Colonialism’s Many Guises
Posted Nov 20, 2005

Colonialism’s many guises

In his latest entry in Fall of Icarus [1], Zahir laments the palpable ignorance, prejudice and condescension of a “60 Minutes” report on American doctors working in Pakistan after the earthquake.

The transcript [2] includes a self-deprecating comment by one of the doctors that highlights in a lighthearted way how, as outsiders who don’t speak local languages or know local culture, they were inevitably out of their depth on the ground in Pakistan:

“When they were dropped off here, Chris Summers was surprised to learn they were the only aid workers there. I can’t believe we haven’t seen anyone else in this valley,Ӕ Summers says. There’s such a need here. You know? And we’re isolated here. I don’t really know what’s happening in the rest of the country. But in this valley, Jeelum Valley, an enormous need and how is it possible that it’s just us, you know, 13 knuckleheads from New York here?Ӕ

The narrator quickly intervenes and proves himself to be the real “knucklehead” of this segment by reducing Pakistan and this tragedy to an offensive caricature:

“Knuckleheads? This is Osama bin Laden country, dotted with training camps for jihadists, where Islam is at its most radical and America is seen as the enemy.”

Such incredibly trite, uninformed and simplistic coverage. Where does one start? 

It’s enough to make you miss the “good old days” of open colonialism, when the officials and scholars opining about the Muslim world at least had a modicum of education, knowledge of history, and understanding of the outside world.  They certainly had their doublestandards, prejudices, and blindspots, but they were so blissfully unaware of the world around them.  (For example, even the much maligned author of the “White Man’s Burden” [3], Rudyard Kipling, had an intimate familiarity with the “exotic” peoples about which he opined.)  Today, the management of the “Colonies” has been handed off to historically illiterate hacks with a child’s attention span.

I’m reminded of a report [4] by Eric Margolis.  He was asked recently by a “journalist” on during an interview for an American TV show,  “How many Al-Qaeda do you think died in the earthquake?”  His response put things back in perspective: “A handful, but not worth single dead Pakistani child.”

Such inane and disturbing talk isn’t an aberration—it’s a window into contemporary America’s neocolonial relationship with the rest of the world.  Today, as in the past, the natives “over there” are so relentlessly dehumanized that otherwise intelligent people stop viewing them as fellow human beings worthy of sympathy and respect.

Colonialism is indeed alive and well.






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