The smug racism of the neo-colonialists
Clifford May wrote a very interesting article pointing out that modern liberalism means giving a complete pass to utterly offensive behavior — provided that the behavior is practiced by non-Western people:
What do you think about the niqab — sometimes also called a burqa — the veil that leaves only the eyes of a woman uncovered? Critics, not least Muslim critics such as Fadéla Amara, France’s secretary of state for urban policy, suggest that when a woman is forced to wear one it not only deprives her of individuality but is, effectively, a portable prison. France recently moved to ban the niqab, as have several other European countries.
Nevertheless, a recent New York Times review of a Yemeni restaurant in Brooklyn noted in passing that the diners are apparently segregated by sex and that next door is “Paradise Boutique, where mannequins model chic niqabs…”
This liberal pass isn’t always in the form of fawning admiration for the “other” culture. It also involves turning a resolutely blind eye to behaviors that cannot possibly be explained away:
Psychologist Phyllis Chesler recently cited a particularly blatant example of this double standard: Fred Gottheil, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois, tracked down 675 academics who had signed a statement-petition calling for a boycott of Israel as an “apartheid regime.” He asked them also to sign a statement-petition opposing the abuse of women in the Middle East, including “honor-killing, wife-beating, female genital mutilation,” as well as the systematic “discrimination against women, gays and lesbians in the Middle East.” The result of this experiment: Ninety-five percent of those who signed the petition censuring Israel “did not sign a statement concerning discrimination against women and gays and lesbians in the Middle East.”
Forced to give a name to this bizarre phenomenon, which sees our self-styled cultural elite ostentatiously fawn before behaviors that they would never personally tolerate, May cites to Fadéla Amara, a French official, who calls it “neo-colonialism.” I agree with Amara and May, but only up to a point. At that point, as I’ll discuss further below, we discover that many of the old colonialists, when compared to their modern day counterparts, actually had more rather than less decency.
It is absolutely true that the old colonialism looked down on the “brown” people in their charge. A pithy illustration of this point can be found in Ingrid Bergman’s comedic portrayal of a simple Swedish woman in the film Murder on the Orient Express. You need to watch only the first 40 seconds to get my point:
Bergman’s lines were meant to be a knowing 1970s wink back at a less humane time in Western culture, but they nevertheless perfectly encapsulate a certain type of colonial view: the people under colonial control were closer to animals than to humans.
The thing about animals is that we expect much less of them than we do of ourselves. I don’t expect my dog to dine nicely with a knife and fork. She does perfectly well with a bowl on the floor. Her elimination needs do not require a closed door and a flush toilet. The back yard and street, with their singular absence of privacy, are good enough for her. Nor am I surprised that, despite being 9 years old, she’s neither reading nor writing. She’s an animal and her limitations are just fine with me (and with her).
Given this condescending viewpoint towards the “brown” people, if one was a bad colonial culture, being bad gave one a moral pass to treat the brown people like animals, whether that meant bringing people to be slaves abroad or, as in the Belgian Congo, turning them into slaves in their own home. Alternatively, if one was a “good” colonial culture, one approached the “brown” people as children, who could be led to minimal standards of decent human behavior.
Under either of these approaches, though, the colonial ruler did not treat the “others” as fully fledged, responsible, moral adults. We recognize this treatment for what it is: classic racism, which dehumanizes people based on their race.
Modern so-called liberals, of course, would never dream of saying that the brown people of the world are less than fully human because of their race. May’s point, however, is that, when it comes to Muslims, we still manage to treat them that way. (I’ll add that the same holds true for the low, low standards so-called liberals establish for black people.)
Sure, we in the West treat women well, but we certainly can’t expect that level of sophistication from the brown people. And sure, we treat gays well, but we have to understand that the brown people haven’t evolved to that point, and we should therefore just ignore their sins. And sure, we can tolerate free speech (or, at least, if we’re a so-called liberal, we pay lip-service to the notion of free speech), but we’re big enough to recognize that the brown people haven’t matured enough as a race to handle it.
The exceptionally low standards we allow for Muslims and blacks are always phrased in terms of “respect” for the “other” culture. “Respect,” however, is a misnomer. True respect is impossible if we consistently assert that the “others” (who invariably have skin darker than ours) cannot hold themselves to the normative behaviors of which we’re most proud.
But I promised to tell you that the old colonialists were actually better than the neo-colonialists who inhabit our media airways and political space today. Not all of them were, of course. The ones who treated indigenous people with exceptional cruelty were as bad as could be.
Fortunately, though, there were other colonialists who looked at the less savory practices of the indigenous people under their rule, and said, “I don’t care the color of these people’s skin. They are better than those grotesque practices, and I will hold them up to my standards, and not allow them to wallow down in theirs.”
The easiest illustration of this true respect for the native people trapped in the colonial web is Lord William Bentinck’s refusal to accept the common practice of suttee in India. Suttee (or sati), for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the old Indian practice of requiring a widow to climb onto her husband’s funeral pyre and be burned alive.
In the late 1820s, faced with this barbaric practice, William Bentinck, Governor-General of the East India company, refused to bow to cultural relativism. Instead, he insisted that, under British rule, suttee end. The following passage may be written in the ornate, verbose, polysyllabic style of the 19th century, but the meaning is clear — Indians are people too and it is every moral person’s obligation to steer them away from barbarism:
The first and primary object of my heart is the benefit of the Hindus. I know nothing so important to the improvement of their future condition as the establishment of a purer morality, whatever their belief, and a more just conception of the will of God. The first step to this better understanding will be dissociation of religious belief and practice from blood and murder. They will then, when no longer under this brutalizing excitement, view with more calmness acknowledged truths. They will see that there can be no inconsistency in the ways of Providence, that to the command received as divine by all races of` men, “No innocent blood shall be spilt,” there can be no exception; and when they shall have been convinced of the error of this first and most criminal of their customs, may it not be hoped that others, which stand in the way of their improvement, may likewise pass away, and that, thus emancipated from those chains and shackles upon their minds and actions, they may no longer continue, as they have done, the slaves of every foreign conqueror, but that they may assume their first places among the great families of mankind? I disown in these remarks, or in this measure, any view whatever to conversion to our own faith. I write and feel as a legislator for the Hindus, and as I believe many enlightened Hindus think and feel.
Descending from these higher considerations, it cannot be a dishonest ambition that the Government of which I form a part should have the credit of an act which is to wash out a foul stain upon British rule, and to stay the sacrifice of humanity and justice to a doubtful expediency; and finally, as a branch of the general administration of the Empire, I may be permitted to feel deeply anxious that our course shall be in accordance with the noble example set to us by the British Government at home, and that the adaptation, when practicable to the circumstances of this vast Indian population, of the same enlightened principles, may promote here as well as there the general prosperity, and may exalt the character of our nation.
Call it enlightened colonialism, if you want. In practice, it meant that Bentinck recognized the Indians’ humanity, and demanded the elevation of their conduct.
In this regard, Bentinck was infinitely better than today’s cultural relativists who refuse to speak out for the millions of women around the world brutalized by Islam’s restrictions, whether those restrictions are the forced wearing of imprisoning clothes, the humiliation of polygamy, the limitations on movement, the imprisonment in homes, the denial of education, or the more extreme physical punishments of genital mutilation, beatings, acid burnings, nose and ear removals, stonings, torture, honor killings and hanging — all of which are routine practices against women across the Muslim world, whether meted out by Muslim governments or just by Muslim men.
Nor is Bentinck’s behavior in India the only example of colonialists trying to end barbaric practices amongst indigenous peoples. For example, one of the things our politically correct schools don’t like to teach children is that many of the indigenous peoples in the Americas were big on human sacrifice.
Take the Aztecs (please). They had a civilization of extraordinary sophistication, one that, in many ways, far surpassed the Europeans. Their cities were bigger, they had glorious architecture, and, unlike European cities, these metropolises were immaculate and well run. The Aztec nation boasted enormous wealth and the social structure was highly complex.
Why, then, were the Spaniards unimpressed? Two reasons. One was undoubtedly the inherent racism of the time. The other, though, was the large scale human sacrifice and cannibalism the Aztecs practiced. The Spaniards may have been warlike and had their Inquisition, but even the Spanish were disgusted by a religious structure that demanded the sacrifice of up to 80,000 people in connection with a single king’s coronation. This made it easy for the racists among them to conclude that the Aztecs were inferior, incapable of salvation, and worthy of conquest.
Surrounding Indian tribes, whose citizens, captured in war, made up the bulk of the sacrifices, were also less than thrilled by the visual beauties of the Aztec kingdom. That’s why, contrary to lessons in public school, Cortez didn’t manage to conquer the entire Aztec nation with just his 167 Spaniards and a few horses. Instead, Cortez was swiftly able to gather many allies anxious to hasten the end of a violent, blood-soaked, totalitarian regime. That small pox jumped into the fray was an unexpected benefit from the Spanish point of view, and simply proved who had the “right” god.
While the racists among the conquistadors may have viewed the Aztecs as deserving of slavery, the more enlightened priests in the company saw them, and the other native populations, as humans who could be saved from the scourge of ritual cannibalism. In this regard, as they pushed for Indian conversion, they acted in precisely the same way as did Bentinck when it came to suttee: they insisted that a common humanity requires us to expect the most of people, not to use their skin color or present circumstances as an excuse to justify the least.
I don’t see any of our liberals recognizing in Muslims the common humanity that the more enlightened English and Christians saw in the East Indians or Native Americans. Instead, our cultural relativists glory in their own superiority. Sure, they’ll bad-mouth their own culture left, right and center, but they know that their respect for women, for gays, and for other people who have traditionally been oppressed, makes them better than other cultures that continue to oppress those same people. In other words, cultural relativism is a fancy phrase for what is, in practice, smug racism.