Sunday, October 29, 2017

Incestuous left academic circuits, power games, and erasures

Much of the left-posturing academic circuits is an incestuous power game, especially so when one considers the Left circuits within Asian academe. The postcolonial Left, often born within elite English speaking families with networks and inbuilt connections, reproduces the same old colonial structures.

To elucidate this point, I will draw upon a recent experience that travels through Facebook.

The last two years, I have served as an external reviewer on a graduate committee where a Nigerian student had been struggling and the rest of the committee wanted to decline the student a degree after all the work the student had put in. I was struck by the lack of mentorship and access to structural resources to the student. This is what I had written on my Facebook wall on August 10, 2017:

"academicwhiteness #colonialbullshit Calling out the racist bs that makes up much of European academe. After much thought, just got done with writing a minority evaluation letter to a European University that took in a Nigerian student, gave him very little guidance, and now wants to fail him on his dissertation. Sadly, the Asians are too happy replicating the same bullshit.

"The student has done extensive revisions based on the inputs offered by the committee. The current draft reflects a detailed analysis of the data, connecting the data to theoretically based interpretations, and offering insights into the communicative processes in negotiations of health and care. Therefore, I am ready to pass the thesis, based on the criterion of sufficiency. At this point let me also note my concerns regarding the overall processes of student advising at your university, especially when taking in international students from underserved contexts. I am not inspired by the level of support and advice available to the student. So we don't continue to reproduce racist and colonial biases in processes of student examination and evaluation, adequate steps need to be present that offer students clear guidelines, nurture them, and walk them through the contexts of academic norms within the Eurocentric academe."

This bs that makes up the standards of Whiteness needs to be called out."


Matsurah Alatas, whom I had friended on Facebook because she posted insightful comments on a debate on the wall of the scholar Simon During, responded with the following:
"Pardon me, but how well do you know "European academe" (which differs vastly from nation to nation) to say that "much of it" is made up of "racist bs?" (note the condescension in her tone of phrasing the question, which we will come back later to)

Although I had already explained the context based on the specific case (of the Nigerian student) I was drawing my account from, here is what I repeated:

"Let's see, I have served as an external committee member or reviewer for the British, Dutch, German, Danish, Swedish, Belgian, and French systems (there are more, but these come to my mind as I think of recent experiences). When it comes to mentoring and evaluating students from the global South, I am sorry to say that I see much of each of these systems reiterate the racist bs that makes up their colonial organisational structures. Would love to be educated otherwise."

The Singapore activist-academic Sangeetha Thanapal, who is on my Facebook friends list, responded:

"Lololol. Hundreds of years of violent colonialism, continued study after study on institutionalized racism in European universities, and still apparently, the question needs to be asked. Weird. Academics are supposed to be able to read past research right? Well, not if your career is built entirely on your father's name, I suppose. "

Ms. Alatas did not respond to either Sangeetha or my response.

I was therefore surprised, when on October 29, 2017, more than two months after the initial exchange, Ms. Alatas posted on her FB, with an article titled "The apology:"

"As a writer and a teacher, I have lots of things to apologise for all the time--mistakes, wrong tone, inaccuracies, being late-- and I do so all the time.

Last week, a US academic apologised for a post, and I really appreciated it. It showed the integrity and professionalism of the person.

A few days ago, someone reminded me of another post, Mohan Dutta’s, from some months ago. He is someone I do not know and who asked for friendship some time ago. He is professor of communications at the National University of Singapore. Re the post, I had asked him why he said much of European academe was full of “racist bullshit” since I know tons of people in European academe. One commentator, S. Thanapal (someone who gave what many have recognised as a bad interview on Singapore which came out in boundary 2, of all places) out of the blue jumped into the discussion to say that my “academic career” was built on my father’s name.

The whole thing was embarrassing because, first of all, I am not an academic as such, so the commentator has blown her credibility all on her own in one quick swipe. Secondly, I live in a country where my father is practically unheard of.

But this is just one of the many stories about prejudice and misogyny. We see the racist European but we do not see the non-racist European or migrant in European academia who may have some power. Also, there are actually women in the world who get jobs, and not because they are helped by their fathers’ names.

Fb is a place that is full of cantankerous, aggressive academics. Let it be known that Dutta never apologized for the slanderous remark made by Thanapal. Anyone can manage their posts as they like, but reputations are made or broken this way.

Should we judge friends by their friends? We do so all the time, from political alliances to business dealings to the company our children keep.

There is no reason not to do so also in this space.

I am very proud of the behaviour of all of my friends in this place, which include many, many young, spontaneous angry frustrated voices of Italian youth. Not once, over the years, has anyone been rude or slanderous or aggressive on my wall.

For this, I thank you all.

And I apologise if I have ever been so."

What strikes me about the exchange is the incestuous referential power that flows uncritically in Left academic circuits in postcolonial spaces, using the feudal strategies of "hearsay," "marking," "othering," and "respectability politics" to stifle debate. Sangeetha's valid point about the history of colonialism and how that is intertwined with logics of Whiteness that constitute knowledge production remained obfuscated in this one-sided mis-labeling. That I had extensively offered the context to my post, further added more context to respond to her question, and invited her to educate me otherwise remained obfuscated in the post made by Ms. Alatas. That I was originally responding from my sense of solidarity with a Nigerian student remained obfuscated. Ms. Alatas, from her elite privilege, somehow does not even notice the student's ordeal in a racist Eurocentric institution that the post began with.

We are told Ms. Thanapal is not credible because Ms. Alatas proclaims she is not an academic as suggested by Ms. Thanapal (and yet publishes academic pieces, and that too, in edited collections such as one edited by the Left celebrity Vijay Prashad, alongside bigwigs such as Naomi Klein, Rafia Zakaria, John Bellamy Foster, and Ghassan Hage). I am unsure about what Ms. Alatas' definition of being an academic here is.

Ms. Alatas suddenly becomes the tone police (who cares about rudeness, aggression, and slander), while her own tone in responding to my post was condescending and rude (asking how well I knew European academe).

That this comes in the back of ongoing witch hunt in elite academic circuits in Singapore that target Sangeetha Thanapal is no surprise. In a small place where privilege makes up the basis of  a tight-knit performance of meritocracy, an author making contentious points about Chinese privilege and its circulation (including within academe) is an easy target for bullying.

I am not at all apologetic about the comment posted by Sangeetha, and stand by her. That civility is often a communicative tool of the elite that maintains the status quo is a point I have often put forward in my own academic work as well as activism, standing by colleagues all the way from Steven Salaita to Dana Cloud. That established standards of communicative civility (that take their own forms of "saving face" of the power elite in Singapore) often erase the voices that interrogate the status quo is substantiated by systematic communication scholarship.

Moreover, Sangeetha's observation about the academic privilege that Ms. Alatas draws upon is a point that needs to be critically interrogated. I am not sure what Ms. Alatas refers to when she sees prejudice and misogyny. If she sees prejudice and misogyny in an act of calling out her own privilege (because of who her father is), that points toward the sort of unreflexivity that keeps academic power intact. If she sees prejudice and misogyny in a genuine critique of the Whiteness that makes up the marginalizing practices in European academe, it points to her inability to engage with the extensive body of literature on Whiteness and its continued erasures.

Clearly, my original post was referring to the logics of White colonialism that make up academic forms and processes in many European institutions. That there are many people of color in Europe has nothing to do with the Whiteness of the Eurocentric academic structures. Ironically, Ms. Alatas refers to people of color in Europe in positions of some power to make up her claim about European multiculturalism, apparently oblivious to the everyday racisms and struggles that students and colleagues of color in precarious positions have to negotiate in Europe (which was the point of my original post). She appoints herself as the prejudice-police, erasing the stories of institutional racism that make up many academic structures in Europe.

Sangeetha's intervention in boundary 2 that interrupts the implicit racism of Chinese privilege in Singapore becomes the subject of attack. To attack this powerful and much-needed intervention in Singapore, Ms. Alatas does not offer any arguments, but instead refers to some Brahminical power group. The essay is apparently not worthy we are told because "many have recognised as a bad interview on Singapore which came out in boundary 2, of all places."

Note once again the implicit referential power of elite networks, working like some elite high school clique. This network does its power from gossip circles of the powerful. There is no need to engage arguments or offer thoughtful critique. Simply stating that some Brahmin club labels this as a bad interview perpetuates the elitist hegemony that unfortunately marks many Left circles in postcolonial societies. Also, Ms. Alatas carefully obfuscates the fact that she had earlier written a response to Ms. Thanapal's work by referring to her father's scholarship (demonstrating precisely the claim Ms. Thanapal was making; a well-connected and networked in elite member delegitimising a Tamil academic-activist with no apparent connections and already the target of various forms of bullying).

Beyond this debate about the inability of the postcolonial elite subject to mark and interrogate elite Eurocentric practices of erasure lies the point about the disempowering/silencing power of privilege, which is precisely what Sangeetha's post refers to.

The post made by Ms. Alatas makes reference to reputation, suggesting that a person is known by the friends he/she keeps and the ways in which he/she manages these friends, a typical strategy of privilege to silence opposing views. Implicit in the post is the cliquish threat of bad-mouthing someone that is critical, talking about them in hidden circles of power groups rather than engaging them in debate.

She states: "Should we judge friends by their friends? We do so all the time, from political alliances to business dealings to the company our children keep. There is no reason not to do so also in this space."

It is unfortunate that the Left space in postcolonial societies has become one of reputation management, carefully cultivating one's friends list so he/she is in with the God fathers and God mothers. My reputation is not tied to whispering cliques and girl/boy clubs, but rather to my scholarship, my role as a teacher, and my engagement in social justice projects with communities. I have never cared much about cliques to draw my reputation, and find the very idea of reputation to be both status quo-affirming and intellectually boring.

To the extent that postcolonial societies continue to reproduce power in these tight knit elite networks in privileged spaces, containing them within radical pronouncements, there is no hope for the Left. Left is much more of a power/performance game rather than a site of critical intervention and actual decolonization.

The cliquish cultivation of the right friends only cultivates group think in elite positions of privilege, devoid of engagement with the real struggles of real people, and erasing the sites that actively need to be decolonized.

The real struggle for decolonization ahead of us lies in disrupting these elite circuits of referential power that operate within postcolonial spaces, complicit with racist Eurocentric structures of power. "Decolonizing postcoloniality" as another Facebook friend Priyamvada Gopal puts it, is the only starting point. This starting point however, has to actively engage questions of social justice, interrogating the deep forms of marginalization that are perpetuated by/in elite networks.

The elite gibberish in postcolonial circuits erase the subaltern within our very academic spaces even as we spout the politics of the Left imaginary. The Nigerian student whose story I initially began my post with is entirely obliterated in this politics of postcolonial power games. To decolonize postcoloniality is to decolonize the very cliquish practices within our academic structures that reproduce the silences of the margins within these postcolonial elite power circuits. To decolonize postcoloniality is to disrupt the marginalizing racist logics that flow across sites of White and postcolonial elite politics, and collaborate to reproduce silence.

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