Once again this week, it’s a retweet by @Halfrican_One that gets me thinking—in combination with spending some time with Wendy Brown’s Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire
First, since it came first, the tweet:
When I first read this, I had a “Huh.” moment. It rang true somehow, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
But then I read Brown’s sixth chapter, “Subjects of Tolerance: Why we are Civilized and They are the Barbarians” (assigned to me years ago now but not gotten-around-to until exam time came calling) and it all fell into place.
The chapter, Brown says, explores “how and why liberalism conceives of itself as unique in its capacity to be culturally neutral and culturally tolerant, and conceives of nonliberal ‘cultures’ as disposed toward barbarism” (151).
This supposed “barbarism,” Brown contends, is the result of nonliberal/nonwestern societies being “depicted not only as relentlessly and inherently intolerant but as potentially intolerable for their putative rule by culture or religion and their concomitant devaluation of the autonomous individual” (166). That is, the West imagines itself as tolerant and imagines tolerance as a universal value. What it won’t tolerate, though, is intolerance.
So, there’s a lot going on there, and I haven’t gotten back to Egypt yet, but sit tight.
This only makes sense in a situation under which, by self-nomination, “liberal societies become the broker of what is tolerable and intolerable” (166). This, in its turn, relies on the ideas of “culture as separable from political power and political power as capable of being cultureless,” which are, Brown argues, “what permit principles of liberal democracy to be universalizable without being culturally imperialist” (170).
Okay, so if principles of liberal democracy are imagined to be universal rather than a culturally-imperialist imposition, and if tolerating (not embracing or celebrating, mind you) difference is one of those principles, and nonwestern societies are imagined to be intolerably intolerant, they start to look like they’re inherently unable to live up to those universalized ideals.
If all of this seems like a stretch, let’s turn to some news coverage of the protest in Egypt. The Washington Post tells us that the “Arab world” has a “‘freedom deficit’ signaling the political underdevelopment that accompanied many other economic and social maladies.” Their level of freedom is a “deficit,” and they’re “politically underdeveloped.” If that doesn’t smack of an imperialist-minded universalization of a Western norm, I don’t know what does.
(Though, while I’m on the subject, et tu, WaPo? I’d expect this racist, cultural-elitist, anti-Islamic crap from the Wall St. Journal [AKA the print edition of Fox News], but you? You’re an upstanding journalistic institution, I thought. Maybe I’m wrong about your rep.)
They go on to say that “all these developments seem to come as a surprise to the Obama administration, which dismissed Bush's ‘freedom agenda’ as overly ideological and meant essentially to defend the invasion of Iraq. But as Bush's support for the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and for a democratic Palestinian state showed, he was defending self-government, not the use of force.”
This is again interesting, because it assumes that the only kind of invasion or imposition that matters is the military kind. But the idea that everyone has to govern themselves in exactly the way that we (Americans, Westerners) do is cultural imperialism.
But hey, they redeem themselves, right? They say that “the massive and violent demonstrations underway in Egypt, the smaller ones in Jordan and Yemen, and the recent revolt in Tunisia that inspired those events, have affirmed that the answer is no and are exploding, once and for all, the myth of Arab exceptionalism.”
Unfortunately, they don’t mean what we would like them to mean, because the next sentence is “Arab nations, too, yearn to throw off the secret police, to read a newspaper that the Ministry of Information has not censored and to vote in free elections.” Which essentially amounts to “Hey, those Arabs aren’t as irreparably backward as we always thought. They want to be like us after all!”
This is particularly cultural imperialism given that, as Brown points out, under this same logic democracy is imagined to be inherently hostile to culture or religion or any group identification other than the nation.
Unless that religion is Christianity.
Or, maybe, only if that religion is Islam. As Brown points out, there has been a cyclical repetition of the idea that “those people can’t be trusted; they aren’t like us, their allegiance is really to X”: it was Jews who were imagined inherently traitorous in the 19th century, communists in the 20th, and it’s Muslims today (166).
Which I guess brings us back to Nidal Hasan again
So those are my (admittedly somewhat disorganized) thoughts about Egypt.