The Imperial Gaze

November 27th, 2009  |  Published in Imperialism, Politics

The New Left Review, which I write about here often, is my favorite left political publication. They got a lot of crap a few years back when they relaunched their journal with a new, seemingly more apolitical orientation, but in retrospect that choice seems strongly justified–and it resulted in a fairly unique publication. NLR now approaches the world analytically, rather than polemically, in a way that is genuinely geared toward increasing the reader’s understanding of the conjuncture rather than propagandizing for a position. And yet its point of view is still recognizably from the left, to a degree that can be jarring when one is used to reading the organs of establishment liberal and conservative thought.

NLR’s virtues are particularly evident in its extensive international coverage.  The articles it publishes about the non-Western world read like they are attempting to understand other countries from the inside, and convey to a Western reader what they are like for the people who live there. That this is so remarkable is a damning indictment of other publications. But as John Judis recently noted, the mainstream press in the United States seems incapable of reporting international events in terms of anything other than domestic political concerns. And even in supposedly “left” publications,  international analysis is typically a thinly-veiled intervention in some parochial domestic political debate.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of Dissent, a magazine which seems to believe that the world only exists as an aspect of American domestic politics, and moreover that U.S. “humanitarian” warmongering against the rest of the world is the key to human emancipation. Recently, for example, they published a review of Mahmood Mamdani’s Savior’s and Survivors which, while raising some legitimate issues of scholarship, was far more concerned with smearing Mamdani and defending the ridiculous doctrines of “humanitarian intervention” than in understanding what is happening in the Sudan.

I thought of this again as I was reading the most recent NLR, which contains an excellent article on Myanmar by the historian and area specialist Mary Callahan. It’s an overview of the country’s politics, which describes the current system of military rule as the legacy of the country’s colonial history, in which Britain destroyed traditional systems of social control and left behind an ethnically fragmented and divided society. Callahan gives good reasons to believe that, despite the wishful thinking of Western and exile activists, the junta is unlikely to be driven from power in the immediate future.

After reading the peace, I wondered what, if anything, Dissent had published on Myanmar recently. Given their history, I didn’t expect good things, but I was prepared to be suprised–they do sometimes publish very good things, even on international affairs.

What I found, however, was even worse than I imagined. The first three hits from the print publication were: an interview with Anthony Giddens in which Myanmar is used as a throwaway line to underscore the inevitable superiority of liberal capitalism; a windbaggy piece about “democratization” which again refers to Myanmar in passing (as a “Fascist Disneyland”); and a Clifford Geertz essay on decolonization in which the country only appears in laundry lists of diverse ex-colonial states.

The result from the web archive was even more absurd: a piece from Michael Walzer on “Ten Foreign Policy Changes if Obama is Elected”. Given the author, the content was predictable. Even so, this reads like a parody of liberal imperialist thinking:

5) A stronger (rhetorically stronger or stronger in practice?) commitment to “the responsibility to protect” in places like Darfur and Myanmar, though the new administration is not going to send American troops into any countries where we are not already engaged. Are there other countries ready to send troops? If they are ready, the U.S. under Obama would probably be willing to support, help pay for, equip, and transport the troops. More than that: Obama has talked about creating a no-fly zone over Darfur—a good thing to do, certainly, but even then I doubt that the UN’s 20,000 African troops would be sufficient to stop the killing without some reinforcement from better trained and more disciplined armies.

Hm, yes, that place Myanmar, I hear they’re having some trouble with human rights, or cyclones, or something. Better send in the troops, old chap! (No Africans, though, they’re no good.)

The way Walzer can cavalierly throw around this kind of warmongering is bad enough. But for Dissent to publish this kind of irresponsible call for blood in a country it has not deemed worthy of a single article? It underscores the despicable and immoral quality of the “liberal hawks”, who seem more interested in finding excuses for military action than in considering its consequences.

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