Scholarship in the Shadow of Empire
Presidential Address by Laurie A. Brand
To the Annual Meeting of the
As a colleague of mine has recently written, a
term that was slanderous a mere decade ago –empire—has now become a cliché in
Imperial expansion is justified based on the
exigencies of prosecuting a war against terrorism, a battle that is portrayed as
existential in nature and global in scope.
The attacks of
While it is true that President George W.
Bush has on several occasions explicitly denied that the
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study, too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” The 2004 elections have now given these people another four years to determine the empire’s course.
I am well aware that many of you here are not American citizens. Yet, whether you are or not, and whether you believe the United States to be an empire or not, two factors, overwhelming US power and the current state of war, have far ranging implications for us all, as individuals and as scholars.
Referring to the case of Tariq Ramadan, one journalist argued that the debate surrounding the revocation of his visa “cuts to the center of the role of academics in a society at war, [it] turns on how to distinguish between scholarship and apologetics, objectivity and sympathy, and serving one’s country or aiding its enemy.”  Certainly, if it is the state that makes decisions about with whom one may or may not exchange ideas, and if, to concretize the concern, simply to study Islamic movements with the intent to understand, rather than immediately to indict and convict, opens one up to charges of collaboration with terrorists, then the possibilities for serious research are severely circumscribed, whether one’s goal is academic inquiry or policymaking.
That said, the challenge is in fact much deeper and more serious. This is not just a question of whether the academy and American society more broadly will continue to have access to foreign scholars as a means of informing the national debate over a course of action already chosen, but rather a much more basic struggle over how the empire views and uses academic/scientific inquiry; as well as over the obstacles or constraints that those of us who have alternative views of the terms, tactics, strategies and/or goals of the empire’s current engagements will face in raising our voices and using our pens.
The British and French Experiences
To provide some historical perspective on the relationship between empires and the academy, I first would like briefly to touch upon the British and French experiences.
If we look back in time and across the Atlantic, through the years British intellectuals and scholars have had a substantial influence in government, rotating into and out of the Colonial Office or the Foreign Office and teaching at Oxford classes tailored to the needs of colonial officials. Indeed, Britannic nationalism characterized British historians beginning at the end of the 19th century; historical debate revolved around the proper constitutional form of imperial cooperation and was underpinned by a teleological view of British colonies moving toward the British ideal of good governance.
Recruiting primarily from
Oxford and Cambridge, the Colonial Office hired many academic specialists to
work on economics, social services and educational programs in the colonial
states. In fact,
ed the past record of the British, weakened present influences, and threatened to harm future relationships.
Another figure who combined the role of government official and academic
was Alfred Zimmern, who worked for the British government in intelligence during
WWI, and then taught international relations at Aberystwyth and
Looking in particular at
Returning to these shores, an examination of the relationship between the academy and the US government since 1945 makes clear that government security agencies in particular have played a major role, both in funding and in shaping the establishment of numerous institutions and centers, as well as the texts, the methodologies and even the body of knowledge regarded as central to the academic enterprise. Government money and political backing also played an important role in “Determining the ‘authoritative’ experts on a given topic and in shunting aside scholars who had fallen from favor.” Indeed, the story of the unfolding of the cold war, especially in its early years, is one of marginalization and dismissals of faculty and approaches that were not approved of by the emerging national security state.
I will not go into detail here regarding particular academic institutions and their cooperation with such government agencies. Suffice it to say that centers at some of the finest institutions of higher learning took money, some directly from the CIA, the FBI or other intelligence or military agencies, others indirectly through various foundations, which served at the time as laundering channels. The goal was, in the rather benign formulation of Walt Rostow, “to bring to bear academic research on issues of public policy.” 
One example of the research relationship between
the academy and the state in this period involved US government interest in
counter-insurgency, and its influence on what became the field of development
studies and modernization theory.
Project Camelot was perhaps the best documented of these
“national-security state-sponsored interdisciplinary initiatives” aimed at
creating the information base needed for [a variety of] social engineering
projects…and for the counterinsurgency and psychological warfare operations
undertaken when these projects failed.” Conceived in 1963, it was intended to bring
social science expertise to bear on “managing” national liberation movements in
The emergence of area studies came in this same period and owed to similar government concerns. The initiative to promote studies of regions arose, not out of a desire “for disinterested knowledge, but in response to a stringent practical demand – the need for ‘experts,’ for men [sic] who [could] deal with concrete and specific problems that ha[d] arisen because of inter-cultural activity, particularly at the governmental level.”
As time passed, many academics sought to
renegotiate the relationship with government. The
In reviewing the record of the academy and
the government during the Cold war, one cannot but be struck by the similarities
with today’s atmosphere. No longer is it the Cold War, but the war on
terrorism. No longer is the enemy a
nation state -- the
The Empire and Scientific/Academic Inquiry Today
I would now like to turn to some specific, current examples of the relationship between the empire and the academy, or education and scientific inquiry more broadly.
The most significant new initiative which is reminiscent of early Cold War government involvement in the academy is the provision of grants to universities to establish what are called Homeland Security Centers. According to the website,
The objective is the establishment of a coordinated, university-based system to enhance the Nation's homeland security. The Homeland Security Centers are envisioned to be an integral and critical component of the new homeland security complex that will provide the Nation with a robust, dedicated and enduring capability that will enhance our ability to anticipate, prevent, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks. These Centers will also provide a locus to attract and retain the Nation's best and brightest academic scholars in pursuit of homeland security related disciplines… Grant funds may be used by selected universities for: (1) targeted research areas that leverage the multidisciplinary capabilities of universities and fill gaps in our needed knowledge and our ability to counter terrorist attacks; and (2) involve U.S. graduate and undergraduate students who are interested, dedicated and committed to making important contributions in science and technology endeavors that will enhance the overall security of the nation.
While Homeland Security clearly involves far more than developing expertise on the MENA region, the degree to which our institutions and programs of study may be affected cannot be ignored. For example, one related initiative, launched under the controversial National Security Education Program (NSEP) aims to increase the number of Americans who speak Arabic (as well as a number of other key languages) and to provide them with better training. Coupled with the NSEP-funded scholarships, the National Flagship Language Initiative (NFLI) is designed to produce a significant number of graduates across disciplines with advanced levels of proficiency in languages critical to national security, many of whom will be candidates for employment with agencies and offices of the federal government.
Among recent legislative initiatives aimed at
shaping academic inquiry and output, the one best known to the MENA community is
probably the inclusion in HR 3077, the International Studies in Education Act,
of a provision to establish an International Education Advisory Board. As
proposed, this board was to review and oversee the Title VI Centers to make sure
that they were providing “all points of view” regarding
Yet these examples touch on only a small part of the current relationship between the academy and the empire. To appreciate its full dimensions, this story must be told using not just developments or anecdotes about our field, but with a much wider sweep.
The treatment of those who opposed the war in
Nevertheless, with the current administration’s having secured another four year-term -- this time by winning an election -- there is every reason to believe that the challenges of the recent past will continue, if not intensify. I will mention here just a few of the myriad recent and current challenges. They are disturbingly illustrative of the age in which we live and of the approaches of many of those in positions of executive and legislative authority to free and honest academic and scientific inquiry.
One is the so-called Academic Bill of Rights. Introduced by Congressman
Jack Kingston (R-GA) in October 2003, it owed its inspiration and a good portion
of its text to the left-wing turned right-wing commentator David Horowitz, who
has been seeking to counteract what he calls a stranglehold of left-wing
politics on American campuses. “Designed to take partisan politics out of
1a. “All faculty members will be hired, fired, promoted, and granted tenure on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge in the field of their expertise and, in the humanities, the social sciences and the arts with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives.” (emphasis added) The sciences are not mentioned, so I suppose creationism is secure.
1e. “Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences will respect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas and provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints.” (emphasis added)
1g. “Academic disciplines should welcome a diversity of approaches to unsettled questions.” (emphasis added)
A version of this bill was passed by the Georgia State Senate
Indeed, the bill’s concern for the promotion of a multiplicity of perspectives must be evaluated against the record of the empire, a record in which respect for what counts as evidence in scientific inquiry has been repeatedly, cynically, and arrogantly, violated.
For example, for months, against not just a
preponderance, but all evidence, there was nothing "unsettled,” to use
There was no permission of a plurality of views or, apparently, even dissent, behind the administration’s insistence that aluminum tubes Iraq sought to acquire were to be used to make nuclear bomb fuel. Officials at the very top of the government deliberately ignored evidence from nuclear experts refuting the contention.
And, in the face of predictions and analyses ranging from gloomy to dire from experts across the political spectrum -- except those of the handpicked few, the ideologues or the sycophants – the situation in Iraq continues to be portrayed as “sovereign and free,” part of a process inexorably sowing democracy – the flipside apparently of its gradual erosion at home.
I will not go into further detail on the process
by which the lie reconstructed as truth has won the day in critical policy
discussions. The fact that the decision to go to war against Iraq was taken well
before the justifications were in place and as the administration continued to
proclaim that it would exhaust all options before choosing a military response
has been widely written about. Prisoners of war become illegal combatants and
are thereby deprived of rights under the Geneva Conventions; they are held in a
This is clearly not an empire seeking to encourage anything resembling intellectual diversity, nor one which accepts an “unsettled quality of knowledge,” to quote again from Kingston/Horowitz.
Now, lest one be tempted to argue that in fact all politicians lie, all administrations notoriously twist and distort the truth to serve their interests and therefore, what we have been witnessing is merely the most proximate example, I would argue that indeed, it is an example, but the most extreme and damaging one that most Washington watchers can recall. In this empire, the leadership is infallible even when it blunders; what it says is always true, even when it is a lie; and its policies always succeed, even when they are dismal failures. Beyond that, we deceive ourselves if we conclude that the lying and perversion or suppression of evidence is limited to the foreign policy realm.
Let us move away from the realm in which
lies about mobile chemical weapons facilities are produced, and return
specifically to the academic and research community, Here again, we find an
extremely disturbing record of an administration that has, according to many
scientists, been purging, censoring, manipulating and distorting science to
serve political ends. There is no
question that previous administrations have also used science in dishonest
ways. Yet, what we have seen in the
last few years, according to most analysts, far surpasses previous levels of
politicization. Again and again,
“sound science” becomes whatever the administration says it is; that is,
whatever serves the goals of the empire’s leaders, in the area of the
environment, health, biomedical research, and nuclear weaponry. On
The Bush administration has also put in place a
policy that politicizes the process of making available the expert advice of US
scientists to the international community. For example, the Department of Health
and Human Services has barred “the World Health Organization from asking experts
In another example, the administration
withdrew at the last moment from a major conference on global health held in
And lest one conclude that the intent to
control extends only to major policy areas, be aware that correcting punctuation
and altering the size of type-face can also be a criminal offense. A case which
arose late last year concerns the scope of the powers of the Office of Foreign
Assets Control of the Department of the Treasury. In essence, the government has
warned publishers that they may face grave legal consequences for editing
We also face a continuing and apparently
expanding array of restrictions on who may enter this country, which threatens
to undermine existing professional and intellectual networks, but which, at its
most basic, may be seen as an assault on academic freedom. You are all aware that the growth in the
number of foreign students studying in the
The most recent and high-profile of academy-related visa cases was the recent revoking by the State Department of the visa of Tareq Ramadan, a Swiss-Egyptian scholar who was to have taken up a Luce chair at Notre Dame this past fall. The State Department’s decision was reportedly made based on information provided by the Department of Homeland Security. The State Department’s response to MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa (CAFMENA)’s letter simply says that his “visa was revoked prudentially based on information that became available after the visa was issued…the revocation of Mr. Ramdan’s visa is not an attempt to prevent him from sharing his ideas with students and scholars in the United States. We…appreciate and understand that the free exchange of ideas is one of the hallmarks that make this country great.”
Before concluding this
survey, let me turn briefly to
Evidence from journalists and Iraqis themselves makes clear that the condition of Iraqi universities is rapidly deteriorating. The number of incidents of violence targeting professors, including assassination, has grown. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, university and public libraries were looted, classrooms and research spaces were robbed and damaged, and the most basic infrastructural elements -- chairs, desks, blackboards, windows, doors, were stolen. Student records and transcripts also disappeared. The universities have continued to suffer from a lack of public safety, from problematic transportation and unreliable supplies of water and electricity.
As characterized by Keith Wattenpaugh,
“For higher education in
Forms of Interaction with Government
With all this as background the question that arises is, what should our relationship as scholars be to the state, now the empire?
I dare say that most of us, at least those who are American citizens, have government-sponsored programs to thank for at least some of our initial area or language training and probably some of our subsequent research funding. Yet, even in the late 1970s, when the image of the US in the region was far better than it is today, most American scholars and students I encountered felt it prudent to keep a distance from the US embassy. While some of us were critical of certain aspects of US policy, the decision to maintain this distance proceeded – not from a sense of anti-Americanism, which in any case is distinct from criticizing US foreign or domestic policy – but from a desire to do our job – learn Arabic or conduct our research – in as honest and unimpeded a way as possible.
However, in the current atmosphere, the
stakes are much higher, the challenges much greater. And, while I have been speaking from an
American experience here, certainly all of us, regardless of our country of
citizenship or residence should seriously reflect on what our relationship with
our respective governments should be.
For those of us here in the
Clearly there is no single answer. Each of us must make his/her decision based on what we understand the demands of professional integrity, citizenship, and hopefully as well, morality, to be. For some the answer is to withdraw as far as possible from any interaction with the government; for others, the response is to attempt to seek greater access in order to help shape the policy agenda.
Unfortunately, contemporary evidence suggests that the empire today is less inclined to listen to academics than in the past. Of course, some of us do not study topics immediately relevant to policymakers, and that is fine and proper. Others do, but need to learn the language that makes their message more accessible to policymakers and their concerns. Part of the problem relates to disciplinary jargon; another derives from different orientations – scholarly versus policy, long-term contextual versus short-term electoral or bureaucratic. However, as freedom of expression has been circumscribed by the coercive power of the empire, the problem has deepened. The combination of group-think in some governmental circles, reinforced by mainstream media intimidated by the empire’s power or corporately complicit in its ideological line has raised issues far more serious than simply those of differences of terminology.
In many cases, those whose ideas do not fit the policymakers’ categories are simply excluded. The most obvious and perhaps now banal, but also lethal, example is that of terrorism and terrorist. Either one accepts the language and participates in using it, or there is no place at the table. This is not just a question of a discrepancy over definition or desire to divide political actors into a small set of manageable categories. An initial drive for simplification may derive from the cognitive exigencies of the policymaking process, but it has become increasingly clear today that it is ideological, rather than cognitive, exigencies that drive such framing.
That said, it is not the case that academics have been uniformly excluded from the halls of power or the councils of the powerful. Indeed, there is a handful of highly visible academics who do enjoy access and influence. However, in keeping with the empire’s approach to “knowledge and science,” it is precisely because of their ideological orientation that these academics’ participation is embraced. 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. Advice is sought, not from a range of experts, but rather from the likeminded, so as to reinforce the argumentation or rationale for a policy line already selected.
Over the years, numerous
professional associations have confronted the relationship between government
and the academy, between activism and scholarship. For example, because of the
role that anthropologists had played in a number of projects associated with
counter-insurgency in the 1960s, the American Anthropological Association
created an ad hoc committee on ethics in 1968. This unleashed a broad discussion about
the introduction of politics into the association, and the debate on
professional responsibility toward the topics and people studied has
subsequently swung back and forth.
In his 2001 presidential address to the American Historical Association,
William Roger Louis reflected on the relationship between scholarship and
activism, a tension that had come close to politicizing the AHA during the
Turning to our own
association, through its nearly forty years,
This past spring as we revised our mission statement, many of you sent
messages expressing your desire that
Our duty as scholars is, in the first place, to be true to the questions we study as well as to the sources (human, documentary and otherwise) we consult; to guide our students to find their way through a sea of different paradigms and approaches, and to share our findings with wider audiences – in the academy, the community and beyond. In the shadow of empire, those of us who are members of the academy here in the United States have a special responsibility: to teach history in a way that enables students better to understand their place in it; political science so as to instruct in the content of the uses and abuses of power, economics to interrogate the reality of the impact of markets whether free or state-controlled; anthropology and sociology to help portray the complexity and the richness of societies beyond these borders; and language to give access to the dreams and desires of those upon whom America often uncritically projects and inscribes its own.
Those of us who have benefited from government funding – of whatever source or magnitude -- and who have the opportunity to “speak truth to power” have an even broader/deeper responsibility. And here, I would insist that those who draw strict lines between accepting a government-sponsored educational grant and participating in a conference by the State Department or the Central Intelligence Agency, need to rethink their positions. It is not that I do not see a qualitative difference among various forms of interaction with the government. I do, quite clearly, and I respect everyone’s right to decide the form and limits of his or her direct interaction or involvement with this empire. Rather, my point is that if one has reservations about aspects of US policy, one cannot simply accept one’s Fulbright and then deny implication in the broader imperial/political system because the funding comes from the Department of Education, as opposed to a department that militarily invades another country or an agency that hides away so-called illegal combatants. If we take funding from the empire, we cannot deny a degree of responsibility for its actions. When bombs drop on Iraq, when Apache helicopters are used against a refugee camp in Palestine, to one degree or another, we are implicated.
Having said that, it is what one chooses to do in the face of such a situation that is the issue. If we have objections, then we have a professional and moral obligation to make that opposition known. The avenues for doing so are many: publishing in various places, giving talks inside and outside the academy, joining in protests, establishing weblogs, and/or participating in government fora in which our positions can be voiced directly to decisionmakers. If ever there were a time to rethink the bounds and morality of what Laura Nader has called “narrow professionalism,” a time to register one’s views, to stand up and be counted, and to resist marginalization and silencing, this is indeed is that time.
In the current atmosphere, we owe it to our profession and to our colleagues in other countries who do not enjoy the same privileges of study, research, travel, access and publishing that we still do, to uphold and protect the highest standards of academic integrity and freedom. In practicing our profession in this way, we honor the very best of scholarly tradition. And for those of us who are American citizens, in so doing we reinforce and insist upon rights enshrined in the constitution, rights that the empire cannot be allowed to trample or annul. Indeed, how better to serve “the national interest” in its most basic formulation than through a bold insistence upon the protection of academic freedom and freedom of expression. What greater abdication of responsibility, as both citizen and scholar, than to remain silent in the face of Guantánamo, Abu Ghrayb, and Fallujah.
 Ronald Steel, “Totem and Taboo,” The Nation, 20 September 2004, p. 29
 Michael Ignatieff, “The Burden,” New York Times Magazine, 5 January 2003, p. 22.
 Steel, p. 30.
 Ronald Susskind, “Without a Doubt,” New York Times Magazine, 17 October 2004.
 Will Rasmussen, “Scholarship ‘politicization’ may be seeping into West,” The Daily Star, 17 September 2004.
 Stuart Wood, “Transcending the Nation: A Global Imperial History?” in Antoinette Burden (ed.), After the Imperial Turn: Thinking With and Through the Nation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), pp-44-56.
 Margery Perham, Colonial Sequence: 1930-1949 (London: McThien & Co., LTD., 1967), p. xx.
 Julia Stapleton, Political Intellectuals and Public Identities in Britain since 1950 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), chapter five, “Alfred Zimmern and the world ‘citizen-scholar,’” pp. 91-111.
 See Paul Clay Sorum, Intellectuals and Decolonization in France (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1977).
 Christopher Simpson, “Universities, Empire and the Production of Knowledge: An Introduction,” in Christopher Simpson (ed.) Universities and Empire: Money and Politics in the Social Sciences During the Cold War ( New York: The New Press, 1998), p. xii.
 Ibid., p. xiii.
 As cited in Allan A. Needell, “Project Troy and the Cold War Annexation of the Social Sciences,” in Simpson, op cit., p. 23.
 Simpson, p. xxiv.
 Ibid., p. xxix.
 As cited in Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Unintended Consequences of Cold War Area Studies,” in Noam Chomsky et al., The Cold War and the University: Toward an Intellectual History of the Postwar Years (New York, The Free Press, 1997), p. 211.
 Ellen Herman, “Project Camelot and the Career of Cold War Psychology,” in Simpson, op. cit., p. 110.
 Irene Gendzier, “Play It Again Sam: The Practice and Apology of Development,” in Simpson, op. cit., pp. 87-8.
 Materials from the National Flagship Language Initiative Advanced Language Programs: Arabic. Application Forms and Guidelines. National Foreign Language Center, University of Maryland, College Park.
 William Greider, “Embedded Patriots,” The Nation, 12 July 2004.
 From the website of Congressman Jack Kingston, and from the text of H. Con. Res. 318.
 Seymour M. Hersch, “The Stovepipe,” The New Yorker, 27 October 2003.
 See Paul Krugman, “Ignorance Isn’t Strength,” New York Times 8 October 2004.
 Letter from Henry A. Waxman (D-CA), ranking minority
member, Committee on Government Reform, to The Honorable Tommy G. Thompson,
Secretary of Health and Human Services,
 Adam Liptak, “Treasury Department is Warning Publishers of the Perils of Criminal Editing of the Enemy,” New York Times, 28 February 2004.
 Steve Giegerich, The New York Times, 3 November 2003.
 John N. Paden and Peter W. Singer, “America Slams the Door (On its Foot),” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2003, page 3, web edition.
 Letter from June O’Connell, Chief, Public Inquiries Division, Visa Services, U.S. Department of State, to Amy Newhall, Executive Director MESA and Barbara DeConcini, Executive Director, American Academy of Religion, 3 September 2004.
 Keith Wattenpaugh, “Iraq’s Academic Community Struggles for Autonomy,” Academe, September-October 2004, p. 22
.Ibid., p. 20.
 Laura Nader, “The Phantom Factor: Impact of the Cold War on Anthropology,” in Chomsky et al., op. cit., p. 124.
 Wm. Roger Louis, “Presidential Address: The Dissolution of the British Empire in the Era of Vietnam,” The American Historical Review, vol. 107, no. 1, February 2002, p. 3.
 Nader, op. cit., p. 135.