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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…
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’.”
The popular Gawker website ran an excerpt today from my book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, introduced as follows by Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan:
We enjoy pointing out to the world that mustachioed simpleton New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is, for the most part, a shockingly dull one-trick pony. Those searching for a more thorough and academic destruction of Friedman’s career and philosophy would enjoy Belén Fernández’s “The Imperial Messenger,” (part of Verso’s “Counterblasts” series) an incisive dismantling of the man and his message.
I’ve been responding to reader comments and questions on the site; click here to check it out.
David Wearing of New Left Project has written a brilliant review of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work. The following is an excerpt:
Why, in the midst of a historically severe depression caused by a crisis in the least regulated part of the private sector, is the political class of the global north prioritising an assault on the free-market bogeyman of “big government”? Why, after a decade of military disasters in Western Asia, are so many prominent voices advocating a military response to the non-existence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iran? One answer is that the material interests of class and state power are reinforced by an intellectual culture which advocates policies that serve those interests, irrespective of “externalities” such as the costs to the non-powerful. Power and wealth use the louder voice they can afford to drown out dissent and hardwire a set of assumptions, a conventional wisdom, a conceptual framework into the political discourse, which will tend to produce the same answers irrespective of the question, or the facts. It follows then, for those of us who choose to challenge power, that undermining, critiquing and disrupting that conventional wisdom is a vital task – a prerequisite to persuading the general public that another world is possible.
Few single voices play a greater role in propagating the dogmas of neoliberalism than Thomas Friedman, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and leading columnist on international affairs for the world’s leading English-language newspaper, the New York Times. In his articles and books, Friedman articulates a world view firmly grounded in the core assumptions of the dominant ideology. Corporate-dominated capitalism is seen as a progressive force for the general good, Western civilisation is taken to be obviously superior, and Western military power is viewed as a benign actor, securing and extending the reach of that civilisation. What Edward Said described as the “comic philistinism of Friedman’s ideas” is unavoidable. But so too, unfortunately, is their reach and significance. In engaging with Friedman’s body of work, and subjecting it to forensic critical analysis, Belén Fernández has produced a book that is sometimes entertaining, sometimes horrifying in what it exposes, always readable, always thought-provoking, and of clear political importance.
The following is my review for Al Jazeera of civil rights attorney Chase Madar’s new book The Passion of Bradley Manning, just released by O/R Books.
When American civil rights attorney Chase Madar told me he was writing a book entitled The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story of the Suspect Behind the Largest Security Breach in US History, I knew right away that Madar was mentally ill, abusing a range of pharmaceuticals and possibly also epileptic.
My diagnosis was confirmed with the book’s release this month. What else would compel a lawyer to suggest that there is “an injustice hardwired within the system of laws itself”?
A studious ignorance
As Madar demonstrates in The Passion, similarly scientific methods of diagnosis have been employed in the case against Manning, the 24-year-old Army intelligence analyst from Crescent, Oklahoma who is accused of transferring hundreds of thousands of documents to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.
I was recently interviewed by Michael Arria for Motherboard, Vice Magazine’s technology/media/culture site. The following is an excerpt:
Q: I remember, during the WTO protests of 1999, Friedman dismissed those concerned with the detrimental effects of globalization, as “flat-earthers.” Despite the collapse of the American economy, he seems to maintain this view. Although heralded by some as an astute environmental thinker, his green solutions seem to be entirely market-based, which generates obvious issues. His perplexing diatribe about “outgreening Al-Qaeda” comes to mind. Do you think this is an accurate reading?
A: I think Friedman summed up the goal of his intermittent environmental crusade pretty well himself when he announced that “making America the world’s greenest country is not a selfless act of charity or naïve moral indulgence. It is now a core national security and economic interest”.
It would appear that his concern for the environment stems from the conviction that “green” is the next big industry and that America can’t retain its dominant position in the world without being at the head of it. At a talk in Istanbul a few years ago he went as far as to admit that his environmental tome Hot, Flat, and Crowded really had “nothing to do with… environment at heart” but rather constituted “cries of the heart to get my country focused on fixing itself”.
The whole business of “outgreening Al-Qaeda”, which I discuss in detail in the book, is completely ludicrous given that Friedman manages to paint the U.S. military, which holds the distinction of being the top polluter in the world, as a pioneer in green consciousness (or, as the great Doug Henwood put it in a radio interview with me, he makes the U.S. Army look like the Sierra Club). Readers are invited to rejoice over the existence of aviation biofuel made from pressed mustard seeds.
I will be attending the launch this evening at the Verso Books loft in Brooklyn of Verso’s Counterblasts series, of which my The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work is a component. Derrick O’Keefe, author of Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil? and Jade Lindgaard, co-author with Xavier de la Porte of The Impostor: BHL in Wonderland, will be in attendance, as well.
Tomorrow (March 17), Verso’s Andy Hsiao will be chairing a Left Forum panel entitled Counterblasts: Challenging “star” public intellectuals who defend Empire and Capital. I won’t be able to make it, but O’Keefe and Lindgaard will be speaking on the panel along with Joel Whitney of Guernica Magazine, a valuable ally in the anti-Friedman campaign.
For more information on the party tonight see here.