Thursday, 3 December 2009

The blinkered vision of the 'post' left

A couple of interesting pieces about anti-imperialism and the myopia of the modern left:

First, Michael Tomasky on the 'fatuous gas' of Michael Moore's open letter to President Obama 'about America, Afghanistan and empire', in which the film-maker repeats the lazy trope about US involvement repeating mistakes made by Britain and Russia:

I really don't see what America's mission in Afghanistan has to do with what the British did or what the Soviets did. People love lazy historical parallels, and have a tendency to have over-learned the famous Santayana maxim and believe that invoking it makes them sound smart. But every historical situation is different. Why wouldn't someone with Moore's lefty politics be righteous in the conviction that we owe it to the Afghan people to try to help them establish a proper nation-state for the first time in their history?

And in response to this from Moore - 'Stop the insane idea that men with guns can reorganize a nation that doesn't even function as a nation and never, ever has' - Tomasky writes:

That sentence of Moore's [...] is pretty condescending, isn't it? It's never been a nation, isn't now, and (implied) never will be. Ain't our problem. Well, I think it is our problem. It's true that some places and peoples on this earth just get dealt a bad hand. Afghanistan, with no ports or water access and an impossible terrain, is one of those places. It's always going to be poor. But it can adopt the structures of a functioning society. Having invaded it, we ought to try to help it, not just throw up our hands and say forget about it.

Tomasky interprets Moore's position as symptomatic of the political tunnel vision of many on the modern left:

Anyway, this is the thing about the left, at least of Moore's generation. The anti-imperialist reflex -- the tendency and sometimes even eagerness to see America as an empire bent on imperial designs and dominance -- always trumps everything else.

Along similar lines, here's Joshua Leach writing about the work of postcolonial critic Ashis Nandy (via B&W):

Had William Hazlitt written his essay “On Persons with One Idea” today, he would surely have found room for the field of postcolonial studies. It is a field with only one idea: namely, that imperialism and racism are such dominant features of modern life, and had such a foundational role in the construction of our present society, that they inform every aspect of our ideas, culture, and history. Postcolonialism is, in theory, anti-hierarchical and anti-oppressive. But because it has only one idea, it can easily become oppressive in practice, and to quite a large extent.

I recommend reading the whole article: it carefully takes apart the hoary myth that liberal universalism is nothing more than a cover for western imperialism, and highlights the logical contradiction of criticising the evils of imperialism from a standpoint of cultural relativism, in the belief that 'egalitarian ideologies, the ideals of democracy and human rights [are] mere hierarchies and oppressions in disguise'. As Leach writes:

But how does one know that such hierarchies are reprehensible if equality is not a goal? If egalitarian ideologies, democracy, and self-government are not legitimate ideals, why should it be the case, as Nandy maintains, that imperialism is so wrong?

Like Tomasky, Leach points to the dangers of the single-minded focus on imperialism by the post-colonialist, post-modern left:

What is important to realize, however, is that imperialism is not the only evil in the world, even though it is a serious one. The failure to see this rather elementary fact characterizes a great deal of postcolonial scholarship. One must avoid imperialism, but one must not be so desperately fearful of intervening in other countries that one seals off the victims of cruelty within their respective nations and refuses to promise aid.

The danger of this position, of course, is that self-proclaimed progressives end up endorsing the most reactionary social movements in the name of anti-imperialism:

Nandy is tempted, thanks to the entire spirit of postcolonialism, to attribute all of the world’s evils to imperialism. And because of this, he ends up tacitly condoning all of the world’s injustices which predate imperialism, such as patriarchy, religious intolerance, and the violence of tradition. Given Nandy’s personal views in his public life, he would no doubt be shocked to be accused of defending such things. But he has in fact fallen victim to the postcolonial trap: he has focused so exclusively on one injustice—imperialism—that he has rendered himself inured to all the other injustices in the world which are also crying out for redress.


Geist Bites said...

Postcolonialism is fascinating because it expresses its quiveringly earnest opinions in the most obfuscatory and obstructive way possible.

Minnie said...

Interesting post, Martin - thank you. Santayana's maxim's wheeled out a bit too much, certainly (although didn't Marx anticipate him in one of the Theses on Feuerbach?), but .... broadly, mistakes are repeated in history. Historians are rather good at ignoring the part played by that which is immutable, ie human nature (their own included)!
'Foundational'? Did you wince as much as I did at that?

Martin said...

Thanks for the comments.

Minnie - I'm afraid I'm with Tomasky on this false historical analogy thing. Some kneejerk critics of US/western policy see the words 'Afghanistan' and 'intervention' in the same sentence - and assume every instance must be similarly motivated and have an identical outcome. But I fail to see the similarity between British imperialist greed and Soviet expansionism on the one hand, and a response by an alliance of democratic nations to mass murder on the other.

As for wincing at 'foundational' - I have to plead guilty to being such an insider to academic discourse that I no longer notice these neologisms. I read another blogger the other day cavilling at over-use of the word 'interrogate' - just as I was about to use it in something I was writing myself. It's easy to forget the impact of jargon on the uncorrupted ear and eye.

Minnie said...

Very interesting response, Martin - thank you. Will now have to engage brain (or what's left of it).
Academia sounds as if it has become a trail-blazer for managementspeak. Copy of Penguin ed of Orwell's 'Inside the Whale' (for his essay 'Politics & the English Language') kept in the top drawer of my desk in the days when I was a corporate type.
And thanks for attributing to me an 'uncorrupted' view: that, I like!