Saturday, November 14, 2009

From Academia With Love

This one again courtesy of Black Coffee. He did warn me that if I posted it I would "risk the wrath" of my fellow contributors. Not one to reject a challenge, I have posted, again in the interests of "know thy enemy". I apologise in advance for its length and tediousness.

We frequently refer to "liberals", the mainstream, and academics, and in doing so we run the risk of creating a straw man who is just a little to easy to knock down.
This article is a good example of some of the ideas doing the rounds, and of what our young students are being force-fed.

Liberal acamedia has a respectability about it for a reason, although that reason may not necessarily be a good one. I left academia behind for reasons like the article below, so shallow, meaningless and drivel-filled had it become.

Ever had a conversation with someone and had no idea what they were talking about?

I don't mind saying I have. It may be my short attention span (or low bullshit tolerance), but I often used to end up agreeing with someone if they are using enough big words or jargon, if only to avoid having to ask them to explain themselves (which they invariably do in VERY small words).

Included are my comments in red, of course. Emphases in bold are mine, as are some final comments at the end. The original article can be found here.

Spoiler: her very last sentence is VERY revealing.

Civilization and the Myth of African Savagery

Following a five and a half year scholarly meditation to tackle explicitly the prejudices ‘still deeply embedded’ in the Western academy, Wendy C. Hamblet challenges the ‘popular assumption that violence is an essential quality of certain populations’, and offers ‘an alternative, more sympathetic, but also more realistic, account of some of the world’s current violences’. In the spring of 2002, I shared a conversation with a learned man, the dean of Humanities at one of the most prestigious universities in the United States. That conversation disturbed me to such an extent that it clarified for me the focus of a philosophical mission that would carry me through the next five and a half years of my research life.[1] It clarified for me in the starkest terms the need for a scholarly meditation that would tackle explicitly the prejudices still deeply embedded in the minds of some powerful and highly educated persons holding positions of what Foucault calls Power/Knowledge in the Western academy.[2]

It was a spring afternoon. As I entered the dean’s office, I recall being struck by its sumptuousness [preparing the way for moral contrast]. The bright sun flowed in the windows and danced across the softly tinted walls and plush furnishings of the spacious suite. The birds trilled from the trees outside, despite the windows being boxed up tight, as is the way in large institutions in security-obsessive nations. This was the first time that we had met, he the distinguished man with thoughtful eyes and a timely frost at the temples, and I a simple philosopher, not long tossed from the ivory tower of my graduate studies in philosophy into the cold realities of the academic marketplace.

We sat across from each other on matching lavender loveseats. The gentleman smiled amiably at me, and the conversation flitted breezily from topic to topic until it eventually settled on the subject of my research. At this point, I imagined the room to darken slightly, as it always seems to do when I attempt to explain my dark work to anyone outside my field. I shared with the man the burning question that had colonised my every thought and driven my thirst for study long before my doctoral studies forced the question into philosophical articulation for me: How do human beings, in seeming good conscience, come to do the dreadful things that they do to each other?

How are we to explain the immense abyss that divides the lofty ideals that ostensibly guide the behaviours of human societies from the stark fact of the bloody history of our species? Why, after these long millennia of ‘civilising processes’ does the madness of genocide and other crimes against humanity continue to stalk innocents everywhere? I lamented to my host: ‘Violence floods the globe; bloodletting drowns the dreams of newly developing nations across the third world; misery and carnage undermine hopes for peace and progress in the poorest and weakest countries.’

The gentleman in the plush office shifted in his seat; his eyes darted from left to right. He leaned forward, dropping his voice to a judicious whisper, clearly eager to share his wisdom with this naive and artless philosopher. ‘Wendy,’ he said solicitously, ‘These people have always been killing each other. There is nothing you or I can do about it. It’s just the way these people are.’

The facile myth whispered to me in the plush office suite that sunny spring day by my sophisticated interlocutor [..and there it is], the myth that global violence can be explained entirely by reference to character traits embedded in the nature of certain peoples – ‘the way these people are’ – I challenge here with heartfelt enthusiasm. I challenge the popular assumption that violence is an essential quality of certain populations. In place of this myth, I am offering an alternative, more sympathetic, but also more realistic, account of some of the world’s current violences. [violenceS? newspeak alert]

Philosophers are generally reluctant to step out from the sheltering canopy of Socratic ignorance and into the stark light of soul-endangering truth claims. The philosopher worries, with good cause, what grand and sinister edifices may arise on the most humble of grounding soils. However perilous, an argument must begin from some foundation. The fundamental assumption that grounds and guides this paper is what I am naming the ‘rebounding’ nature of violence, after the expression coined by anthropologist Maurice Bloch in his fascinating study of the Orokaiva people of Papua, New Guinea, recorded in Prey into Hunter.[3] The grounding assumption is simple: When people are degraded, dehumanised, exploited, and demoralised for long periods of time, their wretchedness invades their cultural and political forms.

The violences we witness in Africa in the modern era, I contend, are best understood in their historical context, as ‘reboundings’ of earlier violences. Rebounding violence reveals itself in the agonising forms of ‘identity work’ through which suffering populations express their abjection and struggle to reclaim their sense of self-worth in the wake of denigrating histories. Long oppressed people emerge from histories of brutalisation with shattered self-worth [?], divided from, and suspicious of, their neighbours, and desperate for empowerment[now that's what I call a sweeping statement]. Victim populations, cast by their oppressors as morally wanting, suffer fundamental changes to their worldviews. Having witnessed the horrors that accompany powerlessness and the efficacy of violence in the hands of the powerful, victims once freed adopt the worldview of their oppressors, and grasp the helm of power under the conviction that violence is a valuable and necessary political tool.

When colonial rule ended, therefore, it is hardly surprising that African leaders, taking back the seats of power, mirror the behaviours of the previous colonial rulers and repressors [it would be equally valid to assert, they should have known better]. Since the regimes they assume after independence have been historically designed for the express purpose of rigid social control, it is little surprise that the new leaders tend to mirror the harsh governing practices of the colonials. As sure as night-time follows day, violence follows sufferers long into their liberation [not really in the cases of India, Finland or Uruguay, for example], and drives them in the direction of a future, deeply burdened by the past. Victims emerge from their histories of suffering scarred, wounded, and abject. Their future behaviours often entail desperate efforts to bring closure to their suffering by projecting their miseries, resentment, and anger upon those in their immediate vicinity.

In the glory centuries of the various European empires, modern ‘civilised’ nations launched a vast assault upon small kinship groups of generally self-sufficient peaceful peoples around the globe [where to begin with this one? peaceful??]. In the cause of moral and scientific progress and in the various names of king and god, about fifty million tribal peoples were forced to surrender half the globe to white Europeans bent on ‘civilising’ missions.[5] Though the invaders spoke of spreading the word of god and delivering the benefits of civilisation to the far reaches of the globe, in fact much of this assault composed deliberate extinction – murder undertaken on a mass scale as a blatant act of political and economic purpose. National and papal policy endorsed this global slaughter [ah, so we're talking 15th century here, not 19th? or are we just generalising again?]. The few indigenous peoples who survived the bloody onslaught of ‘civilization’ were then conscripted into murderous militaries to prey upon their neighbours, enslaved for cost-free labour, or ‘hired’ to work themselves to exhaustion or death as ambiguously ‘free’ people, toiling under the most miserable of conditions. Long after the mass graves had been transformed into cotton and sugar farms, long after the good Christians had rediscovered their consciences and abandoned their colonial holdings, and long after capitalist merchants [do I detect a leftie? I was under the impression that capitalist merchants had liberated us from feudalism] had found new, more profitable ways to organise the armies of labourers for the strip-mining of their vast homeland territories, the conquests and slaughters of the imperialist era continue to be rejoiced in songs, films, and history books as grand episodes in the history of Western ‘civilisation’.

The routine harvest of insult and injury reaped by the people of Africa during centuries of colonial abuse [centuries? you mean going back to the period of Arab colonisation? because most of Africa was untouched as late as 1870] caused the African people to discover facts about the frailty of the human condition better left unknown – the vulnerability of human flesh, the defenselessness of timeworn social forms, and the incapacity of an ethos of generosity and welcome to protect against sheer aggression. Through beatings, rapes, and myriad diverse humiliations, Africans discovered that unqualified trust in their fellow humans was naive and foolhardy [complete rewriting of history there, but carry on].

Worst of all, Africans discovered the inability of the healthiest mentality and most robust self-esteem to withstand prolonged indignity [if they "discovered" that, they would have been wrong]. Where insults are swallowed daily and moral outcries suppressed, where peoples are pushed from sacred lands, clans are scattered, and tribal solidarity offended [?!], communal resentment eventually gives rise to agendas of revenge that turn the decent into the bloodthirsty. Like a time bomb, the colonial world, from the bloody moment of its birth, ticked away toward a vicious and brutal finale that would not suddenly abate with the advent of independence.

To calculate the damages afforded the colonial victims, one cannot stop at mere corpse counts and inventories of appropriated landholdings [of course one cannot, that would be too realistic]. One must consider the disintegration of families by long years of forced labour migration, the cultural and artistic losses, the corruption of time-honoured traditions, the loss of respect for the elders when children are trained in European-style schools, the effects of the bloody battles that won independence, and the long-term split those wars wedged between Africans conscripted into the colonial armies and those fighting for independence. Inimitable artefacts vanished forever; traditions of peaceful trade and ‘naturally democratic’ [what?? what have you been smoking??], non-hierarchical governance were crushed. Vanished were the farsighted resource-utilisation practices that guarantee sustainability [like what?], the social traditions that render longevity and stability of cultural forms, the naturally egalitarian institutional forms, and the complex self-sustaining networks of social and economic exchange that promise self-reliance and political autonomy alongside sound neighbourliness.[5] A wealth of human life, social tradition, political skill, and artistic talent was crushed by ethnocentrism, cultural ignorance, and capitalist greed, renamed as ‘civilisation’.

Most importantly, the disfiguration of subjects and life worlds ["life worlds"?] must be entered into the account of African losses. People change under long generations of indignity, fear, and abuse. People oppressed witness that violence is a highly effective tool that imposes order in situations of chaos; it is abundantly functional and proficient at this task.

Once the oppressed break free of their masters’ stranglehold, they have a propensity to turn directly to violence to bring order to their world. Once the sword is taken up in a cause seen as moral, it is not easily relinquished again when the immediate goals have been achieved [that's a good point]. Violence tends to persist in the arsenal of accepted practices of the individual and the community, ready to serve new masters and to endow future ends with the moral purity of past objectives.

Rarely does the practice of violence end with the burying of the dead. Violence is a commodity not ingested without remainder. Rather, it spawns endless mutations. Old forms of violence generate new forms, and consumers of those products become its new peddlers. Subjective spaces of identity are transformed, social scripts rewritten, and social action redressed in the light of violences suffered. Violence and subjectivity become inextricably entwined. Violence creates, sustains, and transforms patterns of social interactions, restructures the inner world of lived realities, and corrupts the outer world of social and moral meanings.

Violence erodes the connectedness that binds people across generations and across cultural boundaries, and corrodes the trust that binds the social worlds of friends, family, and neighbours. Learned reactions to social stimuli have to be unlearned after violent histories. Repertoires of sensory memories have to be reprogrammed after brutalising experiences. In South Africa during apartheid, for example, black Africans had to diligently train themselves not to respond to the cries of torture victims in their housing projects, since response would spiral the repression far beyond the torture rooms and into the surrounding community. Dismissing a neighbour’s agonies is contradictory and offensive to the communal ethos typical of African peoples [unlike causing them, of course]. Once South Africans learned to harden their hearts against a neighbour’s woes, they had abandoned an integral aspect of themselves and their social and moral identity. [and how common was that exactly, in order to affect a whole nation?]

The fact is that survival in zones where radical violence is the norm has to do with a people’s successful development of the capacity to cut themselves off from their neighbours and to learn the skills of furtiveness – dissimulation, deceit, and fraud – or join the cruelty of the powerful. During the centuries of slave trade in the hinterlands of the Ivory Coast, for example, native African populations protected their freedom by working for the slavers. Supplied with guns, they assumed the morally ambiguous role of hunting down their fellow tribes people and their neighbours [who had all been practicing slavery since time immemorial. Why doesn't this woman know this? why do philosophers scorn basic historical facts?].

Others escaped the hunters by becoming skilled at ducking out of sight and hiding, keeping to themselves and avoiding their neighbours, and becoming accomplished liars. Some tribes built entire underground villages unknown even to their closest neighbours. Ancient African social rituals, such as inquiring after the health of neighbours and welcoming passersby to share food, drew suspicion and were soon abandoned.

The historical record is clear, but has never been truly philosophically examined to illuminate the implications. European colonials named Africans ‘savages’ to justify their treatment of the (for the most part) peaceful generous peoples that welcomed them into their villages. Europeans savaged the people of Africa, but justified their savagery by naming Africans savages. It is European savagery that rebounds on the African continent today, plaguing newly independent states [see how helpless they are?].

Violence effectively rebounds in individuals and in societies that have suffered degradation. It rebounds in ever new directions, serving new purposes, shaping new practices, and providing ever new justifications for harming others. Independence has been won and the oppressed have been freed from the tyranny of their past abuses, but after being savaged, people do not easily return to their peaceful ways; victim people do not simply step back into a lost past and pick up where they had left off, decades and centuries before.

Sometimes the historical savagery rebounds as a political problem. Some African peoples are loathe to accept in the ruling class of their nation peoples who, in the wake of colonial divide-and-conquer strategies, they now see, not as fellow sufferers in a common ‘community of the oppressed’, but as aliens infecting their nation. Other people seek revenge against their neighbours, as they recall the treachery of those conscripted into the colonial militaries to fight against independence. The historical savagery rebounds in the city streets, in the villages, and on the political stages of newly independent African nations, where the people desperately carry out pathological ‘identity work’ to recapture lost power and dignity. People continue to suffer from the humiliations they have endured in common, but their painful pasts, as similar as they are, also set them one against another, and set the exploited against the new leaders stepping into old elitist positions, maintaining the violences encoded within the inherited colonialist institutions.

The African continent of diverse and culturally rich peoples [you mean the ones you've been calling "Africans" this whole time?] suffered long from physical, psychological, and structural violences imposed by colonial invaders under the rubric of ‘civilisation’. This meditation centres upon African peoples so abused, but the reflection could have been focused upon any of a plethora of peoples since European/Western nations began exporting their peculiar brand of ‘civilisation’. I could be describing the indigenous populations of half the globe, overrun, slaughtered, and enslaved by foreign invaders as ‘civilising projects’ swept away previous life worlds.

When we look out across Africa, we must admit that very little has changed. The rape of the African continent is still in full swing today [we've abandoned the academic language now, have we?]. Enrique Dussel observes, ‘The heroes of neocolonial emancipation worked in an ambiguous political sphere, [but] Mahatma Gandhi in India, Abdel Nasser in Egypt, and Patrice Lumumba in the Congo [were] not aware that their nations [would] pass from the hands of England, France, or Belgium into the hands of the United States [they better pray China isn't next].’[6]

In the breadbasket of Africa, people are eating dirt. They are boiling up grass to fill the hungry tummies of their children [tummies??]. Across the African continent, the vast majority of Africans continues to form a permanent underclass. They are still, in many respects, strangers in their own land. In many regions, there still exists the glaring paradox of indigenous poverty alongside the affluence of colonial settlers, still living like feudal overlords. The huge estates of colonials, who consider themselves indigenous after several generations on the African continent [and are they not? you're Canadian aren't you? will you renounce your Canadian citizenship??], stand just uphill from the run-down shacks of their African servants, postcolonial reminders of the violent past.

Africans are calling upon their mighty reserve of tradition to muster the solidarity that will free them from their cruel histories [no they aren't, YOU are]. Africa’s finest hour does not lie in a glorious past that has been smothered by colonial abuse. Africa’s future lies in the peculiarly African brand of peaceful socialism [oxymoron] that keeps faith with the teachings of Africa’s great freedom-fighters – Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Tutu, Julius Nyerere [who bankrupted his country and later apologised publicly for doing so], and so many others. It falls now to the peoples of the ‘dark continent’ to demonstrate to the Western world that living humanly is not about material gain or power; it cannot be won by military troops and by ‘shock and awe’ blitzkriegs of innocents. Living humanly in the African tradition is about dwelling in peaceful companionship, where folks are ashamed to possess more than their poorest neighbours [what planet are you ON??? where do you get off telling Africans who they are??].

In the final analysis, the success of the independence struggles in postcolonial Africa must be measured in terms of the new nations’ ability to overcome their violent pasts, to recapture their traditions and histories [agreed 100%. but I sense something on the horizon here..]. Africans must learn to heal the ruptures between traditional and modern modes-of-being, embodied in the lifestyle gap between the urbanised African and the rural hut-dweller. Africans must learn to hold firmly together in the face of sinister neocolonialist forces that continue to enslave their peoples [=China], strip-mine their resources, and usurp their fishing waters and their farmlands.

Africa’s case is a particular tragedy with unique lingering effects, but, in many regards, the African historical experience symbolises the new global situation, as neocolonialism increasingly fractures third world communities across the planet, splicing them into the dual extremes of the wealthy few and the hopeless many [just like all ancient societies, Egypt, Babylon, the Indus Valley, Rome...]. Where little hope exists for a decent life, there festers a hotbed, rife with resentment and riddled with religious fundamentalism, which will eventually explode into terrorism [which is a feature of relatively rich Islamic countries, not "hopeless" ones].

This paper employs, as its primary example of the phenomenon of the rebounding of historical violences, the bloody conflicts we witness in newly independent nations of Africa, which continue to be interpreted by some Westerners as indicative of the essential inferiority of dark-skinned peoples, as ‘just the way these people are.’ By obliging a rethinking of the violences of modern Africa as pathological responses to, and re-enactments of, the sufferings visited upon them during the colonial era, I seek to disclose Western implication in that violence and to argue for the reparations [...and....] and ongoing support that victim peoples are due [THERE it is! ].

* Wendy C. Hamblet, PhD, SAC (Dip) is an associate professor at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, North Carolina.


[1] This project ended in the 2008 publication of the book Savage Constructions: The Myth of African Savagery (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Press, 2008).
[2] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, Colin Gordon, ed. & trans. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.
[3] Maurice Bloch, Prey into Hunter: The Politics of Religious Experience (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 3.
[4] John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress (Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield Publishing, 1990).
[5] See Chancellor Williams, The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race From 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D. (Chicago: Third World Press, 1987), pp. 21, 26.
[6] Enrique Dussel, Philosophy of Liberation (New York: Orbis Books, 1985), p. 13.
Readers' Comments

Dear Reader,
this has been an interesting exercise in critical thinking, not least because tearing apart liberal bullshit is a personal hobby of mine, but also because it helps to remind all of us that big words and wellmeaning language do not a good argument make.

I can see this article delivered as a lecture, absorbed by dozens of nodding undergrads at some university somewhere, falling over themselves to agree that "our" history is oh! so terrible, and "theirs" was oh! so noble -and peaceful- until "we" came along.

Ask yourselves, will this attitude actually help those struggling in the third world? Or will it not rather, as I strongly suspect, reinforced the divides between the West and the Rest?


7 Opinion(s):

FishEagle said...

Viking, your way of making a point is just so entertaining. Loving it.

Viking said...

thanks ma'am!

Exzanian said...

Pretty stomach churning article. Get out of jail free. It provides nothing more than a total abdication of responsibility for someone like Mugabe. No wonder he got away with killing 20,000 people in the 80's, and tortured many more throughout the decades and is still in power today. It's not his fault, poor man.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Nicely done V.

Anonymous said...

Another ignoramus opinion to be ignored, typical warped ideas presented as facts from someone who never lived in Africa, and therefore have no clue what Africans are like.

The only alarming thing is that these proles are allowed to poison young minds with rubbish. It is sad though that these people are getting away with spreading such un-researched/unconfirmed propaganda drivel while going unpunished.

Anonymous said...