Political correctness is the yoga of the modern Western mind. The salutations and poses of rationalised irrationality are nowhere aped more sedulously than in the American university. At the same time, the infinite cupidity of the American university, its appetite for money from parents, corporations and even foreign powers, brings the soft conscience into contact with hard cash from the kind of regimes for whom ‘political correctness’ retains its original sense, which is repeating the regime’s propaganda so you don’t get shot or sent for re-education in the local equivalent of a liberal arts facility.
When peace-loving, free-speaking, Muslim Brotherhood-supporting Jamal Khashoggi got himself into a rough and tumble in Istanbul, he created a moral dilemma, and worse, a PR nightmare, for several major American universities. Citadels of human rights, due process and democratic accountability including Harvard and MIT have recently pocketed buckets of cash — sorry, accepted ‘affiliation’ and ‘donations’ for ‘research’ — from Saudi Arabia’s hereditary dictator-in-waiting, Mohammed bin Salman.
Even to assume the posture of collaboration with the Saudis requires much heavy breathing and mindful control of the appalled conscience. When bin Salman visited Harvard and MIT earlier this year, the universities went out of their way to keep it secret from the press and the students. We now see why those university administrators, usually so keen to parp out gaseous thought bubbles about talking truth to power, were in a hurry to hide the truth so they could grab the money.
In the last week, we’ve also seen how — how Mohammed bin Salman deals with people who, as American students learn to say, speak their truth. Until the Khashoggi difficulty, Bin Salman was acclaimed across almost all of the Western media as a ‘reformer’ who would ‘liberalise’ and ‘modernise’ Saudi Arabia, and free it from the bigotry and corruption of corrupt ‘conservative’ hand-choppers like bin Salman’s father, uncles, brothers and cousins.
And truly, it is more modern to dismember someone with a bone saw instead of a scimitar, and to use Western-trained medical professionals to do the butchering. Khashoggi may even have hoped that he too would be a recipient of this famous Saudi ‘liberalisation’. For a moment, it must have looked as it they were only going to slice off a finger, rather than all of his fingers.
Although MBS’s advisers point the finger at a ‘rogue operation’ gone wrong, his prints are all over the Khashoggi murder. There is no doubt that some of the Khashoggi hit team are close to bin Salman. There is every reason to believe that Khashoggi’s murder was a personal initiative of bin Salman’s, just like his purchase last year of MIT ‘affiliation’ for the first of three payments of $250,000. Or his recent ‘partnership’ with IBM and MIT, in which Mohammed makes a $240 million ‘commitment’ and IBM and MIT set up an artificial intelligence research laboratory. Or Mohammed’s keen interest in the work of Boston Dynamics, an ‘MIT partner’ that builds robots for the US military.
All this is about as moral as ‘partnering’ with Saddam Hussein in order to conduct research into woodchipper technology, so the blades won’t jam when you dispose of one of your sister’s boyfriends. The political applications of AI include surveillance and facial recognition technology. Mohammed bin Salman clearly cannot be trusted with a pair of scissors, let alone the latest technologies of repression, which he would be free to use with the liberty of the autocrat. And that, it is now clear, and as John R. Bradley warned percipiently in these pages, is the ‘liberalisation’ that bin Salman has in mind.
Now, strategic realists may make the case for letting bin Salman get away with the Khashoggi killing. The defense industry may, like President Trump, cite the economic benefits of selling the Saudis lots of expensive military gear that, as their massacres in Yemen show, they are incapable of using responsibly. And ‘consultants’ like McKinsey — how easily the whole business slips into italics and euphemisms — may take Saudi cash and circulate pro-Saudi propaganda in American media. But do universities have other potential sources of ‘donations’? Yes. Do their faculty and students hector and lecture us constantly about our moral failings, and other people’s human rights? Yes, and yes.
American universities need to chop the hand that feeds them cash from killers and tyrants. No headstands of logic or pretzels of rationalisation can now justify major American universities taking money from bin Salman. Harvard, MIT and all the other academic ‘partners’ should gather up the Saudis’ cash, put it in the suitcases it came in, and leave it on the doorstep of the nearest Saudi consulate — because it’s not safe to go inside.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.