A meeting at Penang in autumn 2010 of like-minded intellectuals and activists from the Global South committed to a radical decolonization of knowledge commenced with a screening of the late Howard Zinn’s documentary, We the People. A few years ago, the World Social Forum in Mumbai opened with a screening, before thousands of people, of the documentary, Manufacturing Consent, focused on the ideas and work of Noam Chomsky, the most well known American voice of dissent at home and abroad. In either case, most people would be justified in thinking that the choice was sound. Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States — a work attentive to the voices of the marginalized, critical of mainstream narratives, sensitive to histories of labor and the working class, and so on — has sold over a million copies in various editions; moreover, Zinn’s life, marked by an ethical impulse to do, in common parlance, what is right and stand by what is just, is one that many might seek to emulate. Chomsky, for his part, has been the most relentless and forthright critic of American foreign policy: if there is one liberal voice which to the world represents the ability of the United States to tolerate its own critics, it is surely the voice of Chomsky. Critical as Chomsky is of the United States, one suspects that he can also be trumpeted by his adversaries as the supreme instance of America’s adherence to notions of free speech. Chomsky is simultaneously one of America’s principal intellectual liabilities and assets.
I am animated, however, by a different set of considerations in this discussion of Zinn and Chomsky. Why, we should ask, did the organizers settle for Zinn and Chomsky, both American scholars – and that, too, at meetings, especially the Multiversity conference in Penang, committed at least partly to the idea of intellectual autonomy, self-reliance, greater equity between the global North and the global South, and so on. An ethical case might reasonably be made for the gestures encountered at Penang and Mumbai. No less a person than Gandhi sought alliances, throughout his life, with the ‘other West’. Holding firmly to the principle that freedom is indivisible, and that it is not only India that needed to be free of colonial rule, but also England itself that had to be liberated from its own worst tendencies, Gandhi sought out those writers, intellectuals, and activists in the West who had themselves been reduced to the margins. His tract of 1909, Hind Swaraj, which is intensely critical of the modern West, lists ‘eminent authorities’ whose works Gandhi consulted, and the bulk of them are figures such as Tolstoy, Thoreau, Edward Carpenter, and Ruskin. Those who rightly recall this critical aspect of Gandhi’s life conveniently forget that Gandhi, on more than one occasion, also described the West as “Satanic”. If he accepted English, America, and European friends as allies in the struggle for Indian independence, he also never wavered from his firm belief that ultimately Indians had to fight their own battles. Thus, following him, some difficult questions that come to mind should not be brushed aside. Is the Global South so colonized that it must borrow even its models of dissent from the West? If the theorists of global import, from Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Adorno, Heidegger and Althusser to Lacan, Habermas, Levinas, Judith Butler, and Agamben all hail from the West, are the ultimate dissenters also from the West?
What begins in people’s minds can only end in people’s minds. All over the colonized world in the nineteenth century, Locke, John Stuart Mill, and Tocqueville were held up as the torchbearers of freedom. Almost no one recognized Tocqueville, even today a sacrosanct figure in the United States, as the holder of the most virulently racist ideas about Arabs and Muslims. Mill’s ideas about representative government extended only to people he conceived of as free, mature, and possessed of rational faculties. The habits of simulation in the global South are so deeply engrained that Americans become the ultimate and only genuine dissenters. The rebellions of the dispossessed, oppressed, and marginalized are generally dismissed as luxuries possible only in permissive democracies, as the last rants of people opposed to development and progress. However, the problem of dissent is far from being confined to the global South: it is, if anything, more acute in the United States, where the dissenters have all been neatly accommodated, whether in women’s studies, ethnic studies, or gay studies departments at universities, or in officially-sanctioned programs of multiculturalism, or in pious-sounding policies affirming the values of diversity and cultural pluralism. The dictators of tomorrow will also, we can be certain, have had “diversity training”. Is there any dissent beyond what now passes for dissent? How will we recognize the dissent of those who do not speak in one of the prescribed languages of dissent? The United Nations has officially recognized languages, but the world at large has something much more insidious, namely officially recognized and prescribed modes of dissent. Those who do not dissent in the languages of dissent will never even receive the dignity of recognition, not even as much as a mass memorial to ‘the unknown soldier’.
See also the previous posts in this series: