26 April 2008

From Academic Politics to Real ~ Social Scientists, Torture, War, etc. ...

The late philosopher Richard Rorty drew a notorious, distinction between two types of politics - real and academic [*]. He cleverly charged that, since the 1960s, academics had disengaged from real politics and had instead been preoccupied with 'taking over the English department.' Reflecting on the war and torture so central to our current disastrous foreign policy, I only wish, his diagnosis were correct.

The Bush administration, of course, has been well stocked with representatives of my own discipline. For convenience I'll mention just one. Condi Rice, current Secretary of State, former National Security Adviser, of course, is a card-carrying political scientist. It is clear that her academic research influenced her views on how to conduct foreign policy. (In particular by treating international affairs as consisting in cold-war-like blocs of nations even as whatever terrorist threat we might actually confront arguably is posed by amorphous non-state actors.) And as I noted recently, she was a key member of the "Principal's Group" in the White House who plotted in detail how prisoners held by the U.S. would be tortured by military and intelligence agents during interrogations.

At a less exalted level, anthropologists have been recruited to help U.S. military units navigate the "human terrain" in Afghanistan and Iraq. I posted on this program here. This story continues to percolate in the news <1> <2> <3>. On Alternet lately there have been a series of stories <1> <2> on internal controversies at the American Psychological Association over the participation of members in U.S. government torture policy. As is the case among both political scientists and anthropologists, critics of psychologists for becoming accomplices in perpetrating war crimes have emerged among the psychologists too.

My point? It is not just lawyers like John Yoo who have implicated themselves in our current disaster.

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Blogger Navid said...


I believe that Rorty's quotation is wrongly applied here, for he was a Philosopher who worked with Literary scholars and other academics in the humanities. He was not a policy-oriented social scientist the way Condi is. While they both worked at Stanford, it would be wrong to put them on the same level. Rorty taught in Philosophy and Comp Lit, Condi was a fellow at a think tank- the Hoover Institution. While Condi assumes 'the human', Rorty's job is to complicate our understanding of it.

He wasn't referencing the way that these anthropologists could be hired to work for a disastrous program- what your post does.

Instead, he pointed to how a focus on theory would inevitably draw away from practice- or politics (and indeed, he was a pragmatist- sharing a sedimented etymological root w/ 'practice')

As an undergraduate who has interests in 'theory' beyond just the Intellectual history of its French progenitors (Interested in how it's been buttressed into Post-Marxist, Post-Liberal, Post-Colonial thought), I can tell you that I see this trend not only with the faculty, but also with my peers as well.

My solution has been that while I question and problematize the relationships between liberalism, capitalism and democracy, I remain a Social Democrat in practice. Once this theory provides a cogent path for practice (if it ever does?), I will deviate from it.

Nevertheless, the complicity of the academics you pointed to is outrageous.

Hope all is well

26 April, 2008 12:18  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Thanks for the reply.

First, Rice was tenured faculty in Political Science at Stanford and ultimately was Provost of the University. That means she was chief academic officer. I do not know if she also had an appointment at Hoover, many faculty do. But her position would in any case be different from Hoover Fellows like, say, Tom Sowell who, to the best of my knowledge has no formal connection to the Stanford Econ. Department. Moreover, Rice continues to publish "scholarly" work - witness a recent book (whose title I cannot recall).

Second, Rorty was not talking just about theory, although he did talk about that too. He thought that humanities departments ("English Department" was simply a place holder) had been preoccupied with analysis of sexuality, gender, class and race in various disciplines. He valued that in many ways, but also thought academics ought to be involved with real world campaigns - hence his involvement with efforts to re-connect academics to the Americana Labor movement. Likewise he spoke out repeatedly (in Dissent and The Nation, etc. against all sorts of 'real-world' problems.

I guess my post is really a sort of warning - "be careful what you ask for ..."

PS: Rorty also denied quite vehemently that one's philosophical commitments had political implications. As far as pragmatism as a philosophical view is concerned, he is simply wrong.

PS2: At the risk of sounding paternalistic - Keep on thinking and working.

26 April, 2008 14:23  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may wish to know about:

This is about a new book on the legal implications for lawyers who sanction the use of torture

02 May, 2008 17:38  

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