Friday, June 08, 2007
I come from an academic family, grew up in college towns, and thought seriously about going to graduate school and becoming a professor. I decided against it because I did not much like most of the academics I knew. The older guys -- those who were born before, say, 1925, were pretty normal, interesting, and tough in their own way. A lot of them had stormed ashore at D-Day or manned a machine gun against the Japanese, and even those who were left wing did not twist their hanky over silliness. They knew the difference between serious and, er, not-serious.
There are few such people running Anglo-American universities today. Take, for example, the mass confusion over whether or not to revoke the many honorary degrees accidentally given to Robert Mugabe, one of the biggest dirtbags on the planet. Years after it has become obvious that the guy is an evil, genocidal maniac, the University of Edinburgh has pumped itself up and pulled his degree, which exceedingly belated and fundamentally bureaucratic act the Guardian regards as all part and parcel of the great campaign to reign in his tyranny:
International efforts to isolate Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, intensified yesterday after he was stripped of an honorary degree by Edinburgh University and faced similar action by academics in the US. The university said its senate had unanimously accepted a recommendation by a panel of three senior professors to revoke the degree because details of Mr Mugabe's links to atrocities in Matabeleland in the early 1980s had emerged.
I bet Mugabe is quaking in his boots.
Setting aside the fact that Mugabe was slaughtering people just as Edinburgh honored him, not even the normal, everyday left has been willing to defend Mugabe for years. What took the University of Edinburgh so long to revoke Mugabe's honorary degree? If I were the president of that august university, I would have gone to my board of trustees years ago and said "the guy's a complete scumbag and the honorary degree we gave him is an embarassment - let's pull it." It is not reckless to speculate that it did not go down that way because modern professors are extremely unwilling to pass judgment in any negative way, especially when the bad guy in question has well-polished anti-colonial credentials.
Unfortunately, the University of Edinburgh acted with military alacrity compared to Michigan State University. This is just sad:
The authorities at a second US university, Michigan State, confirmed that they were also investigating whether honorary degrees, including a doctorate of laws, granted in 1984 and 1990 could be revoked, in response to student protests backed by Zimbabwean dissident groups. However, a university spokesman, Terry Denbow, said inquiries were still at an early stage and focused on whether the university could quash honorary degrees. "It's clear we don't have a policy or procedure for revocation, but we're looking into the issue," he said.
What? Why do they need a policy or a procedure? Just hold a board meeting and do it. Are they worried that Mugabe will sue them, or that some Michigan legislator will complain that they acted without a "policy or a procedure"? Why does academia attract such idiots?
The real answer, of course, is that Mugabe won these degrees because the granting universities wanted to make a political point, that the liberation of Africa from colonialism was a good thing. As it has come to pass that they have honored a mass murderer, they are terrified that somebody will notice.
I knew I liked reading your stuff for a reason. I too am an academic brat, and I decided as well not to go into academics for that very reason: I didn't particularly like those that I knew.
This whole aspect of Mugabe's getting the honorary degrees and now people contemplating their removal - sigh - reminds me that academic squabbles are so vicious because they deal with so little. Anyone with a smidgen of real-world sense would never have granted someone like Mugabe an honorary degree unless they were your usual rabidly leftist useless idiot academics.
But I repeat myself there...
I was getting my graduate degree about the time Mugabe's crew was approaching its military zenith (i.e. early 80's).
It was obvious to me, a relatively apolitical (although left leaning at the time) grad student, that the guy was bad bad bad news.
Just flipping through a few issues of Soldier of Fortune (who's reporting on the whole Rhodesian collapse was the best and most thorough available anywhere at the time) showed Mugabe to be a butcher of epic proportion.
I've had more than a little experience in Mugabe's Zimbabwe. I recall a conversation with two "coloured" Zimbabweans in 1992 who said that Mugabe was no friend of theirs but they still voted for him because they believed that when he was imprisoned in Ian Smith's Rhodesia (not a lovely regime, even in hindsight) "they cut off his balls." It was a sympathy vote. I have no independent confirmation that Mugabe was castrated but that was the rumer.
Honorary degrees may not be a big deal in the US, but they are taken very seriously by leaders in the developing world. "Dr." Sam Nujoma, Namibia's first president and a man with unanswered blood on his hands from a detainee issue during Namibia's independence struggle that will not go away, proudly assumed this title after receiving honorary degrees from Central State University in 1993 and Rutgers in 1997.
Remember, too, that in the early 1980s Zimbabwe was a newly independent nation and the bad old white racist regime had been defeated. The West was slow on the uptake to realize that the "liberators" were waging a repressive civil war against their rivals in Zimbabwe.
I can understand how U of E, or U Mass for that matter, would award Mugabe an honorary degree in the early 80s, but agree that these should have been revoked soon thereafter.
I had not heard that there was a rumour that Mugabe had been castrated while in prison.
That tends to undermine my operating theory that the various African dictator/kleptocrats who seem to start out somewhat OK but end quite badly may have developed VD, which alters their mind (Africa being a continent where STDs are more common on a per capita basis than in Europe or the Americas). Not that such afflictions are limited to African politicians -- it's believed that Lord Randolph Henry Spencer Churchill, Winston's father, died at age 45 from syphilis, after slowly going mad.
Of course, the truly Marxist interpretation of people like Mugabe (or Idi Amin, Charles Taylor, etc.) is that all of the countries and peoples in Africa would have been better off had Europeans (or, I suppose, even Arabs from the peninsula) never set foot on the continent. The various tribes would have continued to live as they had for thousands of years -- if not in a Rousseauian state of nature, then at least without the threat of enslavement and/or exploitation by another race. Such an interpretation ignores: a) the fact that humans have been involved in intercontinental and transcontinental migration for virtually the entire history of the species, so it was inevitable that outsiders would colonize parts of Africa, and b) whatever inter-tribal conflicts occurred in the millenium prior to European colonization (and thereby resulted in enslavement or exploitation by another tribe), which is hard to know with any precision because of the lack of a written record.
I am not in any way trying to excuse the behavior of white or Arab colonialists in Africa -- I am merely hypothesizing that the horrible exploitation that unarguably took place, which clearly had a racial element, would have taken place anyway on a purely tribal basis -- that is the unfortunate reality of the human experience. The Mugabe types of the world happen everywhere, and can't be blamed solely on outside influences.
Why any political leader with any blood on his hands would receieve an honorary degree is hard to fathom. Mandela yes, Mugabe no.
This helps to make the unfortunate point that honorary degrees are often rewarded for domestic political reasons rather than because we have actually investigated the particulars of the person receiving the degree. If we will recall 1984 the South African Apartheid system was continuing with no sign of collapse and so any sign of a crack in the walls played well to domestic agendas at the time. Michigan, for example, has a significant African American subpopulation and so many saw this as an extention of the civil rights movement to the international struggle for human rights.
Unfortunately, in the seething pit that is sub Saharan Africa, one man's freedom fighter is another man's genocidal maniac. The tribal conflicts run deep and this is still warfare in the best traditions of Ghengis Kahn. The losers don't just lose, they are exterminated.
I strongly disagree that honors should be awarded for pursuing narrow-minded political agendas or to make a domestic political point. On this basis, I think the Norwegian Nobel Committee was inappropriate in its award to former President Carter. The result is that the award itself is cheapened.
But the most unfortunate thing of all is if you took a poll of the graduates of say all universities in the State of Michigan you would find that probably something like 95% plus of the graduates would not even know who Mugabe is. They probably also wouldn't know if Dafur is in Somalia or Sudan, if they even knew it was in Africa.
Until we teach university graduates to actually read newspapers and find information as a part the educational process, and create an interest in knowing more than the pasteurized preprocessed evening news product, we will continue to have a bunch of uninformed rubes masquerading behind PhD's who make decisions about honors based on notions of what is politically correct with no critical input. In these cases, I'm afraid history is doomed to repeat itself.