Priyamvada Gopal

On the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ argument -- critique of Hitchens

to MLG 9.23.01

I have had no desire to react to recent posts about the "real enemy," "other systems worse than late capitalism" etc, in part because I share with them a weariness about canned analyses, theirs included and especially. But intrigued by the promise of the Hitchens piece providing a different "start-up," which I myself crave, I jumped into it.

I would have been happy with a good polemical piece—Hitchens at his best—that I merely violently disagreed with. Now I’m canceling my subscription to Vanity Fair and not the Nation. I found myself reading a boring, trite (talk about canned), and utterly un-illuminating piece that simply reiterated the various oddly triumphal calls in the NYT, Newsweek and elsewhere (including in the piece forwarded by Neil Larsen yesterday) for the misguided left to finally understand that what we REALLY have here is a clash of civilizational mentalities. (Oh, I should say, in the Hitchensian spirit of "My best friends are Muslims" that I’ve cheered for a great deal of Hitchens’ past work and was probably one of three and a half Indians who thrilled to his critique of Mother T).

I can go into length about the various obvious analytical flaws in the Hitchens article, but it is not a serious enough piece to merit that. I plan instead to have my students do it for a colonial discourse analysis mid-term. (Colonial discourse analysis ordinarily bores me, still does. I almost never teach it. But perhaps Christopher as Rudyard rattling gamely through the Khyber pass merits a page of undergraduate writing as mine plough their way through Kim, a department-required text at where I teach).

The only reason I feel compelled to write to this list at all re: Hitchens is my growing disquiet (and disbelief) at what seems to be increasing support within certain quarters of the American left for the bizarre culturalist notion that there are, in fact, in the present-day, sutured and separate sociopolitical systems in relation to which late capitalism is "undeniably" better, both in itself and for Marxist aspirations. Seriously, somebody please explain this phenomenon to me, with names, dates and examples.

Bin Laden represents a non-capitalist, "worse than" movement?! Bin Laden?!!! A man with an MBA who made his billions out of the construction industry and petro-dollars?! Here’s a thought: late capitalism begets with its Oriental despot allies, and nourishes, when it is the mood, "revivalism" "fundamentalism," "neo-feudalism" "anti-secularism" and "Binladenism." And feudalism likes the stock market. To point to this is not an apology or even an explanation for what happened on September 11.

And frankly, if you don’t recognize the symbiotic interconnectedness of these political systems and you have a vested interest in defending, no advocating, "late capitalism" over these "other social formations"—a vague term that no one seems to have yet bothered to unpack— then, girlfriend, to put it euphemistically, you’ve got some rather serious civilizational hierarchy issues. Issues about "others," that is. "Presumably" I’ m not "cosmopolitan" enough to not read greater sophistication into some recent postings but I can’t acknowledge what I don’t see. And it is with great reluctance and unhappiness that I acknowledge what I do see.

Actually, I think I will go into the Hitchens piece so I’m not culpable of vague generalizations myself but I’ll try to restrict myself to a few examples:

What is "Tribal piety"? "Tribes" are the primal, self-evident opposite of modernity and modern civil society (that’s how and why the imperial Brits classified certain peoples as such in the first place). Hence, what we really have here is the clash of tradition (East) and modernity (West), and damn Hitchens’ " farouche-looking, wolfishly …gruff" driver for spoiling our fantasy by listening to Dire Straits instead of—gotta love this— "the ululations of some mullah." I hope Hitchens wasn’t too painfully reminded of his days in the Khyber during NPR’s endless procession of rabbis, priests and mullahs last week, punctuated by requiems. NYC is, of course, unproblematically "the symbol of modernism and innovation." ModernISM? Maybe he just meant the architecture. Anyway, it all boils down to ideas.

"Always homogenize" (that’s me, not Hitchens.). So "bin Ladenism" not only pulled down the Bamiyan Buddha, but its "co-thinkers" have been "heard" to express condemnation for the Pyramids. And while we are at it, we can deploy this catch-all neologism to account for certain kinds of pressures to withdraw troops from Gaza, militancy in Kashmir (never mind that there are several factions in that front alone), critiques of Zionism and, folks, us lefties. We too are "poisoned" by bin Ladenism

Our analyses of unfortunate retaliatory ideologies, to ask the "why" for which there is no simple answer, are "the moral equivalent of the hateful garbage" that comes out of the Falwell and bin Laden camps. Analysis=Rationalization=Apologias. This is not a good time to make subtle distinctions, you know. United we stand and all that. It just wouldn’t do right now to give each region —Algeria, Kashmir, Pakistan, Iran, Kosovo, Gaza, Chechnya, India, or each event— Kashmir conflicts, the Satanic verses controversy, the maiming of women in Kabul, leftist analysis or rightist preaching— its own context and history even as we note the connections.

The East is pretty much the same place with the same sort of stuff going on everywhere. So instead of generalizing about American imperialism, generalize about Islamic "fundamentalism".

All you "masochistic" lefties out there. Disconnected as you are from ground realities (when was the last time YOU tried to cross the Khyber?)-- learn this then. You could have been on that plane, "yes, even in the Pentagon." Where would your little cold-eyed analysis be then, huh? THEN, while you shat your pants, you would understand, without any need for argument, that these guys don’t just hate what you hate, but Western civilization in toto. (Isn't that what Bennett said about Fanon?). Rally to it, brother, it’s YOU they don’t like.

Meanwhile the virtues of Western civilization are self-evidently unique: "emancipated women" (can’t think why that sounds familiar); "scientific enquiry" (all that crap about the Arab roots of mathematics, Black Athena yada yada); "its separation of church from state" (somehow, I managed to miss that. In the UK, where I live, the Head of State is also the "Defender of THE faith, and in India we don’t usually hear "God Bless India" after political speeches—YET. But I forgot that we superstitious natives are more culturally and genetically prone to god-genuflection).

And in the midst of all this obviousness, many of us "non-Western" feminists and progressives have actually managed to pull out stuff on the long, illustrious history of non-Western feminisms and the history of rational and democratic values in our respective polities, heck, even the Islamic ones, much before the advent of the West into our lives.

I guess secular Indian forces should just acknowledge what our own Hindu "fundoos" have been telling us all along and what we’ve strenuously denied in classically unrealistic leftie fashion: that feminism, secularism and democracy are Western values.

Oh dear, I suppose one has to say this for the hundredth time. Yes, analysis should not take the form of "chickens coming home to roost." The situation is way over-determined beyond that. And no, analyses of American imperialism cannot simply "account" for mass murder. Yes, we need to think in more complicated ways and try to find a way forward. But arguing for primal civilizational clash does not seem to me to be that way.

Well, one could go on, but it’s actually not that interesting beyond a point. Let me just note something that is as true of me as it is of many of us in the left.

In our frustration at not being able to "see the way forward" and our sense of being painted into a corner, we are starting to turn on each other to vent. So, other lefties are "masochistic", "ideological," "purists" "non-pragmatic", "callous," "disappointing", "not mourning enough," "unrealistic", "unempathetic" "uncosmopolitan" "unsecular" and so on. Well, if it keeps us talking, ok, but maybe we want to be careful about the ways in which we let this situation hurt us, such as the "us" is.

In solidarity,