Skewing Scholarship

Conor Gearty, Centre for the Study of Human Rights-LSE

It strikes me immediately that the Minerva project represents simultaneously something of an advance and also a retreat. On the one hand it is a sign of progress that those engaged in the management of American ‘security’ (as they conceive the term) regard it as no longer possible to rely simply on the imposition of their own will via brute force: there seems now to be a realization that ideas count in what the few academic friends they do listen to have persuaded them is the battle between civilizations that is purportedly raging around the world, and that the US needs urgently to join in this war of the mind. On the other hand, there is the point that this supposed ‘battle of civilizations’ is itself a fantasy, the creation of minds comfortable with the old bipolar certainties and unable to cope with the complexities of the post Cold War world. Minerva signifies a return to the world of propaganda, of efforts to produce outcomes in the US interest (as conceived by its promoters) via scholarship as well as military force, and to do so in a way which presents the appearance of independence of thought, reflective as this idea is of the American values that it is said are being defended.

What is interesting about the project as currently conceived, though, is just how awkward it is. The concession to freedom of thought is well below the minimum required for a project of this sort to have any kind of credibility: the money is to be thrown around but only on topics that the authorities choose and only for those research teams who meet their approval. The academics participating in these projects seem to be envisaged by the conceivers of Minerva in military terms, working with their minds under instruction to deliver intellectual outcomes analogous (if they were soldiers) to the effective dropping of some bombs or to the efficient destroying of an enemy position. It is likely that in the thoughts of the Minerva promoters there is some sought-after analogy with the Cold War: Robert Gates’s invocation of Arthur Schlesinger’s call for “a return to the acceptance of egg heads and ideas” suggests as much. It is undeniable that the US did succeed in generating a powerful head-of-steam in academe around its values during that time. Importantly, though, this was done without the kind of command and control system which Minerva would seek to impose on the academic culture. Perhaps the conceivers of the project acknowledge that there is far less unanimity about the US’s goals in the present phase of conflict that there then was, that the story being so less persuasive today the strong-arm tactics proposed here are what are now required. More likely however is that the military supporters of Minerva simply think they have made huge concessions to scholarship just through coming up with a project like this and that more academic freedom is simply (on account of their training and background and the years of constant re-iteration of the ‘war on terror’ trope) unthinkable to them.

The project reveals itself as a self-evident creature of state power at almost every turn. All submissions are to be reviewed internally by the Department of Defense through a panel chaired by Research Topic Chiefs and the recommendations made by these panels will be forwarded to senior DoD officials who, in turn, will make funding recommendations to the awarding officials. Even the new stream of National Science Foundation money will be subject to department of defense direction so far as the crucial question of the composition of the review panels is concerned. Many of the five subject areas for research are loaded with the kinds of assumptions that no well-trained scholar would ever make. What is one to make of “Studies of the Strategic Impact of Religious and Cultural Changes within the Islamic World” and “Studies of Terrorist organizations and ideologies”? Which Islamic world is being referred to here, and what is meant by a “terrorist” organization? There are a whole set of separate ethical questions arising out of “3. Iraqi Perspectives Project” – what if this involves using research material taken from Iraq in breach of international and/or national law, for example? The NSF component in Minerva raises similar questions: there is a respectable academic argument that “1. Studies of Terrorist Organizations and Ideologies” should not be limited to sub-state violence or to violence sponsored by regimes inimical to US interests’ while among the more interesting aspects of “2. Studies of the Strategic Impact of Religious and Cultural Change” would undoubtedly be to track the impact of Evangelical Christians on the swing to the right of the American polity in the course of the past thirty years – but it hardly needs saying that these are not the sorts of projects that the funders are likely to have had in mind when they conceived these categories.

There are important issues of international law and of human rights that do need to be addressed but it is hard to see where they would fit in Minerva as currently conceived. Where would such key questions as the use of torture as a method of interrogation or the role of international law in the securing and maintenance of peace and stability fit in the proposed scheme? What of the scholar who seeks to identify reforms essential to the efficacy of the United Nations as a proto-global regulator? Or the human rights academic who attempts an analysis from that perspective of the ill-effects of illegal occupation? Or the scholar who challenges the whole edifice of the “war on terror” arguing that it is a construct designed to achieve a series of unspoken ends rooted in power and capital and that it should be replaced by an effective international criminal law? While these kinds of ideas might not resonate with Minerva funders, the apologists for torture and/or tougher treatment of suspect terrorists that at present form an isolated and eccentric undercurrent in the human rights community may find they have hit the financial jackpot. And where the money goes, power and authority often follows – such controversial figures may quickly shed their maverick reputation on the fringe and become successful mainstream. The same for the anti-law international lawyers, keen to justify use of force and disregard of UN procedures. Ever since Thomas Hobbes the human rights movement has been bedeviled by fifth columnists, servants of power camouflaged as human rights activists. After a few years of Minerva, the camouflage and the truth of what human rights is taken widely to mean might become impossible to distinguish.

The Minerva initiative needs to be challenged – the risks attendant upon its success (a suffocation of scholarship in the interests of US Defense inspired research; an internationalization via Defense purchasing power of militarized scholarship; the distortion of academic work to meet the demands of military paymasters) are too great to sit by and merely hope that it will die on its own for want of intellectual integrity. The academy should point out that the intellectual resources for the project are already on hand – in the form of the independent university sector. The same source can be relied upon to produce informed scholars whose detached intelligence fits within the intellectual tradition of thoughtful enquiry that has helped make the US the power it is today. The Defense Department should be an arms-length funder, setting wide terms of reference and subscribing to a declaration of academic freedom to assure the doubters by guaranteeing that all projects are considered on their merits by men and women whose own academic (as opposed to bureaucratic) merit is beyond doubt. Of course such an approach would require a radical overhaul of Minerva, but in the course of such a rebuild the officials who hatched the plan – well-meaning but still caught in the bullying era of Rumsfeld/Bush/Cheney – could begin to relearn what American values truly involve.

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