But as Stephen Kinzer just found out: Native cultures often don’t share our notion of “universal human rights,” and regard the involuntary imposition of Western values as the most noxious form of “cultural imperialism.”
And it gets much worse for the Left’s poor battered psyche with the additional realization that the men in these Third World societies are only “backward” as regards to their philosophical development, but not backward at all in their machismo, capacity for violence, and willingness to defend their worldview with force if necessary. So that often, the only way to “bring” human rights to oppressed populations is to “impose” these rights by force, and to defeat (which usually means kill) the intransigent defenders of the native way of life.
The prototypical exemplars of this attitude are of course the Taliban, and Afghanistan is the test-case where the dilemma is played out.
Case study: Afghanistan
The Taliban practice a uniquely noxious mix of ancient Pashtun culture (in which revenge is revered as a basic social precept) and fundamentalist Sunni Islam (with its well-documented array of oppressive and triumphalist doctrines). The Taliban are not nice people — “nice” itself being a Western concept, I concede. They deeply believe in, and are willing to kill and die for, the imposition of an all-encompassing theocratic police state which denies even basic human rights to just about everyone under their rule. When they controlled Afghanistan, they tried to commit genocide against ethnic minorities, they denied women all rights whatsoever, they prohibited all religions and sects except their own, they harbored and supported known terrorist groups, attempted to commit “culturecide” by destroying all traces of other belief systems, and suppressed anything even vaguely resembling freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. And to this day wherever they get a toe-hold in Afghanistan or Pakistan, they continue their ways unabated. The Taliban and the traditional culture they represent are about as antithetical to human rights as you can get.
So, if you were a human rights campaigner, and cared about human rights in Afghanistan, what would you do? Trying to “engage” with the ruling Taliban was utterly futile, as many naive do-gooders discovered. “Enlightening” them to our value system only further infuriates them. So the only way to bring the gift of “human rights” (i.e. Western values) to Afghanistan is to remove the Taliban by force. But as the Soviets, the Northern Alliance, and now the U.S. and its allies have discovered, the Taliban fight tooth and nail against the imposition of Western values. They never surrender, never give up, and employ the most diabolical tactics to achieve bloody victory at any cost. Thus, the only recipe to “defeat” the Taliban’s philosophy is to invade with massive force, physically drive them out, kill as many as possible in the process, and then stay in place for as long as necessary to repel an endless barrage of counterattacks and terroristic strikes.
There’s a word for that process. It’s called war. And another word, too, in the leftist lexicon. It’s called imperialism.
Both war and imperialism are absolute anathema to the Left, at least in theory. War and imperialism are the very things they claim to oppose. And yet at the same time, they also claim to support above all things “human rights” for everyone on earth.
And so we come to the dilemma recently discovered by Stephen Kinzer: What if the only way to bring human rights to an oppressed population is to wage imperialistic war against their oppressors?
It’s very very difficult for modern progressives to wrap their minds around this concept. They have been inculcated since birth in the old peacenik canard that war is always wrong, that it’s inherently evil, that it can never be used for “good” because the process of salvation is invariably worse than the status quo of oppression, as encapsulated by the famous (but probably fabricated) quote, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
(This is why I respect and admire Christopher Hitchens, despite the fact that I disagree with him on many issues. Shortly after 9/11, Hitchens confronted the same moral dilemma that Kinzer is facing now, but unlike Kinzer, Hitchens did have a transformational moral breakthrough in which a one-time far-left Marxist atheist came to understand that the armies of the West were not agents of evil but rather the last remaining champions of liberal values and human rights.)
Cultural imperialism doesn’t always happen in a war zone. It can also happen incrementally, insidiously, as a side-effect of noble intentions.
Yet it had always struck me that the international do-gooderism of contemporary “progressive” groups is essentially indistinguishable from the international do-gooderism of Christian missionaries from centuries past. Both try to “save” third-worlders from their self-imposed poverty and ignorance. But somehow, magically, the modern progressives have so thoroughly rebranded their efforts that they feel no connection to nor feel themselves to be in the same tradition of those horrible old 19th-century Christians with their evil attempts to replace native cultures with Western values.
Several years ago my cousin joined a left-leaning nonprofit (technically an “NGO,” listed on this page) and was sent on an all-expenses-paid volunteer project to a remote area of Papua New Guinea, where she and her fellow volunteers were to build a health clinic for the natives. She was practically delirious with progressive self-righteousness about the whole adventure, and sent home occasional letters detailing her team’s progress. I, despite still being a liberal myself at the time (this being some years prior to 9/11), was overwhelmed with a nagging sense of doubt. Hadn’t my cousin been an anthropology major in college? Wasn’t this project “interfering” with the native culture? I confessed some of my reservations in return letters, to which she took great offense. We’re helping these people, she explained. They’ve got all sorts of preventable diseases. I parried again: Perhaps their delicate culture is dependent on the absence of old people and the disabled? By keeping the sick and elderly alive with your clinic, might you not cause all sorts of unforeseen social upheavals, since their subsistence economy can only support the few and the able? She replied: Health care is a basic human right. Besides, this tribe has never even heard of contraception. We have classes in women’s health. Me: Will the introduction of contraception lead to a lower birth rate and their eventual extinction? Back and forth our argument raged in letters sent over the months.
Around this time I let myself be dragged to a friend-of-a-friend’s wedding in of all places a church (not the kind of establishment I normally visit), and afterward, milling around in the lobby, I picked up a copy of the church newsletter and saw to my amazement an article about a “mission” funded by the church in which Christian teens were sent to (brace yourself) Papua New Guinea where they were to build (you guessed it) a health clinic. (And, ahem, distribute Bible tracts and the Good News about Jesus, naturally, since the souls of the Papuans needed saving.)
I clipped out the article and sent it to my cousin. How, I asked, are you any different than these evangelical Christians, whom you so despise? Your group and the Christians are on opposite sides of the same island doing the exact same thing: You both show up, deem the native culture deficient in some way, build a health clinic in order to “help” them but which will only serve to disrupt native life, and ultimately use the clinic as a beachhead to impose your civilized notions on the heathen? At least the Christians are honest about their intent to Westernize the natives; you, however, hide behind the mask of political correctness and pretend that your altruism is blameless and pure, all the while doling out condoms and lessons undermining tribal patriarchy.