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Angola, Gulf, and Harvard


The author is professor of Sociology and Allston Burr Senior Tutor in Leverett House

I have grave misgivings about the position of the University, on the Gulf Oil issue. After thinking the matter over for the past few weeks I am led to the inescapable conclusion that the official stand taken by the Corporation is motally indefensible and politically unwise.

There are two issues involved, one central, the other peripheral. The peripheral issue concerns the decision of the University to abstain in the voting on the church resolution requiring the company to disclose all relevant information concerning its relationship with Portugal and Angola. In pragmatic terms, the issue has already been settled. The means employed by the University have been questioned but it seems to me that, here, not only does the end justify the means, but the refusal of the President to take what could have been a symbolically impressive but non-productive stand against the Gulf Oil Co. is laudable. This is one of those happy occasions in which economic pragmatism coincides with moral virtue.

Unfortunately, such a coincidence does not exist in the case of the central issue, namely, the decision not to divest. Those defending the University's decision have argued that continuing ownership of shares in Gulf Oil will not only make good sense economically, but is morally right in that Harvard is thereby in a better position to ensure improved conditions of work and pay for Angolans employed by Gulf.

It is here that I find myself in the most profound disagreement with the official stand of the University. However honest his error, the President has made the dreadful mistake of confusing moral issues with those of social and economic welfare. The controversy over the University's involvement with Gulf, and indirectly, with Angolan repression, is a moral issue not an economic one. In essence, what is being asked for is a disengagement from, or expiation of, any complicity with the moral degradation of an African people--with their coercion, the deprivation of their basic human rights, and the denial of their dignity and worth as fellow human beings. To expiate itself Harvard must either divest, and as such withdraw from the problem, or it must remain with Gulf and take morally appropriate action. In a moment I will try to suggest what such moral action might be.

But before I do so, let me take up one apparently persuasive rejoinder which the President has repeatedly used in response to the argument that the issue is a strictly moral one demanding moral action. It is what Mr. Bok has referred to critically as the "desert island morality." Granted that this is essentially an ethical issue, runs the argument, is it not the case within almost every firm in which Harvard has invested that there is complicity with something evil? General Motors pollutes and discriminates; public utilities do much the same; other firms produce war materials, or exploit other colonial societies; and so on. Moral consistency then, demands that if Harvard divests from Gulf it ought to divest from every other firm, which is, of course, an absurd idea, since Harvard would thereby destroy itself.

I WON'T say that I find this line of reasoning disingenuous, but I must confess that I have the deepest admiration for the artless sincerity with which certain of my colleagues have defended it.

Clearly, in the complex industrial world we inhabit everything is, in one way or another, related to everything else. But all that this amounts to is the truism that there can be no absolutes in our moral judgment. Nothing is purely right or purely wrong; similarly, no one is entirely responsible or is entirely without blame for the many evils that beset us. Our values and our judgments are not only relative, but can only be practically employed in terms of degrees of intensity. In making practical ethical judgments two things are uppermost in our minds: the degree of voluntariness and the degree of relevance involved. No doubt a good proportion of my taxes go into supporting the bombing of North Vietnam, but I do not hold myself responsible to any meaningful degree on this count for the simple reason that I am coerced into paying my taxes and, further, I have little say in how these coerced taxes are spent. Once I have made my protest and voted against the government I cease to be guilty on the grounds of paying taxes. It is possible, of course, that I might be guilty on other counts--I said it was a complex world.

And because the world is so complex, because the possibility exists that I might be guilty, in theory, of all sorts of crimes of which I know nothing, a pragmatic view of moral judgment requires some criteria of relevance and immediacy ascertaining moral responsibility. Every individual has a moral universe, namely that known area of human action which, in one way or another, he is able to influence. To the extent that he shares this moral universe with others, to that extent he shares with these others a moral community. Furthermore, within this moral universe, there are certain things which, at given moments of time, are judged more important than others. Gulf's involvement in Angola is very much a part of Harvard's moral universe in view of its part ownership of the company, its capacity to influence the company's policy, and the absence of any coercion on its capacity to exercise or to attempt to exercise such influence. And Gulf's involvement in Angola is, at this time, highly relevant to a significant segment of the Harvard community, for no other reason than that we have chosen to make it important. The choice is arbitrary, if you like; but all human values are arbitrary, and this includes the value which determines the choice of more specific values that guide our judgment. General Motors, the Public Utilities and the War Industry remain important and may well become of more pressing significance at a later date; but for the moment, for all sorts of complex reasons having to do with our sense of fairness, suffering, dignity and humanity, which we can never decipher, we are led to a strong sense of moral urgency and outrage concerning the degradation of Angolans and our complicity with that degradation. If the University disagrees, a reasonable response--assuming that all of us here at Harvard are members of the same moral community--might be to suggest an alternative scale of priorities. But to respond by claiming that the world is so complex and our complicity so total that an ethical stand on one issue implies the reductio ad absurdum of a desert island morality will simply not do.

There are two further arguments to be made against the University's defence of its decision not to divest. The first is that even if the University's argument is morally acceptable, it is doubtful whether it would be advisable to try to improve the social and economic conditions of Gulf employees in Angola. My very strong reservations on this matter derive from my interpretation of the nature and functioning of colonial societies, based both on my academic researches and my experience as someone who grew up in a colonial society. In such societies, the most conservative elements among the native, colonized population tend to be those people who gain secure employment with expatriate firms. Invariably, such individuals acquire a vested interest in the system, become alienated from the mass of their suffering fellow natives, and served as a useful, system-maintaining buffer between the colonial elite and the exploited masses, not to mention their roles as spies and traitors of national liberation movements. The last thing the Angolan resistance movement needs now is a thriving coopted native elite. More than the guns of the Portuguese, such a group could set the movement back several decades. Almost any student of Portuguese colonialism will vouch for the fact that the Portuguese are past masters of the art of divide and rule. Indeed, unlike their French, British and Dutch counterparts, they have indicated a willingness to eschew notions of racial purity in order to create buffer segments of racially mixed native middle class groups who are then classified and treated as distinct segments of the native population.

It is a cruel irony that the Portuguese have frequently, in their pro-colonial propaganda, made the claim that they are less racially prejudiced than other European colonizers because of their demonstrably greater propensity to sexually exploit native women, and their willingness to accept the social and racial superiority of the product of their miscegenation over the pure-blooded natives. Astonishingly, white Americans have shown a marked susceptibility to this form of propaganda, but it is hardly a view of race relations which is likely to impress black Americans. And, as the dismal fate of black Brazilians clearly indicate, the social and economic consequences of this pattern of racial relations for the mass of black people is unmitigated disaster.

I therefore strongly advise the University against any action aimed at improving the conditions of a few native Gulf employees in Angola. For such action will not only fail to meet the charge of moral complicity, but will be socially and economically inconsequential and politically disadvantageous for the mass of the Angolan population. It is better to do and say nothing than to voice untenable moral defences and to promote politically reactionary policies.

My second is the simple, but very disturbing one that it has such embarassing bed-fellos. Only the innocence and ignorance of Americans regarding European colonial affairs could account for a situation in which the otherwise sophisticated leaders of the country's leading University employ, in all good faith, a line of defence that is as old as the British abolition controversy and as morally creaky as a restored slave ship in a naval museum. As early as the eighteenth century the more sophisticated defenders of West Indian slavery were arguing that although slavery was an evil and, as such, to be condemned (in much the same way that the President today condemns Portuguese colonialism) Englishmen should nonetheless maintain slavery and continue to invest in sugar or "brown gold" (as Harvard now invests in oil, or "black gold") because thereby the savages of Africa could be led into the paths of Christianity and be ensured a level of living which was not only infinitely superior to that left behind in Africa, but even greater than that enjoyed by contemporary Irishmen. Similarly, those of us who have lived in Britain where there is an active anti-apartheid movement have frequently heard the standard response of South African investors that South African Blacks are the best fed, best clothed and best educated native Africans south of the Sahara. All of which may be perfectly true, but perfectly irrelevant.

Defenders of Harvard's position on Gulf may well be totally innocent of the odious associations and reputation of their argument, but I must express the hope that henceforth they will not be so indelicate as to repeat it. Going to bed with strange fellows, even if one's virginity remains intact, is a custom to be deplored.

Earlier I indicated that if Harvard is to come out of this affair at all honourably it must either divest or remain with Gulf and take appropriate moral action. Like the President, I agree that the morally courageous thing to do is to stay with Gulf; but unlike him, I have an entirely different conception of the kind of action that will justify an involvement with Gulf. Let me close by suggesting what such morally justifiable action might be.

FIRST, Harvard will have to commit itself to a policy aimed at the complete withdrawal of Gulf from Angola. There is nothing extravagant or unrealistic about such a policy. There are many cases of American and European firms withdrwaing from areas which are considered not to have the right "political climate." In the great majority of such cases, of course, the wrong "political climate" happened to have been a pro-socialist or nationalist "climate", but I see no reason why an American firm cannot, once in a while, be on the side of the angels. Besides, there are cases on record of firms which have disengaged from areas out of a sense of moral outrage at the repressive nature of the regimes which they had to work with.

Second, either as an alternative or, preferably, as an additional policy, the University could use its not inconsiderable moral and political clout in the united States to support the lobby against repression in States to support the lobby against repression in Southern Africa. I could use its official publications to raise the issue with its vast and influential alumni, encouraging them to take a stand against the Portuguese and South African regimes.

Third, instead of wasting funds by sending someone to observe Gulf's activities in Angola it could, with all due discretion, offer some support to the Angolan liberation movement either directly, or through some legitimate intermediary such as a friendly black African state.

Fourth, instead of offering amnesty to the black students who occupied Mass. Hall, it could attempt to seek a fair trial or release to the vast numbers of political prisoners in Portugal and Angola by working through some such reputable agency as Amnesty International; and it could offer relief to the thousands of Angolan refugees now forced to live in alien lands as a result of the repressive policies of the Portuguese government.

My final recommendation comes closer home and refers to the black students who occupied Mass. Hall. I do not think that the University should offer these students amnesty since I am in full agreement with the view recently put to the C.H.U.L. by one of the Masters that such an offer robs the occupation of its dignity and courage, is unfair to other radical students who have been dismissed for less severe action and, in view of the refusal of the University to concede anything on the demand or divestment, would amount to cheap and demeaning trade off of special treatment for corporate intransigence.

Instead, I think the University should, on dismissing these students, make it clear that dismissal does not mean final and total expulsion and may be no more severe than a requirement to withdraw for a year. Further, I suggest that some arrangement be worked out whereby the dismissed students could work, during their year away, for the cause of Angolan liberation--as aides to sympathetic congressmen, as the nucleus of a new anti-Portuguese lobby, or as members of any of the aid programs for Angolan refugees or political prisoners suggested above.

Only in these ways can continued investment in Gulf be morally justified. If Harvard does not think that it can bring itself to take such morally appropriate action it should divest. And it should do so immediately. If it does not think it can bring itself to divest it should remain quiet and, with us all, bear its shame in silence

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