Friday 19 February 2010

Collision Course

Human, all too human: The course notes of the University of Auckland's new paper "Colonialism to Globalisation" notwithstanding, the West has not always led the pack when it comes to human barbarity. The first example of mass genocide in the 20th Century, for example, was provided by the Ottoman Empire. In 1915 more than a million ethnic Armenian Christians were systematically murdered by the Islamic Turkish authorities.

"AN INTERESTING COURSE" was how Kiwiblog’s, David Farrar, described Colonialism to Globalisation – an academic paper offered by the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Law.

Knowing Mr Farrar’s political leanings, it was with some trepidation that I activated the hyperlink embedded in his posting. My strong suspicion (instantly confirmed) was that my Kiwiblog host was not drawing his visitors’ attention to this course purely on account of its academic merits.

A swift perusal of the course description told me all I needed to know. Here, as I feared, was a particularly stark example of what I call "Self-loathing Leftism" – that self-critical mode of left-wing analysis which takes "the politics of victimhood" out of its more familiar context in the anti-racist, feminist and gay rights movements, and extends it to the whole world.

The result is as predictable as it’s banal: an Avatar world of Goodies versus Baddies and Nature versus Technology, in which the holistic philosophy of innocent and virtuous indigenes crashes into the murderously exploitative intentions of malignant and rapacious colonisers.

Just take a look at the opening sentences of Colonialism to Globalisation’s course description:

"In the late 15th century, imperialist Europe emerged intent on exploring and possessing the New World. Fast forward through five hundred years of colonialism, capitalism, slavery, industrialisation, genocide, and international law and greet the 21st century in all its paradoxical glory."

There’s so much wrong with this statement that it’s difficult to know where to begin.

For a start, there was no such thing as "imperialist Europe" in the late-15th century. The only entity worthy of such a description at that time was the empire of the Ottoman Turks – whose steady expansion into southern and central Europe was only halted at the gates of Vienna in 1529.

Indeed, it was the Ottomans’ interruption of the trade flows between Europe and Asia that prompted the monarchs of Portugal and Spain to sponsor voyages of exploration westward, into the Atlantic Ocean. Their hope was to access the silks and spices of the "Indies" from the sea. Nobody knew the "New World" was there!

As for Course Co-ordinator, Moshen Al Attar’s, "fast-forwarding" of the next five hundred years: what can one say?

Let’s start by listing the things he left out: the Renaissance; the Reformation; the Enlightenment; the American and French Revolutions; the exponential growth of scientific knowledge and technological expertise; the expansion of democracy; the abolition of slavery; the emancipation of women; the defeat of totalitarianism; the birth of the United Nations; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (And this list barely scratches the surface.)

We can only assume that Mr Attar’s justification for bracketing "capitalism" with "colonialism" and "slavery" is because he sees it as being emblematic of the Western World’s lust for conquest and its colonists’ pathological need to demonstrate racial and cultural superiority.

But, to hold up capitalism as a purely Western construct is to engage in precisely the same ethno-centrism his course condemns. For most of human history it was the manufacturers and merchants of East and South Asia who controlled the global economy. And they projected their reach and protected their profits no less ruthlessly than their Western counterparts.

For a brief historical era – a period spanning less than 250 years – the West’s weapons, and its more dynamic mode of economic organisation, permitted it to expand its influence across the globe. But the same could easily be said of those emphatically non-Western expansionists, the Mongols.

Europe’s "imperialists" were not the first to practice slavery and genocide.

They were, however, the first to make both practices illegal – not only in their own jurisdictions, but by the steady development and extension of international law, across the whole planet.

Mr Attar will be tasking his students with the "gripping" question: "is international law intended to challenge or preserve the divisions of wealth and power that pervade contemporary society?"

Given that his course content outline highlights the role of international law in "facilitating the subordination of native inhabitants in favour of European settlers", I suspect his students would be wise, to answer: "Preserve".

But I hope at least some of them will add (if only to please Mr Farrar): "But that’s only because those who frame unjust laws are human-beings – exactly the same reason why (ethnicity, culture and ideology notwithstanding) unjust laws will always be challenged."

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 19 February 2010.


Robert Winter said...

Mr Attar's rhetoric (and history) leaves much to be desired. There is a real whiff of the 1960s and 1970s in the course outline. Yet, and here for me is an important point, Mr Farrar's raising of the issue was not really about the level and quality of analysis suggested by the course outline, but was far more about any radical analysis being taught in universities. True, Mr Attar may provide a patsy opportunity for Mr Farrar to make a cheap point, but Mr Farrar's agenda (and that of the baying horde that follows him)is about attacking a pluralism of views in university teaching. As I've noted elsewhere, he also implicitly suggests students are gullible and naive, when, in fact, those that want to hear Mr Attar (critically or otherwise) will choose to enrol; others will go do some more Tort or whatever.

Danyl said...

For most of human history it was the manufacturers and merchants of East and South Asia who controlled the global economy.

Oh those capitalist confucian bureaucrats and running dog Brahmin priests! How ruthless they were at exploiting the proletariat of the Aztec and Mali!

Olwyn said...

As the Athenians told the Milenians, who tried to claim neutral status during the Peoloponnesian War: "As touching the gods we have the belief, as touching men the certainty, that always, by a necessity of nature, each one commands wherever he has the power..." (Thucydides) To be fair to the Athenians, they did not lower themselves to claiming that this state of affairs was right, only that it was so.

Anonymous said...

HHhmm Chris, is there a course in apologetics?
If not maybe you could suggest one to the Dean.
I don't mind your historical quibbles, that's fair enough, but to go hammer and tongs at this guy is a bit rich IMHO.

Colonialism, Slavery and Capitalism are linked. Capitalism is a progression (used with double meaning) from the Asiatic mode (as Marx called slavery in the old world) and from slavery in the New World (most definitely a corequisite of much colonial plundering -- see Haiti)

And sure, capitalism has 'improved' in many ways over its course. It is a very resilient system, but that doesn't make it the best, or the only one. Isn't that why you are a socialist of the Labor stripe?

But the UN's commitment to human rights is only skin deep in many ways - don't forget it was used as fig leaf to deceive us all about WMDs and the invasion of Iraq. And what a triumph of liberalism and human rights that's been (let's not even mention Afghanistan).

The study of international law from a leftist and progressive direction is to be welcomed, even within that bastion of conservatism and Auckland snobbery that is that ivory tower up the hill from where I'm sitting typing this.

Finally, the slaughter of the Kurds. This is still something most capitalist nations - including those with social democratic governments that you might support - are reluctant to recognise?

Why? Precisely because of the overhang of colonialism and imperialism and the importance of Turkey in the military-industrial complex that is NATO.


Anonymous said...

"In 1915 more than a million ethnic Armenian Christians were systematically murdered by the Islamic Turkish authorities."

It isn't widely known but the events of 1915 went far beyond affecting just the Armenians. Other European and Semitic Christian groups were very much caught up in what happened.

"innocent and virtuous indigenes crashes into the murderously exploitative intentions of malignant and rapacious colonisers"

A group can easily swing between being seen as one or the other. Arab and Turkish colonialism of western and eastern Europe was strongly praised by the left in the wake of Sep 11.

rouppe said...

Totally with you on this one Chris,

This sounds like one of those mandatory 'cultural sensitivity' courses that I heard nurses had to take some years ago. In that course the white students were required to hang signs around their necks that essentially said they were colonial thieves.


Victor said...

My subject,'inhumanity',
Is,alas, as old as time.
Our heritage is heinous,
Awash in blood and crime.
And who can tell who was the worse,
Your ancestors or mine?

The lash flailed Roman galley slaves
And, similarly did scourge
The builders of Persopolis
And of Chaldean Ur,
Forced labour on the Yangzi Jiang
And on the Ganges Plain,
The remnants of the Aztecs
in the dawning of New Spain.

Millennia of feudal bonds,
With serfs tied to the land,
Whilst legally-entrenched parasites
Stole bread from calloused hands.
And when the worst seemed over,
With liberation gained,
Iosif Vissarionovich
Invented it all again.

John Bull waxed rich on slavery
In places far remote.
He prated about Liberty
And struck a righteous note.
But the ghosts of the Middle Passage
Silently ask why
You, our brother human,
Took so long to hear our cry.

A nation rich in learning
And reverent of the Law
Bowed cravenly to murderers
And tried hard to ignore
Neighbours transported eastwards,
To Auschwitz or Mjadenek,
To a choking death from Zyklon B
Or a bullet in the neck.

And do not think the East will rise
Without more blood and crime.
For things are yet, as they have been
Since the very dawn of time.
Nor can we know who will be worse,
Your progeny or mine.

Chris Trotter said...

Congtatulations, Victor!

You have excelled yourself.

Kipling could not have expressed it more eloquently.

Victor said...

Thanks Chris

It is a bit Kiplingesque

I think I've mis-spelled Persepolis, though.

Con said...

The late 15th century emergence of European imperialist exploration and possession of the New World sounds like a reference to the Spanish Empire, which did indeed emerge at that time, spreading throughout Spain into northern Africa, the Canaries, and the Americas.

maps said...

Can't say I agree with you here Chris. I've posted a reply at:

Chris Trotter said...

Yes, Con, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille did indeed expand their possessions by driving the Moors out of Spain. But theirs was a crusade which had been going on for centuries.

There was no preconceived plan to expand Spanish power into the Americas - for the very simple reason that nobody knew they were there!

The Spanish Empire thus became the joint enterprise of opportunistic adventurers on the one hand and a monarchy which couldn't believe its luck on the other.

The contrast between Portugese and Spanish opportunism and the deliberate and well-planned expansionism of the Ottomans could hardly be clearer.

Oh, and the creation of "New Spain" was the work of people living in the 16th Century - not the 15th. There were only 8 years left of the 15th Century when Columbus "discovered" the islands of the Caribbean in 1492.

Paul said...

If you spend enough time at Auckland University, you begin to accept this sort of bollocks as normal.

Con said...

Sure, Chris, their Catholic Majesties got lucky. Maybe they were surprised to discover and then conquer America, but they didn't let that stop them, did they?

Chris Trotter said...

Has the prospect of an easy victory - and undreamt of wealth - ever been rejected by any ruler, Con? Black, white or brindled?