Zimmerman: The Western Saviour Complex

J. Zimmerman

“Take up the White Man’s burden —
Have done with childish days —
The lightly proffered laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!”
-Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s burden, 1899

The strange case of the Kony 2012 phenomenon is a chance to reflect on the complex relationship between those of us in the so-called First World and those of us in the so-called Third World.   The organization Invisible Children got massive attention for this latest campaign and their intentions may have appeared  to many observers as completely benign and admirable at first glance.  They were creating global awareness of the atrocities committed by a brutal warlord in Eastern Africa and stating that they wanted to see Joseph Kony face justice.  It all seemed noble, but on closer inspection and in light of how things turned out, people started questioning the real motives beyond it.  One of the results of the campaign was an announcement by the Obama Administration to keep American military advisers in Uganda.  The bizarre naked meltdown of Kony 2012’s main organizer, Jason Russel in the street in San Diego raised some eyebrows but the most telling incident involving Kony 2012 was when the now famous video was played before an audience in Lira, a town in Uganda where Kony committed some of his worst atrocities.  The audience was made up of the very people the Kony 2012 campaign purported to be trying to help yet by the end of the showing the audience became frustrated and lashed out at the members of the organizations, even pelting rocks at them and demanding they leave.

What exactly went wrong? Some of the campaign’s critics cite the fact that Joseph Kony is not even present in Uganda anymore and that sending military advisors to Uganada is a completely useless move. A major critique leveled at Kony 2012 by many is the lack of context and the presence of patronizing language. This campaign, many argued, was a new manifestation of the Western Saviour Complex.
What exactly is the Western Saviour Complex? If I had to come up with a definition for an encyclopedia for it the line would go something like this:
Western Saviour Complex: the deeply embedded notion that any problem in any part of the world can, or even must be solved by Western countries.   Historical examples include Columbus bringing Christianity to the “Indians” and America bringing “democracy” to Iraq.
Every colonial project during Europe’s period of colonialism seemed to be justified by some language or another.  There were people who spoke out against colonialism in Europe and in the Americas but ever present was the argument that it was ultimately in the subjected people’s own interest to be governed by outsiders.  Even among liberals one can sometimes sense the language of a perceived natural order involving the Western states play a role not unlike that of a traditional patriarch.  Nowadays these are the voices that claim to be progressive yet they may support international policies that are not so enlightened in the long-run.   In some such opinions Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan is seen as beneficial, or that the ouster of a democratically elected leader in Haiti was necessary for the sake of Haiti’s progress.  Others may come from organizations that seem well-meaning at first glance but often carry with them a mentality that view their own selves and their actions as the only solution to people’s complicated problems thousands of miles away.  This mentality, whether raw and blatantly obvious or more subtle, is the long-term product of an ideological phenomenon that has its roots in the colonial period of Western Europe.

 

 
Let’s start this examination with the role of governments on the international arena.  Our first question is: what really guides the actions of most nation-states?  The realm of international politics is one where strategy is the most important factor.  When nations take actions, whether political, financial or military, they always do so with their strategic interests in mind.  Countries with large economies, and often strong military power to back it up, naturally have the most clout on the global scale.  When nation-states like the United States, our struggling global superpower, or rising giants like Russia and China, take actions it is fair to say that the concerns of the respective powers that be in those states are what drive their respective international policies.  Media often treats the actions of Western states with a double-standard when compared to others.  (It is also arguable that mainstream media in non-Western countries  often may have similar projections of exceptionalism and/or ultimately present the interests of individuals or organizations with power, but in this article I focus exclusive attention to the particular phenomenon of the deeply rooted Western saviour mentality of the former colonial states.)   In mainstream media here in the Western world, largely including mainstream Canadian media, our reasons for moving on that international chessboard are motivated not by the quest for resources or hegemonic influence like other states, but are driven by a desire to do good in the world.  This is a Manichaeism world-view, which is an outlook on the real world as a singular battle of good vs. evil with absolutely nothing in between.
Speaking of a dangerously morally simplistic worldview let’s discuss a bit on George W. Bush and his legacy.  When President Bush II invaded Iraq he cited three major reasons that we are all too familiar with now.  The first was to prevent Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s then President, from making Weapons of Mass Destruction.  It was false.  The second was because the secular Arab Nationalist regime of Saddam Hussein was apparently best buddies with Osama bin Laden’s fanatical Wahhabi sect of Islam group Al Qaeda.  This one also turned out to be false although it should have been obvious for any one who actually takes time to read up on the very complicated realities of the Middle-East.  Finally, the last reason, and the one that Bush and company stuck to until the end, was that the reason for the invasion was for the sake of liberation for the Iraqi people.  This line was given to the public repeatedly by the war’s supporters, including former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Tony Blair who insisted even after the initial reasons were proven false that removing Saddam Hussein was “the right thing to do.”  It was simply accepted by so many that the war was necessary and was overall done in the Iraqi people’s best interest. Liberation from a ruthless dictator, they argued, could only come through war.  The Iraqi people could not overcome the tyrant on their own.  It’s hard to forget the arguments being made at the time and it seems somewhat stranger now in the era of the Arab Spring when people in the region have successfully (in some cases) removed their dictators themselves.

Can anybody really believe these arguments? Do the few supporters left of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States and coalition allies honestly believe that the motivations behind the invasion were based on compassion?  For a clearer answer we have to look past the rhetoric and focus instead on actual actions and results.  Look at, for instance, the actions of the United States during the 1991 Gulf War, the first time America attacked Iraq.  The first President Bush showed an apparent sign of solidarity with Iraq’s people on February 15 of that year when he told them to “take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside and then comply with the United Nations’ resolutions and rejoin the family of peace-loving nations.”  After the cease-fire declared on February 24th and the Iraqi government brutally repressed the uprising resulting in thousands of Iraqi deaths, President Bush stated on April 2nd that he had not “not misled anybody about the intentions of the United States of America.”  He went on to say “I don’t think the Shias in the south, those who are unhappy with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad or the Kurds in the north, ever felt that the United States would come to their assistance to overthrow this man. (…) I made clear from the very beginning that it was not an objective of the coalition or the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein.”  It is especially telling when it is revealed that the initial line of supposed solidarity that went out was really to keep Saddam’s army occupied in Iraq so the United States would run into less opposition from Iraqi troops in Kuwait.  The Iraqi people who opposed the government were thus used for strategic purposes and the slaughter was immense in both Iraq’s predominantly Shia South and Kurdish North.  Actions speak louder than words although words can be utilized to use people for strategic purposes.  The words are nothing but superficial statements made to justify every action taken by the powerful to convince people that they are always on the side of right in the great simplistic battle of right and wrong.  Again, actions and actual results speak louder than words ever can.
The idea that it is the role of Western states to save the people of the “third world” seems like a subliminal pre-acknowledged consensus in many circles of Western society.  Many people in power seem to favour using that language.  In Canada it seems very common as of late, particularly in regard to the long U.S. backed occupation of Afghanistan.  Back in 2007 when the New Democratic Party (NDP) was calling for the withdrawal of troops Prime Minister Stephen Harper said not to “abandon Afghans.”  Here the assumption is made that the military presence once more is one of complete benign intentions.  Rhetoric was made by Conservative Members of Parliament and Ministers of not leaving Afghanistan’s women to a horrible fate.  The women of Afghanistan in particular, considering the misogyny of the pre-2001 Taliban government, are a favourite rhetorical tool for supporters of the war.  Of course the Western world, all save a few including MP George Galloway from the UK, was willing to turn a blind eye on the mujaheddin,  precursors of the Taliban, when they were used to drive out the Soviets.   The right-wingers and some liberals using the language of women’s rights may push for the continuation of the military occupation in Afghanistan, shutting down the voices of actual Afghan women, such as Malalai Joya, citing that if it wasn’t for Western intervention that they would (apparently) be killed, effectively silencing the sources of dissent on the basis of them coming from women.  From the Western Saviour’s point of view the Western forces are in Afghanistan to protect women, therefore women in Afghanistan who speak out against the occupation are wrong to do so.  Can someone truly be for women’s rights if they use rhetorical tactics like these to dismiss the courageous women who do speak out on the very basis that they are women?

 

I recall one time speaking to a co-worker about the mission and my reservations towards the military presence of Canadian troops there.   His response was:  “I think that country has been screwed over so much it needs some help.”  There it is present again, the idea that exists among so many people in this part of the world that our motivations can only be beneficial to people in those other parts of the world. The idea of “we know what’s best for them” is so prevalent that there seems to be no real debate about it in mainstream discourse.

And how is Afghanistan?  How much have we done for them?  A recent report from Amnesty International presents a less than rosy picture.  Half a million Afghans are now homeless due to the intense fighting between NATO forces and the insurgency and about 30,000 Afghans live in makeshift tents outside of Kabul in deplorable conditions.  Unemployment and addictions to opiates has reached unprecedented levels.  This insurgency made up of former Taliban, but also of Afghans who simply resent foreign presence in their country, is also ironically partly funded by NATO’s presence.  Certain rural routes in Afghanistan are filled with insurgent and tribal fighters unfriendly to Western forces, but the military pays local (sometimes Taliban) militia safety payments in order to allow convoys full of supplies for troops to travel these routes unmolested.  This money paid by Western powers goes directly to funding a brutal insurgency that only exists to resist the foreign military presence to begin with.  In this case the only thing we are bringing is more war and helping to entrench a cycle of violence in Afghanistan.  So much for liberation!


On top of all this the women of Afghanistan, the supposed reason why American, Canadian and European troops are stationed in Afghanistan, are not faring much better than they were under the Taliban.  A report from 2011 cited that 87% of women had experienced physical, psychological and/or sexual abuse.  All this has taken place under a Western-backed government made up largely of warlords that have virtually legalized spousal rape and recently backed a decree that officially states women to be subordinate to men.  Ten years we have had our troops stationed in Afghanistan accompanied by relentless propaganda from both conservatives and liberals alike about our mission being to “free the women of Afghanistan”.  We have a simplistic understanding of the reality in Afghanistan.  It was not always as it is now.  War, first external and then internal, was what brought it to its current state and it is nothing short of incredibly naive to believe that militarizing a society further will solve the problems.
This brings us to our next example: Libya. This is a recent story and the dust is still settling, so to speak, on the situation in this North African state and since Colonel Gaddafi’s killing the issue has largely disappeared from world media. The uprising began largely peaceful and, like the Arab Springs in Tunisia and Egypt, may have truly been an expression of the peoples popular will against what was largely considered an authoritarian dictatorship, but things became more muddled and less clear cut, as they often do,  as it went on.  The United Nations, led by the Western states, but also including some support from Russia and China, backed Resolution 1970 that called for “a no fly zone” over Libya and for “the protection of civilians”.  There emerged an armed force opposing Gaddafi called the Libya Free Army which became the National Transitional Council once the rebels gained territory and began governing.  The resolution stuck at first but the United States and other NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) states took actions beyond their initial mandate and directly intervened through aerial bombardment and assistance to the Libya Free Army.  There is a debate to be had on when nations can intervene in the case of situations such as this one, but, as I am about to explain, the decision of NATO leaders to go beyond their international mandate led to disastrous results on the ground for many civilians in Libya.

The images of Colonel Gaddafi being lynched by the NTC has been broadcast around the world by now.  People may feel mixed about if it is truly justice was what happened, but there are many other images we seldom, if ever, saw on our television screens.  Although respected international human rights organizations called for an end to Gaddafi’s regime and for the protection of Libyan civilians, shortly after the civil war officially ended they seemed to be telling a slightly different story than the one we were told beforehand.  Amnesty International, one of the most respected of these groups, cited that there was no concrete evidence that the Libyan government committed large-scale acts of killing against protestors.   Amnesty only had media reports to go on for news on Libya before the invasion but now that Gaddafi was dead they had more access on the ground.  The government, they found,  did repress initial demonstrations, but the investigation cites that “there is no proof of mass killing of civilians on the scale of Syria or Yemen,” nor was there evidence of anti-aircraft guns being used against crowds, nor was there proof that black sub-Saharan African mercenaries were used by Gaddafi.  This investigation also criticized Western media for portraying the conflict as one-sided and clear-cut.  Most of the political parties in Canada continued to support the mission though, even the historically anti-war NDP.

When the NTC (National Transition Council)  took Tripoli and other cities in Libya there emerged news of massive lynching campaigns against black Africans due to the rumours of Gaddafi hiring black mercenaries. The majority of those killed were sub-Saharan African migrant workers who had come to Libya in hopes of supporting their families back in their respective sub-Saharan countries. It is also reported that black African women were raped in refugee camps by rebels.  The aerial bombardments by NATO have been found to have killed many civilians as well.  The role of NATO going beyond its mandate led to these developments on the ground and it is nothing short of terribly ironic that a resolution that was made to protect Libyan civilians may have ended up killing so many of them.  The dust settles on Libya and the story may be clearer in time. On this subject, a friend and staunch activist (@humhum83) captured much of the sentiment with the outcome when he once put it to me:  “The NTC is shady at best.”
Where does this leave us? From the cases I have mentioned above (and there are so many other examples both historical and contemporary) what does this say about the role of the Western Saviour Complex?  It is something very real and very present in the discourse of so many in the Western world, this idea that sprung from the colonial era and has survived in different forms throughout our neo-colonial era in this globalized world.  Is there a place for people from the so-called First World to do anything positive for people in the so-called Third World?  We hear of non-profit groups in the West wanting to go “introduce” organic farming in parts of Africa for instance, despite the fact that Africans have been practicing organic farming for thousands of years.  If anything, perhaps people in Africa could teach people in the West on that subject.  There are, however various NGO’s and solidarity activists that arguably actually do make a positive difference in their contexts.  Many of these groups are formed of people who are not only well-intentioned, but also well-informed of the contexts in which they work and are capable of showing some humility in their work.  In this day and age the entire world is becoming more intertwined and interconnected on so many levels.  It is worth asking how one can become a truly useful member of the global community who truly stands alongside other peoples from elsewhere in their struggles.  A first step for anyone interested in such an undertaking would first examine the phenomenon of the Western Saviour Complex, question one’s assumptions about one’s own society and other society’s and their respective contexts.  This article is not meant to give a solution of how to become involved globally active for Western individuals or groups but to simply examine one of the major obstacles, that is, this prevalent mentality that does more harm than anything else.  There are no clear answers to the world’s problems, but if one wants to form an opinion and contribute anything positive in other parts of the world then very first step to listen to others before speaking. A little humility can indeed go a long way.

O’Leary & Hedges

A recent video on the topic of the Wall Street Protests.

Why do these talking heads of the Right always just make personal attacks?  O’Leary, Coren, etc.  They always behave this way: avoid the actual issues, just discredit the speaker with childish name-calling.  Perhaps it is because they actually have no real arguments?

9/11: Reflections, Frustrations, and Frauds

 first published on: www.theopposition.ca

            It has now been ten years since that day when an unprecedented attack took place on American soil.  I’ll never forget where I was when it happened: at high school in math class when my teacher asked me if I had heard the news.  There were maybe six students in the classroom at the time (grade 12 was when about half the kids seemed to drop out) and we were occupied with asking one another which building(s) the WorldTradeCenterwas.  I kept thinking of the UN building myself, and my friend kept insisting it was the building that Godzilla attacked in a movie but it was clear that he was getting his movies (and his monsters) mixed up.  We were let out of school early that day to watch the news and be with our families.  Nothing had prepared us for this, we, now called the 9/11 generation.  We knew not war, those of us in North America, but only of war.  The Second World War was an abstract collective memory kept alive primarily in films, while the Cold War had just ended as we came onto the scene.  The 1990’s (the Clinton/Chrétien years) were relatively quiet on our side of the world, save some involvements inIraq and the formerYugoslavia.  There is no disputing it, the events of September 11, 2001 changed my outlook on the world, made me want to know more about it, and started my path into the world of politics and journalism.  (I imagine that many other writers and readers of this site had a similar experience?)

 

            What has the last decade, the 9/11 decade, brought us?  The naive optimism of the 1990’s seemed dead, political polarization overtook the public debates, and the world became more connected than it had already been as the phenomenon called globalization passed through more phases.  Ten years = two countries occupied and largely destabilized, arguably both worse off than they were before the invasions.  We witnessed a war launched by the most powerful nation on earth based completely on what has been revealed as a pack of lies.  To this day it astonishes me how the heads of a government in a democratic system can get away with such things, but a little bit of further reading reveals a legacy of governmental lies when it comes to the business of war and peace.  For myself, the myth of Western benevolence was shattered and the world seemed uglier and a less comfortable place than the cushy 90’s seemed to present.  It’s hard to say whether this is simply an act of growing up and becoming more mature and realistic, or if the world truly got worse.  I would guess it is a combination of both.

 

            Ten years since such a defining event of generation’s lifetime and what is the current state of the world?  Immediately following the attacks a polarizing discourse emerged, a binary view “us” vs. “them” view of the world best exemplified by the 9/12 words: “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.”  But who are “the terrorists?”  What we witnessed was a turn to state repression where the 9/11 attacks and the post-9/11 discourse were used to justify every type of repression against numerous non-state actors and political opposition groups.  This phenomenon took place all over the world as a loosely defined “security” discourse overtook other national conversations.  Now, at the end of our murky decade we find the global financial order has fallen apart, with all-out crises taking place in Europe, and aUnited Statesbled dry by two occupations and about to take the plunge into what may prove to be a more devastating economic crisis than the Great Depression.  We inCanadahave been largely insulated, but I find it too hopeful and naive to think this is going to last.  Revolutions, long overdue, have erupted in the Arab world and elsewhere, and a seldom talked about one has taken place in Iceland  Very difficult times are ahead, but the long-term results of the current upheavals and shifts will not be apparent for a long while.  Times like this require thinking outside of the box and I have no doubt that things will change here inCanada.  These are big changes and I think it essential that all politically minded people be involved, and that people be aware and connected to the outside world. 

 

            And here we get to the latter part of the article, the frustrations and the frauds part.  The 9/11 conspiracy theories come to mind and the insistence of the people who follow them like a religion.  I remember the first time I saw the (now fully debunked) “documentary” film Loose Change.  I believed it then when I was twenty years old and wanted to believe that George W. Bush, aside from already being a war criminal and a liar, was actually behind the attacks.  This vilified someone who already was a criminal in my mind and at the time it seemed to make sense, but then, I looked closer at the ‘evidence’ brought up, and over the years (perhaps not coincidentally as I became more educated) I started to realize that this conspiracy talk really was a bunch of nonsensical drivel. 

 

            There are fishy thing about 9/11 no doubt.  We definately have to ask how much governments and intelligence agencies knew about it beforehand.  The Project for a New American Century, for instance, was a right-wing think tank that was formed in the 1990’s by neocons such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz.  This group stated that an attack on Iraqwas necessary and overdue, and that Americamust ensure the seizure of the world’s resources, particularly oil fields, to remain on top of the world’s economic order.  They also mentioned that a “PearlHarbour” type attack could give them the justifications for doing so.  This raises eyebrows, yes, and we must always ask questions and seek the truth, but the actual 9/11 conspiracy theories that are posited by Loose Change and others simply do not hold any water when held to any serious scrutiny.

 

            First off, there’s the main theory, the controlled explosion theory that is espoused in Loose Change.  This theory posits that those huge airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center did not cause the buildings to collapse, but that the buildings were rigged with explosives beforehand, which is why, if you watch closely, you can see the windows being blown out by debris before the actual bulk of the building reaches that floor as it crashes down.  I’ve seen the footage enough times.  So this theory supposes that people managed to place high tech explosives on each floor and set them one by one to explode.  First off, what people?  How many people would be involved in this?  Are these conspiracy theorists claiming that a team of people (likely a small amount) managed to rig the buildings with explosives without anyone noticing?  A common explanation for why the towers were rigged with explosives rather than fell downward due to the plane exploding is the claim that steel (which the beams of the WTC were made of) does not melt at the temperature which airplane fuel burns.  Some believers in the conspiracy theories will cite “basic physics” on this.  I ask then, why, if it’s such clear, apparent “basic physics” why haven’t physicists (that is, people who do physics for a living) come out en masse claiming fraud?  It’s not because the United States government is going to kill them all, as no conspiracy theorists on 9/11 have turned up dead mysteriously as far as I know.  Why hasn’t this massive group of physicists come out then?  The reason why is because it is not “basic physics” that can convince someone that 9/11 was an inside job.  It’s an altogether straw man argument.  No one save the 9/11 conspiracy theorists ever talk about the melting of steel.  Steel may not melt at the specific temperature that jet fuel burns, but steel beams get damaged due to fire and explosions, that is, they weaken and bend.  That is what happened, the beams were weakened and the weight of the top of the building brought it down floor by floor.  The debris flinging out from the windows?  Well, when the ceiling comes crashing down on a floor that tends to happen.

 

            Another common posit: Why were their cameras conveniently on theWorldTradeCenter when the first plane hit?  Again, another absurd question.  It was a clear day inNew York City, one of the tourist capitals of the world.  The World Trade Centers were two of the tallest buildings in the world at the time.  Why exactly would cameras not be on them? 

 

            And finally, I recall the most disturbing claim made by 9/11 conspiracy theorists: the Jews who worked in the WTC towers were all called up and told not to go into the towers.  Is there some registry somewhere that lists anyone who is Jewish?  What the hell are 9/11 conspiracy theorists thinking when they say this?  I remember one time I was at an anti-SPP rally (that is, the Security and Prosperity Partnership, a bill that was further integrating the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican economies) when it was more or less hijacked by anti-New World Order/9/11 conspiracy theorists with large segments from the Canadian Action Party and the Libertarian Party of Canada.  I got a little dismayed and went to Tim Horton’s to grab a coffee.  As I was heading back to the crowd a middle-aged woman who I had seen earlier, who came across as really friendly from our earlier encounters, came up to me and asked: “Do you think the Jews caused 9/11?”  It was clear that she was really hurt and I inquired and found out that someone had spoken at the mic and made that claim.  This was the end of my personal flirtations with the 9/11 conspiracies.  Thankfully people who say inflammatory things like this have no actual power and are seen to be nothing more than loud, crazed speakers on street corners.

 

            There are plenty of other claims made by conspiracy theorists, but I won’t get into them all here as they are worth less time than I have already given to the subject.  It belongs in the same category as the allegations of hoax in regards to the Moon Landing and revisionist Holocaust Denial.

 

            I cannot state how many times I’ve been disappointed with people once they tell me they believe this kind of nonsense.  As I stated above, the world has many great political, economical, and social showdowns ahead, and sometimes when I get talking to people I find out they are on a similar, let’s say, revolutionary vein of thinking as I am.  Just when I think I may have a potential ally to start networking with they spill the beans on some “9/11 was an inside job” or “New World Order” or “Freemasons run everything” nonsense.  Then I usually back away.  I find these beliefs to not only be false, but counter-productive from an activist perspective.  We face many challenges in the future that we hope to overcome, but we cannot do this by clinging to such pseudo-nonsense such as Loose Change.  One thing I find most disturbing is how theorists cling to it like a religion, and much like organized religion these theories do act like opiates for the masses.  It creates the image an all-powerful world order that is completely futile to raise a fist against, keeping those who think they are educated in basements and street corners talking about these grand global plans that they think they know about rather than working collectively to overcome tangible and proven issues.  I appeal to anyone lost in this state to seek more useful trains of thought and action, rather than continuing to blindly chase after such phantom concepts.

 

 

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.

Stephen Hawking
English cosmologist and physicist (1942 – )