Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Flip-side of Orientalism

The sharpest arrow in the anti-colonialist quiver, or maybe the biggest bazooka, is "orientalism," the idea developed by Edward W. Said in Orientalism that the west justified its colonial empires on the inherent inferiority of the Orient. Wikipedia:
He argued that a long tradition of romanticized images of Asia and the Middle East in Western culture had served as an implicit justification for European and American colonial and imperial ambitions.
In other words, the western colonialists developed all kinds of notions about the "Oriental mind." All these things, writes Said, the notion of Oriental barbarity, how the climate and geography dictated the characters of the Orient, in telling the truth, using logic, even walking on sidewalks.

I'd heard of Said, of course, but only encountered him this week as a read his introduction to a Penguin edition of Rudyard Kipling's Kim.  It is the ideal vehicle for Said's theory, since Kipling had completely internalized the notions of Oriental infantilism necessary to justify the British Raj in India in his story about a poor white kid, Kim O'Hara, growing up in Lahore, in the Punjab.

Of course, Edward Said brings some ahistorical notions of his own into his critique of Kipling.  He introduced the notion of an "independent" India before the British Raj.  You mean the Mughal invaders from the West?  The Delhi Sultans?  Even back to the Aryans, who seem to have come through Afghanistan to conquer India?  The fact is that before, say, 1700, there was no notion of anything except predatory warfare and might makes right.

And then he mentions "adventurers and pioneers like Warren Hastings and Robert Clive, men whose innovations and unrestricted rule required legislation in England to subdue the unrestricted authority of the Raj."  Really?  I'd say that the innovation around Clive and Hastings was the innovation that there could or should be any limit on the behavior of a victorious and plundering pro-consul.  That was why the Impeachment of Warren Hastings managed by Edmund Burke was so noteworthy.  In the old days, whoever cared what happened to minor nobility like the Begums of Oude?  But Burke made oppressive and predatory government into a scandal, not just in the British heartland but in its Empire.

And then it struck me.  Isn't the whole liberal political philosophy a kind of domestic version of Said's Orientalism?  Let me render a paragraph of Said's from Orientalism with "Orient" translated as appropriate.
My contention is that Orientalism[liberalism] is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient[US] because the Orient[ordinary bitter-clinger American] was weaker than the West[liberal elite], which elided the Orient’s[ordinary American's] difference with its weakness....As a cultural apparatus Orientalism[liberalism] is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge
What do you think?  Is not liberalism in fact a form of domestic colonialism, that justifies liberal power because the ordinary uneducated American is not up to the challenge of government?  And anyway, his bigotry and greed marginalizes workers, minorities, women, and gays, and therefore liberals are ethically required to intervene and rule the bitter-clinger barbarians.

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