Glenn Greenwald and the hierophants of an alternate imperialism

By Tom Owolade
A set of attacks happen in close proximity to your neighbourhood, and initially your response is emotive. Initially emotive and then analytical. You try to adduce from these attacks the reasoning that underpins them. You try to explain the casus belli of these horrendous atrocities. In reaction to the mainstream declaration that these admittedly atrocious acts are “acts of terror”, you investigate the meaning of the word ‘terror’- its functional significance. As a righteous opponent of the establishment, you feel obligated in trying to understand the intentions of these acts. This, in reaction to the establishment’s pronouncement that these acts are the acts of primitive, unconscionably savage bedouins. You side with the oppressed in reaction against their oppressors, you understand their reaction to be oppressed in reaction against their oppressors condemning their reaction, and continuing to oppress them. You are in essence an anti-imperialist, an unflinching critic of a nefarious global empire. You feel disinclined to straightforwardly condemn the oppressed in reaction against the simplistic condemnation of the oppressors. You have to contextualise their actions, in reaction to the establishment’s lack of context. As a fair-minded, analytical yet morally righteous person, you understand the importance of understanding why they hate us. Why they react, often violently, to us. Why we have blood on our hands, not them. Why we are the aegis of all moral depravity, and they’re the necessary blowback to our ubiquitous , callous, financially driven, imperial, war on terror.

In a piece for the Intercept, Glenn Greenwald, explaining an attack that took place in Canada against a Canadian soldier, contends:

it’s not the slightest bit surprising or difficult to understand why people who identify with those on the other end of Canadian bombs and bullets would decide to attack the military responsible for that violence.

Understanding the reaction of the oppressed – the disenfranchised malcontents – is basic analytics. They hate us because we ruined their lives. As a result of this, all moral carnage that they inflict upon us is ultimately our fault. Is this reasoning faulty? Does it ultimately abrogate responsibility from the perpetrators of these heinous crimes, and disproportionately concentrate responsibility on the victims of these heinous crimes? Yes, and yes. Greenwald goes on, however and develops this dysfuctional reasoning by adding:

The only surprising thing about any of it is that it doesn’t happen more often.

Of course, as an analytical and a morally righteous person, it is right we express incredulity at the fact that the victims of our oppression, our imperialism, don’t react more violently against us. But of course, Mr Greenwald is not an analyst, or at the very least not a sophisticated one. He is an anarcho-libertarian moralist though, one who marinates in the perpetual loathing of a single subject: the West. Hatred that is so pathological and so myopic, not only does it rationalise the vicious barbarity of any pronounced anti-westerner, but it desensitises him to common decency. Which morally decent person would, in an immediate reaction to a wanton act of murder, contend that the west had it coming?

But, isn’t this a critique, a necessary critique, of western exceptionalism? A view which propounds that the west is an exceptionally benign force in geopolitical global affairs. Such a view is absolute baloney of course? Right? What about the irredeemably disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the alliance with wicked gulf states such as Saudi Arabia who export a toxic version of Islam; Wahhabism? What about them, hey? But of course by concentrating all of your rage, anger and moral indignation exclusively at the West one is not offering a non-partisan or cogent exegesis on western exceptionalism. Rather, what one is expressing is a foul version of it’s doppelgänger – “westisexceptionallybadism”. Such a viewpoint can be bifurcated into two key elements, dysphemistically admonishing the various imperfections of the West in one instance. And then euphemistically rationalising the malignant, and often irreducibly internecine motivations of anti-western actors. All this is demonstrative of what I consider to be an alternate type of imperialism-inverser imperialism. A viewpoint that analyses geopolitics (especially of the third world) through a parochial framework which abrogates non-western actors of moral agency and concentrates blame exclusively on the West.

One column which exemplifies some of the elements of inverser imperialism is a Huffington Post piece by Jennifer Izaakson – who is, incredibly, a Phd student at UCL. The piece is from last December, and follows the sentencing of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale – The Woolwich killers. In the piece, Izaakson says two especially noteworthy things. She first says:

It is the politicians who have radicalised young Muslim men.

And then she says:

Keep in mind who really has blood on their hands- the politicians.

Why can’t the people who have blood on their hands be the people who literally have blood on their hands? In other words, what is functional significance of expressing such a statement? To me it’s quite clear. Like all dogmatic doctrines, Inverser Imperialism is predicated on certain a priori assumptions. The subaltern – the victim of the oppression – are infantilised as ethereal victims. The oppressor West, even in the face of being unambiguously attacked, are the primary agent of all moral turpitude that is visited upon itself. Now to me this sounds like a politicised version of Stockholm syndrome, a diluted version that fits the peculiar dynamics of political discourse, but retaining the same essence: extroverted self-loathing.

Furthermore, inverser imperialists view the subaltern as resistors rather than instigators, as revolutionaries rather than reactionaries but who react rather than act out of their own volition. Because to act of one’s own volition would be to acquire moral agency – moral agency being an essential component of moral responsibility. Being a moral agent is also a status that is attendant with personhood. However, the incorrigible burden of the white man means that the victims of our imperialism are impervious to the possibility of personhood. The victim-victimser dialectic is retained and entrenched. Rather than assigning them the moral status of persons, they’re the vessels of western animosity. Rather than viewing them as ends in themselves (to quote Kant) they’re a projection of western self-loathing.

I’ll go on: rather than emboldening them and seeking to inspire in them the universal values of democracy and human rights, we persist in subordinating them to codes, barriers and immutable conventions. Supposing for example, that the authentic subaltern is inherently reactionary – that is to say female oppression, execution of gay people and suicide bombing are their by the by status as victims – is a racist view. Racist, as it conjugates values with identity. Enlightenment and progressive values are not therefore the inalienable rights of man, but are, ipso facto, the realisation of being white/western. Conversely, believing in divinely ordained oppressive laws, rather than man made civil laws are, if not an essential component of being (for arguments sake) a Muslim, one which should at least be tolerated and treated with equanimity. I’m sorry, you can tolerate the persecution of gay people and apostates and the delegitimisation of women’s autonomy all you want – but don’t traduce those who refuse to tolerate these ignominies by labelling them racists. The irrational and indeed pathological hatred of Muslims does exist and ought to be combated unequivocally. What is noteworthy of course is that bigots and inverser imperialists share a belief that to be authentically Muslim entails espousing a set of views that happen to be retrograde. Bigots generally believe that liberal secular Muslims practice taqiyya – are in essence closet extremists – whereas inverser imperialists belief that liberal, secular Muslims are raving neocon stooges for the establishment. Their difference is a superficial one; the difference between indiscriminate hostility and indiscriminate masochism.

Why is there still a visible taboo in extending full solidarity to unapologetic liberal, secular Muslims like Maajid Nawaz and Sara Khan? Why does a Muslim, who for example argues that homosexuality and Islam are not incompatible and supports the right to represent the prophet Muhammed, still induce elementary feelings of confusion, bewilderment and surprise even amongst seemingly secular, liberal non-muslims? And concomitant to this, why are the strident opponents of people who believe in the innate malfeasance of homosexuality and the strict impermissiblity of religious representations, viewed with more opprobrium than the people who support these illiberal, anti-secular ideas? People who loathe liberal democracies and the values it endorses.

I have an answer: the West as it is, and connected to the West are the values it endorses, ought be resisted because the ethereal victims of the West’s undying oppression side against the West and the values it endorses, and so we must also side against the West and the values it endorses. This is the perfidious implications of such a doctrine, warped in its sense of nobility. “Anti-imperialist” “pro-peace” “pro-justice” “sympathy with the oppressed” “tolerance”. But at its essence it’s just warped and not noble. Anti-imperialist, ss long as it’s against the West. Pro peace, as long as it’s “peace” for the victims and only the victims of the West. Pro-justice, as long as it’s justice against the West. Sympathy with the oppressed, as long as it’s the oppressed of the West. Tolerance, even if it will mean tolerating groups that are intolerant of your very existence.

I don’t mean to sound orotund, but I think it’s fair to say the left are in the midst of an intellectual civil war. Sectarianism has always existed in the left but in the past few decades the conflict has become particularly more pronounced around certain issues. This is a war that is fought between unapologetic, anti-totalitarian cultural objectivists and the hierophants of inverser imperialism, who to varying degrees rationalise, excuse and apologise for the most extreme version of the subaltern. Who view them as collective vehicles for self-flagellation, rather than individual ends in themselves. Who misunderstand indissoluble hatred for reasoned resistance, and who are desecrating a great intellectual tradition.


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