Today’s Captain Renault Moment

London School of Economics faculty: Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was such a nice young man, we never knew he would have anything to do with the mass killing of the people of Libya. But we see now that he’s made a tragic choice, and so we’re going to go about making a few changes here once we cash the remaining checks sever ties to Gaddafi-funded projects.

Am I being too self-righteous? This is an underlying issue in most elite educational institutions. We admit talented students from a variety of backgrounds all around the world, including from very wealthy and/or powerful families. I don’t inquire into backgrounds at all if I can avoid it. It once took me four years to figure out that a student of mine was related to one of our biggest donors even though she had the same last name. So maybe I’ve educated a small-potatoes version of Gaddafi, for all I know, someone who is right now serving as the Deputy Underminister in an Interior Ministry and signing off on torture orders. I might be the guy in the news some day saying what a nice young man or woman that person was and I just don’t understand how this happened. You always know that you might be involved in educating a seemingly decent person who uses the credential to gain entry to an important profession, move into a leadership role and become a social malignancy.

Students are the agents of their own education and they’re responsible for how they use that education. You don’t refuse to admit a qualified applicant because of their parents or background. That said, there is also no requirement to be stupid about people in general or one person in particular. One of the basic roles of the London School of Economics and some of its most immediate peer institutions in the contemporary global economy is to grant technocratic credentials to the well-connected children of authoritarian functionaries. At some point, decisions that look one way when you’re inside the intimate dialogue of one teacher to one student look another way at larger scales.

Maybe you need to admit and teach the Saif Gaddafis: pulling on that thread might unravel a tapestry full of unpredictability and beauty. You don’t need to suck up to them, take their money to create Potemkin institutes, or to believe when they write an utterly standard piece of technocratic gospel about best practices and democratization that they believe it for a minute. What LSE faculty should have seen in Gaddafi’s dissertation is another mode of mimicry, a kind of neoliberal pantomime. It should have reminded them of how little in the end any of the white papers and policy summits and good-governance roadshows do to actually change the regimes which are the most odious examples of bad governance, and how easy it is to tailor a certain kind of earnest social science into some new clothes for the emperor.

I grant this: we all will in our lives cash a check that we shouldn’t have cashed, accept an invitation where the menu at dinner turns out to be pure poison. Most of us will know and appreciate a person who will suddenly reveal themselves to be capable of malice, destruction or extraordinary evil and wonder both at why we didn’t know it before and how to reconcile this revelation with what we already know about that person, how to explain to victims and observers that what seems simple to them is in fact complex, human, mysterious.

I can find some sympathy in the case of Saif Gaddafi’s teachers for David Held, but it’s hard to feel the same for Benjamin Barber. Rather than begging for a more reflective, contemplative understanding of the human heart, Barber is doubling down. And the reason, as this discussion at Lawyers, Guns and Money makes clear, is that Saif Gaddafi’s choices have uncloaked some of Barber’s choices, that he’s been acting as an auxiliary member of the regime, a lobbyist, a geopolitical launderer. So he talks of tragedies to come in Libya in order to not have to have an accounting of the mountain of tragedy beneath his own feet.

Barber is hardly the last intellectual to have talked himself into an appreciation for a tyrant’s supposed past accomplishments via a sovereignty fetish: I still run into people in my own field who are trying to sell the line that Robert Mugabe was an upstanding crusader for justice until some mysterious dark side of the Force turned him bad.

Once you sign on to be a court jester, it’s hard to give up playing the fool.

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5 Responses to Today’s Captain Renault Moment

  1. Brutus says:

    I’m not certain what, precisely, you’re proposing, but the entire issue stems from a horrible case of hindsight bias. The irony that the school in question is the London School of Economics is kinda funny, considering the whole field of economics suffers from a glaring lack of predictive accuracy.

    Rather than staring into the crystal ball and denying educations to potential despots, it would be much simpler to compile a list of those institutions that have already granted degrees to known criminals in government, finance, and other fields of significant influence. I’m certain many Ivy League schools would rank high on such a sweepstakes, but that wouldn’t be sufficient to censor such a school or even interfere with its admissions policies, now would it?

  2. G. Weaire says:

    The notion of people getting terribly exercised over the proper ownership of the “Third Way” is darkly amusing.

  3. laliamos says:

    I agree with the statement of Brutus :)

  4. barry says:

    “So maybe I’ve educated a small-potatoes version of Gaddafi, for all I know, someone who is right now serving as the Deputy Underminister in an Interior Ministry and signing off on torture orders. ”

    Why do you think that such a person would be a ‘Gaddafi’, as opposed to a large number of US officials and politicians?

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Why do you think a US official who has sanctified torture is not a “Gaddafi” by my reckoning? I would very much take my concern to cover those cases as well.

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