On Being Both ‘Bad’ And ‘Great’

Recently, in response to Richard Seymour‘s essay on Winston Churchill in Jacobin–one whose tagline read “Churchill was no hero — he was a vile racist fanatical about violence and fiercely supportive of imperialism,” I wrote the following on my Facebook status page:

Indians have known this and said this forever. Hopefully, now that a white Englishman has said the same thing, we won’t be subjected to any more nauseating Churchill hagiography.

In response, a friend wrote:

The very idea that someone might be both terrible and great. Sounds like another century.

To which yet another friend responded:

Can we from India remember the terrible part? Or should we dilute the gaze full of genocidal hatred he fixed upon us, and remember that he was great to some other people, just not us? I think (and I admit I am entirely biased) he has blotted enough of his record via-a-vis India for us in India not to worry about his greatness.

This little exchange encapsulates quite neatly a recurring aspect of post-colonial discourse and debate–the historical evaluation of colonialists and imperialists. Here, I make note of a revisionist take on Churchill–such revisionism is not new with respect to Churchill though my embittered status makes it seem so–and express the hope that such revisionism will lead to a continuing revaluation of Churchill’s ‘legacy’ and ‘achievements,’ which thus far, have included the persistent and continual reminders of how ‘he saved the world from Nazism.’  In response, I am admonished for my blinkered view, for my insistence that Churchill’s racism and imperialism sully his ‘legacy’ and am urged to take on a more catholic and stereoscopic view. In return, a post-colonial subject–whose nationality is identified–says that as far as Indians were concerned, this dimension overpowers other aspects of his life and work. It was, you see, the dimension ‘we’ were exposed to; those other aspects of his ‘greatness’ were often experienced by others.

This debate is destined to continue and recur. It is therefore incumbent on me to make note of a fallacy that underwrites it: the insistence that the ‘greatness’ and ‘badness’ of colonial leaders–or perhaps just colonialism in general–be universally recognized and acknowledged by the very same people. It is not enough that Churchill be described as ‘great’ by some and ‘bad’ by yet others, and that in some supposedly ‘final analysis’ a complicated, variegated, synoptic of the man and his work might emerge; no, rather, it is necessary that Churchill’s ‘badness’ and ‘greatness’ both be acknowledged by the same demographic: the post-colonial subject, who otherwise stands accused of a lack of historical perspective and perhaps even ingratitude. The post-colonial subject cannot, for instance, just add his contribution assessing the colonialist as ‘bad’ to the mix; he must too, contribute a shade of gray. No unequivocal assessments or opinions for him and her.

This does not sound like an invitation to a more complex view of the world; it is merely a push back down the slope to a familiar position where the manner and form of the post-colonial subject’s action and speech is to be regulated by a set of normative criteria that diffuse its force and power–whether rhetorical or  material. Old habits die hard.

Pankaj Mishra on the Supposedly ‘Inevitable’ American ‘Retreat’ from the Middle East

Pankaj Mishra suggests America’s ‘retreat’ from the Middle East is ‘inevitable’ as its ‘financial clout’ diminishes and with it, its ability to control the ‘bewilderingly diverse and ferocious energies unleashed by the Arab Spring.’  Now, the language of inevitability in a domain as complex as geopolitics generally signposts intellectual arrogance: Can the interactions of people, power, money, religion, really give rise to anything subject to such a facile description? One would think not, but admitting this would presumably lead to a less provocative headline.  Mishra is, of course, on to something, given the diminishing ability of the US to influence world affairs and recent events in the Middle East but he doesn’t help his case by arguing his point with his usual penchant for looseness and the throw-away line. (Such as, for instance, dismissing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s interesting role in Indian independence struggles with a casual note that runs him together along with Woodrow Wilson’s rejection of Ho Chin Minh’s overtures for IndoChinese independence, all on the basis of one–admittedly crude–remark about the Palestinians. Roosevelt’s extended correspondence with Churchill on this matter is seemingly of no interest to Mishra, an astonishing omission for someone appointed the Modern Voice of India. )

The central elision in Mishra’s analysis occurs early where he suggests that recent events in the Middle East–‘the murder of four Americans in Libya and mob assaults on the United States’ embassies’–should not be analogized with the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran but rather with America’s helicopter-borne departure from Saigon as ‘North Vietnamese tanks rolled into the city.’ But soon after offering this putative analogy, Mishra offers a quick disclaimer, which is not revisited again for the length of his Op-Ed:

Of course, Southeast Asia had no natural resources to tempt the United States and no ally like Israel to defend.

The reason the analogy with South East Asia might not be made then, is because, bizarrely enough, Southeast Asia is not like the Middle East for the two reasons adduced above. If A is to be analogized to B, then it must be because A is relevantly similar to B. But the presence of gigantic energy resources–already the cause of several expensive military involvements in the Middle East–and of an ally that has a significant lobbyist-fueled presence in American domestic politics, render  the modern Middle East rather, relevantly dissimilar to the Southeast Asia of the 1960s and 1970s.

Mishra attempts to paper over this weakness in his analogy by noting that Southeast Asia like the Middle East,

[A]ppeared to be at the front line of the worldwide battle against Communism, and American policy makers had unsuccessfully tried both proxy despots and military firepower to make the locals advance their strategic interests.

But this seems common to Latin America, Middle East and Southeast Asia. Has the US faced a ‘strategic retrenchment’ in Latin America in the face of the many struggles for self-determination in that continent? Not really, because Latin America is sufficiently dissimilar from Southeast Asia–in geographical proximity for instance–to bring about a different orientation on the part of US policy makers.

Mishra overlooks other factors that weaken his analogy. The hasty departure from the rooftops of the American Embassy came at the end of a long, expensive, and bloody war that graphically demonstrated the limits of US military might, a war front and center in the American imagination because of its extensive reach, across the oceans and back into daily life–thanks to the draft–in the ‘homeland.’ The current involvement in Afghanistan does not compare in terms of its visible presence in American political conversation: it is yet another forgotten war. The ability of this war to force American ‘strategic retrenchment’ is crucially limited.

Yes, America faces resurgent nationalist movements and uprisings against dominant, US-supported regimes in the Middle East; yes, its economic power is waning. And yes, the US remains oblivious to, and misreads, Middle Eastern sensibilities. But there is oil in them thar sands, and those who sit on top of it can still be talked into backroom deals that ignore local sensitivities, and there remains an ally of the US that is capable, unlike any other, of skewing US foreign policy in directions of its choosing.