Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: The Confounding Conundrums of Political Thought

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A debate is currently raging in the U.S. over the comments of an Indian-American professor of Media Studies, Deepa Kumar of Rutgers University, who tweeted “Yes ISIS is brutal but US is more so. 1.3 million killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan #NoToWar”. Quite naturally, academics as well as people in general have been quite disconcerted by her comments and she has already been subject to a lot of derision, hatred and ridicule.

However, more than any examination of the logic or the lack there of which governed the actions of the individual in question, what puzzles me is the continuing acceptance of a paradigm of knee-jerk defensiveness in our critical thought, especially in the academics belonging to the so called “left-liberal” circles. Otherwise what can explain a sentence beginning with “Yes ISIS is brutal”, expanding itself to “but US is more so”, when clearly the sentence could either have stopped without further additions or could have gone on to elaborate on the brutality of ISIS itself of which there are ample evidences across the web. What perhaps explains such obsessive-compulsive anti-US rhetoric, even when the context is so utterly different is a skewed framework of thought in which it is supposed that any castigation of those who have declared war against the US, unless tempered by simultaneous US bashing, must mean a kind of dilution of one’s stance against imperialism. Why is it not feasible for such people to imagine that it is possible to criticise an entity like ISIS or Al-Qaeda unequivocally and without comparative analysis and still remain staunch opponents of imperialism, inequality and injustice? Perhaps at the bottom of all such conundrums lies an unconscious sense of existential insecurity which can only be alleviated by acts of overcompensation – an insecurity which would be entirely out of place with Deepa Kumar’s position as an Associate Professor in an eminent US university and a published author of such books as “Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire”. While there is no denying the presence of such Islamophpobia and the processes of exclusion, discrimination, torture and even lethal violence such Islamophobia engenders, there is also no denying the very real fear experienced by many across the middle east whose lives are currently being ravaged by the forces of ISIS who have proved themselves to be capable of all kinds of heinous crimes without remorse or repentance and have proudly declared their intent to establish a socio-political order that is not just akin to a feudal, patriarchal theocracy but may even be termed religio-fascist, an order that would neither allow the presence of such voices as that of Deepa Kumar nor the continued celebrity enjoyed by such a stalwart as Noam Chomsky who has continued to castigate American policies and interventions for several decades. And the US, despite its own culpability in the current imbroglio in the Middle-East must at least be lauded for continuing its military assaults against the ISIS, even if it is for its own geo-political interests, as the survival and continuation of ISIS poses a threat to all ideas of freedom, human dignity and civilised life we hold dear. And accepting that does not mean one condones the horrors of Vietnam caused by US invasion, it does not mean supporting the rhetoric of War on Terror, it does not mean forgetting the havoc wreaked in several Latin American countries through overt and covert military assaults, assistance to tin-pot dictators and military juntas, it does not mean applauding the cataclysmic destruction of Hiroshoima and Nagasaki. It simply means that the world cannot be seen through black and white images on flat screens. It means being aware of the multi-dimensional complexities of a growingly chaotic world where the menaces are many, solutions are few and choices are difficult. If the Soviet Russia could join hands with the UK and the US to eradicate the threat of Hitler and Mussolini there is no reason why an academic will not be able to entertain the idea that supporting the United States on certain issues does not necessarily mean compromising with one’s anti-imperialist stance. By the same token, while it is absolutely justified to oppose war across the world, one also has to wonder what alternatives are left when one is faced with an army of heavily indoctrinated militants, armed to their teeth with latest weapons, who are only concerned about the establishment of the caliphate at all costs and for whom no amount of dehumanization is reprehensible? It is precisely the inability to face such hard truths that renders doubtful the credibility of liberal rhetoric in several situations and consolidates entrenched racial and religious prejudices, as evident from some of the responses to Professor Kumar’s tweet. And while there is no denying the power of social networking sites in organising such socio-political movements as those in Tahrir Square of Cairo or the Shahbag square in Dhaka, to what extent is facebook activism, especially in countries where freedom of speech remains judicially and politically sacrosanct, actually radical or subversive in any way? Tokenism may serve as a status statement or massage the liberal wings of one’s ego, but rarely does it contribute to substantial change. Shouldn’t academics know better?

In fact, it is the continued practice of succumbing to these loopholes that renders many liberals open to accusations of hypocrisy and opportunism and thus subjects to ridicule any attempt at forging broad-based alliances against empire and its associated networks of power. A similar example may be seen in the news that Indonesia has decided to award the prize of global statesmanship to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un for his apparent “persistence in fighting neo-colonialism” – a prize that had been received in the past by such luminaries as Mahatma Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi. Is it really possible to juxtapose the anti-imperial non-violent movements of Mahatma Gandhi and Suu Kyi’s similarly non-violent struggles for democracy with the supposed achievements of an authoritarian dictator who is associated with reports of countless executions, denial of freedom of speech and asphyxiation of the basic right to choice? The report rather seems like an April Fool’s Day spoof than anything else. When the struggle against neo-colonialism, very much a clear and present danger, tumbles into such bizarre antics, the whole project becomes laughable and only consolidates the imperial forces and the veil of ignorance they strive to sustain. Those of us who live in this particular corner of India know very well how anti-imperialist slogans have chimed well with electoral malpractices and attempted silencing of dissent. In the process, the very ideas of ‘neo-colonialism’ or ‘anti-imperialism’ turn to laughing stocks in the public domain.

The bottom line is this: a political stance of ethical integrity demands the application of similar standards to everyone and formation of such judgments that do not fall prey to contradictions generated by personal vested interests. Academics, as reservoirs and disseminators of knowledge, should especially keep this in mind.

– Abin Chakraborty

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