Academics corrupted by power

One of the luxuries of being an academic is that one has more freedom than most to express one’s honest opinion on things. This makes academics sought after for their views on issues of public policy. It is often tempting for academics who have made a name for themselves to sign on to serve in governments. Some may do it because they feel that this gives them an opportunity to press more for policies that they favor. For others it may be just the allure of being close to the seats power and to gain even greater visibility.

But the cliché that ‘power corrupts’ applies very strongly to academics who fly too close to the bright lights of power and find that they end up supporting atrocious policies. A good example is Samantha Power who at one time was a Harvard academic who had a good reputation for her work on human rights around the world. In 2003 she wrote an essay that was sharply critical of US foreign policy, as Jon Schwarz writes.

It calls the U.S. “the most potent empire in the history of mankind,” and contains lamentations that could appear in The Intercept. “U.S. foreign policy has to be rethought,” she said. “It needs not tweaking but overhauling. We need a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States, [including] the CIA-assisted coups in Guatemala, Chile, and the Congo; the bombing of Cambodia; and the support for right-wing terror squads in Latin America.”

Powerful words. Then she became a member of the Obama administration, first serving on his National Security Council and later as the ambassador to the UN and thus began her inevitable slide into becoming a political apparatchik as she went along with and excusing and justifying all the abuses that the Obama administration was involved in because after all he was a ‘good’ guy and, more importantly, ‘our’ guy and thus must not be criticized because that is how the political game is played by those who rotate in and out of government.

Now that she is out of power, she has begin the usual process of trying to rehabilitate her image as a campaigner for human rights, until the next Democratic administration comes along and she can makes her play for a high office, probably secretary of state. And the path to rehabilitation is to write a memoir excusing and justifying her time in government. Hers is called The Education of an Idealist. Schwarz reviews the book and says that it is highly self-serving, revealing more in its omissions than in what it says.

How does the foreign policy of the U.S., seen from the inside, truly function? What should a morally serious American, surveying the world’s berserk cruelty, do? What compromises and self-deceptions are necessary to get power? Can they be worth it, even if you personally are going to hell?

An honest book about this would have been a genuine, no-kidding service to humanity. But Power chose not to write it. Instead, “The Education of an Idealist” will take its place with the numberless other banal, sludgy 500-page memoirs by political exiles.

When talking about U.S. foreign policy, Republicans use transparent lies that insult the intelligence of every American. By contrast, Democrats respect their fellow citizens enough to tell more complex lies, ones that sound plausible as long as you don’t think about them for more than three seconds. Power’s book hews strongly to this tradition.

He says that Powers says nothing about Obama’s drone strikes, the three Israeli assaults on Gaza during that time, Saudi Arabia’s US-backed war on Yemen, and Obama’s ignoring of the widespread torture abuses under Bush. Tellingly, Power does not mention her time buddying up with that eminent war criminal Henry Kissinger and the prize she got that was named after him and actually awarded to her by him.

When I turned the last page of “The Education of an Idealist” and was confronted by the acknowledgements section, I honestly thought I must have missed something. But the index confirms these topics just aren’t there. There is no entry for “drones” between Drew, Nelson and Drudge Report. There’s nothing about Kissinger or Israel’s bombings of Gaza. (We do learn on page 468 that she played basketball once with “Palestinian girls who hoped to become engineers, architects and politicians.”)

But here in this dimension, “The Education of an Idealist” is simultaneously heartbreaking and boring. Power has returned from the mountaintop but won’t honestly tell us what she saw because she wants to get back there. As a recent Guardian article about her reported, “she would consider a return to government or even elected office.” Secretary of State Power? Senator Power? Who knows what the future holds, but Power is anxious to continue a life worthy of her name.


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