Newt’s Predictably Gonzo Dissertation: Belgian Colonialism For the Win!


Eric Foner once said that the worst possible form of government would be government by academics.  Anyone acquainted with higher education and academe knows in their bones that this is among the truest statements ever uttered by man.

The typical faculty meeting is enough to prove the point, but look at the facts: America has only had one president with a PhD, the political scientist, former Princeton president, and priggish racist Woodrow Wilson.  That went well.  (As the estimable W.E.B. Du Bois put it in 1918, watching Wilson preen before the fawning masses of war-torn Europe, “He smiled and bowed right and left and seemed to have no apprehension of the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility of the task that lay before him.” Sounds like a newly minted assistant professor.)

We might yet get another chance to see the philosopher-king in action in this great country.  Because ToM favorite Newt Gingrich is somehow, improbably back in the spotlight.  Dr. Gingrich came to international renown (or disgrace, depending on your taste) in 1994 when he led the Republican Party out of decades in the Congressional wilderness by seizing the House of Representatives and pursuing a right-wing agenda he dubbed the Contract with America.  Despite resigning under a cloud of ethical suspicion in 1999, Newt went on to peddle various schemes and publishing ventures, before becoming a serious contender for the GOP nomination in 2012, for some reason.

Hold on for a second, though.  You heard that right: Dr. Gingrich.  While Newt has always fancied himself a wonk and intellectual (moon colonies!), he has not gone out of his way to emphasize his background in academia—that is, after all, the despised wine-and-cheese set that indoctrinates our youth with Kenyan anti-colonial radicalism.

But Newton Leroy Gingrich did in fact earn a PhD in History from Tulane University in 1971. The good doctor went on to West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia), where the ambitious Newt apparently attempted to stage a coup to become department chair as an assistant professor.  For the record, I talked this possibility over with the chair of my department and we both agreed it would be an unwise career path for me.  Dr. Gingrich did not get tenure.

What did he write his dissertation about, pray tell?  What, one wonders, would a man who dedicated his life to building the Republican Party in the once solidly Democratic South; a man who said that poor black kids should be made to labor at cleaning their schools so they could, for once, see the value of a hard day’s work; who said that President Obama’s actions are “so outside our comprehension” because of his “Kenyan, anti-colonial” philosophy; what would that man write his dissertation about?

There are some clues here: why would being anti-colonial be a bad thing? Outside of our comprehension?  And why are black people so lazy and deficient? Why is shit so cray?

Well, part of Gingrich’s dissertation is available through ProQuest, and Tropics of Meta decided to take a look.  Dr. Gingrich wrote about “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo, 1945-1960.”  (Yes, Newt Gingrich, African historian.)

Newt begins inconspicuously enough.  “The Congo is a large country, about the size of the United States east of the Mississippi.”  He counsels that “if the Congolese are to confront the future with realism they will need a solid understanding of their own past and an awareness of the good as well as the bad aspects of colonialism.”  Fair enough—a typical historian’s plea to consider historical context when making decisions about the future.

Not bad for government work
Not bad for government work

But wait.  The good as well as the bad aspects of colonialism? I think you can see where this is going.  “It would be just as misleading to speak in generalities of ‘white exploitation’ as it once was to talk about ‘native backwardness,’” Dr. Gingrich counsels.  White guilt has made it impossible “to draw up a balance sheet on the colonial powers,” because “within the beliefs of twentieth century American liberalism, European colonialism is an unacceptable political policy…” As a matter of fact, “black xenophobia” is just as much an impediment to understanding the past as “white guilt.”

In short, what are all these white folks feeling so bad about, and why are these black folks so angry? (Indeed, “xenophobia” is a most curious word to use to describe African views of Europeans, just a few years out from decolonization.)

Newt has questions: “Did the colonial powers perform a painful but positive function in disrupting traditional society and so paving the way for more rapid modernization?”  After all, “the Belgians left behind the most elaborate industrial, transportation, and communication infrastructure in Black Africa.”  To be sure, they bequeathed upon their African wards “a solid infrastructure… but a pathetically inadequate leadership cadre.”  (If you’re keeping track with the balance sheet at home, this means good Europeans and bad Africans.)

In fact, Newt’s emerging view of the world is unmistakable in his thesis. The Belgians encountered “a more fragmented, rural, and underdeveloped society” than their British and French competitors did elsewhere in the colonized world, which was a good thing. It meant they “faced less native resistance to ‘social engineering’ and were able to design a more theoretical societal structure.”  Here again we see Newt the wonk, who, despite his free-market, anti-government Republican philosophy, has a promising Star Fleet cadet’s zeal for creating a new society from a Platonic blueprint.  Yet, theory aside, the Belgian empire was “a solidly built, carefully packaged, system of government that was regarded as a model of colonial administration until it disintegrated in 1960.”

A declension story.  Enlightenment unto the benighted, but alas—they had to go and mess it up.  Indeed, it is rather like the People’s Front of Judea, who famously asked, “What did the Romans ever do for us?”  Roads, bridges, education, aqueducts…

Never mind that the Belgian occupation of the Congo was among the cruelest in an impressively cruel history of European colonization in general–as slavery and other unspeakable atrocities resulted in the mutilation and death of millions, all in the pursuit of rubber and ivory.

What does this tell us about the former Speaker of the House, and possible vice president of the United States?  When he denounced President Obama’s allegedly “Kenyan, anti-colonial” views, it was not just a random quirk or stray comment.  This is a guy who wrote a dissertation about how colonialism was good—and the blacks should be grateful.  It is a piquant coincidence that he also happened to be an irrepressible young white intellectual who believed he could bring a moribund Republican Party to power in the South amid the social transformations of the 1970s and 1980s, shortly after the formal demise of Jim Crow.  And that’s exactly what he did.

For conservatives who cannot wrap their minds around why most African Americans refuse to cast their ballot for the GOP, Gingrich is an instructive case.  He recently–and to the surprise of many–expressed sympathy for the way black citizens feel mistreated by the police, which is a rare thing for a Republican.  Undoubtedly he believes that his own ideas and policies would be better for the black community than the social-democracy-lite of the Democrats, but his enthusiasm for a certain kind of “social engineering” is literally grounded in a belief in the rightness and virtue of the white man’s burden.  It is not a far cry from Trump’s assertion that “the Hispanics love me.”  Perhaps King Leopold II said the same thing about the Congolese?