29 August 2012

Anti-Colonialism: sometimes people miss the real thing

So is there such a thing as anti-colonialism? As we noted yesterday, Dinesh D'Souza, the person most likely to use the word in current discourse, seems confused about its meaning. In his opinion, as far as I can tell, it's okay for a colony in the western world to go anti-colonial so long as they don't go anti-western in some way, while it's presumably anti-western automatically, and therefore bad, if a non-western nation takes an anti-colonial stance. For D'Souza, it's especially bad for an American President to take an "anti-colonial" stance on purely domestic issues, but colonialism and capitalism tend to blur in the scholar's mind. After dealing with D'Souza, you might be excused for thinking there's no such thing as anti-colonialism, as long as you depend on him to define it, but then you run smack into Thomas L. Friedman, who seems determined to deny the existence of anti-colonialism in perhaps its most obvious and commonsensical form.

Friedman's latest New York Times column takes Mohamed Morsi, the new President of Egypt, to task for attending the latest international summit of the Nonaligned Movement. It bugs Friedman that this event is taking place in Tehran, the capital of Iran. The location throws the nature of the whole movement into question.

By the way, what is the Nonaligned Movement anymore? “Nonaligned against what and between whom?” asked Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy specialist at Johns Hopkins. The Nonaligned Movement was conceived at the Bandung summit in 1955, but there was a logic to it then. The world was divided between Western democratic capitalists and Eastern Communists, and developing states like Egypt, Yugoslavia and Indonesia declared themselves “nonaligned” with these two blocs. But “there is no Communist bloc today,” said Mandelbaum. “The main division in the world is between democratic and undemocratic countries.”

Is Morsi nonaligned in that choice? Is he nonaligned when it comes to choosing between democracies and dictatorships — especially the Iranian one that is so complicit in crushing the Syrian rebellion as well? And by the way, why is Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, lending his hand to this Iranian whitewashing festival? What a betrayal of Iranian democrats. 

Friedman and Mandelbaum forget that back in 1955 the typical American opinionator would likely have perceived the original Nonaligned Movement little differently from the way they perceive the present one. To have been nonaligned between Communism and capitalism, in American eyes, was morally equivalent to being nonaligned between dictatorship and democracy. Dictatorship, from the American perspective, was the essence of communism, and not to oppose the enemy under either name was a confession of moral bankruptcy. The columnist and the specialist miss a main point of the Nonaligned Movement then and now. With the notable exception of Yugoslavia, a Communist state that refused allegiance to the USSR, the Nonaligned nations were "Third World" nations, most newly independent and appropriately wary of the influence of the west in capitalist or communist form. They might experiment with socialism or communism, but hoped to do so in a manner that didn't make them as dependent upon the Soviet Union as they were with any other European power in the past. Nor did they wish to be locked in any political model dictated on alleged moral grounds by the United States, or to be restrained from taking measures considered necessary for national development, national security or social justice by American objections on behalf of individual or entrepreneurial liberty. For that reason in particular, a Nonaligned movement defined by any critical distance from the U.S. will be vulnerable to characterization as apologists for tyranny. But Friedman and Mandelbaum are simply ignorant, shockingly so given their intellectual standing or maliciously so depending on their ideological agendas, to make any proclivity toward authoritarian rule the defining characteristic of 21st century Nonalignment. I can understand many reasons for people around the world to despise the current regime in Iran, but none of these should mean that the Islamic Republic can stand for nothing internationally other than its leaders' own license to rule, or that no nation can agree with Iran on anything without implicitly agreeing with the Iranian leadership on everything. It kinda goes with the concept of Nonalignment that members are bound by no necessary ideological ties -- apart from anti-colonialism. The fact that a nation doesn't want to be dictated to by the U.S. or NATO does not make that nation itself a dictatorship nor its rulers apologists for dictatorship. 

Friedman may feel that Morsi, as the democratically-elected product of Egypt's "Arab Spring" uprising, has some special responsibility to support those people Friedman deems his Iranian counterparts. Again, however, Nonalignment requires no ideological conformity among the Nonaligned. The whole point of the movement is to resist subjection to one power, be it ideological, economic or other. They are perhaps more likely than Americans to recognize ideological proselytizing as self-serving cant, and if they err in assuming that it is always cant, we err in assuming that it never is. Your homework for tonight is to figure out whether Friedman is guilty of error or cant this time.

Update, 30 Aug. As it turned out, Morsi created a bit of a tumult by using the bully pulpit provided by Tehran to call for a "peaceful transition to a democratic system of rule" in Syria and affirm his solidarity with "those seeking freedom and justice" there. That was taken as a slap by Syria's foreign minister, who left the meeting in an understandable huff, and an indirect slap at the host country, Iran being an ally of the Baath regime in Syria. That may warm Friedman's heart a little, but some will see it as a Sunni slap at the Syrian Alawites and their Shiite friends, and it will encourage those who suspect the Syrian opposition of being as dangerously "Islamist" as Morsi himself and his Muslim Brotherhood party. The question now becomes whether or to what extent Morsi is guilty of cant; answering that question should prove enlightening for anyone who tries it.


Aaron Christiansen said...

Ideologists seem to only be able to "accept" that everyone is an ideologist, therefore making a complex world must simpler for their tiny brains to comprehend. When it can always be broken down in to US vs. THEM.

It this is what intellectualism has sunk to, then there is no intelligent life left on this rock.

Samuel Wilson said...

I'd rather strip Friedman and his pal of "intellectual" status than give up on intellectuals as a whole so quickly. The sad thing about this story is that even someone like Friedman, perceived domestically as a "liberal" or "neoliberal," suffers from this perhaps characteristically American fear of the Dictator(s) conspiring to take over the world, apparently from no other motivation than some exceptionally un-American craving for power. The notion that dictatorship is always an end unto itself may be one of the worst fallacies of political philosophy.