Tuesday, April 15, 2008


A few years back, I read an article by an anti-colonialist law professor, Makau Mutua, who indicted the prevailing Western conception of human rights as operating on an "S-V-S" model: Savage-Victim-Savior. Simply put, the Western imagination imputes upon the third world as a totality the status as savages and victims (and people can reside in both categories), who need to be "saved" by the (Christian?) West. It's old-school imperialism in (barely) new guise, and needs to be resisted.

A few years prior to that, I had read Elie Wiesel's Night. And I recall his prayers for bombs to fall on his concentration camp -- for even though it might mean his death, it also could lead to his salvation. The great (and all-too-rare) heroes of the Holocaust were, after all, the rescuers.

The interplay of these somewhat conflicting ideas is what makes so interesting this post by "The Apostate", an American of Pakistani birth, and a Muslim-turned-Atheist. She fled theocracy and her entire family, fearing that her own family would try to kill her. She looked to feminism as a source of strength, one that told her that her degradation was not justified, that there was another path.

But now, from many in the "third wave", she feels hostility and attack. Her critiques of Islam have gotten her labeled "racist" by people who have adopted the religion, even as it was her birth religion. Third wavers sneer that abortion is a white woman's concern. But for her, getting pregnant would have meant the end of her life: "when I got raped and my first fear was not AIDS (and this in a third world country) — it was pregnancy." They demand she look past her own life, her "lived experience" in a theocracy (her term, not mine) to see that Islam doesn't need reforming because "there’s nothing wrong with it to begin with."

And thus we have a problem. We in the west do have trouble humanizing those outside of Europe and America. And the failure of imagination can be brutal. Persons of progressive sway -- no matter what their other proclivities -- feel the pull of colonialist and racist past, and we are terrified of it. We do not want to re-incarnate the image of the savage, or the agency-less victim. So we back away.

But while we are busy with our fretful mutterings about whether any particular act of engagement is colonization, people are dying. Women are dying, men are dying, children are dying. Jews are dying, Muslims are dying, Christians are dying, Hindus are dying, Atheists are dying. The dead and the dying are all-too-uninterested in whether their savior has earned their bona fides as an anti-colonialist. Wiesel, I'm sure, would have been equally happy to have been rescued by Soviet bombs as allied ones. He, and they, just wonder why nobody will rescue them. Fear of the S(avage) and V(ictim) means no S(avior). There is a cost to waiting for moral purity, and it's not the impure who have to pay it.

Turning back to the abstract for a moment. As someone who identifies as a feminist (and more third-wave than second), and an anti-racist, and all the other affiliations of the post-modern progressive nexus, there is nothing more depressing to me than when oppressed people look upon these models, and see an adversary. Are met with hostility. As a Jew, I feel this daily. The language of feminism and anti-racism work has been an crucial tool in a too often hostile world. It provided the language to understand and vocalize the alienation I've always felt, and was an essential support as I moved from the relatively warm confines of suburban Maryland (where everyone is at least familiar with Judaism) to rural Minnesota (where I was an oddity and I couldn't count on people reflexively knowing the basic contours of what it means to be Jewish). And so, I am thankful to those theorists every day.

But at the same time, the language of the left is often deployed against my people. Anti-Semitism is not rampant, but it has a very noticeable presence and is too often tolerated. Durban 1 was an obvious example, but hardly an isolated one. When I see a thread on Israel or Jews on a feminist blog, I shouldn't feel dread in my gut. But I do. There is little pain like the betrayal of those who you've come to rely upon in your darkest hour. Though I doubt The Apostate would approve, I think of Job's raw cry to God: "Why do you hide your face from me; and treat me as an enemy?" (13:21)

In my own personal journey, I've fought this bitterly. I refuse to cede the ground of progressivism to those who would see me and mine destroyed, who roll the dice with my life and seem apathetic as to what the outcome will be. So, I aggressively deploy the language I've learned, that's sustained me, against those who would reify my oppression. The Apostate did likewise, appropriating and wielding the concepts of "erasing", "silencing" and "lived experience" to put together an extraordinarily powerful post. From the context, it's hard to tell if she is using them sarcastically. It'd be hard to blame her if she did, but I hope not. I hope that she sees value in those tools, and -- even if utilizing them against their normal merchants is ironic -- has found away for them to sustain her as well.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a great analysis, one that I've articulated less cohesively but felt for a while now.

And I was being partly sarcastic when using those terms -- the intent was to use the same wording, same style of diction, to get my point across. It's a perspective that is necessary to "raise consciousness" but the irony is, it can be used by a group that is "privileging" itself in terms of its oppression while denying that anyone else has the "legitimacy" to use it.