The folks over at n+1 have a review of Inderjeet Parmar’s new book, Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power, an intriguing history of how the Rockefeller World Empire came to use America to rule the world as the foundations came to create and dominate “policy” in the 1930s and 1940s:
The trustees of the large foundations comprised a cozy group of men – well-heeled, white, and Protestant – who were raised in the same milieu, attended the same colleges (over half graduated from Harvard, Princeton, or Yale), and belonged to the same social clubs. Such men could not help but share a worldview, and for most of 20th century there was no one in the room to argue the other side. Internally united and externally unimpeded, they acted with a speed and resolve that was impossible for elected politicians. While government officials mired themselves in political debates, foundation leaders acted: they commissioned research, trained students, launched pilot projects, cultivated allies among foreign governments, and built networks of experts. By the time the government overcame its inertia on an issue, it found a smooth and well-marked trail stretching ahead through the wilderness.
It is easy to overlook this quiet trailblazing because the big foundations rarely pushed extreme agendas, at least not at home. Unlike the think tanks of today, the Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller foundations were, and continue to be, studiously nonpartisan. They sought above all technocratic order: a strong federal government, a class of experts ready to guide it, and a docile public eager to follow. Abroad, they combined their faith in the rule of experts with the belief that the ideas and institutions best suited to the poorer countries of the world were those of the United States.
Central to this new ability to control was the creation of area studies programs in the post-WWII United States:
Along with the State Department, the foundations channeled millions of dollars to US universities to establish area studies programs, with the understanding that such programs would generate men who could then advise or serve the US foreign policymaking establishment. Area studies was wide-ranging by design, encompassing language instruction, economic and political assessments of fledgling countries, ethnographic research, and graduate training. The particular endeavors that received funding, however, inevitably concerned the areas and topics that were of the greatest strategic importance to the United States.
The creation of area studies programs were part of the American imperial project, and always have been. Even today, with Middle East and Islamic studies programs and departments under fire for being insufficiently pro-American or pro-Israel (because very people who actually hate a subject actually study that subject in any great depth to master culture and language), they are still integral to producing people who can function as “experts” for the state. One of the reasons I have done nothing of “value” with my Master of Arts in Arab Studies from Georgetown is there is so little that can actually be done with that degree that doesn’t somehow involve serving state power or objectifying the very people I studied. (And yet the Georgetown program still doesn’t meet with Bernard Lewis’ and Frank Gaffney’s approval!) I decided early on I wasn’t going to help anyone draw red circles on targeting maps or make “loans” for fraudulent development projects. (Oh, wait, that’s right, the whole notion of economic development is fraudulent…)
Area studies, in the case of the Middle East and Islam, broke the long relationship that linked the study of Islam with the study of Hebrew, and the study of the Qur’an with biblical knowledge. Once upon a time, most Old Testament scholars in the West had to be at least familiar with Arabic (before the discovery of Ugaritic, Arabic was the go-to language when problems arose in interpreting the meaning of biblical Hebrew), and most scholars of the Qur’an knew their Bible. Not to refute the Qur’an (most 19th century intellectuals were not so crass), but to be able to place the Qur’an as literature and scripture in time and place. Now, Old Testament scholars need never study Arabic, and most Islam scholars in the west are ensconced in history and area studies departments, and have little knowledge of Christian scripture, belief and practice.
And all because knowledge was used to dominate. And not enlighten.
August 27, 2012
Copyright © 2012 Charles H. Featherstone