06 June 2008

Liberal Racism

During my years in London I became quite familiar with the plight of Zimbabwe, not only because the British media pay considerable attention to African affairs (particularly when a former colony is involved), but also because I met a number of Zimbabwean exiles, both black and white, who'd been driven from their country by poverty, racism or political repression.

And that was back when Zimbabwe was still a more or less functioning country, before its mad dictator Robert Mugabe turned it into one of the planet's more tragic hellholes in the name of... what? Nobody seems to know if Mugabe is simply drunk with power, completely insane, or still in thrall to the quasi-Marxist ideology acquired in the 1960s and 70s, when Western bien pensants were excitedly cheering on the prospect of guerrilla warfare and communist insurgency all over Africa. True, they might not have wished such a thing on their own countries, but hey, it's only Africa, right? Perfect place to try out all our cockamamie New Left theories.

Unfortunately, Mugabe, not unlike most of Africa's self-styled "liberators," turned out to be far worse than the colonialism he overthrew. 28 years of his disastrous rule have turned Zimbabwe from one of the most successful and prosperous African countries into an absolute basket case. Life expectancy has been cut in half, unemployment is almost universal, a country that once exported food is now literally starving. And now, faced with being driven from office by his long-suffering people, Mugabe is doing away with the last vestiges of democracy in a desperate attempt to rig the election now in progress.

True, it's not the only country facing mass suffering as a result of a tyrant or tyrants run amok. Up at the other end of the continent, we have the ongoing obscenity of Darfur, where wholesale murder has been a matter of government policy for years already. And then there's the recent events in Burma/Myanmar, where the ruling junta has shown itself willing to starve its own people to death rather than allow foreign aid workers into their fiefdom.

In each of these cases - and these are only the most flagrant at the moment - there's a common thread: Western liberals and do-gooders wring their hands and make vague, clucking noises of sympathy, then conclude by saying, "But what can we do? It's their country, after all." Underlying this is an almost transparent unwillingness to suggest that Westerners have a right - let alone and obligation - to interfere with the "sovereignty" of these murderous dictatorships. It's the very antithesis of colonialism, but that doesn't make it any less evil.

One has to wonder if there'd be such reticence to act if similar events were unfolding in a European country. Well, one actually doesn't have to wonder; we have a fairly recent illustration, that of the Balkan wars. There was a lot of hand-wringing over that, too, no doubt because the people involved seemed, well, not quite as European as, say Frenchmen or Germans (the fact that many of them were Muslims may have had even more to do with it). But eventually decisive military action was taken, on the very reasonable grounds that when a people showed itself no longer capable of maintaining a basic civil or social structure, then it was incumbent upon its neighbors in the world to take responsibility for doing so.

Granted, this is disturbingly close to at least one of the reasons used to justify colonialism in the first place, but the fact that things have previously been done for the wrong reason doesn't obviate the need for doing them at a different time and place for the right reason. But what, you might ask, can the West do about Zimbabwe, Darfur or Myanmar? In the case of the latter, there's at least one easy answer: just the other day American troops, who'd been stationed at the border waiting for the OK to truck in food and supplies to cyclone victims, abandoned their positions because, as their commander said, "We just couldn't get permission to enter the country." The mightiest army in the history of the planet has to sit there humbly begging a handful of tinpot generals to allow them to carry out lifesaving missions? The Burmese army is going to seriously be able to prevent them from doing so?

The situation is a little more complicated in Zimbabwe and Darfur. There the only successful course would probably involve occupying the countries, installing new governments, and hanging around for a few years until those governments were able to function on their own. And yes, people, both in neighboring African countries and among our own isolationists on both the left and the right, would scream bloody murder over this alleged "imperialism." But was it imperialism, or simply common sense, when American and European troops occupied Germany and Japan and provided them with new, democratic governments? Is the world not far better off for this having been done?

Ah, but that's different, you say. Those countries had invaded their neighbors and unleashed unspeakable havoc on the world. Cruel as the situations may be in Zimbabwe et al., at least they're keeping it to themselves. And perhaps there's some validity to this point - if, that is, you're prepared to turn a blind eye to the suffering, oppression, and starvation of millions of people.

But it's a slippery slope, you say. What's to stop a Western government from using force to replace any government that's not doing as good a job as we might like it to? Hell, for that matter, some Western governments are not exactly covering themselves with glory at the moment. So where do you - can you - draw the line?

I suppose it really comes down to the democratic consent of the people. As we've seen in the case of both Vietnam and Iraq, even when our government can muster enough support to invade another country, it has a terribly difficult time maintaining that support the minute things don't go so well. And trying to occupy a failing African state is pretty much a guaranteed recipe for things not going well, so chances that we'll actually ever do something about the disasters in Zimbabwe or Darfur are about as great as were those of our doing something to stop the genocide in Rwanda.

But even as I recognize that nothing is likely to be done, that perhaps there's nothing that can be done, it still galls me to hear people dismiss the problem as though it were the natural state of affairs for "those people" and that it's really none of our business. Why do I suspect that there's no small amount of racism involved in this attitude? Because I see a similar hands-off approach to our failing inner cities, where liberal elites are quick to attack the police for attempting to restore order but have little or nothing to say about the thugs who hold the ghettos hostage. Run a successful crackdown on street crime and you'll inevitably have ACLU types - most of whom never set foot in the hood themselves - bellyaching about the "criminalization of black youth," with its insidious implication that common street thuggery is normal behavior for young black people, so normal, in fact, that to attempt to stop it would be attacking the very fabric of the black community.

Say what you will about Rudy Giuliani - and I know many of you will take me up on that offer and say some very vile things indeed - one area where he undeniably deserves praise is the way he wasn't willing to write off any area of the city, regardless of its racial composition, as a no-go zone. Under previous mayors, "difficult" neighborhoods were virtually abandoned, to the point where the police only ventured in for major emergencies. "Let those people kill each other, it's not our problem," seemed to be the prevailing philosophy. Even today, despite vast swathes of the city having been reclaimed from decay and anarchy, despite a 75% fall in the murder rate that's saved literally thousands of lives, the majority of them nonwhite, there are still voices - much of the editorial staff of the Village Voice, for example - accusing the NYPD of racism for simply enforcing the law, and demanding that we return to a policy of accepting and tolerating the unacceptable and intolerable.

From Zimbabwe to the backstreets of Brooklyn: too big a stretch? I don't think so; the principle remains the same. Justice needs to be colorblind, yet there are always those who, for their own personal or ideological grounds, are so determined to stop it being so that they are willing to visit untold suffering and misery on the very people they claim to care for.


Marc said...

Larry - Europe did very bad during the Balkan wars. We stood aside watching for years, even though we knew what was going on. Without the NATO (read: US) taking action it would not ended that fast.
WWII - There were valid declarations of war, so occupations very legitimate.
A lot of people support interventions for human rights and/or humanitarian action. But those are huge actions to be taken and usually people will care little if things are happening far away.
Remember the last time the US did this in Africa? They got their asses kicked in Mogadishu. It will be hard to get the public support to give it another try.

Anonymous said...

Yep, it’s those damn liberals and ACLU types that are stirring things up.
We need to invade a few more countries like we did in Iraq and Viet Nam, oh yeah, good idea, Larry--youse a regular commentator, you is.
We need more conservative senior citizen pop punks to tell those pinkos a thing or two. Uh-huh, oh yes!
Are you gonna go out on the streets and scream “fuck you niggers” like you used to in the 70’s during your big leftist phase, Larry? When you were in tight with the Weather Underground?
Yeah, you right, sho is funny the way dey talk. Buncha liberal racists.
What was that you was saying about welfare?

Larry Livermore said...

Marc: I agree, it would be very difficult indeed to get public support for such interventions, and without public support, the likelihood of their succeeding is very slim. Especially since the American and European publics have very little (read: almost no) tolerance for the bloodshed that would almost certainly occur on both sides. (It's a lot easier to tolerate ongoing brutality and slaughter when it's happening to "other" people in a land far away and doesn't appear regularly on the nightly news.

"Anonymous": You can certainly hurl reactionary invective with the best of them, but do you have any constructive suggestions as to how to improve the situation? Doesn't sound like it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Larry, forgive me for being a reactionar. Reactionary? is that from your days with the weather underground?
when you gonna elaborate on that relationship with Diana Oughton?

And how about those funny stories of yours about niggers stealing watermelons? I miss that.
But please, tell us once more about darkies being gay and it's true meaning. Let's get those dirty liberals!

You the man with the plan, Mr H.

Larry Livermore said...

You're not a happy camper, are you?

Hazmat70 said...

Anonymous has his problems, grammar not the least of them. But I don't know what he's talking about with watermelons and homosexuality. Of what exactly is he accusing you?

Anonymous said...

Maybe if Zimbabwe had a bunch of oil wells, the Americans might then invade and install their own puppet government?

Anonymous said...

Larry used to be an un-American cultural Marxist. Now he's the other extreme: am un-American neo-con.

Mike said...

I think he's accusing him of having once been a foul-mouthed communist. Big deal. Loved the post. I've lived in Brooklyn for over twenty years and couldn't agree more with the Giuliani part. I was not his biggest fan, but he did a great job with the crime issue.

Anonymous said...

That's the obvious problem with Web 2.0, Social Networking, etc.

Anyone that has an axe to grind or merely perceives to have been slighted, etc., can attempt to ruin someone else using pseudonyms or anonymity from the privacy of their parents' basement .

Cowardly bastards, indeed.

Anonymous said...

Say what you will about the incompetence of Third World governments, Marxist or otherwise, but the leaders installed by CIA-backed coups have been no better, except to their corporate backers. Do you really trust the Bush admininstration to solve Africa's problems? Even if we had the resources to invade yet more countries, the result would be more no-bid contracts for Halliburton and continued tribal conflict while we try to prop up Ahmed Chalabi types. Yes, there should be international pressure for an end to the bloodshed. What form this should take, I don't know. But faith in Bush is like faith in Chomsky: brain death.