Tuesday, January 16, 2007

the despair of politics

"It is not news that capitalism and democracy are incompatible," notes IMproPRieTies. The effects of a resultant despair at the heart of politics is certainly evident enough among political writers and journalists...those who at some point slipped (perhaps upon being recognized, or at least deluded into thinking they were recognized) into the happy parasitic realm of formulaic take-down, prescriptive dogma (often in the contorted name of political courage), etc. and never left. On the literary side are those who wisely (or perhaps with natural indifference) saved themselves from delusions of political efficacy (in any simple sense) and went down another path.

Another example of indirectly political writing (of a different sort) appears toward the end of Rory Stewart's The Places in Between. Bookended by his personal testimony of walking through Afghanistan only two weeks after the new (US puppet) "government" had been established, this passing indictment of the window-dressing/McEnlightenment model (of international intervention) casts a far longer, darker shadow than it would have otherwise.
...Their objective was (to quote the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) "the creation of a centralized, broad-based, multi-ethnic government committed to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law." They worked twelve- or fourteen-hour days drafting documents for heavily funded initiatives on "democratization," "enhancing capacity," "gender," "sustainable development," "skills training," or "protection issues," They were mostly in their late twenties or early thirties, with at least two degrees–often in international law, economics, or development. They came from middle-class backgrounds in Western countries, and in the evenings, they dined with each other and swapped anecdotes about curruption in the government and the incompetence of the United Nations. They rarely drove their SUVs outside Kabul because their security advisers forbade it

...Most of the policy makers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90 percent of the Afghan population lived. They came from postmodern, secular, globalized states with liberal traditions in law and government. It was natural for them to initiate projects on urban design, women's rights, and fiber-optic cable networks; to talk about transparent, clean, and accountable processes, tolerance, and civil society; and to speak of a people "who desire peace at any cost and understand the need for a centralized multi-ethnic government."

But what did they understand of the thought process of Seyyed Kerbalahi's wife, who had not moved five kilometers from her home in forty years? Or Dr. Habibullah, the vet, who carried an automatic weapon in the way they carried briefcases? The villagers I had met were mostly illiterate, lived far from electricity or television, and knew very little about the outside world. Versions of Islam; views of ethnicity, government, politics, and the proper methods of dispute resolution (including armed conflict); and the experience of twenty-five years of war differed from region to region. The people of Kamenj understood political power in terms of their feudal lord Haji Mohsin Khan. Ismail Khan in Herat wanted a social order based on Iranian political Islam. Hazara such as Ali hated the idea of centralized government because they associated it with subjugation by other ethnic groups and suffering under the Taliban. Even within a week's walk I had encountered areas where the local Begs had been toppled by Iranian-funded social revolution and others where feudal structures were still in place; areas where the violence had been inflicted by the Taliban and areas where the villagers had inflicted it on one another. These differences between groups were deep, elusive, and difficult to overcome.

Presumably Stewart if anyone would know, as each night he depended on the next village leader's hospitality to house and feed him. But it gets better (if even more familiar):
Policy makers did not have the time, structures, or resources for a serious study of an alien culture. They justified their lack of knowledge and experience by focusing on poverty and implying that dramatic cultural differences did not exist. They acted as though the villagers were interested in all the priorities of international organizations, even when those priorities were mutually contradictory.

In a seminar in Kabul, I heard Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, say, "Afghans have been fighting for their human rights for twenty-five years. We don't need to tell them what their rights are." Then the head of a major food agency added privately, "Villagers are not interested in human rights. They are like poor people all over the world. All they think about is where their next meal is coming from." To which the head of an Afghan NGO providing counseling responded, "The only thing to know about these people is that they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder."

However, the footnote on page 247 is really the most damning of all (and a good lesson in how terms always demand precise updating). Which recalls, of course the obvious problem with rampant "neo" or "post"-prefixes – even and especially when their use is actually earned and not just functioning as some polemic hammer extracted from the tomb – which remains how to articulate their instability and finitude. These terms grant the lazy, superficial satisfaction of newness, as if they were their own self-contained perpetual updates. Surely it would be best simply to create new terms to begin with! How quickly one forgets that words should decay, over time, that we need to forcefully confront them with this possibility. (Furthermore that they have always been decaying. That otherwise there is no future.)

One last time, forgive the lengthy quote:
Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neocolonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They requited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geography societies, and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn't their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.

Postcolonial experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could by judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgement they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation, and oppression.

Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan

One could question the dynamics of a market-culture in which such "heroic" tales find so many eager ears and willing hearts, but nothing changes. That the story becomes first of all indissociable from its teller, so it is no longer the story that speaks but the hero who is praised (or what amounts to the same thing, called "crazy" in jealous, timid or skeptical tones, etc). A simple theory of coercion, "liberal guilt" or "liberal tourism/escapism" would probably suffice, combined with an analysis of imbalance in real (democratic) power. But the conglomeration of the message forces is vulgar and simple, and ultimately not very interesting. Which is why we should appreciate testimonies like this – they do speak, as the phrase goes, with "rare honesty," however iconographically-inclined – but not place any more faith in them than in the next guy with a writing implement.

We should resist making them into icons, citing them merely at dinner parties. It is the testimony itself that counts. To recall what such writers as Josipovici or Derrida/Blanchot have shown us about testimony; that its condition of possibility belongs to literature itself.

IMproPRieTies again:
The point is not that we should trust mavericks...more, but rather that we should trust the intimately familiarized reporters and anchors of standard media less. The presence of institutional canons of credibility should be a red flag.

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