THE BLOG
09/06/2013 02:19 pm ET | Updated Nov 06, 2013

At Yale College, the Sounds of Silence

You can learn a lot about a college faculty and student body from their reactions to criticism, and I've learned plenty after publishing three short essays over Labor Day weekend, including one here, that criticized American colleges' extensive collaborations with authoritarian regimes abroad.

One of those collaborations is Yale's co-founding of a new, undergraduate liberal-arts "Yale-NUS College" with the National University of Singapore, the tiny, tightly run, deceptively glittering corporate city-state off the southern coast of Malaysia.

What I've learned from the reactions to my essays here and in The New York Times and the wonderful U.K. website openDemocracy.net may not be what you expect.

On the one hand, I found more than a hundred mostly heartening e-mail messages in my Yale mailbox, most from strangers, some from Yale alumni, many from academics at other institutions, but all from beyond Yale College itself. Harry Lewis, the far-sighted Dean of Harvard College from 1995-2003 , praised the essays on his blog, where he condemned "the hypocrisy of claiming to run an institution devoted to the liberal arts in the place where political discourse is severely constrained."

But from Yale College itself came the thundering silence of a certain kind of self-censorship that unintentionally confirms Lewis' observation: Even student editors at the supposedly independent Yale Daily News and the weekly Herald declined a short column by me that concludes this long one, beginning below with the words, "As the new Yale-NUS College opened in a shower of happy talk."

That column foresees not scandal or open conflict for Yale in Singapore but an all-too smooth convergence of American and Asian modes of what The Economist magazine calls "state capitalism:" In that convergence, Singapore's authoritarian variant will loosen up a bit politically, or at least cosmetically, while our own still-somewhat-libertarian but increasingly corporate variant will tighten up, intensifying its surveillance and ensnarement of citizens in coils of statutory and corporate fine print and plying them with degrading, after-hours escapes that drain civic spirit.

Here then, in addition to the original column below, is what I'd have liked to say directly to Yale students and faculty who are sleepwalking into these arrangements.

Two of the most common defenses of Yale's venture that I've heard recently are:

1) Now that the new Yale-NUS College, a self-described "autonomous unit of the National University of Singapore," has welcomed its first students, critics like me should stop warning darkly that Yale has given its name, its commitment to liberal education, and some of its best pedagogical and administrative efforts to an insidious morphing of liberal education's mission -- to interrogate and sometimes challenge concentrations of power and wealth -- into mere career training that facilitates and gilds those concentrations.

Now that the Good Ship Yale-NUS has already sailed, say its apologists, investors, and hangers-on in New Haven, critics like me should wish its faculty reformers and idealistic students bon voyage in heading off to create "a community of learning, founded by two great universities, in Asia, for the world," as Yale-NUS styles itself.

2) This fledgling community's real vessel, Singapore, has flaws, its defenders admit, but that's no reason to class it with the more repressive Abu Dhabi, Kazakhstan, or China, as I did. And it's no reason, they say, to liken Yale's venture to those of other American universities that have engaged those regimes in ways and for reasons that look much more commercial and cheap than Yale's engagement.

Well! The short answer to the first defense is that Yalies in America aren't really standing on shore waving good-bye. The whole university is on this voyage, too, and while the first-class passengers of Yale-NUS itself are getting to know one another, some of us are noticing the icebergs looming ahead.

A longer answer would scrap these metaphors about ships that have sailed, trains that have left the station, and horses that are out of the barn. It would explain instead how Yale itself has been changing as a new world has inundated and twisted liberal education in New Haven since long before the university's governors thought of trying to reform it elsewhere.

The changes we're undergoing are frightening because America's republican civil society, which Yale helped for centuries to secure its promised rights at least some of the time and even to nourish Americans' famous civic-republican optimism and good will, is collapsing.

Although advances for non-whites, women and gays have been real and absolutely necessary, have you noticed that most other inequalities have deepened? Have you wondered why the "counterculture" of the 1960s become an over-the-counter culture of lethal rampages at Black Friday store openings; road rage; cage fighting; gun massacres; a deluge of porn and violent entertainment; and an ever-more intimate, intrusive groping of our persons driven commercially, algorithmically, and therefore mindlessly, with even the state now getting into the act through massive surveillance and incarceration and rulings that equate those algorithmically driven profits with the speech of citizens that the First Amendment was written to protect and empower, not surround and drown?

To pursue these questions requires a good liberal education. But the dark currents I've just mentioned have influenced decisions about Yale's corporation, curriculum, and character, morphing the college from the crucible of citizen leaders that it has been at its best into a career-networking center for doomed national-security grand strategists and a cultural galleria for global managers who no longer care for or answer to any republican polity or moral code.

I sketched this bleak transformation some time ago in a very long post here entitled, "Yale Has Gone To Singapore, But Can it Come Back?" Suffice it to say here now that conservatives who've blamed American civil society's decline on the hapless left are discovering that they can no longer reconcile their yearning for ordered, even sacred liberty with their own knee-jerk obeisance to every "free market" whim of the casino-finance, corporate-welfare consumer-marketing juggernaut that they have championed even as it's been dissolving their cherished republican virtues and sovereignty.

They can't keep pointing fingers at the "cultural elite," as Yale's would-be grand strategist and former Foreign-Service servant Charles Hill did recently in a journal edited by Francis Fukuyama, without ever questioning or even mentioning what's really driving that juggernaut.

For their part, neoliberals such as Richard Levin, Yale's recent president and the co-founder of Yale-NUS and his successor Peter Salovey act as if they needn't worry about these developments.They've swallowed the doctrine of former Yale trustee Fareed Zakaria that economic liberalization in authoritarian state-capitalist societies such as Singapore's will spur political liberalization, with a little help from catalysts of change like Yale-NUS itself.

The danger there isn't that Yale's neoliberals are sailing blithely toward a collision with the slick pirates and thugs that operate behind Singapore's glittering facade. It's that the Americans' arrival is only accelerating the inextricable entanglement of both parties to the "state capitalism" that The Economist described as prone to cronyism and authoritarianism of the kind we've seen metastasizing in the U.S. since 2008.

In this new entanglement, Singapore's regime will liberalize a little: Yale Professor of Pinkwashing George Chauncey will teach a course on gay history at Yale-NUS this year, and he won't be imprisoned or deported for it! And that will make it easier for the keepers of our own corporate state to rationalize its growing surveillance and ensnarement of American citizens in coils of corporate and statutory fine print right here at home, thanks to the NSA, the Citizens United ruling, mass incarceration, and more.

The two societies are heading not toward conflict, then, but toward convergence in a clueless co-dependency on the same juggernaut that's already dissolving the American republic and that will break the empty materialism and increasingly hollow command of Singapore's rulers, who tout "Asian" values but are really just Asian Mad Men clinging desperately to some Ivy on their long way down.

A year ago I gave a talk to some Yale students in which I acknowledged -- indeed, insisted -- that not all protest and "free expression" advances freedom and that First Amendment absolutists who push every envelope forget that the people and institutions they're hitting with nasty super-PAC ads and political "gotcha" videos aren't wholly wrong or bad and are often more vulnerable than even their critics want them to be.

But I also insisted on the harder truth is that discretion and caution at Yale have been carried way too far. A galloping culture of self-censorship is enveloping not only administrators and faculty but even students, who should be learning the arts and disciplines of truth-telling from liberal education at least as thoroughly as they're learning the disciplines of power-wielding and wealth making from neoliberal education as we find it in the Jackson Institute and Grand Strategy programs and more than a few economics and political-science courses.

In Singapore and in some business corporations, self-censorship is prompted by fear of established power. It takes on subtle modulations and guises in daily work and classroom life, and its stress is relieved after hours in the destructive escapes I mentioned above. Yale students' almost-pathological politeness in class is prompted not by fear of state or corporate power, as in Singapore, however, but by power's allure:

The self-censorship of seduction here complements the self-censorship of fear over there. Some students here silence themselves almost enthusiastically -- except when they're chirping the conventional wisdom -- because they crave the insider status that's accorded only to those who prove they can be trusted never to suggest that the emperor has no clothes.

Socrates suggested just that about the elders of Athens, who sent him to his death. So did Nathan Hale (Yale Class of 1773) about the only established and "legitimate" government of British America by spying on its movements, for which he was hanged after saying, "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country." So has Edward Snowden, who has lifted a veil of denial about our own national-security state.

Young men and women at Yale who've known only neoliberal education may think they're honoring Hale, the patriot of a nascent republic, by saluting the commanders and apologists of what it has now become - "Professors" Stanley McChrystal, John Negroponte, Ryan Crocker, David Brooks and other such recent administrative imports to the faculty. The sad truth is that most of these celebrity "professors" and their most loyal students would have hanged Hale and are ready to hang the Hales of our time.

Self-censorship that's prompted by power's allure and seductions rests on a terrible delusion. It hastens the decay of republican trust and freedom, both inside and outside the halls of power. It has a long and quite embarrassing history at Yale, from whose secret societies, such as Skull & Bones, emerged young planners of blunder after ignorant blunder in American foreign policy, from installing the Shah of Iran and stage-managing the Bay of Pigs fiasco to promoting the Vietnam War and its many pathetic successors in our own time.

Those young planners also made an exact replica of the statue of Nathan Hale that stands on Yale's Old Campus, and they installed it in front of the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia. Hale, after all, was the first heroic American spy. But he did it for a fledgling republic, not for what riders of the golden tides of casino-finance, corporate welfare, and ever-more intrusive marketing have made of the United States in our time.

Hale was caught, perhaps because he was too bold at the wrong moment. There's a legitimate difference between being discreet, as anyone trying to exercise power and keep a trust must sometimes be, and being silenced-- a difference, that is, between exercising sound judgment not to do or say something, and accepting blindly that something is simply "not done." Agreeing to take certain things off the table does enhance discussion and freedom of thought at times.

But when Yale promised that the newly hired faculty of Yale-NUS will "rethink liberal education from the ground up" in a campus built and financed by Singapore, it forgot that who pays the piper calls the tune. "We must look at 'liberal' in the sense of broad, rather than free," said Kay Kuok, a businesswoman who leads the Yale-N.U.S. governing board, to the government-controlled Straits Times. "It's freedom of thought; I'm not necessarily saying freedom of expression."

By collaborating with Singapore, Yale is doing no better than its old secret societies did at teaching when and how to draw distinctions between discretion and self-censorship. They erred too much toward the latter.

The Yale administration, which believes and insists that it's acting on behalf of liberal education as surely as architects of the Vietnam and Iraq wars believed and insisted they were acting for freedom and democracy, has signed a pact, its terms undisclosed, with a power that, beneath its façade of meticulous, sanctimonious legalism, intimidates anyone who would write what I've written here right here or give the talk I gave a year ago in a public place.

That brings me to the second most common defense of Yale's collaboration with Singapore: that it isn't nearly as bad as Kazakhstan, China, or Abu Dhabi, because it's highly literate, prosperous, clean, safe, and evolving toward a more liberal society just as ours is moving in the opposite direction.

But Bob Dylan's "Hurricane," which reviles law-enforcement agencies and courts for setting up and convicting the boxer Hurricane Carter, could never be produced or performed publicly in Singapore. He would be convicted of "scandalizing the judiciary" and imprisoned or exiled. Political websites troublesome to the government must post $50,000 bonds which they lose if they don't immediately remove any item the government finds troublesome.

The 40 percent of the island's population who are migrant workers are ruthlessly suppressed and deported if they ruffle the country's vaunted anti-strike practices, as the Wall Street Journal has just described in a five-part series on migrant Chinese bus drivers' efforts to secure decency and dignity in their work.

No wonder that in British parliamentary hearings two years ago on how Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation had broken the law to harass the parents of a murdered child and perverted government and the liberal public sphere, the mogul's "most revealing moment," wrote New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, "was when he volunteered his admiration of Singapore, calling it the most 'open and clear society in the world.' Its leaders are so lavishly paid, he said, that 'there's no temptation, and it is the cleanest society you'd find anywhere.'

"It was instructive that Murdoch chose to praise a polished, deeply authoritarian police state," Dowd added. "Maybe that's how corporations would live if they didn't have to believe in people."

Two days ago I asked Kenneth Jeyaretnam, secretary general of Singapore's small opposition Reform Party, a graduate of Cambridge University with double first class honors in economics and a member of the Amsterdam Institute of Finance, how he would gauge the evolution of economic and political liberalization in Singapore.

"I don't know whether Singapore can claim for much longer to be freer than China, as in some respects the Chinese seem less cowed and more willing to protest," Jeyaretnam says. "It is much more difficult for the central government there to control such a vast country. While Maoist China was more murderous than even Stalinist Russia, China today is much freer than the Soviet Union was till Gorbachev.

"I think what is so shocking," he adds, "is that Singapore, a highly educated and literate society with a high standard of living, should have so little freedom. The middle classes have more to lose in material terms than people in Kazakhstan or China. The costs of individual political action are high, with most people unable to see immediate gain from democratization.

"Despite the veneer of economic freedom, Singaporeans perceive themselves in many ways as dependent on their government for housing (the government owns all the land), savings (the Central Provident Fund takes 30% of most people's income to apply it to compulsory savings for health care and education) and employment [in Government Linked Companies that dominate the domestic economy and muzzle the press]. It's a bit like Hayek's Road to Serfdom.

"People have always before them the example of how you can lose everything for engaging in disapproved political activity, as did my father [opposition leader J.B. Jeyaretnam, who was ruthlessly harassed and crushed by the ruling party] or to a lesser extent Chee Soon Juan [secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, whose persecution I described here before helping to bring him and Jeyaretnam to New Haven, where they spoke last year].

"While the government runs huge surpluses (representing foregone consumption) the people don't see the benefit of those surpluses and the [ruling] People's Action Party try to hide it from them as much as possible... Instead economic pressure is kept on the citizens by the threat they can be replaced with cheap migrant labor."

Jeyaretnam thinks that Americans, "instead of deferring to countries like China and Singapore and seeing them as orderly, energetic, and rising, should see them as essentially parasites on a free global economic system. They do not have to be innovative because they just have to be efficient at adopting innovations from other free and democratic countries."

Let me conclude now with the short column, only slightly revised here, that the Yale Daily News and Yale Herald declined to publish:

As the new Yale-NUS College opened in a shower of happy talk last month, I chatted on Yale's New Haven campus with visiting Yale-NUS students who seemed bright, energetic, and only slightly awed as they sampled residential college life in the United States before settling into a Singapore campus that's still under construction in every sense.

In criticizing the new college after talking with them I can't help but feel as if I'm strangling an adorable puppy with my bare hands. Even some Yale-NUS faculty have seemed adorably earnest in planning what their Curriculum Report calls "a collegiate city in words."

But Jeyaretnam's observations remind me that this puppy is growing in a strange pen, on a leash held by masters whose goals aren't liberal education's at all. Although Yale-NUS defenders insist that Singapore is changing and that, as the puppy grows, liberal education could be the tail that wags the dog, the changes that are really underway suggest that America is becoming more like Singapore than vise versa.

"We have been given an extraordinary opportunity," insists the Yale-NUS Curriculum Report, "to create a learning community where "forces resisting change do not exist" and where "there are no questions that cannot be asked, no answers that cannot be discussed and debated."

Yale-NUS claims, with complete sincerity, it will try to "reinvent liberal education from the ground up.... for the world" with a Common Curriculum fostering "shared belonging... in a community" that will "instill habits of critical judgment and forbearing tolerance that arise from seeing peers struggle with problems one knows well oneself." Students will keep portfolios of their progress and hone their speaking and writing skills.

We need that such reforms in America, not least at Yale College itself! But with liberal education buffeted by market riptides, reduced public funding, and social pressures that are nudging "critical judgment" and "community" toward careerism and conflict, Yale's leaders have crossed an ocean hoping to reform it abroad.

Yale's original founders did that, too. They crossed another ocean to set an example for sclerotic old England. They, too, covenanted to "make others' conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together,... always having before our eyes our commission and community,... as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us."

But those Puritans knew what today's neoliberal visionaries seem to have forgotten: Even a world "flattened" by commerce has abysses that open suddenly at our feet and in our hearts. A strong liberal education helps us to face them by entering into what the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott called "the Great Conversation" of the humanities about enduring challenges to politics and the spirit. Doing that prepares us to interrogate power's flows and concentrations, not just scramble to serve them.

Certainly liberal education must make accommodations to power and wealth: In 1718, Yale's founders turned for support to Elihu Yale of the first multinational corporation, East India Company (which later acquired the island of Singapura for the British Crown).

But can Yale's new visionaries balance accommodation with independence by signing a secret contract with forces of resistance to change? What if their city upon a hill has already been mortgaged to powers with other purposes?

What if it's really a career-networking center for a global managerial elite that surfs the casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer marketing riptides and answers to no republican polity or moral code?

Where then will any of us go to vindicate our rights not to be indentured in fine print ratified by legislators who've been bought? Where will we find a strong republic?

Already, as Yale undergraduate Diana Rosen observed last winter, Yale College has compromised itself as a crucible of citizen-leadership by tweaking its own application process to generate thousands of ill-informed applicants to Yale-NUS to make the latter seem more selective.

Already, this "autonomous unit of the National University of Singapore," which grants only NUS degrees, has promised future graduates a welcome to the Yale Alumni community -- a nifty fund-raising gambit for Yale, but also an identity shift driven by money, not "shared belonging... in a community."

Yale itself hasn't always been a community of Nathan Hales, as the misappropriation of his image by the CIA's Yale founders reminds us. But it has produced many of them, from Jonathan Edwards, who preceded him, through Dwight Macdonald, William Sloane Coffin, Jr,. John Lindsay, Howard Dean, and, just maybe, someone who's reading this now.

A college always needs reminding that, as Cindy Hwang, another Yale undergraduate, wrote recently in a remarkable report for Foreign Policy in Focus "accepting vast sums of money" from authoritarian regimes "puts liberal arts universities in a morally compromising situation," curbing freedoms to explore that require freedoms of expression.

Yet Yale's administration has denied its faculty a decisive say on this diversion of its college name and academic resources. Its hand-picked faculty "advisory committee" on Yale-NUS should have been elected by professors choosing among colleagues who explained their inclinations and insisted that the terms of Yale's contract with Singapore be disclosed.

Jeyaretnam's comments also remind us, as have observers of certain European countries in the century just past, that high literacy and ordered cleanliness don't guarantee liberty and that Singapore may be a mirror of what we ourselves are becoming.

The adorable puppy we're feeding there may be growing up to become a lapdog. Or it may be gulping down a tempting piece of meat inside of which is a barbed spring that will uncoil slowly and tear at its innards, leaving it looking sickened and frightened.

Avoiding either of those fates will require the vigilance of liberal educators and students who, since the times of Socrates and Nathan Hale, have found courage to strengthen truth in public life by challenging its compromises, not covering for them. Perhaps some student at Yale will find the courage to print or otherwise distribute these musings to the entire Yale community, as editors at the Yale Daily News and weekly Herald did not.