Thursday, March 20, 2008

On careful listening

Michael J. Totten has an interesting post, picking up a thread from John Burns:
Opinion polls, including those commissioned by the American command, have long suggested that a majority of Iraqis would like American troops withdrawn, but another lesson to be drawn from Saddam Hussein’s years is that any attempt to measure opinion in Iraq is fatally skewed by intimidation. More often than not, people tell pollsters and reporters what they think is safe, not necessarily what they believe. My own experience, invariably, was that Iraqis I met who felt secure enough to speak with candor had an overwhelming desire to see American troops remain long enough to restore stability.
Totten offers his experience in agreement with this observation. Now, I don't know that measuring Iraqi opinion is fatally skewed. There are problems with all sorts of opinion measuring in all sorts of societies, and I expect Iraqi society can recover just fine. But this is otherwise a significant observation for me. I have to confess, I'm probably the only person I've met who doesn't have a set-in-stone view of what to do in Iraq. I was against the war from the start. And although I've rethought some of my views on the war, acknowledging that I had underestimated some of the reasons offered by liberal interventionists, I still think it was a mistake. Not only because I expected that the Bush administration would invariably bungle every decision. Also because war, even when the moral underpinning is strongest, is impossible to "do right." But since the war started, I've been emphasizing that we should do what is best for the Iraqi people. Though it needn't be always, in this case I think that's identical to doing what Iraqis think we should do. So if we don't know what they want of us that presents a problem.

But let me contrast that with this article at Socialist Unity. When I read it, I was immediately struck by how the name echoes what I recall as a stream of "Riddle" headlines dealing with Asian societies expressing the Orientalist view that Asians are so different from us that they present a "riddle" for us Westerners to understand. The article itself is better in several respects, but I think the effort to ignore/dismiss/erase/subjugate Tibetan voices is even more significant. It's one thing to disagree with the Dalai Lama, but Newman's attitude toward the Tibetan people (the proletariat he should be supporting?) denies and distorts the views they very clearly express. Newman writes:
the fact that the figurehead for the Free Tibet campaign is the Dalai Lama, the feudal figurehead of the old slavery and barbarism is illustrative of the fact that no progressive national-popular and democratic campaign exists among the mass of the Tibetan Chinese
From whatever I know about Tibet, I expect the Tibetan people (not "Tibetan Chinese," which reproduces the Chinese attempts to tell Tibetans how they think of themselves) would be outraged by such a characterization. In fact, the Dalai Lama has threatened to resign as the political leader of Tibet as a way of discouraging violence. That threat does not work because he is a slavemaster, but because he is a respected authority recognized as such by the Tibetan people. Even if one feels they are wrong to invest authority in such a religious figure, it doesn't change the fact of their views. It cannot simply be reduced to "false consciousness." To proclaim that they "really" think something else through such a process of refusing to listen (especially by claiming that they present a "riddle" to be solved) is the core of colonialist/Orientalist thought as I usually conceptualize it (abstracted from the the particular circumstance of historical Orientalism). Ironic, as Newman would probably think of his position as anti-colonialist, but I'd agree with those commenters who have noted that he's falsely positioned Chinese imperialism as the opposite of Western imperialism.

Totten recognizes the difficulties of understanding another's perspective. (And even acknowledges that he has much less of a clue about some segments of Iraqi society.) To some people, that might be "weasel words," but it's better to think of it as making space for someone else's thoughts. Refusing to substitute our thoughts for what they actually say.

Yes to listening to others!
Yes to a Free Tibet!
And I'm still embarrassingly open to arguments on how best to leave Iraq.

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