Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Let's take a moment to acknowledge our collective ignorance about West and Central Asia

There's lots to deplore about how (white settler) people in this country have responded to the Paris attacks and their aftermath -- racist assaults, racist politicking, racist vandalism, and a wave of noxious white supremacy on social media often cloaked as practical concern for safety.

There has also, however, been generous expression of impulses towards humanity, compassion, and solidarity. Mind you, I think we should be very cautious about how much encouragement we take from this fact, given that so much of the form taken by these pro-social impulses by white settler imperial subjects involves making ourselves feel better about ourselves, without actually facing what would be required to permanently widen the space for racialized and colonized folks to breath, survive, and thrive. But it is still somewhat positive to see more of this sort of pro-social, anti-reactionary response than we have often seen in past iterations of this same awful cycle.

As important as it is to understand these competing impulses, and to recognize in the instinctive move by many towards human solidarity the seeds of a social and political response that might one day be adequate to the problem, my most forceful reaction in the last couple of days has been to a somewhat different aspect of what's going on. That is, it has been so, so disheartening to be reminded of the painfully shallow character of our collective understandings, including in the whiter parts of the left, of the political and social situation in West and Central Asia that we have been so complicit in creating.

This is not a novel observation, of course. And I want to be clear it's not really about individuals, and I'm not exempting myself from it. It's more a matter of taking a moment to pause and recognizing the immense socially organized pressure to not get what's going on there -- with the centuries of sedimented orientalist ignorance first named as such by Edward Said lurking in the background; the generalized refusal to acknowledge five centuries of European imperial/colonial history; the lack of understanding (even in much of the left) about how complex institutions function in general, never mind in this specific context; and the massive investment of energy and labour by Western states over the course of decades in making sure we have no basis to understand what's going on specifically in West and Central Asia, including how our own governments are and are not involved, along with a mixture of active and passive complicity in this by various media institutions.

The exact mix of those things varies some with the politics of the knower -- rad left folk might have a clearer sense of European and Euro-American histories of pillaging the rest of the world, for instance, but that doesn't necessarily come attached to any greater capacity in any of the other areas, and certainly some of the painfully superficial analysis I'm reacting to has been from rad left sources taking one or another oppositional line. The phenomenon as a whole is general: socially organized deprivation of the tools to understand the situation, and therefore to be able to put together programs of collective action to meaningfully intervene and change it.

As general as the problem is, though, I think it's also important to place some specific, though again collective, responsibility at the feet of the (white settler-dominated) left. Western states -- the states in which we live, which claim to represent us, which we are in some sense politically repsonsible for -- have directly, indirectly, and through proxies been killing people in West and Central Asia pretty much continuously for 25 years. Movements and organizations and groups have, with various ebbs and flows, been organizing against that in North America for just as long. And part of what movements and organizations and groups and the broad left as a whole do, at least at their best, is produce knowledge of the world that is in opposition to dominant understandings and that points towards justice. But somehow, in this case, we haven't really. Despite a quarter century, we have not managed to produce a broadly accessible framework, or collection of inter-translatable frameworks, that are sufficiently established even in the leftier fringes of the culture to allow us to respond to the horror of events in Paris and the horror of violent Western responses to those events by being able to just fall into a discussion of what's going on that is sophisticated, smart, and useful.

Unfortunately, I don't have much of a hopeful note to end on. It has in fact been awhile since I've written something that makes me feel as much like a crotchety, negative, lefty crank as the line of thinking in this post. But the lack of easily and broadly accessible raw material for having sophisticated conversations about what's going on that might lead to collective political responses that might move us all in the direction we need to go...it's very disturbing and it's very important, so I decided to say it anyway.

Perhaps the first step, in this era of oh-so-easy public opining, is for more of us, including more of us on the left who like to think we know what's what, to take stock of our ignorance and be more explicit about owning it, even as we share and tweet and comment. And perhaps we can somehow collectively commit to doing something lasting about lessening it, even as we go about the immediate work of welcoming refugees, opposing direct racism in our communities, and trying to stop further imperial wars.

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