Thanks to a book I am reading, Full Spectrum Disorder by Stan Goff, I decided to look up a quote online by Aimé Césaire, the poet and anticolonial thinker, and found to my dismay just how keenly his cry of protest against mid-20th century French colonialism fits the moment we are living now. Change a few place names, and you will find that he is describing American behavior in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Israeli behavior in Palestine and Lebanon, and its corrosive effect on our own souls.

    First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism; and we must show that each time a head is cut off or an eye put out in Vietnam and in France they accept the fact, each time a little girl is raped and in France they accept the fact, each time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept the fact, civilization acquires another dead weight, a universal regression takes place, a gangrene sets in, a center of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these prisoners who have been tied up and “interrogated,” all these patriots who have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been instilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery.
    And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific reverse shock: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers around the racks invent, refine, discuss.

Speaking of torturers, let’s revisit what Mitt Romney said last May at a Republican presidential debate in South Carolina. He was responding to an imaginary scenario in which terrorists have exploded bombs in three American cities, and are taken to Guantanamo before they can carry out a fourth attack.

    First of all, let’s make sure… that scenario doesn’t ever happen. And the key to that is prevention. We’ve all spent a lot of time talking about what happens after the bomb goes off. The real question is how do you prevent the bomb from going off…. Now you said the person is going to be at Guantanamo. I’m glad they’re at Guantanamo. I don’t want them on our soil. I want them on Guantanamo where they don’t get the access to lawyers they get when they’re on our soil. […] Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo… and there’s no question but that in a setting like that, where you have the ticking bomb, that the President of the United States… has to make the call, and enhanced interrogation techniques have to be used. Not torture, but enhanced interrogation techniques.

Back to Aimé Césaire and his Discourse on Colonialism, which has been called a “third world manifesto.” He is talking about what happens once people in “civilized” nations discover that the techniques they have used on others are being turned on them.

    People are surprised, they become indignant. They say: “How strange! But never mind—it’s Nazism, it will pass!” And they wait, they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, but the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples….
    Yes, it would be worthwhile to study clinically, in detail, the steps taken by Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century that without his being aware of it, he has a Hitler inside him, that Hitler inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon, that if he rails against him, he is being inconsistent and that, at bottom, what he cannot forgive in Hitler is not crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.

Today the U.S. is falling into the same trap. When U.S. soldiers come under fire in Baghdad, they call in air strikes that inevitably cause the deaths of civilians—women and children and even whole families—because they are fighting in a residential neighborhood. We may see a headline that says 49 people were killed in such a confrontation, but we don’t even read the article because we don’t want to think about it. Girls are raped as Aimé Césaire says, prisoners are tortured, and boastfulness is displayed by our leaders. Yet we in the West are not outraged, because these crimes are not being done to us, they are being done to “the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.” Instead, journalists wring their hands about how to restore U.S. prestige in the world, or what should be done in Pakistan as if it were our job to write the script.

What has changed in the 50 years since Aimé Césaire wrote his words, besides a few names and dates? We still have the same smug conviction that we can do no wrong, because by accident of birth we live in a privileged nation. We still think we are exempt from our own standards of decency when dealing with the rabble outside our gates. And we are still just as blind to it, and the way it corrodes us.

13 thoughts on “Barbarism

  1. Wren

    There’s the old saw, “Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” When I was younger I thought my generation was too smart, too compassionate, too determined to do good in the world to stupidly repeat history.

    Well, I was wrong.

    Thank you for bringing “Discourse” to my attention again after all these years. I’d heard of it, but never read it. This time, I’m reading it. What we’re doing in the Middle East — and what we’re doing to ourselves in the process — makes me despair.

  2. eatbees Post author

    @Wren, Loula—There are people in Right Blogistan who still believe the Vietnam War was morally right, and was lost due to a failure of nerve by the West. We had our boot on the neck of the barbarian hordes, but were unwilling to follow through, so they lived to fight another day, resurrecting themselves as al Qaeda to bring us the War on Terror.

    To me it is self-evident that if the U.S. killed a couple of million people in Vietnam, and they killed 50,000 or so of us, then in that war at least, the famous line “We have met the enemy and they are us” is really true.

    I don’t know what moral blind spot keeps some people from seeing that, though Aimé Césaire comes as close as anyone to pinning it down. Just the other day I was surfin’ the innertubes and came to a blog post that gets everything wrong—to understand it, just translate “Reavers” by “hordes of subhumans who want to kill us.”

    Reavers walk among us….
    We will never be able to detect and defuse them.
    And that is why we have to fight the Reaver War.
    We will have to fight it eventually.
    Withdrawal is just kicking the ball down the field for our children……
    like our parents and grandparents did with Viet Nam.
    It is the same war…..the war between the rule of law and the Reavers.

    This person actually thinks that fighting the Viet Cong and fighting Osama bin Laden are somehow the same war. He assumes that we, the superpower with our killing machines, are on the side of “rule of law.” Slaughtering the enemy is a moral imperative, or our children and grandchildren will be faced with even more slaughter, a worse war.

    I didn’t understand any of this, then Aimé Césaire came along with an antidote, so I had to post.

  3. leblase

    History should come to the rescue of mankind, if only those in charge were honestly in search of…Peace?
    Your quote from Romney only shows he’s decided to call on the lowest level; Podhoretz isn’t doing better and I’m afraid their rivals from the Democrats aren’t too clean either.
    With maybe -maybe- the exception (regarding the horror) of Mac Cain and Edwards..But this is not the subject.
    History: do people know that the CIA’s headquarters in Kabul are situated exactly in the same building that used to be the KGB’s?
    History: when asked if he had ever read the history of the French Army during its lost war against the Viet minh, General Westmoreland, the Gen.Petraus of the era answered: “Why should I read it, since they lost?”
    People never were too disturbed to hear that the sanctions against Saddham Hussein didn’t bother the dictator but killed half a million iraki children, due to malnutrition and a lack of medecine and hospital equipment.
    Asked about this, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said: “If that’s the price to pay, let us pay”.
    Except she wasn’t the one to pay. Except she should have known better, being an immigrant from Tchecoslovaquie, where her parents suffered persecutions…
    We are all human, hence all could-be colonizers or colonized.
    We should only concentrate on never, never dehumanize our ennemy.
    Keep going, eatbee. It is always energizing to read you

  4. Abdurahman

    Pardon me but I think Aimé Césaire was trying to assert, despite all that says to the contrary, that Europe is civilized.

    And that “the continent proceeds toward savagery”, after all this and it’s just moving to savagery. I think what Europe has done to the world in the past 2 centuries (and what it has done to itself) is the essence of savagery.

  5. eatbees Post author

    @leblase — “We are all human, hence all could-be colonizers or colonized.” I agree. Then you say, “We should only concentrate on never, never dehumaniz[ing] our enemy”—but doesn’t calling them an enemy already dehumanize them? My enemy is the dehumanizing machine itself. All humans, including those who might at one time have served the machine before coming to their senses, are potentially our allies in the poetic restoration of humankind. Yet I expect no final revolutions to solve our problems. Perhaps humans will stop being “complicated” a few thousand years after our deaths. Meanwhile, I wouldn’t trade the beauty of this adventure for anything else.

  6. eatbees Post author

    @Abdurahman — I think I agree with you, but just to make sure, shouldn’t we define what we mean by civilized? When people say that someone is civilized, they usually mean polite, with good manners. In that sense, civilization is just a surface skin to conceal the cruelties we would rather not discuss at the dinner table. It is a lie the privileged class tells each other so they can live together. Yet there is a deeper sense, without which I don’t think the word can have any meaning at all. I would define civilized in this sense as a spirit of fairness or decency that is outraged at any injustice. Someone who is civilized in this way, like Aimé Césaire, cannot bear the thought that any human being would violate the dignity of another. This is the spirit of Islam also, in its most profound sense. Such a person sees the surface lie of civilization as his greatest enemy, because it is a coverup for cruelty, iniquity and barbarism. Perhaps we can agree that for two hundred years or more, Europe and the U.S. have been trying to be civilized in this sense, but all they have achieved in reality is the lie of polite society.

  7. leblase

    We are not as you know well, in an era of universal love;-)
    I don’t think that recognizing a group busy trying to kill you as an enemy is dehumanizing- it’s the appropriate term if you decide to fight back.
    My path has found me in societies where the enemy is another self, similar to me, with adverse aims and goals.
    Recognizing him as an enemy doesn’t take away his human statute – blinding oneself to reality in such environment can generate all kinds of perverse distorsions.
    An enemy must be fought, but treated as human: then he will treat me likewise and I won’t lose my own humanity denigrating his.

  8. eatbees Post author

    @leblase — I’m going to have to think about what you said, because I still don’t think I would call a person an enemy in that case. Too often, what you said here—”a group busy trying to kill you as an enemy”—becomes the basis for irrational paranoia. I have read plenty of blog commenters (fortunately, not on this blog) who truly believe that Muslims are such a group. In your case, I’m sure you had more concrete reasons to believe this—but when I try to imagine a situation where I would call someone (person or group) my enemy I just can’t. Let’s say there is a gang who has decided to kill me, my family and friends. How did this happen? Either there was a horrible misunderstanding that needs to be fixed, and they think they have justice on their side, or they are working for someone who is the true evil. Either way, I don’t think it would help me to call them an enemy. They are attackers, and I need to defend myself and those who are with me, but the only real enemy is the true, hidden cause that made the situation violent in the first place.

    Thanks for giving me something to think about. I want to reflect more about “what is an enemy” and may write a blog post about this.

  9. leblase

    Nowhere in my comment was the word and quality of “Muslim” associated with the term “enemy”.
    Please forget the irrationality and abstraction corrupting the understanding of the world from within the USA
    When bullets whirl around you, it is not irrational paranoia.
    This conversation we’re having is confortable because we are behind our desks or at home, in peace. I am talking about the reality I’ve come across, wether in Yugoslavia, in different places in Africa, in Mid-East, as an observer amongst people fighting, sometimes from one side of the fight, then from the other side.
    Enmity and war have been human stuff ever since we were in the caverns.
    I assure you that warriors, resistant, civilians in-between do not ponder about the reality of enmity
    What civilization, culture (and intelligence) can allow us is the understanding that someone who is now my enemy (trying to kill me as much as I am trying to kill him) can be talked and brought into peace.
    Former enemies can become friends (I have lived that; I also have been mediator between fierce enemies).
    For this, one must always keep in mind that the enemy is another yourself: a human, defending his stand, exactly like oneself: that’s what makes the great leaders, like Marwann Barghoutti for instance, who impressed me by his knowledge of his own people and the understanding of the fears and needs of his adversaries.
    When people cease to grant the statute of mankind to their enemies, they themselves lose their own humanity.

  10. eatbees Post author

    @leblase — When I say I can fight against an attacker without calling him an enemy, and when you say you can decide that someone is your enemy without taking his humanity from him (or closing the door to a reconciliation) I think we are saying exactly same thing.

    Only I still feel that having an enemy means there is a moral failing somewhere. Something has gone wrong for us to get to that point. I am more interested in identifying what has gone wrong than to fight my enemy. I would find it hard to pick up a gun even if I knew someone was stalking me. Perhaps I will end up dead because of this… or maybe not. There is no guarantee either way, but I prefer to not take the fatal step of choosing an enemy. And I am willing to pay the price for this.

    Thanks for giving more concrete examples of situations where you found yourself facing an enemy. I was going to ask you for that. The situations you describe are real, but I don’t think they should be held up as a model for us to follow. They are an error in our programming. If the conflict can be resolved and fierce enemies can become friends, or at least share respect, then why did the conflict happen in the first place?

    Do you consider Ghandi and King to be warriors? I do, and I feel that Che Guevara made a wrong turn when he picked up a gun (see my next post). Sometimes speaking and living the truth is a more powerful way to fight than with bullets. And maybe women are wiser than men, because they don’t often get drawn into this bullshit.

    Finally, I know that you would never connect Muslims with the idea of “a group busy trying to kill you as an enemy.” The connection was made spontaneously in my mind because sadly, here in the U.S. so many people are saying it. So I used it as an example of just how dangerous such an idea is. Sometimes the attacker is real, but it is so easy for the idea of the enemy to detach itself from its source (or inspiration) and spread like a virus to contaminate one’s perception of much larger groups. And that is the reaction that Bin Laden provoked in the U.S.

  11. David

    All leaders are barbaric, Why they leaving to gay man to fack with all leaders in the world?Or your eyes are blind and your ears are deaf. If you can see and hear can you help to give answer and quesation to this barbaric washington?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *