Sunday, November 04, 2007

Imperial denialism

There is a minor industry devoted to studying Holocaust-denial, its tactics, its presuppostions, its origins, and particularly its goals. It is an immensely worthy enterprise, because it frustrates the efforts of denialists to pretend that they are engaged in disinterested inquiry or are free speech martyrs of some kind. At some point, we have to systematically come to grips with the modes of denialism used by supporters of imperialism, which is the direct and legitimate parent of Nazism, and which is not merely a danger but the prevailing system of global violence. For example, Vivek Chibber aptly deals with Niall Ferguson's denialism about the British Empire here, but we need a consistent, encompassing effort to understand this as a historical trend, its roots, its goals and so on. If the effort to remove the Nazi holocaust from historical memory is motivated principally by the desire to facilitate the re-emergence of fascism as a 'legitimate' and worthy doctrine, the far more pervasive and hegemonic denial of imperialist atrocities is designed to reconcile humanity to ongoing bloodbaths, and future bloodbaths. It is designed to naturalise aggression, to transfer responsibility, to undermine natural empathy, to vilify others and coarsen discussion so that we think in terms of 'ass-kicking' even while families are shredded and burned. It has structural support in the military-industrial complex, in PR industries hired by nation-states to legitimise violence, in the academia, and in the media. It has its ideological origins in European colonial expansion and slavery. It encourages us to feel at home in a world of repeated misery and abuse and torture and enslavement and robbery, and at the same time it attempts to obscure the ongoing realities in such a way that those who can not be made to feel at home in such a planet do not take decisive action to change matters.

For example, there is a way of talking about Iraq without mentioning the genocidal levels of murder there, without mentioning the death squads and the torture chambers and the corrupt autocracy behind the facade of elections, and that happens to be the way that most media commentators discuss it. In light of this, a reader or viewer might be expected to accept wholly absurd conclusions about Iraq being a 'failure' or the empire being a force for good in the world, despite the little screw-up here and there. Similarly, one could discuss the coup in Haiti without describing the genocidaires, the French-American record of enslaving the country, the despicable crew of sweatshop owners and murderers who supported the coup, even the fact that it was a coup. One could discuss the violent repression in Haiti as an extension of aid offered by a desperate international community befuddled by the country's refusal to pull itself together. It so happens that this is how it has mostly been discussed. And so on. We have some of the tools for understanding how this denialism is propagated (Chomsky and Herman's Manufacturing Consent, for example), but I think we would benefit from systematically labelling and categorising different forms of this denial, looking at its ideological and structural origins and exposing it as such. Suggestions for how to approach such a task in the comments boxes would be most welcome.