Friday, June 01, 2007

The topsy turvy worlds of Decency

There's no particular reason to expect one Decent's arguments and attitudes to be consistent with another's, but I am struck by the contrasts between a recent piece by Nick Cohen and another by Julian Baggini, and especially by the way in which they play the imperialism card. According to Cohen, Oxfam has a neocolonialist mentality that assumes that the world is the white man's to dictate:

Even at the peak of Make Poverty History's campaign, you didn't have to be a Telegraph-reading Tory to think the aid movement was taking a wrong turn. It presented a picture of a world as much the white man's to direct as it was at the apogee of the European empires. No one told the audience at Live 8 that Africa had nepotistic dictators in power or kleptomaniac families in office. They stayed silent about genocidal movements and spy-ridden regimes. All that was needed to rescue Africa from poverty was for the developed world to agree more aid, fairer trade and debt relief and - poof! -the suffering would end. Two years on, the neocolonialist view hasn't been shaken. A recent Oxfam study of global warming says, truthfully, that pollution from the rich world will hurt the poor world, but fails to ask how Africa can develop without increasing its output of greenhouse gases.

Baggini, on the other hand, in an especially silly article claiming that supporting military intervention springs from the same moral sources as buying fair trade coffee, rejects the notion of that intervention is latter-day imperialism and can't consistently believe that Oxfam is meddling by white people:

Intervention is dismissed as imperialism by stealth, control from a distance now that we cannot control in situ. It is also portrayed as a misguided response to a racist white western guilt which cannot accept that anywhere in the world is better off without us. ....

If you are really opposed to interventionism, then at least be consistent. Cancel your direct debit to Oxfam, because that too is the rich world "meddling" with Africa. Boycott fairtrade coffee, which imposes "our" ethical standards and social programmes on producers. Tell Bill Gates to stop lavishing his millions on tackling HIV/Aids in Africa and leave it to the continent's own people to take care of themselves. Stop complaining about how appalling it is that we are ignoring the plight of people in Darfur and Western New Guinea, because you know to get involved will only make things worse.

So is the Decent line that contributing to famine relief is a dangerous diversion from the battle against kleptocratic African dictators (Cohen) or is giving a few quid to Oxfam (or CAFOD) morally continuous with sending in the Marines?

Actually, maybe that expresses things badly. Both Cohen and Baggini seem to believe that Oxfam is morally on a par with sending in the gunboats, but there's Victorian gunboating and nuLab-gunboating. Cohen thinks Oxfam is like Victorian gunboating and therefore a bad thing; Baggini thinks that nuLab gunboating is like Oxfam and therefore a good thing. Confused?


Blogger The Rioja Kid said...

This was quite the weirdest passage in a very weird article (which obviously formed the basis for the Sunday CAFOD embarrassment too). It seemed to me as I read it that Nick had actually defined "neocolonialism" as actually meaning "the refusal to interfere in the governments of poor countries"

6/01/2007 06:32:00 AM  
Blogger The Rioja Kid said...

(the Baggini extract, otoh, looks like the kind of cheap gotcha that gives blog comments a bad name. It's on a level with saying "hey, those free speech people aren't so keen on Mary Whitehouse's right to free speech are they!?!?!1!". I'll see if it's any better in context.

6/01/2007 06:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was amused by Cohen's claim that Oxfam aren't offering solidarity to the Iraqi people. A cursory glance at Oxfam's website suggests that they are trying to help Actually Existing Iraqis, including supporting something called the Italian Solidarity Consortium.

I'm pretty sure that doing stuff for the Iraqi people is a better demonstration of solidarity with them than using them as a stick with which to beat one's political enemies.

Oh, and apropos the whole "War is the continuation of fair trade coffee by other means" bit, last time I looked buying fair trade coffee didn't involve killing people.

6/01/2007 09:29:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Have you tasted it though?

6/01/2007 09:58:00 AM  
Blogger The Rioja Kid said...

The analogy I would make is to the distinction between prescribing someone antidepressants, and forcibly committing them to a mental hospital. The analogy being twofold in that first, there is a big difference in how drastic the two kinds of "intervention" are which might dispose one to be in favour of one rather than another and second, if someone keeps on throwing people who they politically disagree with in mental hospitals, you end up wondering whether their diagnoses are not fundamentally skewed.

6/01/2007 10:51:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

I'm not sure how good that analogy is - I imagine the Decents would say that the second of these actions (sectioning) takes place only after the first (prescription of antidepressants) has been repeatedly ignored - and morevoer the prescription money has been stolen, the chemist ransacked, the doctor threatened etc.

Mind you, from the perspective of somebody who has actually been sectioned after refusing antidepressants, I'm not entirely unhappy with the comparison. Sectioning is always claimed to be for the patient's good but it's a brutal process which tends to leave people in a worse state than before and wholly dependant on the people who sectioned them - while everybody else stands around saying "how sad" and loudly refusing to accept that sectioning might be part of the problem...

6/01/2007 10:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

callan i dont think you've really grasped the concept of solidarity. there's no connection between solidarity and helping people. they are in fact diametric opposites. solidarity involves doing nothing very loudly and slagging off people actually trying to help. so Nick's being completely consistent here.

as an illustrative example, if a young girl is hit by a car, Nick would express solidarity with her by staying exactly where he is on the other side of the street shouting about how much he supports the girl and wishing fervently for her to get better. he will then hie to the nearest internet cafe and sign an online petition expressing his wishes she recieve medical treatment. this is not only correct, but thoroughly decent. if, when he returns, others see things differently and try to phone an ambulance, he will start loudly berating them and then forcibly stop paramedics from reaching her all the while crying "the bruschetta munching left claim to care about small girls dying in the street but i have yet to hear a single one demand that the US army be called in to rescue them. Its pure anti-americanism to imply a local medical service could do more to help than a series of airstrikes." once the whole town has been flattened and everyone's dead it's time for Nick to say "I hope that the so called liberal so called left will accept responsibility for the death of this girl and will finally realise that if they try and prevent the US airforce from killing small children then more small children will die in future." Nick will then gatecrash her funeral to deliver a stirring eulogy placing the blame squarely on George Galloway before urinating over the coffin and setting the parents on fire. It's really the only way to behave, and if anyone has a problem with it all i can say is "what's your alternative?"

6/02/2007 11:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It makes little sense to say "I am in solidarity with X". To make some sense you have to say "I am doing Y in solidarity with X" where Y might be going on strike, wearing a badge, drinking coffee from X, not eating oranges from the oppressors of X, knitting socks to send to X, going out and helping refugees from X etc etc. The Decents never make clear what they are actually doing in solidarity or why they think that others are in solidarity with people who murder school-teachers.

6/03/2007 09:32:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Well they do, surely? They think they are in solidarity because:

(a) they support something that actually happens, to wit some kind of bombing or invasion ;

(b) they can always find somebody from the invaded or bombed community who will support it.

6/03/2007 02:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a rather splendid analysis of humanitarian interventions, with Kouchner being repudiated by the very aid agencies that he set up over Darfur.

6/04/2007 09:52:00 PM  

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