Sunday, February 05, 2006
Metastasis & Enjoyment posted by Richard SeymourOne of the wonderful things for racists about the recent 'cartoon' controversy is the opportunity to kick Muslims twice: first by demonising them, and taking a certain amount of enjoyment in their demonisation, second by demonising the reaction of Muslims, and gloating about that too. As Gary Younge put it:
As a result they are vilified twice: once through the cartoon, and again for exercising their democratic right to protest. The inflammatory response to their protest reminds me of the quote from Steve Biko, the South African black nationalist: "Not only are whites kicking us; they are telling us how to react to being kicked."
But there is another, more subtle opportunity for racist baiting - namely, one reminds Muslims of the "values" that "we in the West" hold, and those dearly, in contrast to their non-secular societies. According to Henry Porter in today's Observer, the publication of these pictures can "be seen as an assertion of the values handed down from the pioneers of the Enlightenment. A little nervy perhaps, a little too red in the face , but sincere none the less." Indeed, one doesn't doubt the sincerity of the racists who produced and published these caricatures, and it is entirely plausible that they thought they were upholding some 'values' of the Enlightenment (which ones, however?). Porter adds: "Muslims must allow for the error in a continent of free but flawed societies. They should understand that our societies are not simply based on godless consumption and self-indulgence, but on one or two deeply held convictions." He makes one or two other points that the would-be Defenders of Enlightenment in the blogosphere should have probably liked to make, and so you couldn't hurt yourself too much by reading the whole article. But there it is - Muslims are being told exactly how to interpret their demonisation. Le Colonel Chabert wrote a few days ago about a technique known as "Gaslighting", in which the oppressed are told that they are not oppressed, that what they are experiencing is their own excessive paranoia and sensitivity. According to Henry Porter: "Heightened Islamic sensitivity is something we are going to have to take on board." From Chabert:
But for people of colour, in the US, and especially for women of colour, the backlash has involved, since the 80s, a vast media and cultural conspiracy of "Gaslighting."
Its tactics are designed to enrage and infuriate, because being enraged is debilitating, exhausting, embarrassing. The subtle racist is a swaggerer. Confident he has all the artillery of white supremacist patriarchy at his back. Obstinate and bullying and putting on a show of fearlessness. Confident that his or her own point of view is in itself a kind of evidence while the other's point of view is in itself worthless and can only achieve value through convincing proof and his or her own consent. "Oh, he didn't mean that." No further analysis offered, no evidence, no offer of a persuasive alternate reading, no real explanation, because the defender/possessor of white privilege accepts no obligation to justify that norm. What lies behind the smug assertion of innocence and good intentions is power, the consciousness of power, the flaunting of power, the subtle reminder of that power and your (our) - black folks', women, leftists - position on the receiving end of domination, of doubt, of marginalization, your not-sharing in that power and presumption of rationality, acuity and credibility.
As Edward Said wrote, the notion of the White Man that emerged in the era of colonialism and exemplified in some of Kipling's doggerel ("Now this is the road that the White Men tread/When they go to clean a land..."), involved "a particular way of taking hold of reality, language, and thought". As Said writes: "Underlying these categories is the rigidly binomial opposition of 'ours' and 'theirs', with the former always encroaching upon the latter (even to the point of making 'theirs' exclusively a function of 'ours'). This opposition was reinforced not only by anthropology, linguistics, and history but also, of course, less decisive - by the rhetoric of high cultural humanism. What gave writers like Renan and Arnold the right to generalities about race was the official character of their formed cultural literacy. 'Our' values were (let us say) liberal, humane, correct: they were supported by the tradition of belles-lettres, informed scholarship, rational inquiry; as Europeans (and white men) 'we' shared in them every time their virtues were extolled." (From Orientalism. Emphasis added).
To return to Enlightenment for a second, it is ironic that Porter describes Marx & Freud of all people as having inaugurated "blinkered secularism" - I don't know if anyone problematised Enlightenment secularism more than Marx did. Freud, whatever else he was, was not a naive upholder of blinkered Enlightenment. Both would have some fairly dyspeptic things to say about the evocation of the Reformation as a means of demonising those reacting to racism (but this did not stop some people claiming to be "real socialists" e-mailing me to explain that Marx was against religion, stoopid). Indeed, one would have to be living in a cuckoo clock not to notice that Enlightenment itself has its own dark side. Its origins in Renaissance magic and religion, as well as colonialism, mercantilism and the demands of a developing capitalism, it developed as a movement in sync with these changing priorities. With progressivism came the notion that other (Asiatic) societies were static, hidebound, incapable of change, lacking in subtlety and reflection. With the development of philology contiguous with colonial expansion came the discourse of race, polygenic hierarchies of human lineages and so on. With the development of genetics coterminous with the death knell of the bourgeoisie as a progressive class came eugenics and extermination. Enlightened earth, as Adorno and Horkheimer wrote, radiated disaster triumphant.
We share in the virtues of Enlightenment every time its values are extolled, but not its vices. It is no longer a surprise that the 'left' imperialists appeal to an unproblematised Enlightenment in order to justify their subventions, although it remains a shock to see it invoked in response to a straightforward instance of racism. And if the discourse of 'tolerance' had seemed before to be rather useless in fighting the racists and the far right, it now seems positively beneficial to their cause: for now it is a fairly simple matter to say that Muslims are 'intolerant' of Western racism.
In this BBC interview, Asghar Bukhari of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee debates (and thoroughly takes apart) Roger Koeppel of Die Welt and spots the ruse right away: this, he says, is not about debate, free speech and so forth. This is about demonisation. There are thousands of images of Muhammed available on a quick Google search, but none of them have precipitated this outrage. It is because the images suggest that Muslims are either terrorists or followers of a terrorist or likely to take a sword to you for glancing at a woman and so on. In the present geopolitical situation, Muslims are being persecuted all over the world. The outrage has not emerged because Muslims are dogged reactionaries incapable of understanding 'Western' notions of liberalism and free speech. Some people have demonstrated impressive purblindness in refusing to acknowledge this, restlessly imbibing and regurgitating the news-filtered images of fires blazing here, stones thrown there, placards with repellent messages on them jostling elsewhere. The media is invaluable for immunising one against the basic perception that what has happened is that a major European newspaper launched a provocative attack on Muslims, and most Muslims have responded with considerable restraint (unless you really believe that small sample of images you have seen recycled on television and in newspapers is representative of 1.2bn people).
There is always, at the last scrape of the barrel, the suggestion available that Muslims are merely being manipulated and stirred up by a would-be religious hierarchy, an oppressive caste of clerics and so forth. This unimpressive and child-like perception of the situation, for from positing a postcolonial hybridisation of Islam, involves reducing Muslims to no more than a passive substrate on which Evil Doers can operate. It reminds me of a White Van Man lament on the BBC's late (and much lamented) Kilroy show, in which a complacent lower-middle-class man wondered why in the wake of the Oldham riots, if it was just a few Muslims spoiling it for the rest of them, did we not simply lock up and deport the ones that are riling up all the others. And, of course, it totally neglects (or more accurately represses knowledge of) the fact that we are dealing with 100% proof racism, and the response to it.
Said, when he wrote about Orientalism (which I quoted from above), noted that antisemitism shared a strange, secret history with Orientalism. The philological divide between the Semitic and European languages, the divide between the good (long forgotten) Orient of Indo-European civilisation and the bad (present) Orient of Semitic civilisation - both Orientalism and antisemitism could be found in the same text, deployed the same strategies of domination, and served the same interest of defining Europe as superior to its Other. Indeed, even ardent Zionists like Churchill who advocated gassing Iraqis and treated the Palestinians with contempt during his period as Colonial Secretary under the Mandate, were often raving antisemites. Churchill fulminated about the International Jew, the Bolshevik Jew, the conspiratorial Jew who brought down European civilisation even as he expressed his sympathy for Zionism. Said later told an interviewer that he was disappointed that Israeli readers had not taken this on board, even though the irony would be immediately apparent to any Palestinian Arab. He suggested that Israelis had adopted the purview of the Orientalist as directed against Arabs, and were therefore incapable of noticing the connection. What, I wonder, would he have made of the recrudescence of this imperialist shit, with almost the exact same strategies of justification as before, in the heart of Europe?