Sunday, February 17, 2008

The danger of raising expectations and the native unwillingness to learn

Kermit Roosevelt opens his account of his involvement of the overthrow of Mossadegh with some remarks on how such a courageous and far-sighted decision turned into the ferment and revolt of 1979. The trouble, he concludes, is that by bringing in a modernising Shah, who did so much good for the country, they raised Iranian expectations well beyond what was reasonable, thus encouraging the rebellion. That's one fairly consistent theme in colonial ideology when it comes to explaining the ingratitude of the colonial subjects: throw the native a bone and he gets rather over-excited and starts clamouring for more than his due. Or, perhaps, as Charles Dickens explained after the Jamaican Rebellion, the native is of a low racial type, naturally indolent and disinclined to master his own very unfortunate circumstances, but forever demanding. Another typical response is to express grave regrets at the inability of the supposed beneficiaries of colonial rule to learn. "Very sadly, the inhabitants of this wilderness demonstrate an obdurate unwillingess to acquire the techniques of good government, sound finance, cultural sophistication and solid gender relations that we have tried to teach them. They are going half-mad, in fact, with fanatical passions that threaten to set them back for several millenia. We had better send in the gunboats." I think that summarises the British response to the Egyptian rebellion in the 1880s.

On this note, here is a headline from yesterday's New York Times: US Struggles to Tutor Iraqis in Rule of Law. You can forget the fact, if you like, that the US actually built up the present Iraqi administration almost from scratch, populated its departments with personnel from sectarian parties and death squads, parcelled out power on a sectarian-cum-patrimonial basis, drove a sectarian constitution, etc etc, and therefore any problems that 'Iraqis' might be having with the 'rule of law' are entirely down to the occupiers. That confounding hypocisy is now so typical, it's stereotypical. But so is the ideological structure into which it fits. I have not the time now, but - knowing the kinds of dreck I've just sighed over and tried to put out of my mind - I am certain that a careful sifting through the American press coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan over the last six years or so would yield dozens, if not hundreds of examples of this kind of colonial ideological pattern. The fact that this ideology is now professionalised through organisations like the NED and IRI, and that it has a professionalised lingo to boot - oh, you can imagine, 'exporting democracy', 'training country x in democratic practises', 'tutoring so-and-so in the rule of law', as if it was all a matter of step-by-step technocratic exercises rather than a pitch for hegemony - means that it has a faintly neutral air, despite its its invidious assumption that self-government is a cultural rather than political state. That is, of course, on purpose - but it shouldn't stop us from noticing the pedigree.