Newt in the Congo

Current primary frontrunner Newt Gingrich is often referred to as one of the leading "intellectuals" of the Republican Party. Gingrich has encouraged this view, even suggesting that the $1.6 million in consulting fees he received from Freddie Mac were for his services as a "historian." In recent years, Gingrich’s historical output has been mainly confined ...

ROCHESTER, MI - NOVEMBER 09: during a debate hosted by CNBC and the Michigan Republican Party at Oakland University on November 9, 2011 in Rochester, Michigan. The debate is the first meeting of the eight GOP presidential hopefuls since allegations of sexual impropriety have surfaced against front-runner Herman Cain. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Current primary frontrunner Newt Gingrich is often referred to as one of the leading "intellectuals" of the Republican Party. Gingrich has encouraged this view, even suggesting that the $1.6 million in consulting fees he received from Freddie Mac were for his services as a "historian."

In recent years, Gingrich’s historical output has been mainly confined to a series of co-authored war thrillers and alternate histories. But he does indeed hold a Ph.D. in history from Tulane University and taught the subject at West Georgia College during the 1970s.

Curious about whether Gingrich’s background as a historian does, in fact, shed any light on his current views, I decided to give a read to his 1971 doctoral thesis on the unlikely topic of Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945-1960.

Several bloggers — notably Morehouse College professor and African politics blogger Laura Seay — have discussed the thesis before, particularly in reference to Gingrich’s comments last year that President Obama’s policies are evidence of "Kenyan, anticolonial behavior."   

Indeed, even considering that he was at a southern university in the early 1970s, Gingrich’s attitudes toward colonialism seem remarkably benign, often drifting into "White Man’s Burden" territory:

It would be just as misleading to speak in generalities of ‘white exploitation’ as it once was to talk about ‘native backwardness.’ We need to know what kind of exploitation, for what reasons, and at what price. However this is a most difficult task since political pressures encourage Black xenophobia. It would be only too easy for the leaders of developing countries faced with massive domestic problems, to divert public attention toward the ‘white man’s guilt.’…

Within the beliefs of twentieth century American liberalism, European colonialism is an unacceptable political policy, but what did it mean to the natives? Did the colonial powers perform a painful but positive function in disrupting traditional society and so paving the way for modernization?

It should be noted that Gingrich here is not discussing the brutal period in the late 19th and early 20th century when the Congo was ruled as a "free state" under the direct ownership of King Leopold II, during which as many as 5 to 10 million Congolese may have been slaughtered and many more maimed and dismembered.  Gingrich does concede that the free state was "the most clearly abusive government in nineteenth century colonialism."

But he takes a fairly rosy view of the Belgian colonial administration from 1908 – when the government in Brussels formally took over administration of the colony — until independence in 1960:

"Belgian colonialism was in fact a model of technocratic government. It analysed and planned for Congolese economic development with a thoroughness that virtually none of the now independent African states can match. The Belgians were far more aware than either the British or the French of the need to develop the entire society from the most backward peasant to the most advanced university graduate. "

Gingrich takes the view that Belgian practices in the Congo — education policies in particular — are worth analyzing since the colonial government was able to implement its policies without any resistance from either a disenfranchised Congolese population or a disinterested Belgian government.

Gingrich isn’t quite an apologist for Belgian colonialism. He argues that while it was quite effective at developing primary schools, its failure to build an effective secondary education system left the country without a leadership class, and unable to meet the challenges of independence. He writes, "The Belgians as the sole masters of this region for a half a century must accept the blame for having failed so miserably to prepare this subjects to government themselves."

Part of the problem, Gingrich says, is that while the Belgians "did try to design education programs that eased the pain of modernization for the Congolese" and "developed the largest primary and vocational school systems in Black Africa" they were too often "indifferent to Congolese needs and made major decisions primarily based on Belgian economic interests." All the same, Gingrich sympathetically notes that "even where they fell short of their goals they tried hard."

Notably, no Congolese sources are quoted in the dissertation and only a handful of Congolese individuals are mentioned by name, so he doesn’t seem to consider whether the local population were appreciative all of the efforts the Belgians undertook in the name of civilizing them. (Needless to say, he doesn’t seem to have traveled to Congo in the course of writing the paper.) When their complaints do come up, they’re treated more as unproductive resentment than legitimate historical grievances. For instance, a comment made by King Badouin at Congo’s independence ceremony praising the benevolence of King Leopold — by any standards, one of history’s great mass murderers — is described by Gingrich as a "faux pas" that "upset" Congolese leaders.  

Most interesting in the context of modern Republican politics is Gingrich’s primary explanation for the failure of the Belgians to "’prepare" the Congolese for governance. It’s not that their civilizing mission was flawed to begin with – he seems generally sympathetic toward their aims – it’s that technocratic government itself is inherently flawed. There’s more than a bit of F.A. Hayek in his conclusion:

This dissertation began by suggesting that the Belgian Congo had been virtually a planner’s dream. However, the bureaucracy lacked adequate information to develop a timetable for modernization. … It is now clear that the dream of technocratic planning had all too many hidden limitations and so became a nightmare.

It’s as if colonialism is the ultimate example of the failure of Big Government.

Another passage the jumps out in one in which Gingrich goes way beyond the scope of his dissertation to sketch out a bleak vision of a future riven by inequality between the developed and developing worlds:

Some specialists argue that American society will be warped and disfigured by this growing disparity in living standards. They suggest that as communications become more pervasive poverty-ridden populations will demand that the developed countries share their wealth. In response the developed nations will become virtual fortresses. A siege mentality will come to dominate and the liberal, open-ended society of the past century will have been replaced by a grim, inward-looking military camp. Without accepting the more extreme predictions, one can still agree with Robert McNamara that American society is far more threatened by the development gap than by Chinese nuclear capability.

I’m guessing it probably won’t come up at tonight’s debate, but I would love to hear whether Gingrich still believes that inequality is more dangerous than nukes.

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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