De Man’s deceptions

They were called the deconstructionists, and a few decades ago they were the stars of academic literary studies in the United States. Based largely at Yale University, the critical school was founded by Jacques Derrida, whose fame and influence were almost matched by the group’s second most important member, Paul de Man.

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Paul de Man

During his lifetime, this is what was generally known about De Man’s background: born in Belgium in 1919, he moved to America in 1948, taught at Bard, studied at Harvard, then joined the faculty at Cornell. At a 1966 conference he heard a speech by Derrida, whom he befriended and whose critical approach he began to adopt in his own work. His star rose steadily during the last years of his career, which he spent as chair of Yale’s department of comparative literature.

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Ortwin de Graef

He died in 1983, fêted and respected around the world. And then the roof caved in. In 1987, a Belgian grad student and de Man devotee, Ortwin de Graef, was poking through some old archives when he ran across two hundred or so articles that de Man had written for a couple of Nazi-run newspapers, Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche Land, during the war. Now, it had never been entirely clear what de Man had done during the war. He had led people to believe that he’d belonged to the Resistance, but the details had always been sketchy. De Graef’s discoveries showed that de Man, far from standing up to the Nazis, had worked for them, written for them, and supported them. Although his topics were mostly literary, he managed to bring to them a political – which is to say a consistently pro-Nazi – approach. As lliterary critic and Harvard professor Louis Menand has put it, de Man “championed a Germanic aesthetic, denigrated French culture as effete, associated Jews with cultural degeneracy, praised pro-Nazi writers and intellectuals, and assured Le Soir’s readers that the New Order had come to Europe. The war was over. It was time to join the winners.”

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Louis Menand

The New York Times reported on de Graef’s findings in December 1987. The mainstream press, for the most part, crucified de Man. But many of his friends, colleagues, and fellow practitioners of literary theory tried to find a way to declare de Man innocent. To do so, they employed the slippery “logic” (which is anything but le mot juste here) of deconstruction itself, which revels in complexity, obscurity, and incertitude, and is eager to find ambiguity everywhere – even (or perhaps especially) in flat-out, perfectly clear statements that contain no real ambiguity whatsoever. In some cases, indeed, deconstruction essentially goes so far as to turn day into night, up into down, and wrong into right. We’ll look at a couple of those cockeyed defenses tomorrow.

Fortune cookies: U.S. colleges in China

ci2We’ve been looking at NYU, Yale, and other major U.S. universities that have sold their souls for Arab petrodollars. Another top source of dirty money for these schools’ ambitious, ethically challenged administrators is the People’s Republic of China, which sponsors so-called “Confucius Institutes” – centers for the study of Chinese language and culture – at around campuses in the U.S. The American host universities for these centers, as Shaun Tan has noted, “must sign a ‘memorandum of understanding’ endorsing the ‘one-China policy’ that precludes recognition of Taiwan as a state.” As Jim Sleeper wrote earlier this year, the Confucius Institutes

ci1sometimes muscle out American host universities’ own independent scholars on China, not only by offering them free Chinese language instruction but also by pressuring them to disinvite uncongenial speakers and cancel public discussions of “forbidden” topics, including Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen. CI directors monitor the work and pronouncements not only of their own teaching staff but also of their nominal American colleagues, who, if they criticize China, may suddenly find it difficult to obtain visas to continue research there. The effect is to “intimidate and punish” scholars, Chinese and Western, who challenge Beijing’s agendas.

Tan recalls that when Chinese Premier Hu Jintao spoke at Yale, audience members weren’t allowed to ask questions and protesters were kept away from the site of his speech, lest he be inclined to “rethink his recent decision to allow Yale to be the first foreign university to trade on China’s heavily regulated stock market.”

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NYU-Shanghai

We’ve already seen how John Sexton, the simpering fool who runs NYU, has kowtowed to UAE sheiks in order to establish NYU-Abu Dhabi. But that’s only one chapter in the shameful history of Sexton’s selling out. In 2013, he also presided over the founding of an NYU branch campus in Shanghai. Sexton was plainly not troubled by China’s severe limitations on academic freedom. Indeed, he seems quite happy to help enforce them not only in China but in New York: in June 2013, Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng said Sexton’s administration had yanked his NYU fellowship and his Manhattan apartment in order to placate his former torturers in Beijing.

Earlier this year, notes Sleeper, China’s Education Minister forbade the country’s universities from using “textbooks promoting Western values…in our classes” or permitting classroom “remarks that slander the leadership of the Communist Party of China” or “smear socialism.” How can any university worthy of the name operate under such restrictions?

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Xia Yeliang

Then there’s the Xia Yeliang incident. In October 2013, Xia, an economics professor at Peking University (PKU), was fired, apparently in retaliation for his “outspoken” opinions. Members of the faculty at Wellesley College, which had just signed a deal with PKU, wrote a letter of protest to that university’s president, calling the dismissal “such a fundamental violation of academic freedom” that they “would find it very difficult to engage in scholarly exchanges with Peking University.” Impressive. But Wellesley, alas, was the exception that proved the rule. As Peter Ford reported in the Christian Science Monitor, almost fifty American institutions of higher education had deals with PKU at the time of Xia’s firing, but only two (the other was the University of Virginia) spoke up about it.

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Susan Reverby

What does it mean for us to rent our reputation abroad?” asked Wellesley history prof Susan Reverby. “At what point does one side go over a line that the partner organization does not think should be crossed?” Sleeper, noting that Stanford University “has a $7 million center at Peking University,” quoted Stanford dean Richard Saller‘s less-than-stirring statement on Xia’s dismissal: “We went into our relationship with Peking University with the knowledge that American standards of academic freedom are the product of 100 years of evolution. We think engagement is a better strategy than taking such moral high ground that we can’t engage with some of these universities.” (Translation: ka-ching!)

And Xia himself? He told Ford that fifteen years earlier the administrators of PKU “thought they should listen to the West….But today so many famous universities want to cooperate with PKU…[that] they think they can set the rules.” On that point, the folks at PKU would seem to be entirely correct.

No gays, no Jews, no worries: NYU in Abu Dhabi

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John Sexton

In a revealing 2008 New York magazine piece about NYU’s sellout to Abu Dhabi, Zvika Krieger quoted dopey NYU president John Sexton‘s blithe admission that students and faculty at NYU-Abu Dhabi would be subject to “the normal laws of that society” – for example, the UAE’s criminization of homosexuality and its ban on Israelis. As one NYU math professor, Sylvain Cappell, noted, “Israelis are gigantic figures in academic life, and if we held conferences in certain disciplines, it would be an embarrassment not to be able to have Israeli participation.” Krieger wondered “how the Jewish members of NYU’s board of trustees engaged the mental gymnastics necessary to process the U.A.E.’s disconcerting tolerance of anti-Semitism.”

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NYU-Abu Dhabi

Sexton, however, refused to see any problems here: “I would say to any student here that wants to go to the Abu Dhabi campus, ‘Go.’ Gay students, Israeli students, I refuse to think in those categories.” Never mind that the police and courts and prison authorities in the UAE do think in those categories. Mubarak Al Shamesi, Abu Dhabi’s education honcho, told Krieger that “NYU was aware of our local culture and rules and guidelines, and our policies on Israelis or homosexuality were clearly not a concern for them.”

This, as Krieger underscored, from a university that had been named the most gay-friendly in the United States.

Recently, Jim Sleeper, who teaches poli sci at Yale, wrote an article in which he expanded on Shaun Tan’s and Zvika Krieger’s criticism of Sexton. Noting that the campus of NYU-Abu Dhabi “is the product of a kleptocracy,” Sleeper pointed out that the compromises entered into by Sexton & co. “involve not just academic life but the virtual indentured servitude of thousands of laborers from Southeast Asia who have been imported to construct the campus.”

Nasser bin Ghaith, one of the five political activists pardoned by the United Arab Emirates, speaks to Reuters at his home in Dubai November 30, 2011. REUTERS/Nikhil Monteiro
Nasser bin Ghaith

Although NYU-Abu Dhabi is still a relatively new institution, it’s already been the locus of several major compromises. In 2011, Nasser bin Ghaith, who taught at the Sorbonne’s Abu Dhabi branch, was arrested and tried “for supporting democratic elections.” Human Rights Watch urged NYU and other UAE-based Western colleges to come to Bin Ghaith’s defense; but, as Jackson Diehl reported in the Washington Post,

NYU joined with the Sorbonne in throwing Bin Ghaith overboard. A Sorbonne statement said the university had “no authorized means to express an opinion” because the charges against the professor were “external to his academic activities.” NYU also declined to make a statement; a spokesman said it fell outside NYU’s “core mission.”

In 2012, Ursula Lindsey, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, paid a visit to the NYU-Abu Dhabi campus. Among her observations: faculty members “use caution in broaching topics such as AIDS and prostitution; the status of migrant laborers; Israel and the Holocaust; and domestic politics and corruption. Any critical discussion of the Emirates’ ruling families is an obvious no-go zone.” In 2014, Matt J. Duffy, who had taught in the UAE, called NYU-Abu Dhabi’s “pledge of ‘academic freedom’ …essentially worthless because powerful figures [in the Emirates] can make arbitrary employment decisions with absolutely no recourse.”

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Andrew Ross

Sleeper has cited the case of NYU American Studies professor Andrew Ross, who publicly “called attention to the labor abuses” in the UAE and who consequently was banned from Abu Dhabi in March of this year. That’s not all: “In the United States, Ross was followed by a private investigator; and a reporter who had worked with the New York Times on a story about the Abu Dhabi campus said that a representative of the United Arab Emirates had offered him payments to write more positively about the government.” Worst of all, “President Sexton’s handling of reports about those abuses and of NYU’s complicity in them are troubling.” Quelle surprise!

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Sorbonne-Abu Dhabi

No, NYU isn’t the only university to engage in this kind of whoring. But at least some other whores are honest about what they’re doing. “Sexton,” wrote Krieger,

is unwilling to concede that he is in thrall to petrodollars. But the Sorbonne, which opened a campus in Abu Dhabi in 2006, is quite open about having sold itself to the highest bidder. “It is a pity, but I must say that we are only in Abu Dhabi because Abu Dhabi proposed to pay for all of our expenses,” says Daniel Balland, director-general of the Sorbonne in Abu Dhabi. “If we got the same offer from Doha or Cairo, we probably would have said yes, too.”

John Sexton’s Abu Dhabi “courtship”

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John Sexton

We’ve been looking at the sordid story of NYU president John Sexton‘s acceptance of Abu Dhabi dough in exchange for his university’s ethical reputation. In both Shaun Tan’s and Zvika Krieger’s retellings, Sexton comes off as an utter fool – and, needless to say, a useful stooge of the first water. Here’s Krieger on Sexton’s first rendezvous with his desert prince, otherwise known as Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan:

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Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan

The way Sexton describes his Abu Dhabi courtship is oddly rapturous. Meeting with the crown prince in his opulent majlis social hall was, Sexton says, “electric.” He believes he connected to the prince metaphysically: “The crown prince told me that he felt it in my handshake, in my eyes, in my aura at that first meeting.” And perhaps most significant to Sexton, when they prepared to part ways, the prince said, “What, no hug?” (Sexton is famous for hugging most everyone in sight.) “I knew right then and there,” Sexton remembers fondly, “that we had found our partner.”

Imagine: this idiot is the head of a leading American university. Tan picks up the story:

Having decided on his plan, Sexton pushed it through with autocratic fervor. “It was negotiated secretly and announced to the rest of us with only a veneer of serious faculty consultation, but we knew it was a fait accompli,” said a senior NYU professor who declined to be named because of “a sense that people who get on Sexton’s wrong side get punished.” Indeed, reservations about the project seemed to batter uselessly against Sexton’s bewildering naïveté. “The Crown Prince chose us,” Sexton said, “and he wants us to be the best.”

At the same time, Sexton warned students and faculty at the new campus that they couldn’t criticize Abu Dhabi’s leaders and policies without repercussions. However, he denied that such restrictions would betray the spirit of a liberal arts college. “I have no trouble distinguishing between rights of academic freedom and rights of political expression,” he said.

Before you continue reading, chew over that one for a few seconds.

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Mary Nolan

Krieger attended an NYU faculty meeting at which news of the Abu Dhabi deal caused “outrage.” “To many faculty,” he wrote, “the Abu Dhabi project embodies the worst of John Sexton’s indulgences and the short-sightedness of his glory-seeking ambitions.” Mary Nolan, a longtime NYU history professor, described NYU-Abu Dhabi as “a quintessentially Sexton operation. He thinks he has some sort of a missionary calling, but he operates in a very autocratic manner. Deans are kept on a very short leash, and faculty governance has been absolutely gutted.” 

nyu (2)Some NYU professors wondered if Sexton’s own course on “Supreme Court and Religion,” or other courses on “Theories of Gender and Sexuality” and “The Constitution in the Age of Terror,” would “be welcome in a country that lacks an independent media and judiciary or a separation of church and state.” (Krieger noted that two years earlier, “a foreign lecturer at a university [in the Emirates] was dismissed for showing and discussing controversial Danish cartoons that ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad.”)

As we’ll see, those professors’ concerns were more than justified.

NYU: The Big Apple of academic sleaze

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John Sexton

In his devastating 2012 article “Dangerous Liaisons,” about the moral and intellectual compromises that major American universities have made in order to squeeze money out of rich foreign autocrats, Shaun Tan devoted a few paragraphs to NYU president John Sexton. If virtually all of America’s major universities have been known to sell out their principles as long as there’s enough cash on the table, NYU is arguably the most notorious offender in this regard. Often it seems to be a money-making enterprise first, a real-estate operation second, and a university (at best) third. And when it comes to licking the boots of creeps with deep pockets, the suits at NYU are especially quick to drop to their knees.

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NYU’s Bobst Library

But even for those familiar with NYU’s history of sleaze, the story of Sexton’s sellout to Arab fat cats is a head-turner. First, get a load of this, from a 2008 New York magazine article by Zvika Krieger entitled “The Emir of NYU”:

John Sexton’s office, which sits on the top floor of NYU’s Bobst Library and boasts an impressive view north to Washington Square Park, has recently begun to resemble a shrine to Abu Dhabi. The university president has installed a massive Oriental rug, a gift from the crown prince, on one entire wall. On another hangs a framed portrait of the sunglasses-clad founder of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. In the center of the room is a large framed photograph of an Emirati woman, hand covered in a henna tattoo, gazing provocatively from behind a sequined veil.

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Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan

The reason for this nauseating display? Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, had plunked down $50 million to establish NYU-Abu Dhabi, which, on its opening in 2010, became “the first liberal arts college outside America.” Bankrolled completely by the Abu Dhabi government, NYU-Abu Dhabi was, in Tan’s words, “Sexton’s brainchild, conceived through his mad obsession with dethroning what he calls ‘the holy trinity’ – Harvard, Yale, and Princeton – from their perch at the pinnacle of American education.”

Back to Krieger’s 2008 piece: Sexton “has taken the thirteen-hour flight to the desert emirate four times over the past two years to personally broker the deal with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. He refers to his trips there as a ‘spiritual experience’ and sees the project as honoring his late wife.” Sexton even planned to teach a course of his own in Abu Dhabi, flying back and forth every other weekend:

“I can’t wait to teach my class over there,” he exclaims, his face flushed with excitement as he throws his feet up in the air and falls back in his chair.

Don’t worry. There’s more.

Yale’s road to Singapore

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Yale New Haven

A couple of days ago we began exploring the rampant stoogery at American and British universities that have eagerly compromised their professed values in exchange for piles of cash from various unsavory governments around the world. Yesterday we noted that administrators at Yale University censored a book about the Danish cartoons, apparently to placate their paymasters in the Muslim world.

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Yale Singapore

Jim Sleeper, in an article published earlier this year, wrote about Yale’s branch campus in Singapore, known as Yale-NUS. Noting that Human Rights Watch calls Singapore “a textbook example of a repressive state,” Sleeper pointed out that Yale’s administration and corporation had told the Yale faculty about the joint venture with Singapore “only when that undertaking had already been signed and sealed.” At the time of Sleeper’s piece, “the full terms of the contract [had] never been shared with the faculty.”

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Richard Levin

Shaun Tan, in a 2012 article, wrote that the establishment of Yale-NUS appeared to have resulted in “increasing authoritarianism on the part of the Yale administration,” with professors saying they were didn’t dare express their concerns about Yale-NUS to Yale’s then president, Richard Levin, for fear of retaliation. Levin’s administration, reported Tan, had “displayed an eerie moral relativism on Singapore.”

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Charles Bailyn

Tan also quoted a staggeringly nonchalant remark made by Charles Bailyn, who had been named dean of Yale-NUS, about Singapore’s restrictions on speech and assembly: “They take demonstrations in a kind of different way. What we think of as freedom, they think of as an affront to public order, and I think the two societies differ in that respect.” As Sleeper put it, Bailyn appeared to be “trying to relativize if not justify Singapore’s prohibitions of public assembly.” The American Association of University Professors sent Yale an open letter asking sixteen questions about Yale-NUS, but Yale didn’t deign to reply.

Levin, for his part, refused to answer queries about “the Singapore government’s close surveillance of political blogs.” When some members of the Yale faculty passed a resolution deploring Singapore’s “lack of respect for civil and political rights,” Levin objected, calling the resolution “unseemly” and accusing the signatories of “moral superiority.” Just a few months later, as Jackson Diehl reported in the Washington Post, Yale-NUS’s governing board “adopted a policy of preventing students from creating campus branches of Singaporean political parties, engaging in partisan political campaigning, or ‘promoting religious strife.’ It also said students will be bound by Singapore’s laws, which restrict speech and ban sodomy.”

Diehl quoted from a Yale Daily News article by Seyla Benhabib and Christopher Miller, who summed up the problem succinctly: “an institution bearing Yale’s name – headed by professors and staff taken from Yale-New Haven – is in the business of restricting the rights of students.”

Selling out the universities

Yesterday we started looking at the phenomenon of American universities taking money from tyrannical foreign governments. What’s striking about these stories is that so many of the universities involved don’t need the dough – they’re among the richest educational institutions on the planet. But they can’t resist the temptation to solicit cash even from the vilest of regimes.

John L. Esposito
John L. Esposito

Take Harvard. It’s the richest college around. As of 2013, its endowment was $32.7 billion. This didn’t keep it, however, from taking money from the House of Saud to endow a Department of Islamic Studies. Georgetown and Berkeley both did the same.

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Esposito’s paymaster, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal

These deals, needless to say, always come with strings attached. At Georgetown, the Saudis paid to establish the Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim–Christian Understanding. One of the conditions of this deal was that the Center be run by John L. Esposito, a longtime apologist for Islam who, in one critic’s words, is notorious for constantly making the argument “that Islamic radicals’ depredations stem from societal ills, not Islamic doctrine.” The agreements these universities have made with the Saudis ensure that their Islamic Studies departments aren’t offering their students an objective education in Islam but, rather, a double dose of pro-Islamic propaganda.

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The Sheikh Zayed Theatre at the London School of Economics

As Shaun Tan noted in a 2012 article, “Dangerous Liaisons,” it’s not just American universities that have morally compromised themselves by taking money from autocratic Islamic governments to fund Islamic Studies programs. As of 2012, Oxford’s Centre for Islamic Studies had taken $119 million from “a dozen Middle Eastern rulers,” the London School of Economics’ Centre for Middle Eastern Studies had received “$14 million from the UAE.” The UAE also paid $4 million to endow LSE’s Sheikh Zayed Theatre, “named after the UAE dictator whose foundation funds lectures and publications blaming Zionists for the Holocaust and the U.S. military for masterminding 9/11.” Cambridge and the University of Edinburgh both also accepted millions from the House of Saud, which in turn was allowed “to appoint members to the management committees of their Islamic Studies centers.”

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The cover of the book that Yale censored to placate its Muslim paymasters

In 2009, Yale provided an excellent example of the kind of compromises universities invite when they cash checks from unsavory governments. In that year, Yale University Press a book about the Danish cartoon controversy entitled The Cartoons that Shook the World. But not a single one of the cartoons was reproduced in the book.

Why? Because, as Michael Rubin explained in Commentary, “a top administrator intervened with the nominally autonomous Yale University Press to censor” the book. This intervention, Rubin noted, “coincided with Yale President Richard Levin’s outreach to Persian Gulf funders.”

What became of Levin’s “outreach”? Stay tuned.

Sullying the ivory tower

Campus Beauty shotsA few decades ago, American university campuses were arguably the freest places in the country – oases of liberty where even the most challenging and unorthodox ideas could get a fair hearing and be earnestly and vigorously debated. In recent years, however, that freedom has been eroded by “speech codes” supposedly intended to protect members of certain groups from offense. Speakers whose views are considered politically incorrect have been disinvited. During the last year or so, many students have complained about what they call “microaggressions” – gestures or statements that unintentionally give offense on an admittedly minor level but that nonetheless, they argue, need to be silenced.

All this policing of speech on American campuses has helped make them considerably less free than they used to be, and has been widely criticized. But another threat to the freedom of American universities – and their British counterparts, too – has drawn somewhat less attention. We’re talking about the morally questionable ties that college administrators, eager to rake in foreign money, have forged with undemocratic governments around the globe.

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Shaun Tan

Three years ago, Shaun Tan, who at the time was an International Relations student at Yale, published a highly illuminating article, aptly entitled “Dangerous Liaisons,” about this phenomenon. The article should have appeared in a high-profile place like the New York Times Magazine, and should have sparked national debate; unfortunately, it was posted at The Politic, a website written by and for students at Yale.

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Sir Howard Davies

Tan served up a raft of eye-popping anecdotes. In 2011, for example, Sir Howard Davies, director of the London School of Economics, “resigned in disgrace” when the media uncovered lucrative deals he’d made on behalf of the LSE with the Qaddafi regime in Libya. Tan noted that LSE, sniffing out the possibility of a big payday, had accepted Qaddafi’s son Saif as a Ph.D. student “despite his poor English skills and weak academic record,” and had accorded him “special privileges, including special assistance from professors and permission to use a personal assistant to help him with his thesis.”

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Anti-Qaddafi protest at LSE

In return, LSE cashed in, receiving “a $2.5 million donation from the Gaddafi Foundation in 2008, as well as a $3.5 million contract for a special exchange program to train Libyan bureaucrats.” LSE even hosted “a live video-link conference” with Colonel Qaddafi himself, who

took the opportunity to denounce the Lockerbie bombing as a “fabrication” of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, whilst the LSE moderator addressed him as “Brother Leader” and “the world’s longest-serving national leader.” At the end of his speech, Gaddafi was presented with a LSE baseball cap as a gift.

But we’re just warming up. More tomorrow.