Sunday, April 06, 2003

Kurtz and the Problem with Language, Liberalism, and Empire

It's been empire-madness in the blogosphere lately. Check out the April 4th entry over at Political Theory Daily Review; no less than 28 separate links. I can't possibly read and critique all or even half of them, though a couple of the articles they link I have commented on before (particularly Niall Ferguson's exploration of what the British empire can teach the United States, and Michael Ignatieff's careful consideration of what an American empire may and may not be able to do). In general, I still stand by my earlier argument that, while I can't deny the attractions or even the necessity of the United States learning from and perhaps even taking on some elements of the "imperial tradition" (especially given how much of that tradition arguably lives on in the "Anglosphere"), I believe what is necessary now is the ability to articulate an anti-imperialist position--which is not the same as a globalist, institution-based position. Rather, it must be an internationalist position grounded, paradoxically, in national bodies. As I wrote before, "in order for what I believe we Westerners value (or at least ought to value) about communities and nations to be realized, we must intervene [if we intervene] in such a way that the values of the liberated communities and nations are not prevented from developing differently from our own." Thus, as strong as the temptation may be, I simply can't support any serious flirtation with empire, at least not as traditionally conceived.

This doesn't mean, of course, that those who are engaged in such flirtations aren't worth reading and learning from. Obviously I think Ferguson's discussion of Britian's Victorian-age "liberal empire" falls into that category. Another one, also linked above and recently discussed by Matthew Yglesias and Joshua Micah Marshall, is this piece by Stanley Kurtz on "democratic imperialism." Marshall is more interested in the partisan political implications of the way the imperial argument has (or hasn't, at least not publicly) been made by various neocon elites who have Bush's ear. But the ideas in Kurtz's piece deserve engagement on their own terms, and I'm sure they'll receive plenty. I'm no expert, but in line with what I've written lately on liberal and illiberal forms of democracy, let me add one point here, dealing with something which Kurtz doesn't seem to appreciate and which I at least know something about: the centrality of language to the realization of a particular democratic order.

Kurtz presents the British rule of India as the best pragmatic model for an American occupation of Iraq that wishes to aim (as liberal nationalists like myself insist it must) for the creation of a liberal, self-governing state. He sets up his history of the British rule around two poles: the "Orientalists," who respected the indigenous Indian culture sufficiently that they doubted it could ever change, and the "Reformists," who were appalled by Indian culture and insisted on "enlightening" the people. Kurtz suggests that the key victory of the Reformists (whose side he doesn't necessarily always take) over the long history of British rule was the institution of an English language-based elite education system. He writes:

"It was the liberals’ education policy that successfully laid the groundwork for India’s modern and democratic future. The Orientalists wanted to subsidize the advanced study of indigenous languages. The liberals, on the other hand, were determined to create a class of English-speaking Indians....Their hope was to mold a class of Indians that was modern and liberal in outlook, a class that could eventually govern India on its own. That is exactly what happened. Liberal administrative victories over the Orientalists in the 1830s set up a system of English education that eventually produced a small but influential bureaucratic class of Anglicized Indians. Although a more conservative administrative policy of indirect rule through indigenous elites eventually returned...a small but productive system of English-language education remained sacrosanct throughout British rule. By the 1880s the growing class of English-educated Indians, frozen out of higher administrative positions, was agitating for a larger role in government. At that point, administrative liberals returned to power long enough to devolve a limited share of control to local representative assemblies on which Indians could sit. These English-educated Indians, who populated the bureaucracy, the courts, and the local democratic assemblies, formed the core of India’s movement for independence."

Kurtz acknowledges that this selective, language-based transformation of the Indian elite took a very long time to accomplish, and even if the process could be expedited in Iraq (which he thinks it could be), the "slow process of English-medium education in modern and liberal ideas" in Iraq would leave plenty of time for nationalist reactions to arise. Kurtz responds by wondering about the possibility of "devis[ing] a way of exercising influence in postwar Iraq that is something less than classic direct imperial rule, yet something more than the 'Orientalist' policy of indirect rule through traditional elites.' That is something worth thinking about--but so is this. The "traditional elites" he speaks of dismissively would, of course, speak and rule through the languages of the Iraqi people, not through English. For Kurtz then, it seems, the key feature of any compromise which would limit the American presence and hence any nationalist backlash, but still pull off something like what he sees the British as having accomplished in India, would be the degree to which we could still successfully implement a selective program of Anglicization (if you use that term to describe the linguistic culture of American soldiers and social workers). I don't like any argument which rests so heavily on the imposition (whether direct or indirect, though you can never prevent the latter entirely) of linguistic frameworks, however, as I tend to see those frameworks as essential to the articulation of any genuine (and thus, in the long run, legitimating) national community. Daniel A. Bell, whose books I mentioned in a recent post, e-mailed me to comment that he feared the present war was actually going to make the kind of democratization which liberal communitarians like he and I prefer actually less likely, because the cultural force of the American presence will warp the development of the Iraqi community's understandings of key liberal principles. As I've made clear, I'm more sympathetic to the possibility that this war may provide the necessary ground-clearing for such understandings to truly take root, though I'm certainly aware of the complicating (and rival) interferences present in any such project. Still, I think I would have to draw the line at something which saw membership in the Anglosphere as the only defensible, or even just the best, route to democratic self-government; my anti-imperialist position, therefore, would be one that respected the power of English enough to not want to use it as a blunt instrument. Obviously, one could make this argument without employing my preferred Herderian language about expression and authenticity; one could go Habermasian and talk about the integrity of indigenous languages as central to the development of a non-stratified, structurally democratic public sphere. And that argument would work--except that, from a philosophical point of view (which is what mine is, after all), that leaves you with no constitutive claim against those who argue for the complete linguistic domination of Iraq. After all, as long as they all--or at least all their elites--speak the same language, it doesn't matter which one it is, right? Wrong, and not just for practical reasons. There is identity to consider. Hence, if there is to be "democratic imperialism," then I would argue that it must be, as I've written before, humble: which in this case means attentive the sort of "local knowledge" which Bell as defended and which cannot, in any case, be extricated from a traditional and indigenous (though admittedly porous and always evolving) linguistic framework.

One additional point. I suppose one might defend Kurtz's argument here by saying that it wasn't just the British institutional presence which laid the groundwork for the democratization of India, but the British cultural presence as well--that it was, in fact, strictly out of a thoroughly Anglicized environment that the fullest authentic articulation of a democratic India was realized. What such a counter-claim rests upon, of course, is the career and example of Mahatma Gandhi, who came back to India, intellectually, culturally and spiritually (or so the argument goes) via London. I'm not persuaded by this challenge, as I think there is a tendency to misunderstand and minimize just how profoundly anti-Western (in the religious sense) Gandhi's "illiberal" vision of democratic India really was. (Gandhi's wonderful line about how he thought Western civilization would be a "good idea" is widely read as nice liberal reproach for the West's failure to live up to its ideals: check this paper out, however, to understand Gandhi's actual view of the whole spiritually vexing question of "civilization.") But more generally, the problem with using the Anglo-American tradition's appropriation of Gandhi as a defense of seeing language as something negotiable rather than fundamental in dealing with interventions across nations is simply that, well, Gandhi was a genius: no, he was a Dichter, with all the authoritative cultural, linguistic and moral implications that German label gives rise to. Maybe we could count on a true Iraqi prophet-poet eventually arising out of some future, selectively Anglicized, liberal Iraqi environment, to lead the way to genuine Iraqi democracy...but I wouldn't allow myself to justify a thorough linguistic-cultural occupation on that basis.