Those of us for whom college means fading memories of all-night study crams and Hendrix jams often puzzle at the attitudes of many academics toward the war. The U.S. is fighting an enemy whose goals are antithetical to ideals embraced by most intellectuals, yet many express hostility to America (there are exceptions, see “Books to Baghdad” below). Last November, a window opened on this mindset, thanks to Laurie Brand’s address to the Middle East Studies Association, a self-described “non-political” group comprised of academics from prestigious universities and institutions around the world.
As deftly profiled by Martin Kramer’s Sandstorm, out-going MESA president Brand is a well-credentialed professor of international relations at USC, an expert on Palestinian issues and a strident critic of America. That’s the same America, Sandstorm notes, that has awarded the good professor numerous career-enhancing grants, awards, state-sponsored lecture tours and four Fulbright scholarships.
Speaking, appropriately enough, in San Francisco, Brand entitled her address “Scholarship in the Shadow of Empire.” Her ostensible subject was the undeniably important issue of how the U.S. government “uses academic/scientific inquiry,” especially during wartime. “How should we define the concept of citizen/scholar?” she queried. As her talk progressed, however, she grew increasingly bitter toward the U.S., eventually warning that “academic freedom…is under siege by those insisting that we toe a particular ideological or political line.” She offered no examples of actual coercion or threats.
We’ll pass over her denunciations of the “deplorable” conflict in Iraq and the “Manichean” war on terror. What’s more interesting is her constant description of the U.S. as “the empire.” “What else but ’empire’ describes the awesome thing America is becoming?” she quotes a friend; “What should our relationship as scholars be to the state, now the empire?” she asks. Of course, she and her MESA audience know what “empire” means–not a Rome-like defender of civilization against tribal barbarians, but (queue the Darth Vader theme) an evil empire that persecutes the pure of heart and righteous of soul.
Brand’s address reveals her own Manichean world-view, similar to that reflected by many intellectuals. They view “academic/scientific” knowledge as something pure that must be protected from–not offered in assistance to–the profane necessities of government. (“Studies of democratization, political Islam and terrorism serve as the…intellectual underpinning of the newest march to battle,” cautions Brand.) Moreover, as guardians of knowledge, these scholar-priests must maintain the moral high ground by declining participation in the often queasy compromises of real world politics. To her credit, Brand admits that accepting taxpayer money “implicates” academics in the “broader imperial/political system”–but her mea culpa rings false, betrayed by the fact that, in her lexicon, scholars receive benign-sounding “government funding”–but resist “the empire.”
Canadian columnist David Warren once described post-modernism as “Christianity without Christ.” In the anti-Americanism evinced by these academics (along with the entertainment/media/political overclass and most, it seems, of continental Europe) one senses what Gibbon critiqued as the early Christian’s other-worldliness and disengagement from Rome’s responsibilities in the world–but, in today’s case, without the moral and ethical anchor of the man Jesus. Instead, these Leftists exhibit an amorphous, free-floating desire to escape the thorny issues of power and governance in return for clean hands, a tidy conscience and comfortable personal lives.
What explains this self-righteous alienation? Brand offers a clue. She quotes a 2002 Ron Susskind interview in which a senior Bush adviser says, “We’re an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality…We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Continuing on, she notes,
What has become increasingly clear is that it matters little if one has extensive regional, language and political expertise, if one’s conclusions do not match those of the administration of the empire.
That’s the most galling part, it seems. To Brand’s brand of scholars, the empire is mean, manipulative and coercive. Even worse–it doesn’t care about them.
UPDATE: Just to put in my two cents worth on the current Juan Cole flap (so glad I’m not alone in my irritation with him!), I should add that while Laurie Brand is the out-going president of MESA, the in-coming is none other than the good professor himself. Someone might warn the scholars’ association that in Cole’s case: being “informed ” is not necessarily knowing.
Posted by Steven Vincent