John Pilger

New Statesman (1996), April 30, 2001 | Go to article overview

John Pilger


Academia is silent on imperialism, as German universities were during the rise of the Nazis

The other day, I attended a conference at the University of Sussex on the "new imperialism". What was extraordinary was that it took place at all. Julian Saurin, who teaches in the school of African and Asian studies at Sussex, said that, in ten years, he had never known an open discussion on imperialism. About 80 per cent of international relations studies in the great British universities is concerned with the United States and Europe. Most of the rest of humanity is often rated according to its degree of importance or usefulness to "western interests", the euphemism for western power and imperialism.

The concept of modern imperialism seldom speaks its name. It is a taboo subject, described as "provocative" by those "liberal realists" who shunned the Sussex conference. The issue of academic silence this raises is crucial. At times, universities that pride themselves on a free-thinking tradition go silent. Germany during the rise of the Nazis and the United States in the McCarthyite period offer obvious examples.

The silence these days is not as obvious, but no less complicit. For example, an invasion and occupation that wiped out a third of a population, causing the deaths of more people, proportionally, than died in Cambodia under Pol Pot, provoked an academic silence that lasted for most of 24 years.

This was East Timor, which Henry Kissinger once likened to an "obscure brand" of soft drink. It was Kissinger who sent arms illegally to General Suharto's invading troops. A part from John Taylor's marvellous book, indonesia's Forgotten War (Zed Books) and the work of Peter Carey, Mark Curtis and, more recently, Eric Herring, the greatest genocide in the second half of the 20th century apparently did not warrant a single substantial academic case study, based on primary sources, originating in the international relations department of a British university. Like the massacres that brought Suharto to power in the 1960s -- in which both the US and British governments played critical roles - the genocide in East Timor was airbrushed by those whose job was to keep the scholarly record straight. The work of Noam Chomsky, a lone voice on East Timor, was considered too "provocative".

The study of postwar international relations was invented in the United States, largely with the sponsorship of those who designed and have policed modern American economic power: a network that included the Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) and the Council on Foreign Relations, effectively an arm of government. Thus, in the great US universities, learned voices justified the cold war and the new Washington-led imperialism.

In this country, with honourable exceptions, this "transatlantic" view found its echo. …

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