Point Austin: Charlie Wilson's Chair

When the legend becomes fact, endow the legend

Point Austin
A few weeks ago, UT's College of Liberal Arts cheerfully announced it would be creating a newly endowed chair, to be called the Charlie Wilson Chair in Pakistan Studies – in honor of the East Texas congressman popularly credited with arming the late-Eighties resistance by Afghan insurgents against the invading Soviet army. Funded in part by a $500,000 challenge grant from the T.L.L. Temple Foundation (East Texas lumber money, which UT must match), the chair would underwrite a distinguished professorship, said to be the first devoted to Pakistan in the U.S., and related research "on the history, politics, culture, and literature of Pakistan and the Urdu language." The chair would honor Wilson, whom UT officials describe glowingly: "A strong Texan who supported Pakistan's efforts to garner extensive aid for the Afghan fight against Russian Communism, Congress­man Wilson serves as an example of true leadership and unfailing vision, the type of deeply human hero who is inspiring and challenging."

The rest of us rather more shallow humans are likely to suspect that Good Time Charlie is back in the news largely because of the 2007 film version of Charlie Wilson's War, based on a 2003 book by late CBS newsman George Crile, who turned Wilson into a folk hero and the Afghan mujahideen into turbaned freedom fighters just this side of the Minutemen. In the film, Tom Hanks as Wilson, Julia Roberts as Houston socialite Joanne Herring, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as CIA agent Gust Avrakotos tear up the scenery in support of the noble Afghans – with the help of Israeli Mossad connections, Saudi money, and the Pakistani dictatorship of Zia al-Haq. Quite a motley crew, but of course the indomitable American trio – fighting to the last Afghan – know their revolutionary onions and triumphantly carry the day.

The Faculty Objects

I admit to enjoying the film, while acknowledging that its relation to historical accuracy is roughly that of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Unsurprisingly, not everybody is delighted either with this pop-culture version of an extremely complex history or with the proposal to ratify it academically by means of the Charlie Wilson Chair. A group of scholars associated with UT's distinguished South Asia Institute are pressing the college and its dean, Randy Diehl, to reconsider the proposal. On Aug. 26, the group wrote to Diehl, "While Hollywood may profit from valorizing Mr. Wilson's role in the Soviet-Afghan war, the concerns of a flagship, state-funded academic institution should be to maintain high scholarly standards and to avoid participating in historical caricature." They point out that the Soviet-Afghan war was not, as the film pretends, a simple triumph of Good over Evil. Moreover, they argue that the U.S./Pakistani arming of the mujahideen led inexorably to the immiseration of the Afghans, the destabilization of the region, the rise of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, and ... you know the rest. (Even the film hints at this outcome, supplying a bitter coda from Wilson himself: "We fucked up the endgame.")

The critics don't oppose the creation of the chair, just its honorific for Wilson, adding that no "credible" scholar of Pakistan is likely to accept such a placement. (A noble but dubious notion, in a mercenary age.) Another Pakistani-American academic, Dr. Mohammad Taqi of the University of Florida, counterproposed in the Peshawar Statesman: "If Rep. Wilson and the Temple Foundation – the other potential donor – want to do something substantial for Pakistan Studies, a reasonable way to proceed would be by making an unmarked and unrestricted donation to establish a Chair in Pakistan studies at the University of Texas at Austin." That sounds reasonable enough – but why should a Nacogdoches-based foundation fund a project that will carry no East Texas brand name? It's downright un-American.

Perhaps that was Dr. Taqi's point.

The dissenting faculty members are scheduled to meet with the dean and South Asia Institute Director Itty Abraham over the next few days, but in light of the UT administration's well-established record of contempt for faculty governance, any change is unlikely. Do the opponents think all that lumber money grows on trees? On Sept. 24, Diehl is scheduled to be the featured speaker at a D.C. soiree for wealthy Pakistani-Americans, and it would be embarrassing for him to hold his hand out if the natives back home remain audibly restless.

Consider the Possibilities

I certainly sympathize with the dean's predicament, when money for any kind of scholarship at all is both difficult to come by and held hostage to all sorts of political and institutional priorities outside the university. It's not every day that somebody with really deep pockets walks up and offers the College of Liberal Arts half a million bucks. There's that unfortunate epithet "Liberal" for one thing; as long as we're considering our options, Diehl might look into amending that.

Indeed, it seems only reasonable to suggest that UT and the deans look elsewhere for similar opportunities, in light of the ongoing need for funding and the increasingly concentrated and diminishing number of resources.

A few suggestions:

The Tom DeLay Chair in Constitutional Law (Motto: I am the federal government!)

The Oliver North Chair for Central American Studies (Motto: Cocaine = money = covert arms = counterrevolution)

The Alberto Gonzales Chair in Inter­na­tion­al Law (Motto: It isn't torture unless they die)

The Paul Bremer Chair in Iraq Studies (Mot­to: We made a desert and called it peace)

The Blackwater Chair in Entre­pren­eurship (Actually, I think the business school is already working on this one.)

I could go on, but you get the idea. The advantage is that there will be no shortage of wealthy donors – maybe in hydrocarbons, perhaps international armament sales, or just miscellaneous maquiladoras – willing to under­write scholarships funded in these names and on these principles. The undeniable down­side is a spate of embarrassing academic publicity, but that will pass, as it always does. In the meantime, the usual group of Hollywood liberals looking for heroic cold warriors to manufacture will be on the job, making the culture safe for imaginary democracy.

Send your suggestions for new endowed UT chairs to Point Austin at [email protected]. If we get a few good ones, we'll publish them.

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

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Charlie Wilson, Charlie Wilson's War, University of Texas, Pakistan

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