Academic Freedom in an Age of Populism

It only took five days for the assault on academic freedom in an age of populism to materialize in the US. And that it came in the form of censoring scientists working for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),  an agency which bafflingly enough will be led by a nominee who cares so little about environmental protection that he is engaged in a pending lawsuit against the very agency he will lead. 

It would be a naïve of anthropologists to presume that we are unlikely to face similar assaults. In fact, these assaults have already affected anthropologists from Iran, assaults that materialized in the form of a temporary ban on legal entry to the US of citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries introduced by the Trump administration, later successfully challenged in US courts. 

It is therefore salutary of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to have reaffirmed its principled commitment to academic freedom in a resolution adopted at the last Annual Meeting of the AAA in Minneapolis in November 2016.

We should not forget that academic freedom is a surprisingly modern and recent phenomenon, even in a Western world, which in recent decades has often saluted itself as a standard-bearer of both Reason and Enlightenment. 

As anthropologists working on the histories of colonialism have long demonstrated, Reason and Enlightenment were—however often honored—more in the breach than in practice in colonial and settler-colonial contexts.  

As the political scientist Jan-Werner Müller has argued in a recent contribution to the study of populism, populism’s illiberalism and opposition to pluralism, happen to be two of its main characteristics. 

So, before doing anything else, let us face up to the realities: As a political phenomenon, the contemporary right-wing populism, which has long been ascendant in Europe and the USA, is and remains anathema to anything and everything anthropological thought and practice has ever represented. So are the Islamist and Hindu nationalist regimes in Turkey and Indiawhich both speak a language with many family resemblances to right-wing populism, including in the constant invocation of the interests of “real people” and in the contempt for knowledge and dissident scholarship.

For society must be defended, and if not by us, by whom, and if not now, then when?
 Right-wing populism’s purported claims to represent the interests of “real people” against “the elites” is first and foremost a rhetorical strategy: right-wing populism in power is in practice all too pleased to loyally serve the interests of the corporate 1 percent and plutocratic interests. Take Narendra Modi and his Hindutva government’s demonetizationDonald Trump’s proposed slashing of taxes for corporate interests or the Norwegian right-government’s extensive tax rebates for the wealthiest and mightiest Norwegians.  The concept of  “the elite” is in the late Stuart Hall’s terms a proverbial “floating signifier” (meaning that it can have lots of different uses)  in right-wing populist discourses, but it is more often than not directed at anyone seen to represent a challenge to the populist mythos of an homogeneous “real people” whose “real interests” only right-wing populists can discern. As Müller correctly notes, it is a myth that right-wing populists cannot survive in power. 

A central facet of the survival strategy of right-wing populists in and out of power is the blurring of facts and fiction, and systematic and coordinated assaults of the legitimacy and credibility of scholarly knowledge.  And as much as anthropologists working at universities or colleges can be represented as forming part of those ‘elites,’ they are likely to find themselves among the targets for vilification in right-wing populist discourses—especially if they choose to speak out publicly against the very real threats to democracy, human rights and human dignity that right-wing populism represents.

But in a situation like this, anthropologists would do well not to romanticize the discipline’s past in regard to academic freedom. It is a widespread myth among anthropologists that we always and inevitably aligned ourselves with the powerless, and never succumb to the lures of power and alliances with the state. This is not only in the USA, but also elsewhere: We have been here many times before. It is simply not the case that past anthropologists always stood up to state-directed, right-wing threats against academic freedom with collegial and disciplinary solidarity. Think here of the McCarthy era when George P. Murdock informed on US anthropologists suspected of Communist sympathies in letters to J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI.  

Think of the reluctance of many (though not all) anthropologists in South Africa to stand up for their black African anthropological colleagues under the racist regime of apartheid. 

Collegial and disciplinary silence in the face of power, hegemony and their abuses have consequences. Think of the many subtle and unsubtle ways in which mainstream anthropology has marginalized black anthropologists, not only through lack of recognition, but also difficulties in obtaining tenure. 

Many Middle East anthropologists have asserted that they have all too often been made to feel that they stood alone in speaking out about the disastrous Global War on Terror (GWOT) after al-Qaida’s terrorist attacks on the US on September 11 2001, or in voicing criticism of the serial human rights abuses and violations of international law of the Israeli state.

In my native Norway, our most right-wing government since World War II took office in October 2013, a government which includes the populist right-wing Progress Party. In the Norwegian context, the state makes most research funding available through budgetary allocations. In response, many Norwegian anthropologists have maintained a studied silence about not only the ongoing and gradual dismantling of the foundations of the post-war welfare state in the name of both welfare state nationalism and neoliberal reforms, but also about a political rhetoric emerging from the centers of power which undermines the rights to human equality, dignity and life of both immigrants and minorities in Norway. Not only that, but Norwegian anthropologists who have spoken out publicly about these developments, have found doing so to be an effective shortcut to denials of tenure and promotions.

 We need to realize that the very exercise of academic freedom has a political economy which structures and delineates the available choices of more than research topics. As a case in point: in Norway, research funding agencies have in recent years lavished funding on research on salafi-jihadist terrorism and “radicalization”—research that is clearly and explicitly in the state’s interests. At the same time, hardly any funding whatsoever goes to research on racism and discrimination—research that can hardly be said to be in the state’s interest. The paradox in all of this is that no terrorist attack on Norwegian soil has ever been perpetrated by Muslims, whereas the worst terrorist attack in Norwegian history was in fact perpetrated by a white right-wing extremist and racist merely six years ago. 

Anthropologists who remain committed to standing firm on the discipline’s normative and ethical foundations, and to doing so publicly, have their work cut out for them in coming months and years. There is no time to waste: We must stand up and be counted in solidarity with anthropological colleagues affected by racist state policies of immigration, and be willing to speak out about the assaults on academic freedom, and the undermining of equal rights to citizenship and human rights, which regularly follows in the wake of right-wing populism’s rise to power. For society must be defended, and if not by us, by whom, and if not now, then when? 

Sindre Bangstad
Bergen, Norway. Sindre Bangstad

 

Sindre Bangstad is a social anthropologist and works as an associate researcher at KIFO (Institute For Church, Religion And Worldview Research) in Oslo, Norway. 

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