Benjamin Barber Responds

Benjamin Barber Responds

A response to Jon Wiener’s “Professors Paid by Qaddafi: Providing ‘Positive Public Relations.’ ”



Editor’s note: The following comments by Benjamin R. Barber are in response to Jon Wiener’s “Professors Paid by Qaddafi: Providing ‘Positive Public Relations.’ ”

Following in the steps of Fox ax-woman Judith Miller (of the weapons-of-mass-destruction-in-Iraq lie and the outing-of-Valerie-Plame fame) and right-wing BBC 2 TV host Gavin Esler—both of whom have attacked me and others who went to Libya four years ago to talk with Muammar Qaddafi and to write about the new relationship emerging following Libya’s yielding of its WMD program—Jon Wiener has joined the hunt on our integrity. Unlike others who have refused comment, I have responded to reporters wanting to know more about Monitor and what we were doing in Libya. And when he called, I talked to Wiener at length. As a consequence, he focused exclusively on me, content to say that others who had gone to Libya had not answered his call for information and could be safely ignored.

The most important point I made repeatedly in my conversation with Wiener is one he managed to ignore completely: it is not who pays you that is important but whether they are paying you to do what you do, or you are doing what they want you to do because they are paying you.

What I wrote in the Washington Post, and what others wrote following their Qaddafi meetings years ago, was initiated by us and not by Monitor (the consultancy under whose aegis we were sent to Libya). These articles reflected our own view of the US relationship with Libya—a relationship that was in the news and in play. I believed an improvement in the relationship of the kind the our government was promoting was a good thing for us and for peaceful change in Libya. From my conversation with Qaddafi, I thought he genuinely was seeking an improvement in relations and that, anxious to please, he might be willing to permit positive changes. I wrote this not on order from Monitor or to gild Qaddafi’s wilted lily but because that is what I believed; and because what I do is to write about my work, my engagements and my beliefs.

Wiener pays scant attention to my work with Saif Qaddafi and his Foundation, which grew out of my visits with Qaddafi Sr. The Foundation created a spirit of reform that had a genuine impact in the country. In the words of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “For much of the last decade, Qadhafi’s son Saif was the public face of human rights reform in Libya and the Qadhafi Foundation was the country’s only address for complaints about torture, arbitrary detention, and disappearances. The Foundation issued its first human rights report in 2009, cataloging abuses and calling for reforms, and a second report released in December 2010 regretted ‘a dangerous regression’ in civil society and called for the authorities to lift their ‘stranglehold’ on the media. In the interim, Saif assisted Human Rights Watch in conducting a groundbreaking press conference which launched a report in Tripoli in December 2009.”

Whatever Saif’s role as a reformer, I have no doubt that Muarmmar Qaddafi remained a ruthless dictator during the period of engagement with the United States, but I also have no doubt that engagement by the Bush administration, by Tony Blair and by scholars like Tony Giddens and me ameliorated the consequences of his rule and created conditions conducive to gradualist reform. Calling him a brute tyrant in print didn’t seem a very useful way to cultivate change and prompt concessions to reform and to the US relationship. The eventual release of the medical hostages (nurses) and the Lockerbie settlement, along with extensive intelligence cooperation against Al Qaeda and an improvement in the human rights situation in Libya as attested to by Human Rights Watch and the Carnegie Endowment, all seem to me to have vindicated the belief that good could come from bringing Libya out from the cold where it had languished as a rogue, terrorist state. I fully appreciate that my views in the Post article and in other articles are subject to criticism. I also accept that it is legitimate to argue, as some have, that we were naïve in our views to think that change from within was possible—though I would dispute that claim.

But Wiener’s charge is different, though all too typical of the current charged and polemical environment. His charge is one of bad faith—that because we were paid by a firm paid by Libya, we were shills for Libya and that we took the money to burnish Qaddafi’s repuation. But as I always have, I wrote what I believed and regarded as right, just as I worked on reform in Libya with Saif’s Foundation because I believe peaceful change from within was more likely to produce democracy over time than invasion (Iraq) or violent internal revolution (Algeria, Iran). This too is subject to honest disagreement, though current circumstances suggest there will be no easy road through Cairo to peace and democracy in Tripoli.

Moreover, it seems to me that smug critics who pile on to indict scholars working for change in autocratic societies as naïve or complicit or worse are themselves lazy in their inquiries and two-faced in their criticisms. The idea that those paid by consultancies or corporations or oil companies precisely to do work in places like Libya (or Saudi Arabia or China) to exploit oil and other development resources are somehow doing capitalist business as usual—no problem. Meanwhile, academics who work in those countries trying to understand them, and change them, and who write about what they are doing, are mere pawns of those who pay them; that indeed, they should not be paid and indeed probably shouldn’t be there at all—such charges constitute rank hypocrisy.

Defending himself, Wiener said to me that people expect more of academics like the ones in the very diverse group that went to Libya under Monitor’s aegis three or four years ago because they respect our work and honor our integrity. Perhaps then our integrity should be acknowledged in weighing the charge that we are sell-outs. Perhaps then respect should be evidenced by recognizing—given our history of autonomy and commitment to democratic change—that we were not in Libya for the money or to play propagandists to the regime but to try to understand a rapidly changing part of the world and reinforce trends that we believed were good for the interests of the United States and the Libyan people.

To be sure today, with twenty-twenty hindsight, one can see that those attempts at reconciliation and peaceful change failed to stave off today’s uprising, and have been overtaken up by a revolutionary history whose outcome we cannot predict and which may or may not be an improvement over what was happening from 2005 through 2010. I plead guilty to not foreseeing the remarkable turn in the Middle East and North Africa that has taken place in recent weeks. But I reject completely the idea that we must now rewrite the history of what came before through the lens of current events and condemn anyone who worked then for reconciliation with Libya and change within it, even if that necessitated talking with the autocrat himself.

And if the lens through which we look at who is paying whom for what is to be the bad character of the regimes doing the funding, rather than the good character of those receiving the funding, as Wiener wants to insist, then I hope the scores of academics and institutions from Harvard and Georgetown to Cambridge and Edinburgh that have taken hundreds of millions of dollars directly from Saudis like Prince Alwaleed bin Talal to establish academic centers focused on Islam and Wahhabism will now bear the kind of scrutiny that Monitor, the London School of Economics and related scholars have borne. And that centers at Durham and St. Andrews that have taken money from Iran receive Wiener’s scorn as well. For if we were shills paid to take the Monitor company line, what exactly are those who profit from Saudi oil money and Iranian big bucks—bucks going from the same sources to Wahhabist madrasses in Pakistan and maybe Al Qaeda too?

Don’t get me wrong. I admire and endorse the schools working to enhance understanding of Islam and train students from Islamic societies, and do not fault them for taking funds from people for whose motives might be quite different from their own (like burnishing the Saudi regime’s or Iran’s reputation). But critics like Wiener and those who forced the resignation of LSE director Howard Davies last week clearly do not. Or should not.

In fact Jon Wiener and Judith Miller share a logic that should make them comfortable with right-wing “Islam-is-terror-itself” scare-monger David Horowitz, and they should join him in unloading on all these powerful institutions that seem so nonchalant about where their money comes from. And if his subject is really tainted money which can never be redeemed by how it is spent, or the integrity of those spending it, he might also turn his attention to those myriad modern foundations established by the likes of J.P Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

For there is hardly a classical foundation today doing good works that is not the beneficiary of blood money drawn from capitalist exploitation, violent union busting and foreign colonial appropriation of resources. To me, that in no way invalidates their good works or suggests they are in the business of burnishing the reputations of their capitalist forebears (though that’s what they inevitably do simply by virtue of where their money comes from and the brands they carry in their titles). After all, Phillip Morris didn’t support the arts for love of art, but the arts groups who benefited were not creating culture in order to sell cigarettes. Or were they? Perhaps Wiener think ABT works for the tobacco lobby.

Again, where money comes from and whether who pays determines what gets done is a very large and valid question. Bernard Shaw wrote Major Barbara to try to persuade us that the Salvation Army need not be ashamed of combating alcoholism with funds donated by breweries. I like Shaw, but when I think about Judy Miller who is paid by Fox, which is owned by Murdoch, whose partner is none other than that same Prince Alwaleed who funds so many academic centers, I have to wonder—following Wiener’s logic—whether Harvard is a Fox affiliate.

In other words, asking where the money comes from is a legitimate question. But self-righteous answers offered by arm-chair quarterbacks second-guessing what scholars working for democratic reform were doing four years ago in trying to make a real world difference are something else altogether. They suggest to me bad faith prompted by a tabloid appetite for blood.

Benjamin R. Barber is a distinguished senior fellow at Demos and Walt Whitman Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University. His books include Strong Democracy, Jihad vs. McWorld and Consumed.

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