In the course of our current wars in Afghanistan and (especially) Iraq, I’ve noticed that folks like Bush and Rumsfeld have been pilloried in hindsight for their alleged belief that the people in those places would embrace both American liberators and Western-style political approaches. On the one hand, I suspect that there is serious oversimplification at work in the characterizations of Bush and Rumsfeld there. However, it must be noted that there is a tendency to project our own ways of thinking upon cultures and people who may operate in very different manners, and that’s a dangerous habit.

All this brings me to an interesting article at Reason. Historian Thaddeus Russell begins with Jason Hribal’s new book, which  suggests that animals who rebel against trainers, zookeepers, and the like are in fact revolutionaries of a sort, furry Nat Turners in the cause of animal rights. But Russell’s article explores an interesting issue:

[Hribal’s] claims of knowing the thoughts of animals are no more arrogant or absurd than the claims countless academics and activists continue to make about the consciousness of people whose ideas are also inaccessible.

This is ground that has been covered (as Russell notes) by Gayatri Spivak, who argues that much of postcolonial studies have been marked by the same projection of a scholar’s values/wishes, but Russell adds that things may go even farther than that. It’s worth a read.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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6 Responses to Ventriloquists?

  1. There are lots of ways such thoughts can be inaccessible. The person whose thoughts are being so channeled in proxy, may not actually exist. Think here of the overly-zealous landlady demanding that the American flag must not be flown from any of her apartment units because “someone might be offended,” or any one of several high-ranking executives or officials relieved not only of their positions, but their careers as well, for violating the “Could Be Construed As” standard. This seems to have been gelled into place sometime during the 1970’s, sort of “why should we wait for the offended person to actually materialize?” mania. A demand made on behalf of the tender sensibilities of a purely theoretical person, is every bit as strong as a demand made on behalf of a real flesh-and-blood person who not only materialized, but took the effort to complain without any pre-existing agenda.

    Another way is through plurality. When I was a kid it was very fashionable to dutifully intone to us all that all generalizations are bad. Someone must have picked up on the irony, but quietly, since no one in any position of authority has backtracked but I see we’re still back to generalizing. “Greeted as liberators” was bound to become everlastingly contentious the moment Dick Cheney uttered it. We here in the states disagree about things…how come they can’t, over there? So some greet-us-as-liberators and some despise us. I’m sure there are plenty of both, since once you’re talking about a quantity of autonomous individuals that has reached some critical mass, a “mixed bag” result is unavoidable. That’s true of all things.

    Although I’m going to skip over my favorite example: “Are homosexuals born that way or do they convert?” Anyone who says it’s all-of-one, none-of-the-other is ignoring this rule of mixed-bag-results from critical mass. Do feminists hate men? Are conservatives idiots? Are Tea Party people experts on the Constitution? Do Palin fans just like her pretty legs? There may be fuzzy trends & patterns…but even if one dutifully confines one’s observations to trends & patterns, there needs to be some effort to measure things before there’s anything worth discussing.

  2. Jerome Scott says:

    “We come in peace….set phasers for kill!” I agree with you, Warren, and, as a duly recognized representative of the United Federation of Planets, I invoke the Prime Directive. Iraq and Afghanistan are clearly pre-warp cultures and should be treated according to the Federation’s policy of non-interference.

  3. J. Otto Pohl says:

    I have not read the article yet. I will do so and maybe have more to say. But, I do not think it is so much that people’s thoughts in foreign countries are completely alien. Rather that on the day to day basis of living that policies like installing “democratically elected governments” do not always make their life better. I taught a lot of students from Afghanistan and they told me what the Amerian imposed “democracy” meant was that warlords from the pre-Taliban period returned and went out to the villages and told people “vote for me or I will kill your entire family.” This is how democracy actually worked on the ground level. So the same corrupt, brutal criminals, and opium smugglers that destroyed Afghanistan in the period between the overthrow of the communists and the victory of the Taliban came back to power under US support. It is easy to see why anybody regardless of their culture would find such a situation undesirable.

  4. J. Otto Pohl says:

    OK, I have now read the article. It was not what I thought it was going to be. Of course dominant narratives of events are constructed by leaders or elites. For a variety of reasons a lot of people that are objectively oppressed or discriminated against like former slaves may claim that they were happy or that things were good. That does not mean that slavery somehow becomes justifiable. To me peoples’ feelings are not the most important criteria in history.

    In Kyrgyzstan I interviewed a number of Karachais deported by Stalin from the Caucasus as children. Some of them sought to justify their own deportation and repression. So the voice of the subaltern is not always correct regarding their objective situation. They often lack proper information and perspective to make an informed judgement. Their knowledge of anything outside their own lives is frequently almost non-existent. They are many times simply not aware that their conditions are or were abnormally bad. This may be an imperial attitude, but when people who objectively lived through horror tell me it was not so bad or it was necessary or “you have to understand the times” I do not think those statements outweigh their actual experience. In other words facts are more important than feelings.

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