The Corner

Jacobin Junk

Martin Jacques is, with poor, dim Will Hutton, one of the sillier commentators on the British Left. As someone who edited Marxism Today he is, you would think, not best placed to give moral lectures to the rest of us. Unfortunately, Jacques, clearly, does not agree. Here he is on how the horrors of Abu Ghraib have eroded supposed claims by the West of a monopoly of both virtue and modernity. Leaving aside the point that in the West we live in a society that ceaselessly denigrates itself while at the same time promoting the imagined moral wisdom of a host of shamans, seers, holy men and other charlatans chanting their nonsense from the Himalayas to the Amazon, and leaving aside too the notion that arguing that the Western way is the best way forward (it is, in case you were wondering) is inconsistent with an understanding that Western civilization is, like any creation of men, deeply flawed, the most instructive aspect of Jacques’ piece is what he has to say about the contrasts between East Asia and the USA. For Western self-hatred it takes some beating.

Here’s Jacques on America: “President Bush claimed last week: “People seeing those pictures didn’t understand the true nature and heart of America.” On the contrary, they are an integral part of its “true nature and heart”: a society that was built on the destruction of the indigenous peoples; that practised racial segregation until 40 years ago; that still incarcerates many of its young black people; that killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese; that has a messianic belief in the applicability of its own values to the rest of the world; that is willing to impose its model by force; that believes itself to be above international law. These too are American values. In this light, the behaviour of the US forces, nurturing a deep sense of racial superiority combined with a disdain for international law, is entirely predictable.”

Jacques roster of villains includes Michael Ignatieff as well as General Custer. He’s in trouble for saying that “The movements of national liberation that swept through the African and Asian worlds in the 1950s, seeking emancipation from colonial rule, have now run their course and in many cases have failed to deliver on their promise to rule more fairly than the colonial oppressors of the past.” And later: “For every nationalist struggle that succeeds in giving its people self-determination and dignity, there are more that only deliver their people up to a self-immolating slaughter, terror, enforced partition and failure.”

Ignatieff is, of course, right but Jacques, the (former?) Marxist sees it differently. “Historically speaking”, he claims that Ignatieff’s argument is, “nonsense. Asia is home to 60% of the world’s population and has few failing states: in East Asia, where one-third live, there are almost none, and many extremely successful ones.”

Good God, where to start? How about with the fact that Ignatieff was writing about Asia and Africa? I don’t see any successes in that latter continent with the possible and, I fear, temporary exception of South Africa. And as for Asia, well let’s look at the region “historically speaking”. If Ignatieff can condemn the US today for the defeat of the Native Americans over a century ago, he needs to explain why the communal slaughter that defaced Indian, Pakistani and (later) Bangladeshi independence are no longer relevant to looking at those countries today, and he needs to linger for a moment on the reality of a Chinese state built on the bones of the murdered tens of millions. Or maybe he would like to tell us about Indonesia and ‘the year of living dangerously’ or, a decade later, the slaughter of the East Timorese, or, further North, the Cambodia of the Killing Fields and concentration camp (oh, sorry, ‘re-education’ camp) Vietnam, or Taiwan, perhaps, and the lengthy oppression of that island’s native inhabitants…

Or if it’s racism (certainly, and tragically, still a problem in the US, although far less than in the past), Jacques wants to discuss, perhaps he should see how minority peoples fare in Asia, or perhaps he should visit occupied Tibet…

The point I’m making, of course, is not to say that the West is perfect. It’s not. But whitewashing the crimes, tragedies and failures of other cultures in an attempt to denigrate America and the rest of the West is either dishonest or ignorant. Take your pick, but remember that Martin Jacques was a Marxist for a long, long time.

Over at the often interesting, if regrettably leftwing, blog, Harry’s Place, there’s more on Jacques’ piece. It’s long (but who am I to criticize that?), but well worth reading and, in particular, the last paragraph is worth repeating here:

“It is the duty of those of us who believe that the Arabs deserve better lives than they presently endure to do all we can to hasten the victory of the democrats and modernisers in Iraq and to challenge the pernicious nonsense which dresses up economic backwardness and political tyranny as an authentically ‘Asian’ condition wherever such arguments raise their ugly heads. Those who wittingly or unwittingly cheer the backward facing factions in Iraq today condemn their fellow humans to poverty, backwardness and misery.”

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