Every Accusation A Confession

The West has become a vast moral project, an intimidating claim to write and speak for the world, and an unending politicization of power…For conscripts of Western civilization, this transformations implies that some desires have been forcibly eliminated…and others put in their place.

– Talal Asad

The world outside the West is filled with strange and inexplicable social, cultural, political, and economic realities. Things that are shocking and disturbing, unlike the civilized West. Or, at least, it seems that way if one were to rely purely on understanding the world through the lens of US journalism. Once journalists travel across the line, away from the confronts of their metropolitan high-rise offices, they manufacture the Other as “different” and unlike “us.”

On March 29, 2021, the China Bureau Chief of the New York Times made the following declaration:

China hopes to position itself as the main challenger to an international order led by the United States that is generally guided by principles of democracy, respect for human rights, and adherence to the rule of law [Steven Lee Myers, “An Alliance of Autocracies? China Wants to Lead a New World Order,” New York Times, March 29, 2021].

It was a brazenly hypocritical statement to make.

It was a lie.

But it was typical of the self-representation of an imperial nation that has left vast tracts of this earth in death and devastation. If any nation has repeatedly and with incredible arrogance dismissed fundamental principles of democracy, international human rights conventions, and the rule of law, it is the USA. But most likely, those who read this statement felt warmed to the heart.

It confirmed in their conviction that, despite having attacked seven nations, constructed an international torture regime, engaged in covert drone assassinations, and subjected sovereign nations to crippling sanctions that placed the weak and vulnerable at even greater risk, the US was the flag-bearer of liberal values and decency in the world. In one short sentence, Steven Lee Myers manufactured a fantasy USA from a military aggressor, rogue imperial state into a benign protector of all that we hold dear.

He helped the readers forget that we are a nation that pursues pre-emptive war, oversees military occupations, torture, indefinite detention, drone assassinations, renditions, covert military operations, coups, economic strangulation of civilian populations, and great support of brutal dictatorships into something benign.

He re-writes the reality of the US to suggest that it is China that is the danger, one that threatens the peaceful and innocent presence of the US. In Lee Meyers’s distorted vision, the US champions human rights, international law, and peace. However, by creating the mythical USA, he is making an imaginary China, which is the antithesis of the US and, hence, a danger to it.

By starting from a false construct, he can then create the Chinese demon as one that is against and in opposition to human rights, international law, and peace. He is peddling a “fantastical” West and the specter of the dangerous, threatening, and aggressive Other. [Joseph Massad, Islam in Liberalism, The University of Chicago Press, 2014:207].

He is selling difference.

Constructing the Other as different, unique, unusual, or “not us” has profound consequences for understanding our interconnectedness to the Other. Or to see the Other as human and relatable.

Edward Said reminds us that there “is no discipline, no structure of knowledge, no institution or epistemology that can or has ever stood free of the various socio-cultural, historical, and political formations that give epochs their peculiar individuality.” [Edward W. Said, “Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors,” Critical Inquiry 15, no. 2 (1989), 205–225]. This is true for journalism, as is the discipline’s determined refusal to acknowledge it.

US journalists are situated within US imperialist, capitalist, and Eurocentric frames and write from within them. Or, as Spivak reminds us, in representing the Other, we stand to make the mistake of seeing the Other as a complete “sovereign subject” and ourselves as neutral and transparent. Neither one of these two assumptions is true. [Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, (Eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Macmillan Education, 1988:271–313].

Yet, it is how journalists operate: assuming their neutrality and apolitical presence and seeing their subjects as complete and determined by the issue they have come to cover. A refugee is a refugee first and foremost, just as a battered woman is only just that. They“often examine moral elements, social structures, language, and cultural practices to ascertain fundamental, or innate, difference among peoples.” [Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Routledge, 1992:7].

It seems that more often than not, US journalism has as “one of its central preoccupations the taxonomic classification of cultural and racial difference.” [Junaid Rana, Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora, Duke University Press, 2011:28–29]. They measure this difference using a Eurocentric yardstick. Eurocentricity and a sense of Western supremacy play a critical role in constructing the “Other” and the not-so-subtle presumptions and suggestions about their need to be “saved” from themselves through Western humanitarian, cultural, moral, political, and military intervention.