Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The problem with liberalism: what me and Obama have in common

When Malcolm X was 13 years old, he was sent to a detention home after getting expelled from school for bad behaviour. At that time, he had already been separated from his seven siblings while his mother was institutionalised, sent to the State Mental Hospital at Kalamazoo. Her health had steadily declined since Malcolm’s father was brutally killed by white supremacists five years earlier.

Malcolm Little, as he was then known, got on surprisingly well at the detention home. The white couple who ran it, Mr and Mrs Swerlin, liked Malcolm and treated him decently. They treated him well—but not quite as equals, he realised. He wasn’t about to change how they saw ‘niggers’.
“I remember one day when Mr Swerlin, nice as he was, came in from Lansing, where he had been through the Negro section, and said to Mrs Swerlin right in front of me, ‘I just can’t see how those niggers can be so happy and be so poor.’ He talked about how they lived in shacks, but had those big, shining cars out front.
“And Mrs Swerlin said, me standing right there, ‘Niggers are just that way…’ That scene always stayed with me.
“It was the same with the other white people, most of them local politicians, when they would come visiting the Swerlins. One of their favourite parlour topics was ‘niggers’. One of them was a close friend of the Swerlins. He would ask about me when he came, and they would call me in, and he would look me up and down, his expression approving, like he was examining a fine colt, or a pedigreed pup. I knew they must have told him how I acted and how I worked.”
Malcolm X was a ‘mascot’. The token ‘nigger’ of his class. He was liked and accepted by this white family because he behaved himself, he conformed. He set a shining example of what a young black boy in a racist America should be: non-aggressive, obedient, grateful. It was to his credit that he didn’t exhibit the delinquent qualities attributed to ‘niggers’ in general.
“What I am trying to say is that it just never dawned upon them that I could understand, that I wasn’t a pet, but a human being. They didn’t give me credit for having the same sensitivity, intellect, and understanding that they would have been ready and willing to recognize in a white boy in my position. But it has historically been the case with white people, in their regard for black people, that even though we might be with them, we weren’t considered of them. Even though they appeared to have opened the door, it was still closed. Thus they never did really see me.
“This is the sort of kindly condescension which I try to clarify today, to these integration-hungry Negroes, about their ‘liberal’ white friends, these so-called ‘good white people’ – most of them anyway. I don’t care how nice one is to you; the thing you must always remember is that almost never does he really see you as he sees himself, as he sees his own kind.”

Among his detractors, Malcolm X came to be seen as brilliant but reckless, even dangerous. Mainstream white America couldn’t forgive him for failing to denounce violence. They pointed to less threatening civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, and asked why he couldn’t be like them. But what Malcolm X does—that more compromising figures don’t do—is turn the critical lens on liberal America.

He pours scorn both on white liberals and on black Americans’ efforts to ingratiate themselves with them. Black pride, as he saw it, could not exist as long as black Americans were trying to advance themselves within a system that wasn’t made for them; one that was in fact created out of their exploitation. Malcolm X was important because he demanded something more than just “crumbs from the white man’s table.”

Even Barack Obama himself recognises it! In Dreams from my father, he singles out Malcolm X from all the other classic authors on the black condition, saying, “His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will.”

Obama surprised me. I know he’s awesome and everything, but he’s a politician, and politicians are never to be trusted. So yes, I was surprised to read the following passage in his book that not only speaks to the continuing problem of racism in America, but also spoke to other racisms in other places and times:
“I had begun to see a new map of the world, one that was frightening in its simplicity, suffocating in its implications. We were always playing on the white man’s court, Ray had told me, by the white man’s rules. If the principle, or the coach, or a teacher, or Kurt, wanted to spit in your face, he could, because he had power and you didn’t. If he decided not to, if he treated you like a man or came to your defense, it was because he knew that the words you spoke, the clothes you wore, the books you read, your ambitions and desires, were already his. Whatever he decided to do, it was his decision to make, not yours, and because of that fundamental power he held over you, because it preceded and would outlast his individual motives and inclinations, and distinction between good and bad whites held negligible meaning. In fact, you couldn’t even be sure that that everything you had assumed to be an expression of your black, unfettered self—the humor, the song, the behind-the-back pass—had been freely chosen by you. At best, these things were a refuge; at worst, a trap. Following this maddening logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that, too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger.”
His words are strikingly reminiscent of Frantz Fanon’s articulation of what it means to be a racialised subject. For Fanon, born in the French colony of Martinique, the shock of reaching Europe and realising that ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ didn’t apply to black people triggered an understanding of race and racism that remains incredibly influential.

It was not the crude racism of the day that so concerned Fanon. It was the promise of humanity, cruelly denied. It was being “overdetermined from without… fixed” by the inescapable blackness of his skin. Like Obama, Fanon discovers that his choices—rebellion, submission, anger, pride—are choices that have already been made for him, they have been presupposed. “And so,” he says, “it is not I who make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there, pre-existing, waiting for me.”

This problem now confronts Europe’s Muslims. Observers will have noted a dramatic difference in tone between the first ‘Islam vs. the West’ crisis (the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and subsequent fatwa issued against him by Ayatollah Khomeini) and the second (9/11). During the former, the Western media was full of overtly Islamophobic and frankly ignorant commentary denouncing Islam as backward and barbaric.

By contrast, in the days after 9/11, the leaders of the Western world bent over backwards to stress, in public speeches anyway, the essentially peaceful nature of the Muslim religion. They promoted a clear distinction between the peaceful Muslim majority worldwide and the excesses of a fanatical minority. Amongst Western populations there appeared to be a similar trend, with sales of the Qur’an and books on Islam soaring as people sought to inform themselves about the peaceful and tolerant ‘true’ Islam.

Now, I’m a peaceful Muslim, no doubt about it. But something began to happen as more and more people bought into this idea of a ‘true’ Islam corrupted by violent fanatics, something which I found alarming and uncomfortable. A binary took hold, and permeated the public consciousness, taking on the status of a self-evident truth. It was the difference between a Good Muslim and a Bad Muslim. The set of oppositions looks roughly like this:

secular --------------------- religious
liberal ---------------------- illiberal
democracy ----------------- authoritarianism
freedom -------------------- control
decency --------------------- corruption
education ------------------- indoctrination
progress --------------------- stasis/regression
universalist ----------------- parochial
Westernised/integrated --- traditional
religion as faith/culture --- religion as political
peace ------------------------- jihad
clean-shaven ---------------- bearded
rational ---------------------- irrational

Crucially, it’s not the far right who are responsible for this latest manifestation of racism. The BNP think all Muslims are terrorists; by now, everyone knows these guys are loopy. No, it’s precisely the liberal desire to see the best in Islam, the “disgustingly patronizing liberal respect for the Other’s spiritual depth” coming from “people eager to give Islam a chance, to get a feel for it, to experience it from the inside, and thus to redeem it,” as Žižek puts it, that is so dangerous.

Because what it says to Muslims—what it says to me—is that you can be a Muslim, no problem, but you’ve got to be our kind of Muslim. As a Muslim, the invitation to take up my fully human status is extended to me with conditions attached. Do I condemn violence? Check. Do I tolerate other faiths? Check. Do I believe in equality? Check. In other words, to be a Good Muslim I must be a liberal subject first and a Muslim second. Islam is reduced to a lifestyle choice.

And so I lament, with Fanon, that “it is not I who make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there, pre-existing, waiting for me.” And like Obama, I know that to refuse my defeat, my powerlessness to define my own identity, desires and ambitions, is only to invite those alternative pre-defined identities. Militant. Violent. Extremist. Terrorist.

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