Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Rhodes controversy

Background: I did not intend this to become a personal blog, but perhaps that's silly because I'm never very clear about the personal/political line anyway. In any case, this raises other important issues and has made me more than slightly angry. Basically, the Rhodes Trust is not doing well financially, it has decided to cut down on scholarships. Virtually all constituencies have been affected except the US and Canada (note that these are 2 of the 3 G8 countries that are part of the scholarship scheme). The reasons given for this broadly make sense, but the outcome is infuriating and politically regressive nevertheless. In other words, I do not seek to impute malice to the Rhodes Trust - but I am disappointed and angry with their decision. Thoughts... ['trust' refers to the Rhodes Trust, 'will' refers to the will of Cecil Rhodes]

i have nothing practical to say about what should be done about the scholarship reductions, so if anyone is reading this in the hope of finding constructive suggestions - look no further. in fact, delete.

i think the great tragedy of this scholarship is that the trust is caught between the principles of trust law on the one hand, which oblige it to stick to the letter of the will, and the very profound changes in world politics that have taken place since it was written in 1877. because of its legal obligations, the trust is left defending and perpetuating an essentially 19th century vision of how the world should be run (recall that the original constituencies were chosen by rhodes because he thought the global common good was best protected through a sort of condominium between the then three great powers - the US, germany and the british commonwealth. note also that this last really meant britain and the then white dominions, not the lower-status colonies - no, not even the 'jewel'.)

over the last century of its operation, the trustees have - at various points in time - shown real statesmanship in interpreting the will creatively to expand its scope in terms of both gender and geography. this is exactly as it should be: if the trust is not to become an ethical dinosaur, it ought to be able to interpret the will - if you'll forgive the grotesque irony - as a living document, more like a constitution because this is a founding document of sorts. (as an ex-lawyer i recognise that this would, of course, be legally dodgy. as someone who now does politics, i'm less pessimistic about the realm of the possible.)

what do i mean exactly? there has been much talk of needing an act of parliament to change the terms of the will. the mere mention of this is intended to serve as a sort of conversation-stopper, as if it were the most unimaginable thing in the world. is it? is the real hurdle the *legal* impossibility of change, or is it the *political* reality of powerful alumni constituencies that will fight reductions tooth and nail? (for why some alumni constituencies are more powerful than others, we'd have to recount the story of the world - but bear in mind that the less powerful constituencies are those that are smaller and came later.)

if the legislative route were attempted, does the trust honestly anticipate that an attempt to change the distribution of scholarships would encounter difficulties in parliament? (frankly, westminster's legislative calendar is so crowded with issues that are so much more important, that i think MPs would be happy to rubber stamp the recommendations of a trust that is chock-full of eminent personalities and pillars of the british establishment - but that's just in my very naive political estimation)

or does the trust simply think that the attempt is not worth the time and money that this might entail? in this case, perhaps we need to be clear about how much time and how much money.

(as a side issue - or maybe not such a side issue - it's also worth remembering that cecil's vision was closely tied to his perception of then british foreign policy interests. in a week in which british foreign policy has been centrally concerned with 'making poverty history' in africa and improving relations with the muslim world, the reduction of scholarships to both those parts of the world is surely ironic - suggesting that the trust is in danger of becoming both an ethical and a strategic dinosaur.

or perhaps not. those who believe that british foreign policy rests crucially on the maintenance of the 'special relationship' will see the trust as sticking closely to that line and thereby fulfiling cecil's will in both letter and spirit. i don't have much to say if that's the case, except that that would be the clearest admission that some of us really are more special than others. but perhaps this is all a digression.)

let me be very clear: i do not think the trust is acting out of malice of any sort, i agree with those who have pointed out that the trust has treated us even-handedly (more than even-handedly: remember warm clothes?). it is not intentions that are problematic here, it is outcomes. and i describe the trust's position as 'tragic' because i recognise that it is mired in a very real tension between yesterday's words and today's politics, giving it little space for manoeuvre. the only way out as i see it is through an act(/Act) of political will(/Will) - will that, i am sorry to say, seems to be lacking (i mean the argument about keeping canadian scholarships intact as if some mysterious law of limitation swung into action after WW1, is about as ridiculous as talking about the easement rights of pigeons to continue shitting on the roof of rhodes house). in other words, i am not calling the trust mean or evil, i am calling it less than pro-active (i.e. lazy, in case the euphemisms are too obscure). without that political will, i am afraid it is back to the jurassic era - an age in which many of us, quite literally, did not exist.

disclaimer: yes we're all fantastically privileged in our home countries. it's the rare rhodes scholar (and i know they exist) who has made it here from real poverty. but let's stop kidding ourselves about why access to institutions like oxford are important. if it needs to be spelt out, here it is: because of the way the world is (another long story), institutions like oxford continue to act as gate-keepers to the institutions that govern the world. whatever your politics, it shouldnt be hard to see that rhodies enter those institutions in droves - the US government (though that obviously remains barred to other constituencies, though sometimes i think it shouldn't be), the World Bank, McKinsey, the UN, and of course elite universities themselves - including this one. cutting down scholarships means cutting down access - not just to oxford, but to all of these places - thereby exacerbating everything that is already so problematic about the way the world is run.

i need to go to sleep. i will not be writing to this list again, except in self-defence.

Very good and articulate. As always.

However, I do go further than you in thinking that in making the choice not to cut Canadian scholarships (one in Quebec, one in the Prairies, and Newfoundland) where applications are dead low, it is more than outcomes that are at stake. It is not only a lack of will, but a deliberate choice to preserve a certain 'Rhodes establishment'. I mean, Canadian Rhodes did produce a Canadian prime minister, many provincial premiers, leading UN diplomats, Nobel laureates, Pullitzer authors, etc. Reasons are probably many and probably have to do with the wealth and geo-political position of Canada in the first place... But the facts are that Ugandan/Singaporean/Malaysian Rhodes have not had the same impact. Or, if they have (or even had a bigger impact on their country which is more likely), this impact can often not be measured by the same standards. If I try to place myself in the shoes of the Trustees I 'sort of' know... John Bell (a Canadian), Lord Waldergrave, etc... I can just see this line of argument flying high (even if unspoken). If racism can be overt or systemic, malicious intent can certainly be more or less advertent...

Sigh. In Quebecois French, one would say that this debate amounts to "enculer des mouches" (sodomizing flies). It is such a privileged debate with so little implications... but then again, it is a privileged question of principle. And as any question of principle, it worth at least thinking about.

Good night my dear :)
francois: on the issue of why ugandan/singaporean/malaysian rhodes scholars 'have not had the same impact'. i can't really speak for them, but it's worth keeping in mind that there are very very few of them (so they can never be expected to have the same impact) and they are all a lot younger and at earlier stages of their career.

i can, however, speculate about why indian rhodes scholars do not make it big in politics. this has a lot to do with class structure, representativity, alienation, etc. the average indian rhodes scholar is urban, english-speaking, middle to upper-middle class. this kind of person does not have a mass political base because he (usually) comes from such a tiny elite. such a person might have made it big in politics in the nehruvian era, but politics in india has changed beyond recognition since then - it has democratised in very meaningful ways that people dont acknowledge enough. with the resurgence of identity politics and the power of numbers, the people who are more likely to make it now are the kanshi rams and the mayawatis (both very big backward caste leaders), neither of whom fit the typical rhodes scholar profile. unappealing as they may be to urban upper-class elites and opportunistic as their politics is, they are a sign that indian politics is becoming more democratic and that can only be a good thing. it would be a step back for democracy if indian rhodes scholars (of the social classes they currently derive from) started making it big in politics. we are not representative of our country, we don't deserve an electoral mantle, we can - obviously - do a great many other important and useful things. anyway, just thoughts on how the success/failure of rhodes scholars may have less to do with their calibre than with the opportunity structures they face in their home constituencies. in that sense, people like manmohan singh are an aberration (truer of an older era of politics, much less typical now) - and even he, owes his political office to someone else (someone who is no less elite, but whose political credibility derives from entirely different sources). god, it's amazing how complicated these discussions become..

i dont think the implications of this debate are at all minor. my last paragraph on the importance of access was intended to demonstrate this. this is yet another manifestation of how access is becoming more difficult, even as everyone keeps talking about democratisation. i think your point is that broadening access to the rhodes scholarships would mean just elite-democratisation. i agree, but i think even that might be important.
lol... i know, i can't get over it myself.

there goes my anonymity.
Thank you for such a thoughtful reply. Some of the concerns you outline go right to the heart of my recent concerns with representative democracy as found in India and my home state, Canada. I have always been suspicious of majoritarian discourses modulated through so-called representatives who in fact tow a party line and work for constant re-election -- aka mob rule. Human rights-laden constitutions and Supreme Courts might do their share to alleviate the plight of discrete and insular minorities (to paraphrase John Hart Ely), but really it is often too little too late (even in our countries which have the two most important public interest litigation cultures around... acknowledging that India is far ahead on that matter). Furthermore, as many US Supreme Court decisions made over the years (think Lochner era) demonstrate (as well as Canadian Supreme Court decisions of the recent Chaoulli-type strike down Quebec's prohibition on mass private health care), resort to the judiciary can fire in any direction.

This might explain why, intellectually and in my organizing, I have always been more attracted by extremes lying on both sides of this model: (1) total decentralisation on communal/anti-oppressive grounds (left libertarianism/anarcho-communism) and, (2) yes at times, the more platonic-Philosopher-Kings-enlighted-vanguard approach of various Marxist-Leninist-Maoist strands who, through democratic centralism (from soviet level up), seek to wisely coordinate the energy and creativity of the masses. Obviously, both these discourses have their flaws (sometimes major), but I think that your comment frames in eloquent terms what is wrong with mob representative democracy culture. Either one treats people as the socially-embedded dignified individuals that they are, or understand them as a collective which needs thoughtful guidance... but the middle road, although seemingly moderate, leaves me uneasy (sorry if this is not very well articulated...I am trying to capture an intuition of mine with great difficulty).

Anyways, I am saying all this simply to point out that I agree with you that structural/access constraints have a lot to do with lack of Rhodes political presence in various states. Together with 'numbers' as you point out, and a slew of other reasons which I will not try to unpack now, this points to the fact that any Rhodes Trust concern about the 'public success' of its scholars in various constituencies would likely be misplaced. But I wouldn't be surprised if that concern was present in many Trustees' mind and was not as well articulated as we are doing it here. Pure speculation, but after having evolved in these circles for a few years now, I do not put this past the Trust.

Last caveat: by mentioning vanguardist discourse, I am not making a plea for the global rule of Rhodes Scholars. That might be rather ominous... if it isn't already. In fact, I am deeply suspicious of any authority structure based on merit (or sheer power for that matter)... not that they are all necessarily bad, but authority definitely needs to be questioned once in a while (if not always), if only to assess its legitimacy... I am simply agreeing with you in many ways, and many more words... so I will stop ranting here ;)-
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