Uncomfortable Realities, Disappointing Complexities And The Comforts Of Suburban Bourgeois Therapy

But geopolitical reality was much messier than he’d assumed. It ignited a bleak cynicism in his worldview…In addition to learning about the difficult prospects for weak, independent states, he also discovered how such countries are populated: It often included ethnic cleansing and forced deportations…While Mr. Mahon is glad to be getting his work recognized, which was his original motivation, his perspective on these issues has shifted significantly. In a world of increased globalization, and the potential marginalization of the idea of the nation-state, he came to believe that the war, poverty and isolation experienced in these countries was not worth the trouble.

Not worth the trouble. And with those four words Mr. Mahon, a photojournalist wearing the respectability of a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant, dismisses the political, economic, and social histories and struggles of the people that he apparently spent nearly 8 years trying to document and represent.

And one is left with the question, which perhaps may never have occurred to Mr. Mahon, if he bothered to ask the people who are in fact fighting for something – rightly or wrongly, if they believed it was worth the trouble, the sacrifices and the severe consequences? One is left to wonder with what arrogance, narcissism and disdain does a man travel to document the societies that clearly live under tremendous political, military and economic threat and fragility, and then proceed to simply erase all these broader realities and judge them lacking? Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 10.56.26

One is also left a bit shaken and dismayed by the absolute lack of self-reflection and historical awareness. Ethnic cleansing and forced deportations were the definitive act of European nationalism, and the method by which the modern European nation states first emerged. Perhaps a quick perusal of any major historical work on 20th century Europe (Judt, Hobsbawn, Ther to name a few) would remind us that fundamental drive to ‘solve’ the minority problem is inherently connected to the very idea of nation states and nationalism. And that these acts of ethnic violence and deportation are intrinsic to any conception – imaginary as it is, of a homogenous national political entity. One only has to look at the history of the United States of America, and its inability to resolve its ‘African-American’ and ‘Native American’ question to begin to see how ethnic cleansing and efforts at deportations, particularly of the Black Americans, were and are a core part of American nationalism.

So what did Mr. Mahon see in these other countries that he did not see in himself? And with what cynicism and self-abrogated arrogance would he so blithely dismiss their struggles and the challenges they face? What bizarre intellectual and moral cowardice would permit him to claim that because the world wasn’t a neat set of text-book chapters, or a script out of a Hollywood film complete with final scenes of a triumphal raising of a flag and a nation smiling in a rain of flowers, to a point where he:

…noticed his cynicism, and world-weary outlook, and plotted a different course for the future. He’s ready to stick close to home, and investigate his own backyard, for once.

It is quite a remarkable act of self-importance for a privileged young American man to travel out into some of the most fragile, struggling and difficult places in the world and yet to return and claim for himself his ‘world weariness’.

Indeed, how tiresome is the world, and how silly and irrational their political aspirations and goals. Oh, those silly and foolish people out there, what with their naive nationalism and their barbaric ethnic cleansing. Who can be bothered about that, for after all, I, a man with privilege and access, and not only simply return to my good life, but i can spit on them their mess of a life.

But this attitude – fueled by a lack of humility and a severe absence of intellectual, moral and human curiosity and engagement, is not unusual. Where once decolonization and a people’s struggle to liberate themselves from the yoke of imperial and repressive regimes that exploited and manipulated them, were respected and valued, today, numbed by our consumerist and spectacle based societies, we can only mock them for their naiveté and foolishness. We can no longer relate or understand the imperatives and motivations for collective action, and a communities belief in imagined ideas (however misguided, or poor thought through is irrelevant), unless it is about coming together to stand in line for the latest Apple product launch. And so Mr. Mahon, who despite years spent traveling amongst and working alongside the people of these blighted nations, is unable to find an imagination and a generosity that can explain to us, those who life far from the pains and sufferings of the people he worked with, what drives and motivates them. For indeed, the people of those lands do participate and do struggle for their ideals, however much we may disagree with their veracity or meaning. I am sure there were plenty of people who once mocked the colonists in America their temerity to stand up to the British authority. Not quite cricket old chap!

As I read Mr. Mahon’s words I was reminded of the bitterness, cynicism, bile and sheer disgust that fill the pages of the writer V.S. Naipaul whenever he writes about or speaks about the people and societies of the Third World. In a searing critique of Naipaul’s work, the writer Edward Said once wrote that V. S. Naipual (like our Mr. Mahon):

…becomes a peregrinating writer in the Third World, sending back dispatches to an implied audience of disenchanted Western liberals, not of presumably unteachable colonials. Why? Because he exorcises all the … devils – national liberation movements, revolutionary goals… and shows them to be fraudulent public relations gimmicks, half native impotence, half badly learned ‘Western’ ideas…To say that Naipual resembles a scavenger, then, is to say that he now prefers to rend the ruins of derelictions of post-colonial history without tenderness, without any of the sympathetic insight found in say, Nadine Gordimer’s books, rather than to render that history’s processes, occasional heroism, intermittent successes;…[that] the Third World’s real problem is in not being liberal or white…[that] Africa, Asia, and Latin America suffer from self-inflicted wounds, they are their own worst enemies, their contemporary history is the direct result of seeking, but not finding, a suburban bourgeois therapy for their difficulties.(emphasis added).
And so, with the cynicism and world-weariness complete, the Mr. Mahon returns to find his own suburban bourgeois therapy and retreats into what we are now told will be stories closer to home. It would seem that this is a far safer, easier and more convenient place to return rather than to face the lessons and insights about economic domination, political imperialism, and cross-border capitalism whose evidence Mr. Mahon sees everywhere, and yet prefers to simply dismiss as irrelevant and uninteresting. As the writer tells us, Mr. Mahon:
…learned that places that finally are recognized often are because they have resources to offer.
And yet this realization does not compel him to ask further questions, or to engage in the very social, economic, political and cultural forces that manufacture a nationalist movement. That is, he refuses to engage with the people’s history and sociopolitical diversity. In fact, after 8 years, Mr. Mahon dismisses it all entire by summarizing it as follows:
It all just comes down to nationalism, and chauvinism, and the uglier parts of humanity. That’s kind of sad, actually.
Poor Mr. Mahon. Like a child disappointed with a promised pleasures of a new toy, he discards it into the trash heap of other toys that failed to live up to his need for self-fulfillment.
And so once again we find here, featured prominently on the pages of only one of the most popular photography blogs in the world, a photographer unable to cope with the world he claims he wants to document. And perhaps it is more than just an inability to cope – it is also an inability to comprehend, and a lack of any epistemological tools to be able to do so. It is also a the lack of a faculty of a creative and humanist imagination that can see the world from outside one’s ego, and whether we agree or disagree with it, to place oneself in the experience and perspective of the other. What we are left with instead is a righteous, narcissistic resentment at the failure of ‘those people’ to be more like his imaginary idea of himself – white, middle-class, and civil.
The ugly fact of the matter is that Mr. Mahon cannot accept that nations outside of his own can have a modernity and a historical trajectory of their own. For him there are is only one history – an European / Western one, and all other nations are condemned to simply attempt to mimic it or be judged less for having failed to achieve it. His is a classic colonial attitude which dismisses the possibilities of many histories and many different paths into the future. As Amit Chaudhary wrote while reviewing Dipesh Chakrabarty’s brilliant work Provincialising Europe:
For modernity has already had its authentic incarnation in Europe: how then can it happen again, elsewhere? The non-West – the waiting-room – is therefore doomed either never to be quite modern, to be, in Naipaul’s phrase, ‘half-made’; or to possess only a semblance of modernity. This is a view of history and modernity that has…at once liberated, defined and shackled us in its discriminatory universalism; it is a view powerfully theological in its determinism, except that the angels, the blessed and the excluded are real people, real communities.
And so, we are left wanting, and in Mills’ ‘the waiting room of history’ until such time that we learned to behave differently – no ethnic cleansing but shopping, no barbarism but entrepreneurship, no misbehaving in impolite and rude ways but the polite and civil discourse of a Starbucks! Perhaps Mr. Mahon will then return to find a people worthy of liberation and their own right of making a nation.

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