Towards the Imperial University

David Graeber, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Yale in a recent interview with Joshua Frank for CounterPunch, made the interesting observation, “We’re moving from the neoliberal university to the imperial university. Or at least people are trying to move us there.”

Tokyo University, one of the world’s best academic institutions where I have spent some pleasant time, used to be called Tokyo Imperial University. That’s where Minobe Tatsukichi, a professor of law, wrote in some dry abstract work in 1911 that the Japanese emperor was an “organ” of the state. Like a brain or heart or liver, part of a living complex body. This wasn’t terribly controversial when Minobe first propounded it, but in 1934 as Japan was descending into fascism (what Japanese historians have called the kurai tani or the “dark valley” of the thirties) Baron Kikuchi Takeo assailed his theory in a speech to the House of Peers. This was when educators in Japan were forbidden under Peace Preservation ordinances to question the national polity, period. Minobe’s work, the baron (and general) thundered, implies that the Japanese emperor is no different from the Chinese emperor, or any western sovereign! Not the progeny of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu no Oomikami! Heresy!

Minobe’s work, according to Kikuchi, “emphasizes the influence of actual circumstances and vigorously expounds logic and the law of reason.” This, at a time when Japan’s imperial mission required the purging of logic and reason! As all-out war with China loomed, Minobe was forced from his post, rather like Professor Graeber, whose anti-imperialist politics apparently doomed his tenure bid.

I’ve taught at Yale. Five years ago. Just a one-semester gig when somebody left unexpectedly and they needed someone to do a course on Japanese history. It was a nice offer over the phone so I said okay. Why not? These things look good on your resume. I commuted down to New Haven by Amtrack on the one day I didn’t teach at Tufts. The kids were great, although I must say not much better than my Tufts students. One person never submitted the term paper. I got a call concerning this person’s looming expulsion and being a kind human being, tried not to say anything that would abet that process.

If I do say so myself, my Yale course, taught rather desultorily since it was just, after all, a one-time thing, went over very well. The student evaluations, less rigorous and categorical than Tufts’ ones, were embarrassingly good. Some students told me I was more available to them than their regular tenured, locally residing profs. I liked the students, and I liked Yale a lot, especially the library and its old-fashioned card catalogue. But when the post I filled in as a one-shot deal was advertised as a tenure-track position, I didn’t apply. I think I was too preoccupied with anti-imperialist political work at the time.

George W. Bush, child of privilege, graduated from his dad’s alma mater Yale in 1968. While the flower of American youth was in the streets protesting an immoral imperialist war, Bush, his mind fried on coke & booze, squeaked by with a 2.35 GPA. His major was my own field, history. None of my dozen Yale students, with the exception of the expelled one, got less than a B. How does someone, particularly with such a name and background, graduate with such a piss-poor transcript from Yale? Don’t get me wrong; I’m not on his case for being a bad student. I like bad students, who always add something to the classroom, and provide a voice that must be heard. But stupidity in students whose dads pay good money to get them some credentials in this corrupt world, and stupidity in faculty committees and university administrations that deny anti-imperialist scholars the right to, like Minobe, “expound logic and the law of reason” are two different things. The latter being much more disturbing.

When I started writing CounterPunch pieces (January 2002), I was an associate professor. That means that having gone through a six-year apprenticeship (as an assistant professor like Graeber) I had been awarded tenure (sometimes mistaken for “lifetime employment”). I received occasional hate mail from ferocious anti-intellectuals including Baron Kikuchi-type fascists who didn’t seem to understand the academic promotion system. “If you’re so smart how come you’re not tenured?” “Better watch out, you’re real vulnerable.” To which of course I responded if at all with Cheney’s memorable expression.

Some seemed to think that as a university professor (even at a private university) I must be on the public dole, and if not publicly supportive of the president somehow violating the public trust. (Shouldn’t all educators always support wars, once they’ve started, and always teach young minds to love the state?) Spiting the evil ones, I actually achieved full promotion (“professor” as opposed to “associate professor” status), at an unusually young age at that. But of course such statuses have no meaning when the rules change—as everything does with the onset of fascism. While able to do so, I salute David Graeber, anthropologist, avowed anarchist, foe of the imperial university.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

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Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: