Our Deeply Twisted Understanding of the World
"Do people in India leave their dead in the street?" This was the question posed to my family by a coworker invited for dinner. (She wasn't invited back.)
After the pop star Madonna's first child was born, the new mom was noted for her new look-dyed black hair, bindi, sari-like wraps, mendhi. "Religious Hindus" were aghast, according to the Nov. 2, 1998 People magazine. (Never believe a media report about "religious Hindus" or "outraged Hindus"-anyone with a South Asian-sounding name who voices dissent is usually called one, Hindu or not.) But why was the Material One trying to mimic a traditional South Asian matriarch? "It's not a calculated idea to go guru-swami," explained her makeup man, helpfully. "It's how she feels right now." (Motherhood equals serenity equals South Asian matriarch, you see.)
OK, it is too easy to pick on Madonna and ignorant coworkers. But still, the profound and utter ignorance these examples illustrate is striking. These folks aren't just missing a few nuances about India and South Asian culture here. Not at all! And worse, their utter ignorance is hardly isolated to the under-educated of America. In fact, given the sorry state of our triumphalist media and education systems, I'd guess it extends its greasy paws onto virtually all Americans, to some extent or another, whether we're talking about Indonesia, or Iraq, or Kosovo, or Ghana. (And I consider myself included here.)
Next week, the World Trade Organization will meet in Seattle for another round of negotiations based on U.S. corporate domination of workers, lands, and resources around the world. What does it mean, I wonder, today especially, that most Americans know virtually nothing about how the people who sew their clothes and build their computer chips and refine their oil really live? Or rather, if they do know something about these workers, cultures, and economies, it is deeply twisted?
Could it be that Americans reliant on cheap international labor and goods for their standard of living need to be assuaged with the idea of miserably downtrodden and passive Third World workers and resources, ripe for the guilt-free picking by U.S. multinational companies? Could that be the reason why the mainstream news media so often serves up its context-less tales of perversity, woe, and inhumanity in the Third World? (Not to mention its portrayal of Third World cultures as ancient and exotic sources for fashion and other commodities?)
Personally, I'd argue that Americans' cultural ignorance is absolutely instrumental in upholding rapacious U.S. corporate behavior in the Third World. Maybe you don't agree. Maybe it isn't "instrumental," but "significant" or plays some other kind of role. I wouldn't know, because unfortunately, most radicals have left these questions to the academics: the cultural studies folks, who write obscure papers on things like "virtuosity" and "minstrelsy" and the delicious ironies and twists and turns of cultural commodification. Is that really good enough?
Not only does the left press fail to report or analyze misinformation and myths about Third World people and culture, some progressive sources even promote such myths themselves (albeit for reasons other than corporate control.)
Take the mainstream feminist movement, for example. According to bell hooks, white feminism is one of the only predominantly white social movements that has taken anti-racist critiques to heart and actually reformed itself in substantive ways. A cursory look at the mastheads of feminist versus progressive magazines gives a clue to the truth of that claim. Ms. Magazine, for example, one of the foremost institutions of liberal feminism--now owned by individual feminist women rather than a corporate parent--is clearly a multicultural, multiracial outfit. The October/November 1999 issue is home to many articles on women of color and Third World women, both as activists and as "objects" of patriarchal aggression.
Here we find articles on Thai families selling their girl children into prostitution, Ghanaian grandmothers threatening genital mutilation, and West African families donating their girls as priest slaves. Important, egregiously underreported stories, well researched and written for the most part. But let's remember the yawning chasm of American knowledge about Third World cultures. In that context, what does it mean to, for example, quote a female Thai senator, commenting that poor Thais "send [their] girl[s] to the brothel because [they] want a television, a house, or an air conditioner"? Or to tell the story of the Thai sex worker whose own father brought her to work as a house servant, and who, upon learning that his daughter had fled to a brothel, returned "not to bring her home, but to take a loan of 40,000 baht from the mamasan"? What does it mean to run more photographs of women of color and Third World women as "objects" of patriarchal violence than as activists or artists?
Perhaps most questionable is a short article on the population control propaganda about October 12, the day when the human population supposedly reached 6 billion. While evenhandedly noting that "what this means depends on your perspective," the article fails to refer readers to the ongoing feminist campaign against population control paradigms and especially "Y6B." Instead, readers are referred to the alarmist population control organization pilloried by international feminists, Zero Population Growth.
Could it be that the idea of Western feminism as an enlightened, liberating force against the darkness of Third World patriarchy and oppression has necessitated its own set of myths and misinformation about Southern people and cultures? Its own blindspots and mutations? And what sense of the world do we get when we hear these stories, and by nature patch them together with other snippets from the news media? What is the seamless perspective on Third World people and cultures that emerges?
Right now, people are dying from western capitalism; they're getting poisoned by industrial chemicals and flooded out of their homes by mega-dams. Women are being forced to service an international sex industry, work in sweatshops, and undergo painful mutilations. We don't to need to know a lot about how these people live because the question right now is survival itself. The lines have been drawn, and the sides are clear.
But alongside this fight must be the war over words and understanding. The left press has taken up the cause of deconstructing media myths and misinformation about poverty and criminality, since these are understood to be part and parcel of class warfare. So should it take up the cause of deconstructing and analyzing misinformation, biases, and ignorance about Third World cultures and people. It's too important to leave to the lofty intellectuals in their ivory towers.