Thursday, 12 August 2010

Long live NATO’s anti-imperialism

There has been a lot to blog about on Afghanistan in recent weeks, but I haven’t had the strength, though I’ve read a lot elsewhere and commented occasionally.

Comment trail: on anti-imperialism at Contested Terrain, and on non-Western imperialism in Afghanistan at Terry Glavin’s joint. My argument in short: as the only powers capable of sustaining imperialist policies in Afghanistan are its neighbors, none of whom are reliable allies of NATO, by necessity NATO’s policy in Afghanistan is on the whole anti-imperialist.


Comment trail: on feminism and war at Pickled Politics.

There, blogger Earwicga seems of a view similar to that heard from Judith Butler & Co. earlier, that feminism is only valid if it’s also anti-war, and anti-Western anti-imperialist. This seems to mean that making too much noise about Islamist theocratic misogyny is bad as that could be seen as pro-war and Islamophobic. In support of this, Earwigca introduces the word ‘intersectionality’.

Now it seems to me that intersectionality can usefully be used to illustrate precisely the failure in contemporary anti-imperialism. Earwigca gives two references to explain her use of the word: Wikipedia and a PDF from the African American Policy Forum, A Primer on Intersectionality. Here intersectionality is used to describe the problem of individuals or groups focusing on one particular form of discrimination, for example sexism, being unable to fully recognise and understand another form of discrimination, for example racism, causing a blind spot when they are faced with a victim of multiple overlapping forms of discrimination.

Where the focus is on just one form of discrimination, these more complex cases can be obscured as the wrong kind of victim, or the wrong kind of discrimination.

Misapplying intersectionality

The AAPF document takes the argument further and talks of the danger that treating different forms of discrimination separately may lead to different groups of victims seeing themselves as being in competition with each other, and not being aware of the vulnerabilities of their fellows who fall into the overlap between groups. Thus there's a danger that those arguing against one form of discrimination may fall into another. A small example of this I once heard in polite conversation: “The French are very racist,” i.e. xenophobic bigotry in the name of anti-racism.

This argument about one group of victims being set against another forms the centre of Judith Butler’s arguments against mainstream German gay rights campaigners (see her mis-definition of double jeopardy for example) and criticisms of Peter Tatchell by some anti-imperialists (see here and here).

So what happens when this argument is misapplied? The sweeping statement “group X discriminate against group Y” is likely to be discriminatory against group X, but what about an analysis along the lines of “some members of group X discriminate against some members of group Y, or against members in the overlap between X and Y”? If this kind of analysis of discriminatory action by a subset of X is made properly, with examples given and mechanisms demonstrated, it should not be dismissed in the same terms as the earlier sweeping statement about X being bad to Y.

If it becomes impossible to look at individuals and subsets within X discriminating against Y or discriminating against the common membership of X and Y, then another kind of blind spot results, not of the wrong kind of victim, nor the wrong kind of discrimination, but of the wrong kind of perpetrator of discrimination.

Thus Islamist misogynists become the wrong kind of misogynists because they are a subset of Muslims who as a group are the target of religious discrimination, and individual immigrants who are homophobic are the wrong kind of homophobes because they belong to a group that is the target of xenophobia and racism. The consequence is that Muslim victims of misogyny and immigrant victims of homophobia fall under the blind spot of those arguing too narrowly against religious discrimination, or too narrowly against xenophobia and racism: precisely the result that ‘intersectionality’ attempts to avoid.

An example of ‘right and wrong kind of perpetrator’ thinking can be found in Judith Butler’s comments at Bully Bloggers, where she expresses her preference for looking at perpetrators on the German right or in the Catholic Church, rather than in migrant communities. If she argued ‘as well as’ that would be fine, but ‘instead of’ is not good.

An intersectionality of blind spots

Now to return to feminism, war, and anti-imperialism. Back to Earwicga’s post where she raises ‘intersectionality’. Here she labels Gita Sahgal’s criticisms of Amnesty International as Islamophobic, and described the recent Time cover photograph of Aisha, a mutilated young Afghan woman, as “yet another manipulation of feminism supported by feminists ignorant of other power structures”.

Earwigca’s problem here is the same as Judith Butler’s. Islamists are the wrong kind of misogynists because they are a subset of Muslims who are a target of religious discrimination. It doesn’t matter that the victims of Islamist mysogyny are also members of that same group of victims of religious discrimination; they fall into the ‘wrong perpetrator’ blind spot.

Looking at it further, there is an intersectionality of ‘wrong perpetrator’ blind spots at work here. Not only are the Taliban the wrong kind of misogynists, but as Muslims discriminating against Christians, Buddhists, and versions of Islam other than their own, they are the wrong kind of religious bigots. As agents of Pakistani and Iranian imperialism fighting against a popular Afghan government allied with Western powers, they are the wrong kind of imperialists.

For those viewing the world with these intersecting blind spots, the only way the abuse of women like Aisha becomes visible is if the cause is traced through a game of degrees of separation to Western policies in Afghanistan decades ago, though not back as far as the Soviet invasion, as that would lead to another blind spot. Having found the only acceptable cause of the abuse, the remedy offered is of course the withdrawal of exactly those Western forces standing in the way of a return to power by the actual, immediate perpetrators of the abuse.

How do anti-imperialists maintain this degree of blindness without poking their own eyes out?


David Thompson said...


“How do anti-imperialists maintain this degree of blindness without poking their own eyes out?”

The exact juggling of caricatures and their positions in some hierarchy of collective victimhood is open to speculation in any given instance. (The pages of the Guardian reveal all manner of ingenuity.) The point, I suppose, is that a choice has been made to juggle collectivist caricatures, often in the face of contrary evidence, and generally to ensure that blame lands in a predestined location.

Collectivist formulations will typically lead to error and distortion. And often to dishonesty.

kellie said...

Hi David. Damn, I didn't mean for this post to be so long - I've added sub-heads to try to make it more easily readable!

Anonymous said...

you're a force to be reckoned with you are

kellie said...

But a force for good or a force for evil, eh Carl?

Flesh said...

Nice post, Kellie.

kellie said...

Thanks Flesh.

Anonymous said...

no of course a force for good ;)

kellie said...

Ahh, it doesn't do to be too certain!