Blind Man with a Pistol


When Western governments and media heard that Chinese weapons were heading to Zimbabwe, they could scarcely contain their glee. Here was an opportunity to smear both the rising star of China and the easiest and most fruitful target Western leaders have whenever they need to boost their human rights credentials. How the United States and Britain can possibly keep a straight face while criticizing either the accumulation of weapons or their trade is certainly entertaining, but the spiteful gall of imperialism overpowers the gentle comedy of chutzpah.

The BBC, who never waste an opportunity to disclose with a smirk that they are banned from reporting in Zimbabwe, also never seriously examine why that might be the case. The BBC assumes that they simply remain the victims of state-sanctioned censorship, a savage suppression of journalistic freedom; meanwhile, they continue their portrayal of Zimbabwe as a country unable to hold democratic elections, fully under the thrall of a bloodthirsty, corrupt dictator. Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, for his part, insists that the guns are not needed because the country is not at war. Such a statement does not prevent the BBC from proffering that tantalizing possibility, however—a reportage that continues unembarrassed by the fact that they cannot report first-hand.

I admit that like most of the Western media, I do not know much about the Zimbabwe political climate (or “crisis” if we are to believe the likes of Sky News). On the other hand, unlike the media, I will not make assumptions about or condemnations of Zimbabwe and its people based on what I do not know. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, all bluster and vinegar, declared “I call on the whole world to express its view that this is completely unacceptable to the whole of the international community.” Nothing warms the heart more than a fading world power engaged in illegal conflicts in the Middle East pontificating to a former imperial colony on what it deems “unacceptable.”

Despite all the evidence that shows the barbarity and violence taking place in Zimbabwe, and the fragility of the political climate that could very well erupt at any moment, Great Britain has ceded its claim to the moral high road when it comes to her former colony. Here is a rule that Great Britain, on whom the sun has set, should take to heart: in the machinations of a world leader that issued from the catastrophic failures of your own imperialistic, exploitive and racist history, from the colonialist sense of entitlement of white land owners, you don’t get a say. Hush, now. That ship has sailed.

Free Tibet?
15 April 2008, 11:08 am
Filed under: Imperialism | Tags: , , , , , ,

Uri Averney wrote an excellent article for that wonderfully articulates the difficulty I have with the global “Free Tibet!” campaign.

[W]hat is really bugging me is the hypocrisy of the world media. They storm and thunder about Tibet. In thousands of editorials and talk-shows they heap curses and invective on the evil China. It seems as if the Tibetans are the only people on earth whose right to independence is being denied by brutal force, that if only Beijing would take its dirty hands off the saffron-robed monks, everything would be alright in this, the best of all possible worlds.

Tibet offers an attractive combination of exoticism, morality and the plucky status of an underdog sparkplug to the world media. It’s a narrative almost tailor-made for Western bourgeois liberalism: we convince ourselves that they want what we have, and it’s our moral obligation to help them achieve it. Free Tibet! Free World!

Forget the fact that there are threatened peoples in our own country that want what we have. Hell, they’d settle for clean water. As Canadians, our first duty should be to ensure that we do not oppress people at home or abroad. Any pretension otherwise is moral blindness. As progressives and anti-imperialists, we should question any attempt to render China’s sin bigger than our own. Or, failing that, why the mote of Tibet is bigger than the beam of East Congo or Chechnya.

With that in mind, it seems to me that what’s really going on here is not that Tibet wants what we have, but that they have what we wish we had. Or rather, the Tibetan myth Western media has constructed—one based on peace, non-violence, abstinence and asceticism—purchases our largesse. As long as Tibet eschews consumerism and consumption, our destructive lifestyle can proceed apace. The irony is of course, that as we “free” such ethical impossibilities from themselves as reward for affirming our pretense, we threaten to eradicate the myths on which we rely. It’s a dilemma Jack Gladney discovered almost a quarter century ago:

“You don’t believe in heaven? A nun?”
“If you don’t, why should I?”
“If you did, maybe I would.”
“If I did, you would not have to.”
“All the old muddles and quirks,” I said. “Faith, religion, life everlasting. The great old human gullibilities. Are you saying you don’t take them seriously? Your dedication is a pretense?”
“Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure that they are right not to believe bu they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.”
“You’ve had long life. Maybe it works.”
She rattled out a laugh, showing teeth so old they were nearly transparent.
“Soon no more. You will lose your believers.”

—Don Delillo, White Noise (1985)

h/t to unionist at babble

Dangerous Drawings: Teddy Bears, Cartoons and Cats

Anti-cartoon Afghans are at it again.Thousands of Afghan students staged protests over a Dutch film that characterizes the Qur’an as fascist and over the recently reprinted famous Danish cartoon that depicted the Prophet Mohammed in a “bomb-shaped turban.” The incident also recalls the case of Gillian Gibbons who spent fifteen days in a Sudanese jail for naming a “teddy bear” Mohammed after her preschool class agreed on the name. Cue the usual questions of “What can’t be named Mohammed?” and warnings against this latest assault on the Western liberal enlightenment values of free speech and freedom of the press. Incidentally, Britain, Denmark and Holland all have troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. This fact alone should suggest that such questions are altogether the wrong ones.

In Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Severin historian Robert Darnton addresses a similar situation. Just prior to the French Revolution, a stable of printers on the Rue Saint-Severin suffered abject poverty and frequent beatings from their wealthy, bourgeois master and his wife.

They slept in a filthy, freezing room, rose before dawn, ran errands all day while dodging insults from the journeymen and abuse from the master, and received nothing but slops to eat. They found the food especially galling. Instead of dining at the master’s table, they had to eat scraps from his plate in the kitchen. Worse still, the cook secretly sold the leftovers and gave the boys cat food,old, rotten bits of meat that they could not stomach and so passed on to the cats, who refused it.

The cats came to symbolize the oppression and humiliation borne daily by the workers. One day, unable to suffer the cats any longer, the workers staged a mock trial for the felines, complete with evidence, testimony, guards, a confessor and a public execution. The cats were “publicly” hanged with special punishment reserved for the puss most favoured by the master’s wife. The great cat massacre was termed “the most hilarious experience in [the workers’] entire career,” a bloody, irrational, even hysterical revolt. “Yet,” Darnton adds,

it strikes the modern reader as unfunny, if not downright repulsive. Where is the humor in a group of grown men bleating like goats and banging with their tools while an adolescent re enacts the ritual slaughter of a defenseless animal? Our own inability to get the joke is an indication of the distance that separates us from the workers of pre-industrial Europe. The perception of that distance may serve as the starting point of an investigation, for anthropologists have found that the best points of entry in an attempt to penetrate an alien culture can be those where it seems to be most opaque. When you realize that you are not getting something—a joke, a proverb, a ceremony—that is particularly meaningful to the natives, you can see where to grasp a foreign system of meaning in order to unravel it. By getting the joke of the great cat massacre, it may be possible to “get” a basic ingredient of artisan culture under the Old Regime.

His argument, essentially, is that the cats acted as a symbolic stand-in for the bourgeois, and that the whole elaborate arrangement was an dramatic rehearsal for the French Revolution fifteen or so years later. The servants hanged the cats because they couldn’t hang the bourgeoisie. Moreover, the fact that the workers’ ritual remains impenetrable to us signals its massive cultural implications.

Our governments enact ceaseless and explicit violence on the people of the Middle East in our names. The men and women of Afghanistan are subject to humiliation through daily expressions of our wealth in our mass, pulp media, while their poverty rings as a constant tonic to it. Icons of Western society like our newspapers and editorial cartoons are so loaded with symbolic baggage because of the fact that they are so rare in places like the Sudan and Afghanistan. When a culture emasculated weekly is given the opportunity to assert some measure of revenge, some measure of authority over a culture that constantly humiliates them, even on this small, symbolic scale, of course they are going to take it. Of course they are. That’s the tragedy of human nature.

Then we look at such an incident, out of context, and wonder why these men and women act so irrationally, when rationality has got nothing to do with it. Our egos are served by proxy through our governments, so we have the privilege of boiling it down to rationality. Even our analogies are absurd, and barely scratch the surface, even as we strain to understand. Can’t we see Christ or Yahweh mocked in the editorial pages? Isn’t naming a stuffed bear Mohammed the same as naming a pet Jesus? These analogies are the closest we can get, to be sure. Why do you think the children, who surely know more about Islam than the teacher, than most of us too, saw no problem with naming a doll Mohammed? Because it wasn’t for this crime, for this blasphemy, that the teacher was tried.

Incidents like the Dutch film are not about blasphemy laws, or corporal punishment, or a flawed justice system. Until our governments stop their murderous campaign against nations of Islam, crimes like this will continue to take place, because war, always, does sick things to people, on scales large and small. But this dynamic always reproduces itself too–since these incidents allow us to reflect on the barbarity of Islamic cultures and the enlightenment of our own, and provide more fuel to the war machine that brokered the crime in the first place. It is an impulse consonant with the perverse, grotesque argument that justifies foreign occupation under the auspices of “liberating” Muslim women and delivering democracy to the savages who need it.