked with and studied. So they were mostly frozen out, and the media and journals of opinion had to create a new cadre of “experts” who would say the right thing — sometimes in rather comical ways. The leading Nicaragua scholar, Thomas Walker, sent op-eds regularly to the NYT. None appeared. That continues, when he distributed an op-ed on the recent ludicrous claims about the “democratic elections” in El Salvador. Frozen out. To take one interesting example, the official pronouncement from Washington was that there was no election in Nicaragua in 1984, by doctrinal fiat.

The press reflexively went along. It therefore had to freeze out the report of a LASA delegation consisting mostly of specialists with direct experience in Nicaragua, who did a detailed on-the-spot investigation of the background and the election, and agreed with international observers (including the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group, a very hostile Dutch government delegation, etc.) that the election was quite fair by general Latin American standards, and the most carefully observed in history. All had to be suppressed, because there couldn’t have been an election — obviously, or the US terrorist war and rejection of diplomacy would not be “legitimate.”

All of this remains totally suppressed, as we have just witnessed during the appointment of a condemned international terrorist, John Negroponte, to be the first counter-terrorism Czar, eliciting no ridicule, even attention. This is only one of many examples of the phenomenon, in the case of Latin American studies.

In Middle East studies, there has been a complicated mixture, but it is somewhat the same. That’s why the profession is under such severe attack by dedicated totalitarians who are not satisfied with near-total control and insist that it rise to 100% (in the name of “academic freedom,” the typical totalitarian gambit, satirized by a long line of commentators from Pascal to Orwell). The claim is that the profession is biased against Israel. That’s very easy to test: run a poll asking whether faculty in the field believe that Israel should have all the rights of any state in the international system.
I suspect it would approximate 100% Yes, which is why the studies aren’t undertaken: they would give the game away. For the totalitarian state-worshipping mentality, “anti-Israel bias” means unwillingness to adopt the US-Israeli claim that Israel should have vastly greater rights than any state in the international system, including an abstract “right to exist” — a notion apparently concocted in the 1970s to bar diplomacy, when the US and Israel were alone in blocking international efforts to reach a diplomatic two-state settlement in which Israel would be granted “only” the rights of every other state.

There are other cases, but by no means all. Depends on the particular history of the profession, its relation to power systems, state and private, and many other factors.

Take archaeologists… Biblical archaeology began as an effort to demonstrate the historical validity of the Biblical record. After a very long period, these efforts began to crumble, in substantial measure the result of work of Israeli archaeologists. That has led to plenty of turmoil in, and around, the field, with slanderous denunciations of scholars as anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, etc.

I think one can detect tendencies, which are not too hard to explain: insofar as regional studies involve engagement with the populations, it’s quite likely that they’ll depart from doctrinal orthodoxies imposed by power systems. But these are tendencies. There’s a lot of variety…

… The sciences will die unless they encourage independent inquiry, challenge to established beliefs and authority (in particular, by young people), and concern for truth. Those factors exist, but with less force, as we move from the hard sciences to disciplines where understanding is more shallow and human affairs are more directly involved, so outside pressures of institutional power structures play a greater role. The Pentagon was quite content to sponsor researchers who were organizing resistance against the Vietnam war and facing possible long prison sentences, because they understand, as the saner (and often most reactionary) parts of Congress do, that a free enterprise economy has to be avoided as strictly as democracy, and that costs and risks of R&D have to be socialized with eventual profits (maybe after decades in the dynamic state sector) transferred to private tyrannies. That’s one illustration of how external pressures are often much less in the sciences — but that’s a more complex story too, as we see clearly as the mix of R&D shifts from science towards engineering: direct military R&D is the clearest illustration.

As for English Egyptologists, as far as I am aware they were mostly apologists for empire a century ago, just as even the most outstanding figures — like John Stuart Mill — often were. An interesting history is American anthropology, which did not really begin to recognize the enormity of the crimes committed against the indigenous population, or even elementary truths about them, until quite
recently: probably a result of 60s activism… Worth a careful study (probably there are some).

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