Monday, February 18, 2013

"Yale is Elitist in Its Basic Design"

Yale is teaming up with the Department of Defense to teach aspiring tortucrats how to interrogate brown people in New Haven.

That YDN op-ed i just linked to is, I think, pretty good about the racial politics of such a move, though in at least one respect I take issue with it.  I am certainly in solidarity with any attempts to obstruct the university's use of working class and poor New Haven residents to further the knowledge/power couplet of the neoliberal security state.  But I think it's important to historicize the longue duree of the university's mutually beneficial relationship with the state to hone such techniques on those very populations, and to recognize that the university has all too often used those communities for its own purposes - that this program is not evidence of the security state corrupting the university's curriculum and social mission, but is instead the latest development in a long and mutually constitutive relationship between the university's governing corporation and local, state, and federal police and military power.  

Writing in 1970, amidst the tumult of the New Haven trials of nine members of the Black Panther Party for the murder of suspected informant Alex Rackley, the authors of "Go to School, Learn to Rule: The Yale Method"  - a collaboration between the American Independent Movement and the Africa Research Group (the former was a dissident New Haven labor-left organization which formed in 1966 around the congressional campaign of a Yale sociology professor named Robert Cook, whose members included local radicals like the Yale grad student Rick Wolff and alumnus turned labor organizer John Wilhelm, and should not be confused with the American Indian Movement) recognized that the university was itself "the vanguard of liberal repression," that it "exercised its power to control and exploit the local community", that it's hospital resembled a "colonial outpost where the doctor is the colonial administrator."  AIM (and ARG) traced the university's "constant policy of abusing and exploiting the New Haven community" through the university's relationship with and role in the city's powerful urban renewal machine, which displaced thousands of New Haven residents during the 1950s and 1960s.  

The pamphlet is important for my research for the ways it links an analysis of the university's labor politics to its imperial spatial practices within and beyond New Haven, themes which have recurred throughout the long and often bitter labor struggles between the university and diverse groups of its employees between the 1930s and the present.  But I bring it up here for its analysis of the university's relationship to and interest in what it described as the machinery of state repression.  In the late 1960s, Yale was already training the New Haven Police Department in its interactions with the city's growing Puerto Rican population which had been at the center of the city's riots in the summer of 1967.  How far this went beyond the instruction of rudimentary cop-Spanish I don't know - not much, I imagine.  But by 1970 the university's relationships with the Department of Defense and its Social Science Research Center had eclipsed its collaboration with the NHPD for most New Haveners.  For the authors of "Go To School: Learn To Rule", the university's Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) represented the "right of the university to train officers for an army whose main function is to suppress wars of national liberation, ghetto riots, strikes, and other interruptions of the smooth running of the capitalist order."  The university's ROTC program, which was recently restored after having been driven off campus by student militants in the 1970s, was, the pamphlet's authors were careful to note "not an alien intruder at Yale," but rather, "in a Yale which is run like a corporation by a corporation for the corporations," it was "only natural for it to train the defenders of these corporations."  Thus, noted GTSLTR, "the movement to abolish ROTC was not a movement to purify an otherwise unsullied temple of learning, it was, instead, a direct blow to American Capitalism."

The relevance of this critique to the present moment is pretty straightforward.  The same is the case, I argue, with the conflicts over the creation of the university's Institute of Social Sciences, which was a target not only for radicals like AIM and the city's Panthers, but also for more institutionally acceptable segments of the city's political spectrum.  For its AIM critics, the ISS was, like ROTC, counterinsurgency, "an attempt to reinforce the organizations and institutions of a repressive capitalist society precisely at the points where they are weakest."  The institute represented a colonial model of expropriating knowledge from, and producing technocratic mastery over, the people who lived in Yale's shadow, a population which was, throughout the 1960s, becoming both poorer and more disproportionately racialized.  (As New Haven's industrial decline continued throughout the next two decades these trends would only accelerate, as would the relative importance of the university as employer and landlord in the political economy of the city and region.)   

None of these ventures likely involved the deliberate instruction of state agents in interrogation tactics to the extent that this new venture will - though here the 1967 post-riot partnership with the NHPD does seem an appropriate analogue.  But all of them used New Haven as a laboratory and a playground.  All of them understood and appropriated the city and its inhabitants as instruments of and appendages to the will of university administrators.

In their condemnation of the new center, Batraville and Lew write
As a university, Yale purpose’s is to forge a global community of scholars working together to produce, share, debate, question, challenge and reformulate knowledge. Its purpose is not to promote the agenda of the U.S. political elite.

 The authors of "Go To School, Learn To Rule," and the histories of struggle over the relationship between Yale and New Haven from which that document emerges, offer us the profound insight that Yale's purpose is and has for quite some time been in part "to promote the agenda of the U.S. political elite."  I don't even think that the university's current President would substantially disagree with that claim.  My purpose is not to scold Yale activists for naivete and bourgeois idealism.  I think it makes a great deal of sense to organize against and resist such measures as this new center.  But I think part of that organizing needs to incorporate a recognition of the long history of the university's imperial relationship to its workers (today's the 21st anniversary of one of the university's many strikes) and neighbors, its entanglements in human terrain mapping avant-la-lettre, and the long complicity of its academic departments in imperial and intelligence projects such as CIA recruitment and Cold War exceptionalism.  (For this last point, see also Michael Holzman, "The Ideological Origins of American Studies at Yale," American Studies 40:2 Summer 1999.)


PS: Oh, BTW, the very name of this blog originates in Yale President Richard Levin's role on the Bush administration's sham of a WMD inquiry following the invasion of Iraq. As noted, Yale's purposes have been aligned with US empire for a long time.

PPS: I hope this doesn't come across as too critical of Batraville and Lew in a dickish and academic sense.  I don't know them but I support their work.  Here's a link to the petition they and others are circulating.

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