Posts Tagged ‘humanitarian intervention’

‘fashion changes.  style remains’ – coco chanel

In the world of white liberalism, this season’s must have accessory is a Kony2012 bracelet.  Having wandered aimlessly for a bit since the heady days of Save Darfur, the fashionistas of philanthropy have at last discovered an accoutrement which highlights their morality, cosmopolitanism, and general beneficence of spirit.  Though the accessorizing hits different accents this time around (notably a focus on ‘the children,’ which was lacking in the Save Darfur campaign), the essential style remains the same, based on a certain color combination whose potential for customization has proven limitless: white people save brown victims from brown villains.

An interesting development in this season’s iteration of the theme, however, has been the rapidity with which it has met opposition.  Immediately after the line’s immaculately choreographed launch, critics from a variety of quarters pointed out its disconnect from its purported objects of concern, its imbrication with imperial designs on the continent, and the stains of racist discourse discoloring the whole endeavor.

The prominence of this critique has provided for an interesting look into how the liberal interventionist crowd reacts to criticism of their project.  The dominant response seems to be a sort of wounded aggrievement – a shock that one could criticize such a noble endeavor, combined with an aggressive attack on those making the criticism: ‘what do YOU think should be done?’

The stubborn attachment to the ideals of the campaign reveals a bit of the affective dimensions of liberal interventionism.  On one level, the reasons for the attachments formed by the campaign’s supporters are clear enough – they allow them to see themselves as the paragons of morality, they validate nationalist narratives about the world being a place full of problems that America solves, etc.  But as significant as these are, I don’t think they quite explain the ardor with which supporters proclaim ‘something must be DONE!’

To understand this, I think it’s necessary to consider the role this campaign plays  within broader liberal ideology.  For me, this ideology is best summarized by PZ Myers’ response to Terry Eagleton’s argument that liberals refuse to admit that ‘the traumatic truth of  human history is a tortured body’:

If we want a signifier for the human condition, imagine the culture we would live in now if, instead of a dead corpse on an instrument of torture, our signifier was a child staring in wonder at the stars.

As a response to Eagleton’s argument, it’s primarily a touching display of the most syrupy naiveté.  But it’s interesting for the way it reveals the liberal refusal to confront the basic truth of Eagleton’s argument: our world is one of massive exploitation, starvation, oppression, torture, and misery.  For radicals, these are the foundational facts that determine our orientation to the world.

The liberal faith in our world’s basic reformability, however, requires that all of this be denied, or at least suppressed.  This is, I think, the role campaigns such as Kony2012 play.  They are strategies of containment, a means of partially recognizing the truth of history while quarantining its radical implications.  No ideology, after all, is ever based on pure falsehood, but rather exists in a complex relationship of repression, misdirection, misemphasis, and exaggeration with people’s lived experience.  The Kony campaign, and liberal moral panics like it, allows a limited acknowledgment of the scale of human suffering that exists in the world.  At the same time, however, it immediately works to contain this acknowledgment.  Here, one is reminded of Domenico Losurdo’s argument that liberalism works by creating sacred and profane spaces – the former are where the rights espoused by liberal philosophy apply, the latter where their negation rules.  In the period of classical liberalism, this allowed philosophers like Locke to create a rights-based system in England, while denying the rights of the indentured servants, Africans, and Indians in the New World.  Today, the logic of the spatialization is slightly different, as it works to contain the reality of oppression to distinct spaces (Africa, usually), reinforcing the appearance of justice in the West and simultaneously positioning it as the agent of salvation of the profane spaces.

This dynamic, I think, explains the fervor with which liberal calls to ‘DO something’ are made.  The limited eruption of the reality of human history into liberal ideology provokes a fevered counter-reaction, in which the oppression glimpsed must be extinguished as quickly as possible.  Once this is accomplished, the world can return to its former happy state.  It’s not perfect, of course.  Crooked timber of humanity and all that.  But once dark blots like Kony are removed, it’s still a beautiful place.

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From the New York Age, March 22nd, 1919.

Civilizing the ‘Backward Races’

One way in which the powerful nations justify themselves for taking the lands which belong to other people is to declare that they do it in order to carry civilization to these benighted races.

Adopting this slogan as a principle, the powerful nations seem able to commit the most high-handed robberies and outrages, and at the same time salve their consciences over with the thought that they are spreading civilization.

It was Bernard Shaw who wrote in one of his plays that there is nothing so good or so bad that you will not find an Englishman doing it, but that you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. Shaw says that when an Englishman wants a thing, he never tells himself he wants it. He waits patiently until there comes into his mind, no one knows how, a burning conviction that it is his moral and religious duty to conquer those who have got the thing he wants. He says that an Englishman will do anything, but that he always has a principle to justify it. He will bully you on manly principles, he will fight you on patriotic principles, he will rob you on business principles, and he will enslave you on imperialistic principles.

The ability to find a ‘moral’ principle to justify whatever you want to do is of tremendous advantage to a nation. Through it almost any kind of action can be made to pass as respectable. In fact, if the principle is properly promoted almost any kind of action can be made to gather up a sort of religious fervor as it goes along.

A colossal blunder made by Germany at the beginning of the war was that she failed to find a ‘moral’ issue on which to strike. England waited until she felt she was called upon to ‘save martyred Belgium.’ America waited until she felt she was called upon to ‘make the world safe for democracy.’ It is strange but true that men will fight harder for an ideal than for a fact. (For confirmation of this statement see histories of the various religious war.) Germany started out without a beautiful ideal couched in a high-sounding phrase, and was therefore handicapped all through the conflict. She had no point around which to rally spiritual forces; she had no club with which to compel one-sided opinion. Anyone might oppose a war for conquest, but how many could open their mouths against a war to ‘save martyred Belgium’ or to ‘make the world safe for democracy’?

The powerful nations of the world have followed this same moral process in dealing with what they term that backward races. They set up an imaginary ideal, and then proceed to commit all the cardinal sins in the name of sustaining that ideal.

Generally, the first step is to send out a missionary to give these ‘heathen’ people a religion which they did not ask for, which they do not particularly stand in need of, and which, when they get it, does not bring them anything near like all the good which they have been led to expect.

Then some ‘heathen’ who is not impressed by the superiority of the religion of England and Germany and Belgium over that of his own land and fathers shies a stone at the mission house. Thereupon the home government of the missionary sends a warship to protect him and put down the ‘native uprising.’ Protecting the missionaries usually results in taking all the land and all its wealth and resources away from those to whom it rightly belongs. This is done even if natives armed only with assegais have to be mown down with machine guns. And it is all done for the preservation of civilization.

No self-respecting nation could start out with the avowed purpose of murdering these natives and robbing them; but in the name of such lofty principles as the spread of Christianity and civilization anything may be done.

What is behind all this burning zeal which the powerful nations have to civilize the ‘backward races’ of the world? Is it a desire chiefly for the welfare of these races? Not at all; it is solely a desire on the part of these nations to fill their own coffers. And does this civilization which they carry do the people to whom they carry it any good? Very little, if any. At least, it costs these races many times what it is worth to them; and it is certain that most of the world would may equally as much to get rid of it.

The powerful nations are in the habit of pointing to one of these lands and saying, “Look, before we went in these people did not even wear shoes or derby hats or starched collars, they had no factories, they had no railroads. See how the import and export trade of the island has increased!” That is only one-half of the story. For the privilege of wearing derby hats and stiff collars and working in factories and on railroads the native has become a slave toiling to pay dividends to foreign stockholders.

This has been the case with Porto Rico. This island has belonged to the United States since the close of the Spanish war; and, according to figures, its prosperity has multiplied many times over. Its import and export trade has almost doubled in the past four years, being $79,509,549 in 1914 and $137,683,304 in 1918; and yet, the condition of the natives has grown steadily worse. The natives are poorer to-day than they were four years ago.

Things have come to such a pass that a resolution has been introduced into the Porto Rico legislature calling upon the United States Congress for remedial legislation. This resolution declares: “The American people are completely ignorant of the true, deplorable position and condition of the people of Porto Rico which have been caused by economic financial organization imposed by an illegal system of land ownership and absent and resident corporations and individuals combined.”

What happened to Porto Rico will happen to Haiti. Railroads and factories will be built, the custom figures will be increased, and the Haitian who once cultivated his little plot of ground for his own benefit will find himself a wage slave working for the benefit of stockholders who do not live on his island. And he will no doubt seriously question whether he has gained anything, even if he has learned to wear shoes, derby hats and stiff collars.

If the choice were put before me, I would much prefer to be robbed and enslaved under the sign of the skull and cross bones of a pirate than under the principle of ‘spreading civilization.’


If you want to hear more about James Weldon Johnson’s radicalism, come to my talk at Historical Materialism 2010 on November 13th!

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