Expropriating the East
How the west turns victims of their intervention into allies
Last month at the UN, Malala Yousafzai was given the role of “Messenger of Peace”, the youngest to hold the role. Later, and in Canada, Malala also received an honorary citizenship.
Receiving accolades such as this are not unusual for Malala and others like her who have risen to prominence due to their role, and suffering, in activism. Needless to say, the work done by such activists and campaigners are well deserving of such recognition. Not only does this acknowledge the sacrifice and impact they have had, it also empowers them and helps promote their message to a larger population.
Nevertheless, there remains something naggingly empty about gestures and accolades presented by the “international community” and, more specifically, those that predominantly represent Western interests.
Simple; not correct
The simplest analysis of this “nagging” would be to point out the hypocrisy in such actions. In Malala’s case, her life was put in jeopardy by the Taliban, a group relentlessly supported by the US during the Cold War. The argument could easily be made, and would stand criticism, that Malala’s suffering, and the suffering of many like her, could have been avoided had it not been for an interventionist strategy in Southern Asia. And taking it one step further, one could easily say that as a whole, Malala’s cause of women’s education could have very well been nonexistent.
On those lines, it would be tempting, yet wrong, to say that the West is hiding their complicity in creating the system that put Malala’s life in danger. No, if that was the case they would have purged that history. As opposed to bringing it to the forefront, as they are now. They would suppress any notion of activism which would acknowledge, through recognition of suffering and success, the existence of a problem.
So then, to unravel the paradox of why western governments and institutions would put their interventionist blunders on display, we need to dig deeper. It’s historical fact that these actions are hypocritical (when is delivering freedom through force not?), so how can the West continue to pat itself on the back by promoting the success of those who are pushing solutions to the problems they have created? The answer is by expropriating this suffering as their own.
Ideology when it counts
What do we mean by this? Malala’s story is inspiring, not because of international institutions, the US, or Canada. It’s inspiring because it’s a story of personal triumph. So how does a story of personal triumph become that of international triumph? It’s absorbed into the ideology of the main actors, those bestowing the honors and acolades.
The values that Malala’s cause espouse are those of individuality, women’s liberation, and progress. All values claimed by the liberal democratic governments of the West. This concurrence in values makes Malala’s achievements easy to absorb on an ideological basis, for what else was the initial call to intervention but a call in defense of these very values against an ideological opposite. In this way, Malala’s suffering and success in her cause IS the suffering and success of the West in its ideological battle. Malala’s suffering is then not an acknowledgement of the West’s role in destabilising a region altogether but is a continuation of the very ideological cause that has warranted the intervention in the first place.
This expropriation is both ideological and physical. Malala herself now lives in Birmingham. One can argue that her mission continues to benefit those who have been left behind in Pakistan, but it’s in that notion that the second purpose of this expropriation comes to life.
By expropriating Malala’s success and suffering, not only is the West preserving their ideological integrity (by presenting, at least on the surface, a continuity of their interventionist policies), but they are also very much “leaving behind” the threats to that ideology. What do we mean by this? On the first stage, they are relocating and condensing the entirety of suffering (that is the suffering faced by those in the countries of intervention) into one story, that of Malala. This story is then presented as an emancipation of the West from the horrors of their intervention and the suffering others continue to face in its wake. This highly selective process allows them to cherry pick the acceptable results effectively leaving behind the suffering that continues to present a threat to that ideological cohesion, a sort of selective amnesia. A parallel can be drawn here to colonialism where the benefactors of imperialist conquest would expropriate natural resources (and others) keeping the mess necessary to create it hidden from the mainland.
Two steps to deliverance
This represents an ideological purification for the West, a sort of self-cleansing, a retroactive justification of interventionism and colonialism. This expropriation then operates in two motions. The first provides the necessary firewood to re-forge an ideological alignment. The “taking out” of suffering from its original context and wrapping it in that of Western values. — “look how our intervention has inspired people to rise and risk themselves in our common cause”.
The second is the act of abandoning the original interventionist cause by discarding the suffering (its consequence) altogether. For by removing the suffering of the Subject from its original context, you have actually erased the context, and by doing so, it is as if that suffering in itself is gone altogether, proving that the intervention was a success — “people are putting their life on the line for what they believe in, our intervention was a success”.
At the root of this acrobatic feat of ideology is the core belief that it is western civilisation, and western civilisation alone that stands for the values of humanity and progress. With this at the core of western ideology, there is no end in sight for farcical displays of appreciation meant to cover up the appropriation of inspiration and expropriation of suffering coming out of the East.
Nevertheless, and as my favourite band says, “the sky belongs to no one”, similarly the values of individualism and progress are universal. Until that monopoly is relinquished, we would do well not to fall victim of mistaking real impact with ideological self-preservation.
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