Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Summing up

I have concluded--very judiciously I think, and only after several years of doing this--that it doesn't matter, in American politics or public opinion, what opinions are expressed or by whom in the Arab world or the Arabic-language media if they do not completely dovetail with one or other of the prevailing opinions in the West.

While you might think that respect and receptivity for alien opinions after the manner of J.S. Mill would be very strong on the liberal Left, that does not seem to be the case at all. Instead, the result of the election of a self-styled center-left elite, as far as "Foreign Policy" is concerned, has produced nothing more than going around and around in the circles of prevailing opinion and the status quo, with the magazine of that name having re-invented itself as a kind of Washington Confidential gossip sheet.

I think a good part of the problem is this: The people at the center of the "center-left", formed as they were in and around the 60s, have internalized a couple of important principles, which however they haven't developed and adapted, but rather merely continued to pass on and apply blindly, with harmful effect:

(a) One of those assumptions is that the key to making progress is solidarity with whatever small progressive group there is around you. This fine principle is from the days of community organizing, but unfortunately it has ossified into a version of the Japanese principle of good citizenship: Take the hand of the person next to you, and let's all cross the street together. It's nice and cozy, locally. But the world has expanded. In foreign-policy America the hypothesis of "any progressive group" no longer has any obvious meaning, and as a result "solidarity" has no meaning without analyzing what the particular group actually stands for. So all you are left with is an empty sticking-together. And what applies to the individual/group relationship also applies to the relationship among groups. I will spare myself the sordid details, but I think it should be evident that the result of this is a powerful centripetal force sucking everything into the gravitational field of the governing "progressive" elite. (And there is another baleful result of this, namely the penchant for hyping interim "victories"--whether meaningful in the long term or not--as an important tool for keeping up the morale of groups; this too seems to be a reflection of 1960's group-solidarity thinking).

(b) There is a reason why that whole assumption of the adequacy of "any progressive group" has become meaningless if not reactionary, and if reflects another principle that used to be useful and has become fossilized. Just as the footnotes in Marx are all in Western languages, so the Cliffs-Notes progressivism that the people at the center of the center-left have internalized is based in one way or another on the foundation of Western post-industrial-revolution society. In this view, solidarity is reserved for those secular movements that oppose or otherwise come to grips with developed financial and industrial capitalism. No solidarity, therefore, with the main resistance movements in the Middle East, which have different starting points, and different driving motivations, for the understanding of which you would have to start by showing respect for the local languages and what is being said in them. And that is another thing that the fossilized heritage of the center-left people has not equipped them to do.


Blogger Mike said...

Wonderful post, much appreciated.

One noteworthy feature of American political life is how well-entrenched the status quo (on all sides) is. Thus as an individual in favor of "progressive" causes, one is supposed to form ties of solidarity with secular humanist movements, as well as "those secular movements that oppose or otherwise come to grips with developed financial and industrial capitalism".

The problem quite simply is that this is an ideological decision that has already been made for us and which most of the American left has simply internalized, instead of paying attention to the very obvious and glaring facts of American hegemonic policies from Iraq to Afghanistan, Somalia to the Palestinian territories, not to mention the rest of the world.

Thus the attention of the American left should be focused on these areas of imperial subordination and the impacts that this mission (repeated over and over) has on the peoples of these areas. But instead it seems the main focus of the American left are "religious fundamentalists", those who oppose the sustainability movement, and other more ideological currents.

Which, while all well and good (to some extent), does nothing to address the deeper problems of hegemony and the militarization of American society and practices, without a solution to which very little positive domestic or international change can come about. As a side note, I would wager that the fact that the US military suicide rate has hit an all-time high is a reflection of this process whereby moral decay (in the form of self-contradictory hegemonic military practices) feed back into the practices and lives of American soldiers as well as American society more generally.

12:54 AM  
Blogger badger said...

Just on the "anti-imperialist" point, I think a big problem is the lack of any real connection with the people that are getting steamrollered by the process. They speak funny languages, often they have funny religious beliefs, and their reality is difficult to really grasp. So recourse is had to the familiar Marxism-lite (for want of a better expression) together with the "humanitarian" angle. What the people are actually experiencing and trying to say about it, get thrown out the window.

(For instance, see the recent piece by a Pakistani writer quoting from an Urdu-language article by a journalist in Swat. linked-to a few posts back. And for another good example, see the excellent critique by South African commenter Dominic at JWN yesterday (March 4) on the sloppy mis-appropriation of terminology from the South African struggle in the interests of fudging the Palestinian issue).

Dominic talks about the "degradation of language" involved in the that process.

6:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it isn't just the "degradation of language" , it's the established journalism as a whole. there is a filter everything must go thru that doesn't include an overall theme of the negative effects of globalization and the 'free (unfree) market'. the theme of domination is not allowed so everything has to fit into a packaged explanation that evades the cause.

what solidarity? if you examine reality you are called a conspiracy theorist, the horror!


8:47 AM  
Blogger Nell said...

Your basic point is sound, even undeniable: there is a deplorable "it's all about us"-ism that afflicts American liberal political analysis of other countries.

However, that has almost nothing to do with the people of whom you're critical having been "formed in and around the 60s" or with "community organizing", which damned few of them have been near, much less involved in. (Just to start with, many of the people who so irritate and disappoint you are too young to have been formed in the sixties.)

The phenomenon cuts across eras, and has to do with the ideology of American exceptionalism, with American narcissism, with the fact that there is very little "left" about the "center-left" crowd you're criticizing.

A realistic grasp of actual Arab nationalism (and nationalists of any region) is found only among leftists. This was true during the Viet Nam war, during the height of U.S. intervention in Central America, and it continues to be true today. Very few of these people gather around journals like Foreign Policy, or are employed by liberal think tanks, or even work in academic departments that produce the "experts" who advise policy makers.

3:52 PM  

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