The legacy of humanitarian imperialism

Overland editor Jeff Sparrow is making waves this week: writing to the Prime Minister and crashing internets; arguing, with teammate Adam Bandt, for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan; speaking on the BBC, on RRR, at Melbourne’s WikiLeaks demo.

He’s also penned one of the lead essays in Overland 201, which traces the history and discourse of the war in Afghanistan, and dissects liberal imperialist arguments supporting the war.

The banality of goodism’ begins like so:

In 1955, Aimé Césaire, the great anti-colonial poet and agitator, published his classic Discours sur le colonialisme.

‘Colonisation,’ Césaire argued, ‘dehumanises even the most civilised man; … colonial activity, colonial enterprise, colonial conquest, which is based on contempt for the native and justified by that contempt, inevitably tends to change him who undertakes it; … the coloniser, who in order to ease his conscience gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal, accustoms himself to treating him like an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an animal.’

The C-word sounds crass in the context of Western involvement in Afghanistan: this is, we’re told, a temporary deployment, nothing more. Colonialism implies rapine and despoliation, whereas our intervention in Afghanistan was framed, right from the start, by ostentatious declarations of high-mindedness.

Nonetheless, with the occupation now lasting twice as long as the Great War, it seems well past time to investigate the domestic consequences of what’s becoming a decidedly neocolonial conflict: to ask, like Césaire, not only what we have done to Afghanistan but what Afghanistan has done to us.

Let us begin at the beginning, back when even the tabloid polemicists sold the Afghan intervention, not as a down payment on the US alliance, but an impeccably ethical endeavour.

‘Australian military forces are joining a long-overdue fight against evil,’ wrote Piers Akerman in the Sunday Telegraph in October 2001, in a typical column. ‘Is that too difficult to understand?’

But if conservatives invoked a rhetoric of morality, liberal supporters of the invasion went considerably further, developing that rhetoric into an expansive theory about the ethical basis of intervention: a philosophy that we might call ‘goodism’. In Australia, for instance, the late Pamela Bone articulated an explicit case for understanding the entire War on Terror as an avowedly feminist struggle. ‘Why,’ she asked, ‘is international public opinion not outraged at the treatment of women in Islamic fundamentalist societies? Why is it easier for millions of people around the world to see America as the great evil, rather than the countries in which governments ignore such horrific abuses of women?’

Read the rest of the essay.

Editorial team

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