Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Narcissus in the Looking Glass

Humanitarian intervention is no longer where it's at. For the time being, it has subsided into the background, merely part of a constant stream of noise that affirms and reaffirms the claim that imperialist states have ever been, or could ever be, the armed wing of Amnesty International. Now, it's about the 'clash of civilizations' and how cool the West allegedly is about women's rights and so on. Thus, the belligerati - Paul Berman, Ian Buruma - are now construing the murder of Benazir Bhutto as an occidentalist assault on the freedom of the female. And it's hard to avoid the stream of commentaries and news items hailing the "feminist hero" that was Bhutto. While it may be that her assassins were right-wing misogynists - highly likely, I should think - that was probably rather low down on their list of motives. The sole purpose of so construing the matter is to remind one of one's moral superiority - apparently, it is a matter of some importance to the liberal bombers that 'we' assert, repeatedly, that 'we' are not as bad as people who behead other people, or those who detonate suicide belts and so on. And this gradually shades into 'our' superiority over 'Islam', or over the bulk of actually existing Muslims. In fact, because whatever is being discussed is constantly construed through a culturalist prism, it is constantly liable to shade into the sort of cultural (as opposed to biological) racism that distinguished liberal imperialism in the 19th Century.

Back in the day (the 1990s), it was much easier. The Soviet Union was dead, and its sattelites didn't look like they had much life in them. All that remained was liberal capitalism preparing to sweep up the remaining people's republics, stop the nationalist demagogues from taking hold of the post-communist situation, and also dispense with the few remaining colonial scraps. Perfect for that era was Michael Ignatieff. Ignatieff's saleability in media circles was then probably in large part due to his conscientious and effusive praise for the media, usually offered as 'nuanced' critique. In The Warrior's Code - itself an accompaniment to a television series - he averred that "Television’s good conscience" refuses "to make a distinction between good corpses and bad ones", and distrusts left and right. High praise indeed, for Ignatieff's central claim about 'humanitarian' morality ("species politics" as he called it) was that it disregarded all distinctions other than victimhood, that of "the pure victim stripped of social identity". Similar ruminations, interspersed with occasional bewailing of this or that "failure", appear in Virtual War. Oh sure, the media's attention is short-lived, but without it there would be no one to feed those victims and save them from catastrophe. It is fair to say that Ignatieff looked into the cathode tube and saw his own splendid self. However, even in his day, he was only the exemplar of a self-satisfied Anglo-American media class.

As Alex De Waal wrote in Famine Crimes, "Journalists have congratulated themselves that they provide the missing trigger in the international relief network's response to disasters. The congratulation is not warranted." Not only because the media is simply not set up to "trigger" the kinds of responses that would be required in a disaster situation. And not only because, as David Rieff has recently acknowledged, that era of sicking self-congratulation was the basis for a wholesale refurbishment of imperial ideology. And not only because where they did interact with relief agencies, even in situations that didn't involve war, they often contributed to making the situation worse. The main reason is that the consequences didn't make any difference whatsoever. It took a catastrophe like Iraq to shake, briefly, the insuperable confidence of the media class, and then it was for the wrong reasons. But like I said, that no longer matters - because they have some new, highly potent, shit to hawk now. Today, they're standing up against a new 'totalitarianism', defending feminism, or secularism, or (even more cheekily) democracy, against movements about whom they can only speak in bowdlerised psychiatric cliches (see Cohen's What's Left for plenty of this).