Monday, February 22, 2010

In defence of brainwashing

It is unusual for the details of an academic course to become a hot topic of conversation in the blogopshere, but over the last week or so a paper offered by Mohsen al Attar at the University of Auckland's Law School has engaged the attention, if not the intellects, of scores of commenters at New Zealand's most popular blog.

After Kiwiblog proprietor David Farrar posted a link to the outline of Mohsen's paper, which is called 'Colonialism to Golobalisation', comments boxes quickly filled with denunciations of the propagandists for communism, political correctness, civil unions, and similar abominations who supposedly dominate Kiwi campuses.

For the keyboard warriors who fight for liberty at Kiwiblog and other red meat sites, Mohsen al Attar makes a perfect target: he is foreign-born, he has a Muslim name, he is preoccupied with the history of of Western imperialism, and he is unafraid to flourish fashionable if slightly obscure left-wing phrases like 'counter-hegemony' and 'anti-globalisation' in his lectures and texts.

But it is not only at Kiwiblog that Mohsen al Attar's paper has been condemned. In an article published in several daily newspapers and on his blog, the left-wing political commentator Chris Trotter found himself agreeing with David Farrar about the creator of 'Colonisation to Globalisation'. For Chris, Mohsen offers a 'particularly stark example' of 'self-loathing leftism', a condition which is defined as:

that self-critical mode of left-wing analysis which takes "the politics of victimhood" out of its more familiar context in the anti-racist, feminist and gay rights movements, and extends it to the whole world.

The result is as predictable as it’s banal: an Avatar world of Goodies versus Baddies and Nature versus Technology, in which the holistic philosophy of innocent and virtuous indigenes crashes into the murderously exploitative intentions of malignant and rapacious colonisers.

Like David Farrar, Chris bases his account of Mohsen al Attar's worldview on a reading of the outline of 'Colonisation to Globalisation' offered to prospective students of the paper. Chris believes that the outline's references to European imperialism are simplistic and overly vituperative.

It is difficult to make judgements about an academic course based merely on a reading of its outline. An outline is often more like a blurb on the back of a book than an abstract at the beginning of an academic essay - that is, it hints at the content of the paper it advertises, rather than distilling the essence of that paper's arguments.

To declare that a paper is intellectually suspect, simply because the outline which advertises it contains one or two provocative claims and makes the opinions of its author plain, is to misunderstand not only the scope and limits of a paper outline but the place of objectivity in scholarship and teaching.

For the baying, perpetually ill-informed mob in David Farrar's comments boxes, 'objectivity' means studying and teaching 'the facts', and avoiding any reference to 'theories'. Anything but the simple recitation of unvarnished facts is 'brainwashing'. This sort of naive, philistine attitude to scholarship and teaching never bore much relation to reality, and was made completely untenable by twentieth century philosophers, who showed that even the most seemingly obvious statement of fact is inevitably dependent upon implicit theoretical assumptions.

As EP Thompson liked to point out, scholarship requires a mixture of subjectivity and objectivity. All of us have opinions. Strong opinions may actually help a scholar form interesting hypotheses. The question is whether a scholar is prepared to ‘listen’ to evidence, and to other scholars, and modify his or her hypothesis when it doesn’t fit the evidence.

Thompson had very strong opinions on all manner of subjects, yet was capable of changing his mind dramatically in the course of his research. For example, Thompson did a famous study of the sale of wives in nineteenth century England, which he began using the hypothesis that the practice was an example of the oppression of women by men. As he accumulated scores and then hundreds of cases of the practice, though, Thompson noticed that women often participated happily in their ’sale’, that the amount of money that changed hands was derisory, and that the ‘buyer’ of the wife was usually a man who had been having a relationship with her. Thompson eventually decided that the sale of wives was an informal working class form of divorce used in the days when only the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy could divorce legally. Thompson's strong opinions did not make him dogmatic, when unexpected evidence presented itself.

At university level, a teacher is not supposed to be a mere conveyor of facts and figures to a group of passive students - he or she is supposed to present those students with an argument, or a series of arguments, and to invite them to respond to those arguments. Both teacher and students have to test their arguments against the evidence which they will be exploring, and - in some papers - unearthing together. There is nothing to suggest to me that Mohsen al Attar's paper outline, with its series of provocative, deliberately unsupported statements, could not be an invitation to research and dialogue, rather than an exercise in propaganda.

I remember a course taught in the early noughties by Ian Carter, one of the most senior members of the University of Auckland's Sociology Department, on the modern world and modern consciousness. Carter advertised his paper with a brief statement that concluded with the sentence 'Students will soon discover the lecturer's lack of sympathy with postmodern thought'. This was a blatant expression of personal opinion and, sure enough, Ian didn't hold back from criticising Foucault, Baudrillard and other postmodernist thinkers during his very informal lectures.

But Ian did not make his own opinions into red lines for students - on the contrary, he intended them as invitations to debate and research. It would have been very unjust to conclude, from a reading of the outline that advertised his paper, that he was some sort of unscholarly propagandist for a particular point of view. Why shouldn't we give Mohsen the same sort of latitude that Ian and so many other fine teachers have enjoyed? Why are some of us so ready to assume that Mohsen is a sinister pseudo-scholar, simply because he has, like the rest of us, opinions?

Not only has Chris failed to recognise the limits of the outline of an academic paper, he seems to me to have misread Mohsen's outline. Here is the passage which Chris cites as proof of Mohsen's inveterate hatred of the West, and of his desire to return to a pre-capitalist era:

In the late 15th century, imperialist Europe emerged intent on exploring and possessing the New World. Fast forward through five hundred years of colonialism, capitalism, slavery, industrialisation, genocide, and international law and greet the 21st century in all its paradoxical glory.

What Mohsen is surely doing here is recalling the bloodsoaked origins of capitalism five or so centuries ago, and pointing to the contradictory outcomes of capitalist development. On the one hand, he seemes to be saying, capitalism has been implicated in abominations like slavery; on the other hand, it has given rise, thanks largely to the democratic struggles of the working classes it has created and the peoples it has colonised, to (supposedly) progressive features of the modern world like international law. Mohsen acknowledges the 'glory' of the modern world, but he considers this glory 'paradoxical'.

Mohsen's argument is not a new one: it can be found in The Communist Manifesto, which spends page after page extolling the wonders of capitalism before revealing the bloody corollaries of these wonders, and it permeates classical social democracy, which praises the productive forces capitalism has created but argues that these forces need to be placed under the control of responsible national and international institutions.

I suspect that Chris actually subscribes to the view of capitalism Mohsen is advancing, and I don't think he would find much to object to in the well-meaning, rather utopian opinion pieces Mohsen turns out for the national media, which call for the amelioration of the worst excesses of the twenty-first century world through the strengthening of international law.

I disagree with the portrait of capitalism Mohsen advances - in its attempt to see the good side of the devil and strike a bargain with him, it seems to me to owe more to Faust than to a realistic picture of the way the system operates. Against the view that capitalism has progressive features and can be taken over and civilised by well-meaning lefties, I would side with the Marx of the 1870s and '80s, who came to see the expansion of the system not as a necessary step in the march of progress but as an assault on much that was socialistic in indigenous societies.

But my objections to Mohsen's vision of history don't make me hostile to the paper he teaches. If I were a student again, I would be attracted, rather than perturbed, by the prospect of an encounter with a teacher with strongly-held beliefs and a provocative way of expressing those beliefs. It saddens me that, rather engaging in a discussion with Mohsen, Chris Trotter has chosen to side with the read meat brigade of the Kiwiblog comments boxes - a gang of misfits, obsessives and rednecks who surely represent, in an admittedly amusing way, the negation of the Western tradition of reason and debate that Chris rightly venerates.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Why are some of us so ready to assume that Mohsen is a sinister pseudo-scholar, simply because he has, like the rest of us, opinions?'

Cos he's a Muzzie.

8:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trotter should differentiate himself from this lunatic wh has been obsessed with Al Attar for a long time -

9:09 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'the Western tradition of reason and debate that Chris rightly venerates'


Only Westerners 'reason' and 'debate'????

Are you are a racist too????????

9:11 pm  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

What you fail to address, Scott, is the manifold historical howlers in Attar's course outline. These merely heighten the sense that what we are dealing with here is propaganda - not the sort of challenging, but rigorous, scholarship you are defending. I have no quarrel with strong opinions, only with those whose grasp of historical truth is so weak. Marx would have had nothing but scorn for Attar's tendentious historiography - unconnected as it is from those precious building-blocks of sound theory - facts.

10:21 pm  
Blogger AHD said...

I'm not so sure Chris.

The 'historical facts' are a little more complicated than your confident declarations let on. The 15th Century saw explorations to the non-European world, a necessary pre-cursor to the later systematic forms of imperialism and colonialism.

I think, however, that the issue of whether 'Europe' was or was not imperialist in the 15th Century is peripheral. You play a double game where you can use your confident declaration of rather arcane 'facts' (artificially divorced from theory) to attack the 'politics of victimhood' that you believe have been projected onto the Western world. Locating imperialism in the 15th Century is not an historical 'howler' that invalidates his simplified-for-the-sake-of-a-course-description historical progression.

However, it does help you to set up a strawman: Mohsen al Attar in this formation is a revisionist working from an inadequate fact base seeking to blame the West for every problem under the sun. If he's wrong on a few historical 'facts' then it follows that any argument that suggests that international law is a hegemonic structure is necessarily invalid.

I don't buy this distraction play--tell us, Chris, why International Law is or is not hegemonic and what effect it has upon subaltern post colonial agents. Basically, tell us why his argument (rather than his indicting political position) is wrong.

As a side note, stable 'facts' struggle to act as the politcally neutral precursors to 'correct' theory. Chicken and egg: the world is made up of a totality of facts, waiting to be interpreted (created?) through a theoretically informed lens. This is not an argument for naive laissez-faire relativism, but an informed negotiation between objectivity and subjectivity.

12:06 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'the Western tradition of reason and debate that Chris rightly venerates' was not meant as an exclusive statement - just that Chris is correct that as Pakeha we should aspire to follow our own western tradition of reason and debate BUT of course other societies and cultures 'reason' and 'debate' (and probably did so before us!).

9:31 am  
Blogger maps said...

I think Chris is mixing up two different uses of the concept 'imperialism'.

The 'modern' type of imperialism that writers like Hobson, Hilferding, and Lenin discovered and described in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century did not, of course, exist in the fifteenth century. However, a different type of imperialism certainly did, and I think it is this sort of imperialism that Mohsen's paper outline refers to.

Modern imperialism emerged as European and American capitalists began to seek new export markets and new sources of raw materials in the nineteenth century. With the support of their states, capitalists from nations like Britain and Germany exported capital to underdeveloped parts of the world and imported profits. By doing so, they helped deal with the problems that capitalist development had created at home.

The 'discovery' and conquest of swathes of the 'New World' by Europeans in the fourteenth and fifteenth century was not imperialist in the same way that, say, the subordination of India by capitalist Britain in the nineteenth century was imperialist. Nevertheless, it has been described as imperialist by Marx, and by many contemporary scholars of the origins of capitalism.

The conquest of the New World helped involved the 'primitive accumulation' of capital, as nations like Spain and Britain plundered gold and other trade goods from their new colonies.
This new wealth helped make the establishment of capitlaism possible. Marx himself describes colonialism as part of the 'pre-history of capitalism', and discusses it in the introduction to the Grundrisse.

The term 'primitive imperialism' is sometimes used to distinguish the imperialism that was involved in the very founding of capitalism from the imperialism that began in the nineteenth century.

I see no reason, then, why Marx would laugh at Mohsen for describing early modern Europe as imperialist. If Mohsen elided the difference between 'primitive' and modern imperialism, then he would deserve criticism, but I see no evidence that he has done this in the outline of his paper.

I think Andrew is quite right when he says that Chris is setting fire to a straw man.

10:03 am  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

International law - like just about every other kind of law - is effective in direct proportion to the ability of its framers to enforce it.

Since the powers with global enforcement powers, at least as far as the past two centuries are concerned, have mostly been those which hail from Europe, it has indeed been the case that those states and indigenous communities lacking the power to challenge the European powers and the USA have had to endure the role of "subaltern".

How it could be otherwise, however, I struggle to conceptualise.

10:30 am  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

Quite right, Scott, Lenin's theory of imperialism has very little to do with the deeds of 16th Century monarchs.

That was my point.

If the Christian kings of Europe were expansionist, then so too were the Muslim Ottomans. This simple historical fact does not, however, suit Attar's thesis and so he simply excludes it from his schema.

The irony of your defence of his course is that it relies so heavily on a Eurocentric conceptualisation of the problem.

Modern scholarship is exposing how ultimately peripheral (in every sense of the word) Europe has been to the overall development (i.e. the last 3,000 years) of the world economy.

I would heartily recommend "Reorient" by Andre Gunder Frank as a starter text.

And I must say, Scott, after reading the above comment (as well as your earlier posting and listening to your podcast) it's easy to see why the "What-did-Lenin-eat-for-breakfast-in-1922-and-would-Marx-have-approved?" - school of left-wing discourse is becoming more-and-more of an acquired taste.

11:01 am  
Blogger maps said...

Well, it was you who invoked Marx by suggesting he would scorn Moshen's analysis, Chris. I don't think Marx would disgaree with Mohsen's use of the term imperialism, his emphasis on European rather than, say, Ottoman expansionism, or even any harsh words he uses about European civilisation.

The reason why Marx and many of his successors tended to focus on imperialist primitive accumulation by the Europeans, as opposed to the Ottomans, is surely because Europe, and not Turkey, became the launching pad for capitalism, and thus for modern imperialism.

As Marx wrote, in chapter thirty-one of Capital, which discusses the origins of industrial capitalism:

'The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder, floated back to the mother-country and were turned into capital.'

Elsewhere in the same chapter, Marx presents us with the following quote, indicating that it expresses his own view:

'The barbarities and desperate outrages of the so-called Christian race, throughout every region of the world, and upon every people they have been able to subdue, are not to be parralleled by those of any other race, however fierce, however untaught, and however reckless of mercy and shame, in any age of the earth.'

Shall we dismiss Marx as a 'self-loathing leftist'?

11:23 am  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

If dear old Karl really thought the Christians were worse than the Mongols, or the Aztecs for that matter, then he clearly should have visited a little more of the British Museum!

4:42 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please delete this post or face legal action.

6:51 pm  
Blogger AHD said...

International law - like just about every other kind of law - is effective in direct proportion to the ability of its framers to enforce it.

Since the powers with global enforcement powers, at least as far as the past two centuries are concerned, have mostly been those which hail from Europe, it has indeed been the case that those states and indigenous communities lacking the power to challenge the European powers and the USA have had to endure the role of "subaltern".

How it could be otherwise, however, I struggle to conceptualise.

Right. So what is your issue with Al Attar's (presumed) position? Arguing that international law has in fact subjugated the third world seems heavily bound up within the 'politics of victimhood'. Is your issue with the argument or with the man?

9:35 pm  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

The dispute, Andrew, boils down to the question of agency.

It is Attar's attribution of conscious malice to the representatives of European civilisation: the reduction of historical data to the mere epiphenomena of some elaborate racial-cum-economic conspiracy spanning five centuries; that makes his course so unacceptable.

It's a world view which substitutes the dangerous simplicity of a totalitarian morality play for the boundless complexity of human society and culture.

Such an outlook has no place in a modern university.

10:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A Christian blog has taken the title of this post literally it seems

3:57 pm  
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12:54 am  

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