iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Jim Sleeper

GET UPDATES FROM Jim Sleeper
 

Yale Steps Into the Authoritarian Abyss

Posted: 07/17/2012 11:38 am

In "Quarrels With Providence," his magisterial and, to my mind, unforgettable essay of 2001 about his alma mater's past glories and contemporary travails, Lewis Lapham noted a bit impishly that "Institutions as venerable as Yale ordinarily arrange [their announcements] with considerable care, the press releases staged in a sequence indicative of sound judgment, good feeling, and the dawn of a bright new day."

This month Yale tried to keep up that pretense as its new, star-crossed liberal arts college -- undertaken with and paid for entirely by the authoritarian city-state of Singapore and its National University of Singapore -- announced that "Students at the new Yale-NUS College will be able to express themselves freely on campus."

Skepticism about this among Yale's own faculty "would fade as people see the "successful education experiment," Business Week was told by Pericles Lewis, the energetically pliable former Yale English professor who is now the new college's president. "We expect students to express all kinds of opinions on campus," he said. "The issue is about going off campus and, there, students will have to abide by the laws of Singapore." The college's first students, who are now being admitted, will arrive just over a year from now.

But something was missing from these on-campus freedoms, I thought -- especially as I read the comments posted by young Singaporeans below a Bloomberg version of the story that was carried on the Singapore website Tremeritus.

I expected a "clarification" of these policies to follow very soon from Yale-NUS, in a manner staged to indicate sound judgment, good feeling, and the dawn of a bright new day. My suspicions only intensified as I conversed online with Kenneth Jeyaretnam, secretary general of Singapore's small opposition Reform Party, which is constrained and sometimes harassed by the slick, duplicitous, and steely ruling People's Action Party.

Jeyaretnam, who holds a Double First Class Honours degree in Economics from Cambridge University, told me that "Our son was denied a place here at one of Singapore's so-called elite schools... clearly politically motivated to isolate me." He also recounted that when he was invited last year to speak at candidates' forums at the National University of Singapore and other Singapore universities, each invitation was rescinded at the last minute. Would that happen again, I wondered, now that Pericles had spoken?

Partly because Jeyaretnam's father, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, an early opposition leader, had been persecuted mercilessly and infamously by the regime, Kenneth has not been treated as harshly. His own political contemporary Chee Soon Juan, leader of another opposition party, the Singapore Democratic Party who holds a PhD from the University of Georgia, was fired by the National University of Singapore from his position as a lecturer in neuropsychology in 1993 after he joined the opposition party; he was sued for defamation, bankrupted, and imprisoned when he attempted to contest his dismissal.

Although relations among Singapore's opposition parties are not cordial, Kenneth Jeyaretnam, with courage and nobility reminiscent of his father's, spoke out against renewed persecution of Chee two months ago, when the latter was barred from leaving Singapore to give a speech to a human rights organization in Oslo -- the same month, ironically, when Yale University President Richard Levin came to Singapore to give a speech celebrating Pericles Lewis' ascent to the Yale-NUS presidency.

What a disgrace for Yale, I noted in "As Yale's Blunder Deepens, and Singapore Bears Its Teeth," a post that's been read and shared widely. And last night I was about to write another, asking Pericles Lewis what he and the Yale-NUS governing board would do if, say, Yale-NUS students, seeking to exercise their promised freedom to "express all kinds of opinions... freely on campus," invited Jeyaretnam to give a talk on campus..

Before I could even pose that question, a Wall Street Journal provided the answer: "The Singapore campus won't allow political protests, nor will it permit students to form partisan political societies."

"Students at the new school 'are going to be totally free to express their views,' but they won't be allowed to organize political protests on campus, said Pericles Lewis, the college's new president, in an interview last week.

"Although groups will be allowed to discuss political issues, he said, 'we won't have partisan politics or be forming political parties on campus,' including societies linked to local political groups akin to college groups supporting Democrats and Republicans in the U.S., he said."

At this posting, Lewis is telling Yale faculty that he was misquoted and never said that there could be no protests on campus. But the new policy still dashes any hope that Yale-NUS will widen space for free political debate and organizing in that young, energetic, but assiduously self-censoring city-state.

By reporting the truth, the Journal bested the New York Times, which has never reported that Yale faculty actually passed a resolution expressing concern about their university's collaboration with such a regime -- a surprising lapse by the paper, since it did run a long story about faculty discontent the morning of the fateful meeting at which the resolution was passed. The Times never followed up to report that the faculty passed the resolution, by a wide margin, over President Richard Levin's objection and in his presence.

Worse yet, the Times' next story on Singapore, "Activism Grows as Singapore Loosens Restrictions," made no mention of the regime's assiduous suppression of political expression and of opposition leaders, in ways that generate extensive self-censorship. Impressed with the loosening of restrictions against gays, Times reporter Andrew Jacobs engaged unintentionally in what some people call "pink-washing" -- helping a regime that tolerates gay life (as a profit center or a harmless showcase for its "liberalism") to distract attention from its ongoing repression of political freedoms.

A few people at Yale -- which some consider the gay friendly Ivy -- have been gulled by such "loosening." They and the Times reporter need to read William Dobson's new book, The Dictator's Learning Curve, which, although it barely mentions Singapore and doesn't address gay rights, shows how deft some of today's authoritarian regimes have become at disguising their brutality.

Such regimes have learned how to use overt repression against a few, in sparing but exemplary ways, to frighten others into thinking that it could happen to them: "Fear leaves no fingerprints," Dobson, Slate's politics and foreign-affairs editor, told NPR a few weeks ago while discussing his book. Some authoritarian corporate states asphyxiate dissent without administering too many beatings and imprisonments that might spark uprisings and worldwide condemnation.

A "friendly" tip to a dissenter that the regime has recorded but refrained from punishing some small infraction he or she committed years earlier can prompt dread of surveillance, of knocks in the night, and of prosecutions for "defaming" the state that Singapore's ruling party uses to send its vocal critics into bankruptcy and worse. For example: Singapore still has draconian laws against homosexuality. Although it has backed off from enforcing them, they remain in its arsenal.

The larger tragedy in all this for a compliant Yale beggars description. A few months ago, after attending an eerily Orwellian forum at Yale called "Singapore Uncensored," at which a Yale Daily News reporter worked to suppress a full and honest account of a panel discussion staged by Singaporean students to "humanize" the regime under the banner, "Singapore Uncensored," I described the incident and the Singaporization of Yale -- amid a galloping culture of self-censorship among Yale students themselves -- in a 13,000-word post, one of the longest the Huffington Post has ever carried.

The point of that chronicle wasn't to defend Yale's humanist purity from the sins of Singapore but to show that, wittingly or not, Yale's president and trustees have embraced Singapore's model of authoritarian prosperity and have lost any sense of how a real liberal education might strengthen the American republic against market riptides and the seductions of militarism. A liberal capitalist republic has to rely on a critical mass of its citizens upholding certain public virtues and beliefs that markets and armies, necessary though they certainly are, can't ultimately provide.

American liberal arts colleges did once provide it. Do they still? Yale's governors have overseen the creation of a strange parallel university that, in some courses of its Directed Studies humanities program, its Grand Strategy program, and its Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, conscripts and distorts the humanities to provide better-disciplined crews and tighter rigging for its graduates' commercial and military expeditions -- perhaps including Yale's venture into Singapore, as I've shown in the other posts with reference to the business ties of Yale's own trustees.

The ethos in some of these new courses shows that not only a fear of power but the seductions of power can generate cultures of insider networking and enthusiastic self-silencing by students who imagine that this brings them closer to power and freedom. Actually it brings them closer to a culture of bureaucratic self-mutilation that's amply reinforced in corporate and national-security America but is bottomlessly costly to their souls and to the American republic, as they tend to discover, if at all, only too late in life.

Yale has done this so often and perversely in the past -- creating and then staffing the CIA through secret student societies like Skull & Bones, whose alumni sealed themselves off into their national-security strategizing -- that you might think the college would have learned something by now from these graduates' endless blunders on the world stage, from installing the hated Shah in Iran in 1953 and their committing the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam fiascos right up through their handing Iraq to the sphere of influence of Iran's mullahtocracy through a war waged by Skull & Bones alumnus George W. Bush. Their ideas about where power comes from and how it flows are deeply wrong.

Yet, according to a Wall Street Journal story, when students in Yale's Studies in Grand Strategy program visited West Point a few years ago to discuss a book about Iraq with cadets there, the Yalies -- not the cadets -- "decided not to record the discussion because they did not want to have 'views expressed in the spirit of intellectual debate be used against them at a Senate confirmation hearing'" according to the program's associate director.

And when recent posts in The Atlantic and Foreign Policy asked why General Stanley McChrystal is teaching an off-the-record course in "leadership" in Yale's Jackson Institute, his students leaped forward to defend and to "salute" their great teacher, who told his first class that "a seminar is like a team," but they've only wound up proving that what he teaches in a supposedly broad, open discussion can't be shared with anyone outside it, even with other professors in other courses on related matters that McChrystal's students happen to take.

The students' claim that vigorous and intelligent debate is fostered this way unwittingly mimicks the Yale-NUS policy in Singapore of quarantining freedom to the campus, as if it could flourish that way. It buys into facile understandings of democracy that compromised McChrystal's own leadership on several occasions before Yale grabbed him to teach about it.

The consequences are profound. "The sinister fact about censorship... is that it is largely voluntary," George Orwell wrote, as his manuscript of Animal Farm was receiving rejection after rejection by frightened British publishers in 1944. "Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.... Because of a general tacit agreement that 'it wouldn't do' to mention that particular fact. It is not exactly forbidden to say this or that or the other, but it is 'not done' to say it... Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness...."

There's a legitimate difference between being discreet and being silenced -- that is, between exercising a sound judgment not to do something and accepting blindly that something is simply "not done." It's quite right that some things are" not done," because agreeing to take certain things off the table can actually help a discussion to proceed and freedom of thought to flourish. But courses like these at Yale and, now, on several other campuses, do little better than the old secret societies have done at teaching students when and how to draw such distinctions on behalf of a real republic, not a corporate state.

Yale administrators' lack of understanding and their loss of faith in real freedom is ignoble. And it's heartening to some warped minds elsewhere. A Singaporean who was offended by the Yale faculty's resolution expressing concern about the university's drift into Singapore's "behind closed doors" ethos retorted:

"I don't see why we need to have a partnership with an institution that has produced the talents who... have morally and financially bankrupted their once great nation. Your nation's economy is in a depression as your central bank robs the general population with its easy money policies transferring more wealth to the bankers. Your political parties are both bought and paid for. Your men and women are sent to die in senseless wars to protect the reserve currency status of the petrodollar. Before this decade is through the Treasury market will be in free fall and so will the dollar along with your living standards.

"Call us authoritarian all you want but we are a prudent state while yours is a once great nation that is a banana republic on its way to fascism. And your nation owes us and other authoritarian regimes A LOT of money. All made possible in part by the notables graduates of Yale and other Ivies.

"I suggest that debt slaves adopt a more courteous attitude toward their creditors instead of name calling and stereotyping. Btw Feel free to come grovel for a job once this comes to pass."

Most of what this writer said about what's happened to American political culture under the tutelage of people who think like Yale's governors -- President Levin and trustees s Fareed Zakaria, Charles Ellis, G. Leonard Baker, and Charles Waterhouse Goodyear IV, the latter three long and deeply involved in business with Singapore's government investment funds -- is true.

They need to be reminded that the university was founded, in 1701, to stop a Harvard-based "social network" from diverting the Puritan errand into the wilderness from its efforts to balance authority and consent toward other efforts at wealth-creation, in a society increasingly connected but flattened by commerce. The world isn't flat, Yale's founders tried to remind the settlers. It has abysses, and students need a faith deep and strong enough to plumb them and sometimes even to defy worldly powers in the name of a Higher one.

Students still need a faith that strong, the kind that a real liberal education awakens when it makes them grapple with lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit, not only in their texts but also in their lives as citizen-leaders. At times, the old American colleges have done this extraordinarily well. "To a remarkable extent this place has detected and rejected those who wear the colors of high purpose falsely," President Kingman Brewster Jr. '41 told my entering freshman class in 1965. "This is done not by an administrative edict ... but by a pervasive ethic of student and faculty loyalty and responsibility... deep in our origins."

A neoliberal might dismiss Brewster's admonition as a snob's boast about an in-crowd. But Brewster, a descendant of Puritans, really wanted students to plumb abysses in order to know true leaders from false, and his college had struggled for three centuries, in Calvinist and classical ways, to balance humanist Truth-seeking with republican Power-wielding.

That balance determines how we live, invest and wage wars, and there's a lot more to be said for what it accomplished than many now tend to acknowledge. I've had the profound pleasure of watching many Yale undergraduates awaken and rise to the challenge of striking better public balances than are being struck by the Machiavellian mice in Yale's "parallel university" and its Singapore venture.

Yale and other old colleges are morphing from the crucibles of civic-republican leadership that they sometimes were at their best into career-training centers and cultural galleria for a global elite that no longer answers to any republican polity or moral code. Yale teaches that the world is flat thanks to global engines of wealth-creation driven by investors and consumers.

Many a lecture chirps this good news, along with characteristically elegant apercus and tips on how to do well by doing good. Isn't that what liberal education is for? A flat world may have valleys, but abysses? Please. We're riding neo-liberalism to Singapore, even the Moon!

So Yale's governors have thought. But this week's news warns that they're leading the college into an abyss. This was anticipated in Lapham's "Quarrels With Providence" and is rendered chillingly, though not in reference to Yale, by Robert Kaplan in "Was Democracy Just a Moment?," a 1997 Atlantic essay that Morris Berman summarizes in The Twilight of American Culture:

"Kaplan ends his article... saying that "we are poised to transform ourselves into something perhaps quite different from what we imagine." ... [W]e shall "sell" democracy to hybrid regimes that will, for economic reasons, take on democratic trappings, while the political reality is something else; and in the process of doing that, we too shall become - are becoming - a hybrid regime."

So Singapore "loosens" a bit to take on democratic trappings, and Yale surrenders some of the hard-won commitments to freedom speech and political expression that I described in the long post mentioned above. To prove that it hasn't surrendered, the Yale administration would have support students and faculty in New Haven if they want to host Kenneth Jeyaretnam; his fellow opposition leader Chee Soon Juan; Chee's international human-rights lawyer, Bob Amsterdam (whom Singapore barred from entering the country to see him); Francis Seouw, the former solicitor-general of Singapore and critic of the regime, who now lives in Boston; and other honorable, knowledgeable dissenters to participate in a panel called "Singapore Really Uncensored."

That's what freedom of speech and political expression should promise, isn't it? We'll see if Yale will countenance it now, or if it has lost its soul in self-censorship and is too terrified of its new partner across the Pacific to do anything but grovel.

 
FOLLOW POLITICS