Tuesday, February 24, 2015

"Do Gooder" Imperialism

There’s a website called Bloggingheads.tv that I follow regularly because of the mostly civilized way public affairs are discussed there. I know. This already sounds dry and boring, and maybe it is. Maybe that’s just the way I roll.

Anyway, I do like the site’s format, which is a recorded discussion between two people, usually bloggers, journalists or academics. They appear in side-by-side screens via webcams as they talk about various topics of the day, usually related to US politics or science or whatever is currently happening in the world. Often the two “bloggingheads” (as in “talking heads”, get it?) represent different political points of view, liberal and conservative

Mother Jones’ David Corn, who broke the story in 2012 about Mitt Romney’s “47 per-cent” remark, used to be a regular, as did Matt Yglesias, who now writes for Ezra Klein’s Vox Media.

These BhTV discussions are almost always civil and decently thoughtful. They bring together contrasting points of view without a high level of hysteria, completely unlike some cable news I can think of. It’s a site where echo cambers can face off and sometimes introduce a take on well-worn topics that is fresh to viewers unaccustomed to hearing opposing views.

A case in point is one such discussion I watched about a year ago featuring Glenn Loury.

Loury, who is an economics professor at Brown University, was talking with blogger Ann Althouse about gender politics – this was, after all, the Valentine's Day 2014 edition of Bloggingheads. 

The discussion about gender identity led Loury to recount an insight he had while visiting colleagues in Africa. He explained how these fellow academics, whom Loury respects as thoroughly modern and intelligent people, surprised him with their strong criticism of America’s “high-horse lecturing” of African countries on the subject of homosexuality.

Specifically, they explained to Loury how they were tired of being told that the attitudes of traditional African societies towards gays are “wrong” because they don’t meet current American standards.  

Loury paraphrased the feedback he got from his hosts this way: “No, we don’t accept your latter-day morality about these matters...We don’t need you to you to come in here and tell us how to do our things.”

While not fully endorsing this view, Loury admitted that his African colleges had a point. Though drawing a line at the legal persecution of gays, such as Uganda seems to be bent upon, Loury agreed that the treatment of homosexuals in African countries may not be the legitimate concern of the West. He conceded that the American’s finger-wagging at Africa, Russia, and the rest of the world on the acceptance of gay rights could be seen as “arrogant and imperialistic in the extreme”.

He went on to say, “Africans are not all benighted people who need to be led out the dark age by European liberal missionaries who have discovered what human rights are, and neither are Russians.”

To a Western liberal like me, it was a thought-provoking point of view, perhaps even shocking. (Before anyone gets the idea that Loury is homophobic, it should be noted that he is very supportive of his openly gay son.)

What right do Western societies have, Loury was saying, to expect countries in other parts of the world to instantaneously adopt the attitudes that have taken the West itself years or decades to reach? In other words, the West has no business telling the rest of the world what to do, as much as the impulse to do so evidently seems irresistible. 

In the year since listening to that diablog, I have noticed variations on the same idea popping up everywhere.

A week after Loury’s discussion with Althouse was posted, events in Ukraine took a critical turn. President Yanukovych fled the capital Kiev, a new government took over, and a huge amount of anti-Western commentary gushed forth from the far corners of the Internet.

In the following weeks, I saw the theme of American/Western arrogance on the world stage come up again and again in heated on-line debates and in broadcasts on Russia Today, mostly as a way of excusing Russian aggression in Ukraine.

At the heart of this criticism is the belief that interference by the US and the EU in Ukrainian affairs in 2013 led to the chaos in Kiev, requiring Moscow to take action. The US and EU, so the narrative goes, were playing with fire in Russia’s backyard and deserved to have it all thrown back in their faces. I heard this expressed by a caller on the NPR’s Diane Rehm talk-radio show yet again just a couple of weeks ago.

I found such opinions to be startling and more than a little disheartening, especially since I see no reason not to believe that the protests and occupation of the Maidan arose organically from the genuine desire for reform on the part of modern-thinking Ukrainians.

Not so fast, say the Internet chorus of anti-Westerners. It was all a conspiracy, they say. As in so many other global hot spots, the US government was pulling the strings. The EU and NATO were blatantly, and cynically, threatening Russia, hoping to break it up. This was the alternate reality of anti-establishment types challenging the mainstream Western view of events. It was an odd point of view to me, one that didn't ring true.

As this on-line argument was extended to the myriad other sins committed by the West over the years, the mendacity of NGOs also somehow got mixed into the accusations.

I guess in the past I’ve encountered a few extremely cynical individuals. But until the events of last year I had no idea (thanks Internet!) how many people really hold to the absolutist view that – solely in the “West” it would seem – no person, no group, no country, no one ever does anything except out of naked self-interest. Ever. I hope I'm not overstating that view, but that's the impression you get from some of the more bombastic folks on the Internet.

Should I take some comfort in thinking that a certain proportion of these Internet cynics are actually professional trolls, paid for their online nihilism, whether it’s genuine or not? Reporters from Finnish broadcaster Yle recently identified at least one trollitehdas (“troll factory”) in St. Petersburg, housed in a bland four-story office building, where 9-to-5 "commenters" engage in debates on American websites, trying to influence Western public opinion.

Headline: Yle at St. Petersburg's troll factory – in this way Russian
propaganda is cobbled together around the clock

Even without the trolls for hire, there seems to be enough like-minded amateurs out there, true cynics happily echoing the same sentiment I’ve seen on display repeatedly in endless online comment threads.

It can be summed up like this: The US government isn’t working alone to impose its will on the world. It’s aided by the media, mainly, but also by non-government organizations. They are striving together for Western supremacy, for the spread of pernicious Western “values”, often motivated simply by a desire for monetary or political gain.

I was especially surprised by the indictment of NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch, in this kind of thinking. Again, I find this disheartening, since I think there is such a thing as altruism, and I admire people (and organizations) that try to make the world a better place. I do believe there are people who sincerely want to help others. Internet cynics would say I’m a fool.

To be fair, perhaps I shouldn’t accuse those super cynical folks lashing out against the West via their keyboards of distrusting and maligning all Western NGOs equally. You would hope they make a distinction between international organizations that are more obviously humanitarian in nature and those others that might justifiably be seen as acting on an agenda that is mostly only the concern of people living in the First World.

I would hope folks in Africa and other places where NGOs operate make that distinction and welcome the help wholeheartedly.

(Unfortunately in Pakistan, the humanitarian motivations of the Red Cross/Crescent have been severely tarnished by the fake vaccination program used by the CIA to discover Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. That travesty no doubt brought a certain kind of gleeful self-satisfaction to Internet cynics everywhere. See, they were right! Does that mean I should stop donating blood to Punainen Risti? Who knows what those fiends really do with it!)

Anyway, I tend to think most types of NGOs, at least the mainstream ones, try to be positive, well-meaning forces for change, change that usually aligns with my worldview.

But I can appreciate that local people who don't share my worldview, like Glenn Loury’s African colleagues, might see some NGOs, say Greenpeace or Amnesty International, as simply advocacy groups meddling in non-Western societies. They might see them as trying to impose on them alien, first-world standards, such as gender equality, wildlife conservation or gay rights.

Looking at it that way, why shouldn’t non-Westerners resent the First World nagging them incessantly?

Why shouldn’t they ignore the demands of Westerners not to slice off the clitorises of own their prepubescent daughters (as Rand Paul has said, children are “owned” by their parents)?

Why shouldn’t they slaughter dolphins, whales or other traditional prey, or harvest ivory from elephants within their own borders?

Why shouldn’t they flog discordant bloggers or imprison journalists at will?

Why not? Why should traditional, authoritarian societies refrain from these acts just because they offend the sensitivities of rich, liberal suburbanites leading comfortable lives in faraway America?

I don’t mean to be facetious here. Looking at it objectively, these can be uncomfortable questions.

Folks who don’t believe “the West” has any moral standing or any actual interest in social and political progress or human rights would probably answer “No, it’s not the place of Westerners to interfere in these matters. They don’t really believe in any of it anyway.”

I, as a liberal Westerner and a big believer in secular enlightenment, can’t help reject that way of thinking.

Human rights should be universally recognized and applied, for gays in Africa as much for anyone else. Natural habitats and resources should be protected on a global scale as much as possible, even if that might go against the interests of locals. That's just my bias.

I think there’s nothing wrong with the West  through some committed and altruistic-minded NGOs  having a leading role in promoting these goals, even if it doesn’t always live up to them itself in every instance. And I'm convinced the motives of the major Western "do gooder"  organizations are sincere.

If that makes me Pollyannaish, so be it. If that makes me an arrogant imperialist, I guess I’ll have to live with that. If that makes me paternalistic, I certainly don’t mean to be.

I just think it’s a less corrosive worldview than the extreme cynicism so rampant now on the Internet that tells the world that everything happens for a reason, it’s always a sinister one.


  1. "Russian aggression in Ukraine". I stopped reading right there.


  2. This is asinine.

    There is a small corner of the internet full of people who believe the Evil Illuminati control the world and you can't do anything to stop it, and if a good guy ever gets up and says some good things, then surely he is controlled by Dr Evil and his Masonic-Jewish gang, blah blah blah.

    But there are serious investigative reports on the funding and activities of Western NGOs and how they are used to subvert foreign governments. I mean, if they openly award grants to political opposition in some countries and give them one-sided coverage - do you think that is simply to "promote democracy" or that they might have an interest in overthrowing that government? If you can show a pattern of this behaviour (in this case, Serbia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Egypt, Ukraine-2004, Moldova - failed attempts in Belarus, Russia, etc.), why would you act like it is a "conspiracy theory" when you see it happening again?

    Idiot liberals with floaty human rights ideals in their hearts but with short attention spans support this sort of imperialism. Why? Because you buy into the one-sided media coverage and know nothing about the history of the places being discussed or the political players. Take the Ukraine - they told you Yanukovych's government was supported by corrupt oligarchs. That's totally true! But they said the Maidan protest was about this when the protest was led by the main opposition party had a huge photo of the jailed ex-PM Tymoshenko (beaten fairly by Yanukovych in 2010) who was herself a billionaire oligarch! And who replaced Yanukovych? Poroshenko is ... a billionaire oligarch! So there is your "democracy", one oligarchic clan overthrew another, with the result that there is a war and skinheads running around the streets of Kiev beating up political opponents. GOOD JOB!

    The problem is that when you write small treatises defending Western imperialism you are actually contributing to the deaths and impoversihment of cultures and actual people. Educate yourself and get a sense of shame!