“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


"It is difficult to set any limit upon the capacity of men to deceive themselves as to the relative strength and worth of the motives which affect them: politicians, in particular, acquire so strong a habit of setting their projects in the most favourable light that they soon convince themselves that the finest result which they think may conceivably accrue from any policy is the actual motive of that policy. As for the public, it is only natural that it should be deceived. All the purer and more elevated adjuncts of Imperialism are kept to the fore by religious and philanthropic agencies: patriotism appeals to the general lust of power within a people by suggestions of nobler uses, adopting the forms of self-sacrifice to cover domination and the love of adventure. So Christianity becomes "imperialist" to the Archbishop of Canterbury, a "going out to all the world to preach the gospel"; trade becomes "imperialist" in the eyes of merchants seeking a world market.

It is precisely in this falsification of the real import of motives that the gravest vice and the most signal peril of Imperialism reside. When, out of a medley of mixed motives, the least potent is selected for public prominence because it is the most presentable, when issues of a policy which was not present at all to the minds of those who formed this policy are treated as chief causes, the moral currency of the nation is debased."
- Hobson, Imperialism

Hobson’s Imperialism is the last, fine fruit – well, not last: more like an autumn crabapple -- of a liberal, anti-imperialist tradition that goes back to Cobden and to the Burke of the bold, endangering speeches for the American colonists. Hobson saves his most sardonic comments for the rhetoric of imperialism, which by the end of the Boer war had come off the instruments of death it served. The mass murders of white descendents of Europeans in British Concentration Camps concentrated the European mind as the robbery of India, the robbery of Africa, and the robbery of China had not. It had even penetrated the notoriously unconcentrate-able British one.

In Hobson’s spirit, we thought we would ponder the wonderful value that has been squeezed from the little verb ‘give’ in this, our New Crusading époque. A verb of many uses, a fundamental verb. In German, es gibt means “there is” – and there is nothing more fundamental than there is, right? To give is to engage in a transaction. There is a school of anthropology which has investigated gift giving at length. Marcel Mauss saw the key to the gift, its dialectical endpoint, in the potlatch ceremony among the Kwaikutl, a feasting occasion that results in the seeming impoverishment of the richest Kwaikutl, who give their things away, even down to acts of pure destruction, such as burning canoes. All are losses which, according to Mauss, are recuperated by the accompanying gain of prestige.

We wonder if there isn't some submodality of the gift presiding over our fundamental giving relationship with the hapless Other lately. The pontificators favorite verb is "give": giving freedom to, giving independence to, giving democracy to – these are all gifts that are showered, like so much litter thrown out of speeding SUV's, on the fortunate third world every day by generous editorial writers, columnists, and politicians of the first (most important) world.

To instance this wonderful generosity, I could skim the blogosphere and come away, like the grinch, with multitudinous gifts. Bloggers are always giving something – from independence to Kurds to land on the west bank to Israelis. Oddly enough, there’s no mention of selling – it is always giving. This indicates the natural goodness, one supposes, of Western man. Alas, the conclusion to be drawn from this hollow charity -- the absurdity of the writer's position -- is very rarely drawn by the spirited weblogger. That we write from the nervous breakdown of weakness, from an insistent impotence, that we thrust ourselves into a sterile, exhausted discourse designed, basically, by thieves and madmen -- is, finally, the only good we -- us writers -- produce. Somehow, however, this escapes the swarms of givers. They give and give, and nothing is given -- and they give and they give, and no gratitude is given back. Or as Jesus, in one of his more Shakespearian moments, once put it: "They are like unto children sitting in the marketplace, and calling one to another, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned to you, and ye have not wept."

With all that unreciprocated giving, it is predictable that a subtheme would start to grow. We give the Iraqis democracy, and they try to blow up our soldiers. So it is only right and fair that we bomb their cities, destroy their mosques, and in general make Iraq a better place for all.

However, the blogosphere is too easy, so I decided to skim the higher reaches of doxa. Here, for instance, is Mark Steyn talking about Palestine:

“For 10 years, the world has been trying to give a state to the Palestinians and the Palestinians keep tossing obstacles in their path.”

Here the giving transaction has the overtones of some didactic tale for Victorian children. How perverse of those Palestinians not to accept such a nice gift! Over those ten years, they have not only tossed obstacles in the path – refusing, for instance, to set up the old Christmas tree and sing the old carols – but they have had to be put down, in their ingratitude, to the extent of 6,000 some deaths. This is a case of giving, you will notice, in which there is an active subject – the world – doing the giving. That the world has a state in its capacious bag is an interesting proposition. Where is that state? Surely this is one of those present giving occassions in which the embarrassed receiver, upon tearing off the gift wrapping, notices marks of use. For instance, there seems to be a fence running through this state. There seem to be settlements on it – in fact, a lot more settlements than there were ten years ago! It is at these moments that the Palestinians probably wish they could write Miss Manners a letter: ‘Recently, we received a state in a big box. Upon opening it, however, we were shocked that it was obviously a little used! Not only that, but the big lug who gave it to us keeps closing his eyes whenever 10 or fifteen of us are murdered in the street by a bomb! Now, we don’t want to seem ungrateful, but is this really proper? Signed, puzzled in Hebron.”

However, Steyn’s 'world' is not usually the giver. Usually, as I said above, the giver is a ‘we’ – a secret sharer, the collective shadow cast upon the world by, well, some alter us. This is from an interview last year with Colin Powell.

“We want to turn Iraq over to the Iraqi people," he said. "But we want to give the people of Iraq a government that they can trust." He said this must be a representative form of government, and one that supports a nation that is living in peace with its neighbors and is free of weapons of mass destruction.”

Well, at least we got our last wish! Apparently we’ve searched up and down, and there’s no weapons of mass destruction there. We hope they are grateful for that, at least. In the meantime, the gift giving here is a little sticky. For instance, we did give the Iraqis a wonderful government that they can trust. But the Iraqis haven’t deserved the gift – they’ve displayed inordinate distrust of the government. Of course, as every parent knows, you promise a gift with such and such a feature, and you go looking for it in the store – but it turns out to be too expensive! Similarly, we were going to give this representative government to the Iraqis, when someone said, hold on there! Will it be representative of the Iraqis? Which made us all think, hmm, if we can’t trust the Iraqis cause they don’t trust the government we gave them, than a representative government would be one that we couldn’t trust. What a brain twister! Which is why we took off the shelf a second rate autocrat and dusted him off. He ought to be just the thing to, well, put down the untrustworthy Iraqis.

Last year, too, the Brits were in a gift giving mood. This is from a communique by British foreign minister Jack Straw:

“The dead and the missing are both the most painful reminder of Saddam’s dictatorship and the greatest symbol of our determination to give Iraq the future its people so richly deserve. I do not underestimate the scale of our task.”

Listening to that last year, I bet you the Iraqis didn’t know that the future we were going to give them looks like, well, yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. However, as Straw promised, this is the future they deserve – which is what they get for not trusting the government that we gave them to trust in the first place. You know, getting a present comes with some responsibilities, too. For instance, wouldn't it be nice if the Iraqis, out of gratitude, offered us military bases so we could give the gift of democracy to Iran? Wouldn't that be decent? It means an awful lot to the guys in the White House who've been giving and giving to the Iraqis.

Finally, in this sweepstakes of giving, having gone down memory lane for our other examples to 2003, when we were all Richard the Lionhearts -- bliss it was then to be crusading for freedom -- you must remember this. Having taken Iraq under our tender loving care, there was much discussion of dividing the booty. However, we are not an immoral people. Whenever we do something immoral, we immediately find a moral reason for it. Our big idea back then was to give the Iraqis a share in the profits we’d make from their oil. Remember those days?

Josh Marshall, back in 2003, jumped whole heartedly on a plan to “give the oil back to the Iraqi people,” as the headline writer for one of his Hill piece aptly put it. Some called it the Alaska plan, because the citizens of Alaska get a share in the profits from the oil pumped up there. Marshall slipped in a phrase in his piece that makes one dream – or at least consider that it all has been a dream, these last terrible four years.. “…a Zogby poll reported that 59 percent of Americans support some form of the Alaska model for Iraq.” Wow! I wonder if the American people had been informed of Hague conventions regarding the constraints on the ability of occupying armies to make fundamental changes in a nation's economic relations? Apparently, that question wasn’t asked. But I think the poll shows us something about the generosity deep in the heart of the Western We – we have always been willing to go to new territories, to take the raw materials from those territories, and to, well, help the natives of those new territories out of their old fashioned ways. And once again we were as willing to do this. One wonders why nobody speaks of it anymore?

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