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'From the Ruins of Empire': Interview with Pankaj Mishra

The following is an excerpt from my interview with award-winning author and essayist Pankaj Mishra on his new book From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia. The interview was published at Al Jazeera.

Belen Fernandez: You explain at the start of From the Ruins of Empire:

The form of this book – part historical essay and part intellectual biography – is primarily motivated by the conviction that the lines of history converge in individual lives, even though the latter have their own shape and momentum. The early men of modern Asia it describes travelled and wrote prolifically, restlessly assessing their own and other societies, pondering the corruption of power, the decay of community, the loss of political legitimacy and the temptations of the West. Their passionate enquiries appear in retrospect as a single thread, weaving seemingly disparate events and regions into a single web of meaning.”

You’ve discussed your own intellectual formation and travels in previous writings, such as your book Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond. What convergence of events and experiences compelled you to embark on From the Ruins of Empire?

Pankaj Mishra: Many things over the last decade. I’ll speak only about two here. The first was surely my visit to the Muslim-majority valley of Kashmir in 2000, where I witnessed a military occupation by a nation-state, India, that claimed the moral prestige of secularism but was actually oppressively Hindu majoritarian in all significant ways – that’s how it was perceived by Kashmiris who had long belonged to a cosmopolitan and syncretic culture.

That’s when I began to wonder why many Asian nation-states had turned out to be often more violent than the European empires in Asia they had replaced. And that was when I began to wonder – and this is a major theme in the book – if the political and economic models Asians had adopted from the West in their struggle for self-determination and dignity were disastrously unsuitable.

I realised too that the post-colonial version of history I had grown up with – one that celebrated the nation-state’s emergence from foreign rule – was deeply defective and left out a lot of things.

The other thing that influenced me was the post-9/11 political climate in the West. How such a wide range of politicians, policymakers, journalists and columnists could re-embrace the delusions of empire – those you thought had been effectively shattered by decolonisation 50-60 years ago; how they could bring themselves to believe that the Afghans and the Iraqis were just longing to suck on the big sticks proffered to them by American soldiers, as [decorated New York Times foreign affairs columnist] Thomas Friedman inimitably recommended

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Neo-Nazis, gangs and criminals in the US military

This is an excerpt from my latest op/ed for Al Jazeera.

Investigative reporter Nir Rosen once aptly remarked on the tendency in mainstream Western journalism to downplay unfavourable trends occurring in the context of US military operations abroad: “The big scandals like Abu Ghraib, or the “Kill Team” in Afghanistan, eventually make their way into the media where they can be dismissed as bad apples and exceptions, and the general oppression of the occupations can be ignored”.

A similar sort of argument can perhaps be made with regard to incidents such as the August 7 Sikh temple massacre in Wisconsin, perpetrated by Wade Michael Page, a decorated former Army psychological operations specialist and a neo-Nazi. Although any Pentagon-sanctioned explanation of the event would undoubtedly rest on the bad apple assumption, it has occurred to media outlets such as the Christian Science Monitor to question whether the intersection of military training and racist extremism in Page’s case is not in fact indicative of a larger pattern.

Noting that civil rights organisations like the Southern Poverty Law Centre “have warned that hate groups encourage their members to join [the military] for training and experience that they can later use to perpetrate crimes in the United States”, CSM’s Anna Mulrine writes:

“The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division conducts a threat assessment of extremist and gang activity among Army personnel. ‘Every year, they come back with “minimal activity”, which is inaccurate,’ Scott Barfield, a former gang investigator for the Department of Defence, told the Southern Poverty Law Centre in its 2006 report ‘A Few Bad Men’. ‘It’s not epidemic, but there’s plenty of evidence we’re talking numbers well into the thousands, just in the Army’.”

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The power of Cuba's free healthcare

(Photo: Reuters)

The following is an excerpt from my latest for Al Jazeera.

In 1995, Nelson Mandela declared with regard to Cuban international solidarity missions to Africa over past decades:

Cubans came to our region as doctors, teachers, soldiers, agricultural experts, but never as colonisers. They have shared the same trenches with us in the struggle against colonialism, underdevelopment and apartheid.”

The US, of course, had offered a less favourable characterisation of Cuban activities on the African continent, and accused the island nation of exporting revolution. Evidence of diabolical Cuban meddling in the internal affairs of sovereign nations included its substantial assistance in defending newly independent Angola against a US-backed South African invasion that – according to Noam Chomsky – ultimately killed a million and a half people in Angola and Mozambique.

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Tom Friedman as Midwife

This piece appeared at Jacobin magazine.

In the aftermath of Pulitzer champ Thomas Friedman’s latest New York Times offering, “Syria Is Iraq,” commentators have begun to question whether Friedman himself has not discovered the joys of Friedman-parodying.

As Matt Taibbi remarked at Rolling Stone: “This column today is so crazy I have to think Friedman is kidding.”

To put it in Friedman-speak, this is a Friedman column on steroids, a distilled cornucopia of his signature journalistic maneuvers. In the first two paragraphs we learn:

[T]he lesson of Iraq is quite simple: You can’t go from Saddam to Switzerland without getting stuck in Hobbes — a war of all against all — unless you have a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition. In Iraq, that was America.

The only reason Iraq has any chance for a decent outcome today is because America was on the ground with tens of thousands of troops to act as that well-armed midwife, reasonably trusted and certainly feared by all sides, to manage Iraq’s transition to more consensual politics. My gut tells me that Syria will require the same to have the same chance.

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Partitioning Honduras: The advent of charter cities

(Image by Peter Oumanski for the New York Times. Accompaniment to Adam Davidson’s article encouraging charter cities)

Following is an excerpt from my latest op/ed for Al Jazeera.

At the end of 2011, an article appeared in The Economist proclaiming “an ambitious development project aim[ing] to pull a Central American nation out of its economic misery”.

The project in question: Charter cities. The nation: Honduras.

The article explains:

“In a nutshell, the Honduran government wants to create what amounts to internal start-ups – quasi-independent city-states that begin with a clean slate and are then overseen by outside experts. They will have their own government, write their own laws, manage their own currency and, eventually, hold their own elections.”

The term “eventually” should raise some warning flags. According to US economist Paul Romer, whose brainchild the charter city concept is, the apparent affront to democracy is not actually problematic because the cities will be inhabited entirely by migrants who have taken up residence of their own volition. The Economist offers an analogy: 

“Migration to Britain gives the legal system there legitimacy in the eyes of those who move there, even if they cannot vote. If the English legal system were enforced on the same person in his home country, Mr Romer notes, that would be colonial rule.”

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A Counterplea for Retracted U.S. Military Engagement

This is an excerpt from my recent piece for The Diplomat.

Former Defense Department officials Michèle Flournoy and Janine Davidson’s new article, “A Plea for Smart, Forward U.S. Military Engagement,” may contain some surprises for followers of contemporary history. The piece begins:

The recent global economic downturn has generated doubts about American resilience and our ability to lead in the world. Far from being a nation in decline, however, the United States’ global standing remains unmatched and the imperative for it to lead in today’s tumultuous environment is clear. Those who assume that in order to recover economically the United States must close its overseas bases and bring its military forces home misunderstand the role the U.S. military plays in promoting global prosperity.”

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Puerto Rico's outlaw police force

(Photo: AP)

The following is my latest piece for Al Jazeera.

In February 2011, US congressman Luis V Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois, addressed the House of Representatives:

“I want to talk to you today about a part of the world where the rights of citizens of all walks of life to protest and speak their minds is being denied, with clubs and pepper spray. A part of the world where a student strike led the university to ban student protests anywhere, anytime on campus, and where, when the students protested the crackdown on free speech, they were violently attacked by heavily armed riot police… What faraway land has seen student protests banned, union protesters beaten, and free speech advocates jailed? The United States of America’s colony of Puerto Rico”.

Gutierrez was referring to a period of intense crackdowns by Puerto Rican police on peaceful protests that began in response to fiscal austerity measures, the firing of 30,000 state employees, the suspension of collective bargaining rights, and a 50 per cent increase in tuition fees – rendering education prohibitively expensive for many students. Police violence has been amply documented in a new report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), titled “Island of Impunity: Puerto Rico’s Outlaw Police Force”.

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