Metanarrativised (?) Middle East

Article published on March 13, 2002
community published
Article published on March 13, 2002

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The basis of this text is an essay which set out to look at the way the word and concept 'Democracy' are used in the western media, its 'exportability', its exploitation.

I dislike Europe and its eurocentrism, I dislike writing 'we in the West', but I cannot escape the fact that I am a product of a society, and it is this society that has filled my cognitive blank slate with whatever this chose (or was to young and is too naïve) to reject. Reference to certain works below, concretize feelings and emotions that many of us simply shelve as xenophobia, conveniently ignored by the European society of which I am a product. What I set out to argue is that currents in today's society that we happily metanarrativise as 'globalisation' have farther reaching implications which need attention brought to them. Currents that go beyond the imaginable, conceivable, but which we read in the papers or see on the TV news daily, whose meanings simply escape us. These currents are invariably manifest in 'western' society, and condense into modern day imperialism to stretch across the globe like an intricately intertwined web. Rather than being slowly demolished, imperialism is simply becoming more subtle, transformed into a way of acting and thinking that is politically acceptable, or worse, 'politically correct' to its subjects and actors, both in the West and acquired.

The basis of this text is an essay which set out to look at the way the word and concept 'Democracy' are used in the western media, its 'exportability' its exploitation. What the essay transmogrified into was a statement of orientalist imperialism, the ideas for which are in part adopted from the texts of Edward W. Said, Bryan S. Turner, James Ngugi, Roger Owen, references to which are made, however the text stems as much from ideas borne of visits to the 'developing' world, books picked up in Nairobi, papers read in Kampala, journal articles, news extracts, conversations, movies, news broadcasts; The key though, is understanding 'Orientalism' (Said, 1978).

For Said, orientalism is not a theory, it is the act of thinking, writing, researching from the West, the 'Orient', as an opposite pole to the 'occident' or 'West' (in particular Europe). How though to define 'the West', if the direct opposite pole to this, (in orientalist minds) is the orient? West of what? East of what? Middle of where? Near or Far East; to or from where? This type of language, excludes 'local' or 'native' analysis, this is one of Said's points too later in Orientalism , as he refers to contrapuntal reading: the exile's vision.

Labelling a complexity, an unknown, a can that could be full of worms but which you'd rather not open is boxing: a means of filing something you don't understand and don't wish to understand under a veil of ignorance so you don't have to consider it further. This is symptomatic of Western arrogance. Disraeli's quote: "The East is a career" is perhaps the way we should be looking at the matter - as more complex than to be understood by a layman, and certainly too complex throw light on in a couple of thousand words. All I can add is my own reflection on this question of labelling: Ask person from Saudi, Yemen or Algeria where he/she comes from, my bet is that their answer will not include 'the Middle East', perhaps though, a French, British or American person may well consider that person as being from 'the Middle East'. Turner lucidly comments: "In Said's analysis of orientalism, the crucial 'fact' about the orientalist discourse was that we know and talk about Orientals, while they neither comprehend themselves nor talk about us. In this language of difference, there were apparently no equivalent discourses of occidentalism. The society from which comparisons are to be made has a privileged possession of a privileged set of essential features-- rationality, progress, democratic institutions, economic development -- in terms of which other societies are deficient and backward. These features account for the particular character of Western society and explain the defects of alternative social formations. As an accounting system, orientalism set out to explain the progressive features of the occident and the social stationariness of the orient... Within the broad sweep of this occidental/oriental contrast, Islam has always represented a political and cultural problem for Western accounting systems." So the 'West' sees anything non-western as a cultural 'other', an alien other. In terms of people, you and me here now, what does that mean?

When Europe held "roughly 85 per cent of the earth as colonies, protectorates, dependencies dominions and commonwealths" Imperialism was as much a mentality as an economic process, the mentality being the force leading the way. This mentality is reflected in the attitudes and influences 'at home', and art and literature are instrumental in creating it. Said considers Imperialism to be " the practice, the theory and attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory", the scale and coverage of European empires at the 'age of empire' leads to the notion that modern globalization is the effect today of the extended expansion and organization of western empires.

"The American experience, as Richard Van Alstyne makes clear in Rising American Empire, was from the beginning founded on the idea of 'an imperium - a dominion state or sovereignty that would expand in population and territory and increase in strength and power'. Curiously, though, the discourse insisting on American specialness, altruism, and opportunity that 'imperialism' as a word or ideology has turned up only rarely and recently in accounts of United States culture, politics, history. But the connection between imperial politics and culture is astonishingly direct. American attitudes to American 'greatness', to hierarchies of race to the perils of other revolutions (the American revolution being considered unique and somehow unrepeatable anywhere else in the world) have remained constant, have dictated, have obscured, the realities of empire, while apologists for overseas American interests have insisted on American innocence, doing good, fighting for freedom.

"If it is, as Said argues, the mentality and the art that lead the way in imperialism and empire building, then surely we can infer from this that the United States is en route to, or masters of, a modern day empire. There are many, many examples of this in wherever we look around us, as much in the 'developed' as in the 'developing' world. Disney culture, is a pet hate of mine: the cute animals speaking and singing American in the Savannah, the audience's protagonist at the heart of a struggle which it/she/he inevitably wins as the forces of good conquer the forces of evil. Personification of the earth's most hostile environments to human beings become a playground in the audience's mind, where their pet character, who they have seen themselves in, becomes the king of the heap. The trend is repeated in media, music, technology, etc, nations like France making laws restricting the use of foreign languages to prevent the adoptations of anglicisms and Americanisms; The internet and the whole of IT totally dominated by English/American language, a sphere dominated by one nation and aspired to by the rest of the world. Marlborough is the world's leading brand, followed closely by the ubiquitous Coca-Cola, obvious displays of American "greatness" meet every corner of the globe. And it's not just the States, but token of the dispersion of consumerist/capitalist/American mentality. But is this not just a fine way out for me as a British passport holder to shy away from any responsibility former empirebuilders might have for the present day condition of former colonies, protectorates or dependencies? This, unfortunately, could be the very interesting content of another essay. What perhaps it is more appropriate to consider here is in effect what I see as the use of 'democracy' by the West.

How is it that American influence reaches out as far as it does? Why are Americanisms so trendy throughout the world? How is it that governments are so willing to allow American culture, American products, American cars be seen as status symbols amongst peoples who can often barely keep up with the rate of inflation? Is there more than meets the eye at first sight, is there a deeper reason for the americanization of the 'third' and indeed the majority of the world? This may be part of what Said sees as a global struggle for territory, and diffusion of ideas: "the earth is in effect one world, in which empty, uninhabited spaces virtually do not exist. Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings. Where the US is a strong, rich, technically 'intelligent' nation, what is the influence of this on nations outside of the US? Where does financial aid end and the payment for the spread of an ideology begin? Were we witnesses to a world where nations smaller or poorer in financial terms than other international actors accepted a credit slip from the highest bidder to advertise their form of ideology over anyone else's? What were the tools used as a bargaining instrument to keep the price down? Cold War America could justify throwing millions of US$ at the 'third world' as a way of sustaining democracy, or its idea of democracy. The ruling 'elite' in nations at the receiving end of such donations are happy to line their pockets with what are to the States no more than throwaway figures and show the world the face of 'democracy'; while they profit from the spoils of what they see to be democracy's sidekicks, capitalism and consumerism, the US floods their population with capitalist ideals, sells American goods and exploits the cheap labor and resources, thanks to capitalism's sidekick 'democracy'. There is more to this than speculation. Any economist with an interest in 'open' economies, or nations which trade outside their own boundaries will be familiar with the notion of Dualism, characteristic of many under-developed countries. The dual economy consists of two sectors, one modern, made-up of foreign companies or MNCs which use high-figure foreign capital to exploit local primary resources and cheap (though not necessarily) labor. Meanwhile this sector exports its produce to a 'western' or foreign market. Where imperialism plays a key role in separating this modern sector from its traditional local counterpart is in that the beneficiaries of the wages spend them on imported, trendy, western goods: status symbols compared to what the local market offers, yet in many cases no superior in utility. The traditional sector meanwhile remains unaffected by what at a cursory glance looks to be strong foreign investment, producing consumer goods for local consumption, consisting of small, local businesses and characterised by low worker/productivity ratio. One simply has to think of the billions of dollars in oil and the level of subsistence amongst individuals not employed in that sector from which little or nothing 'trickles-down'. Least of all in the form of technological 'intelligence'.

But there are more players in this game than the green bucks. 'Western' culture is increasingly dominated by image and press. For example, a shot of a student kissing American soil having been 'evacuated' in the 1983 'rescue mission' to Granada (which also just happened to overthrow its Marxist régime) was sufficient to convince America's 250 million inhabitants that Reagan's politics were sound. (The fact that Congress discovered the US was at war through newsflashes was neither here nor there!) Similar, yet much more sobering shots and news stories from Kosovo were sufficient to convince NATO's populations that NATO was right to act the way it did, the long-winded government or UN reports and papers that retrospectively try to sort out the 'truth' or pattern of events either get no press or are buried on page '26'. CNN's optimum report time is 17 seconds, and journalists try to condense conflicting issues dating back hundreds of years and chiseled into the psyche of millions of people into that timeframe. Our 'democracy' is tried like this, by us, wherever the press chooses to turn its dim and narrow spotlamp. Who are we westerners to preach democracy where, a) our commercial interests are foremost in our reasoning; and b) we hold romanticist notions of 'equality', 'democracy' itself when we ourselves are at the hands of the media to act as a check on the power of governments we only once every five years or so can 'check' ourselves. In claiming commerce comes first, looking at the Clinton trip to the Asia in spring 2000 to advise on democracy and rights suffices as an example. The trip ended for Clinton in Saudi Arabia, incontestably one of the world's worst showcases of human rights , where the only topic of conversation was keeping the price of fuel in the US stable (and low) presumably for the coming elections later in the year.

"More important than the past itself... is its bearing upon cultural attitudes in the present." colonialism and the imperialism which supported it left varying legacies: on the one hand in the minds and lives of the imperialists, on the other, in those of the former colonised. The effects range from influx of immigrants in the west to the questioning and manipulation of tradition, culture and custom. The conservative West might feel a threat from non-western culture, while a structural description of the world as divided into North and South is dangerous as a route to or catalyst for war. While the author of Orientalism is himself such a non-western actor questioning tradition, he is also an exile, for no meager reason: "problems of democracy, development and destiny attested to by the persecution of intellectuals who carry on their thought and practice" are font of "limitations of the attempts to deal with relationships that are polarized, radically uneven, remembered differently...

" So imperialism is something stemming from the past, having effect on the present and constituted of a dialogue of difference - "Said's cardinal work, Orientalism, reconfigures the European and Euro-American discourses about Near-East cultures and peoples, by redefining such 'oriental' studies within the context of Western imperialism... Literary and historical texts are constructed within these political contexts, creating a discourse about the East as the cultural 'other'." But the 21st century offers more than literary and artistic interpretations of imperialism, the value of intellectuals and politicians alike is being replaced by the power of the global economy. World markets have replaced policy in the struggle for supremacy, but while this erodes the distinction between domestic and international political spheres, it also means that a set of values is imposed on any individual, nation or trading block which wants to succeed economically. And paramount to achieving economic success is technological modernisation, investment in infrastructure as seen on TV, Internet, video. Economic success is the only way to political credibility in the new millennium, and while Theocratic leaders may seem removed from this on an ideological level, the flux of ideas, the movement of individuals and global communications are slowly eating away at ideology in pace with Economy eating away at Policy in cultures where the teeth of ideology are not so deeply penetrating.

So where the forces of Imperialism circulate the globe, they get referred to in differing ways by different cultures and in different circumstances. What demonstrators at conferences in Seattle and Prague in recent years brand 'Globalisation', economists might brand mercantilism and orientalists might consider imperialism. This leads to two conclusions. Firstly that there is a gross tendency to metanarrativise, and the key to understanding our world lies in its deconstruction rather than summing up in one catchy, 'headlineable' word like Globalisation; Secondly modern technology, the imposition of western ideas, ideals, values and aspirations affect the minds of every individual on the planet in a similar way, no matter if that individual is a wage earner in a dualist economy or the hand that pulled the trigger on 13 year-old Shawn Jones in Detroit, USA in 1985 to rob his branded trainers.