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Haiti, Oxfam – In Defence of Mary Beard; Contre Priyamvada Gopal. 

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“Familiar posture of wounded white innocence” says Priyamvada Gopal.

I confess, I really like Mary Beard.

She wrote one of the best ever books on Roman history, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome  (2015).

Since the Renaissance at least, many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing.

From that you can guess she is not a reborn 18th century writer who uncritically admires the ‘glory that was Rome’, lauds the Republic, and ignores issues about the role of slavery, class conflicts, the position of women, and above all the violence that went with Empire in its history, up to the Caesars.

On the last issue the BBC last week showed Beard’s latest programme, Julius Caesar Revealed  which put his genocidal conquests at the heart of his rise to power, and underlined the narrow nature of the ‘republican’ claims to defend liberty against the ‘populist’ rise of Caesarism (a term used by a variety of political thinkers, including Gramsci, to refer to the role of a “great personality” in conditions where catastrophe looms).

Mary Beard has recently published this book, Women and Power.

As Rachel Cook outlines its theme,

Beard’s primary subject is female silence; she hopes to take a “long view on the culturally awkward relationship between the voice of women and the public sphere of speech-making, debate and comment”, the better to get beyond “the simple diagnosis of misogyny that we tend a bit lazily to fall back on”. Calling out misogyny isn’t, she understands, the same thing as explaining it, and it’s only by doing the latter that we’re likely ever to find an effective means of combating it. The question is: where should we look for answers? Beard acknowledges that misogyny has multiple sources; its roots are deep and wide. But in this book, she looks mostly (she is a classicist, after all) at Greek and Roman antiquity, a realm that even now, she believes, casts a shadow over our traditions of public speaking, whether we are considering the timbre of a person’s voice, or their authority to pronounce on any given subject.

She continues,

Personally, I might have found this argument a bit strained a month ago; 3,000 years lie between us and Homer’s Odyssey, which is where she begins, with Telemachus effectively telling his mother Penelope to “shut up”. But reading it in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it seems utterly, dreadfully convincing. Mute women; brutal men; shame as a mechanism for control; androgyny and avoidance as a strategy for survival. On every page, bells ring too loudly for comfort.

Mary Beard now has her own confrontation with efforts to shout her down.

After this,

The Cambridge Classics professor Mary Beard has been left “sitting here crying” after a provocative tweet concerning the Oxfam sexual exploitation scandal exposed her to a torrent of abuse on Twitter.

The Academic tweeted on Friday that “Of course one can’t condone the (alleged) behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti and elsewhere. But I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain “civilised” values in a disaster zone. And overall I still respect those who go in to help out, where most of us wd not tread”.

The tweet has sparked controversy over the last two days. One of hundreds to engage in the Twitter backlash was fellow Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal whose series of tweets against Beard included “this kind of thing is the *progressive* end of the institutional culture I have to survive day in day out” and “Cambridge desperately needs a Breaking the Silence on racism. About time and beyond”.

In a following tweet Gopal directly satirised Beard: “Obviously it’s not a great idea to randomly get your dick out, rape people etc. But it’s not easy to be politically correct while in shitholes. And overall I still respect people who head out to shitholes ‘cos I sure as hell wouldn’t dream of it’.”

Cambridge Student.

A Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal,   “an upper-caste woman from a liberal-ish Hindu family in India” as she puts it, has taken the time to Lecture Beard.

Gopal is keenly aware of her caste, but who’s had “a lot painful listening and learning from Dalit and other non-upper-caste intellectuals and campaigners”.

Associating Beard with the “genteel liberal racism that is the very lifeblood of Cambridge social intercourse” she talks, as they do over a cup of Earl Grey, of Theodor Adorno, and wishes to tell Beard about the Heart of Darkness, Black Agency,  Michel-Rolph Trouillot and the history of Haiti.

Not to mention “civilised values”.

Or to put it another way Gopal offers and over-intellectualises by a kilometre and ten by a “post-colonial”analysis of an emotional tweet.

Response to Mary Beard

I’m afraid that your good intentions notwithstanding, it is precisely this genteel patrician racist manner and this context of entrenched denial in which your tweet on Haiti, ‘civilised’ values (scare quotes noted but not enough, I’m afraid) and disaster zones was received. It was, as you now know, received with enormous shock. (Not by me though — I’m used to this kind of casual magisterial apologetic coming out of the mouths of my Cambridge colleagues; it’s the stuff of everyday college lunch table conversations and hence I’ve taken the simple step of not dining in colleges as far as is feasible ).

Your subsequent blog post, to not put too fine a point on it, did little to help your cause and is regarded by many as a ‘no-pology’, a stubborn refusal to see what was wrong with your original post and taking refuge instead in the familiar posture of wounded white innocence. This too is familiar to me at Cambridge: on the rare occasions I’ve bothered to raise questions of, let us say, ‘racially dodgy’ remarks that bring Cambridge or particular colleges into disrepute, I’ve been instantly shut down by what you would recognise, I am sure, as ‘snowflake’ behaviour: outrage, wounded innocence, protestations of good intentions, and finally the declaration that it’s not the racist pronouncements that are the problem but the person (me, in this instance) who calls them out. It is accompanied by another gesture which also manifests in your blogpost: a pronouncement that self-evidently the person who made the remark cannot possibly have made a racist observation because they do not consider themselves to be racist. Imagine if every misogynist you encountered made the same gesture — and they usually do: ‘I love women, OF COURSE I am not sexist, everyone knows I am not sexist.’ What would you say to him?

Your blogpost is not an adequate intellectual response to your, well, frankly outrageous tweet; it’s a series of postures of innocence and a continued refusal to analyse a problem in all its thorny difficulty. To those who felt violated and aggressed by the original tweet, your blogpost was a further slap in the face: a stubborn refusal to see what was so profoundly and deeply wrong with your claims in addition to bizarre, indeed cringe-making comparisons between the French resistance and aid workers. What is striking in both tweet and putatively exculpatory blogpost is your inability to see beyond Western agency: Western aid workers as resistance fighters, white aid workers as Mr Kurtz figures caving in the strain of ‘The horror, the horror.’

It is very generous for Gopal to speak for the Haitians, the French Resistance, and for all those who “feel violated” by a Tweet .

No less open-hearted and welcoming is her invitation to Beard to “come and meet my third years who next week will be discussing precisely Haiti and the Haitian revolution as they read Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s work on the elision of black agency in European historiography and European habits of thought. “

Yes, we Europeans have definite “habits of thought”…..

The row proceeds.

Some would say that another shouter-down made a pretty racist tweet.

The following is about the only sensible Tweet I have found.

********

More Background.

Launching an impassioned defence of her actions in the wake of the backlash, Beard tweeted “I am amazed that after decades of Lord of the Flies being a gcse English set book we haven’t got the point about the breakdown of morality in danger zones!! Just saying and this is NOT to condone the actions of a few aid workers”.

Beard then took to her Times Literary Supplement blog to further her defense, but admitted in a tweet that she was left “sitting here crying”. Her blog told of the torrent of abuse she had experienced: “the predictable name calling ‘pervert’, ‘sick cow’, ‘disgusting creature’ or gross misreadings… ‘how hard is it not to gangrape women in a disaster zone?’. ‘you’ve lost your house, your family are dead, fancy a shag? Do you take PayPal?’ (I didn’t really want to include that, but I felt that you needed to see the tasteless too.)”

She added: “I find it hard to imagine that anyone out there could possibly think that I am wanting to turn a blind eye to the abuse of women and children” and that ” while we deplore what has happened and expect better, it is worth thinking of the context in which it took place. 99% of us have no idea of the stresses of working in these environments (and yes, living in them is worse, as there is no escape route). Most aid workers deal with that, I suspect, by drink and cigarettes. But that kind of societal, infrastructural breakdown provides a space for much worse.

“That is not to condone the awful things that happened but to contextualise them. And that is what we need to do, if we want to stop this happening again.”

Cambridge Student.

Update (from Roger). Gopal’s previous ordure:

9/11 and the Mumbai attacks

In the title of her December 4, 2008 Guardian editorial on the Mumbai attacks, Priyamvada Gopal asserts that “Comparing Mumbai to 9/11 diminishes both tragedies.” But even this title is deceitful, since, as her readers soon discover, the piece is not concerned with the particularities of the two events. Nor does the danger of “diminishing” 9/11 give Gopal pause. On the contrary, diminishing and displacing 9/11 from our active preoccupations is her intent. Allowing the November attack on Mumbai to be deemed “India’s 9/11” would be, she argues, “to privilege the experience of the United States” and to be complicit with India’s “relentless Americanization.” 9/11 is either another brand name in McWorld or something even more sinister, an event so “fetishized” as to “sanction endless vengeance,” even as it obscures “the experience of millions [elsewhere] who have suffered as much” as those who died or were injured in the attack on the U.S. on that day. 9/11 “legitimized a false war,” “created legal abominations,” and “strengthened neoconservatism.”

While Gopal’s piece makes perfunctory mention of the suffering of the victims of 9/11, it says nothing of the actual contours of that event, much less the intentions behind it. The U.S. reaction concerns her more than the attack itself does. Rather than offering any analysis of the event about which she was writing, Gopal strains to change the subject. Presumably the killing spree that took place in Mumbai from November 26th to November 29th 2008 (and has now come to be referred to “11/26”), requires no analysis. But when we actually specify what 9/11 was, can the comparison with it really be so easily avoided?

The crucial point to be made about 9/11 — and the one that Gopal studiously avoids — makes the comparison with the Mumbai attacks inevitable: both were attacks inspired by Islamism on intensely cosmopolitan urban populations with the intention of inflicting the maximum number of casualties. Moreover, like New York, Mumbai is an old colonial port city with a rich if submerged history of radical democratic struggle. Like New York, Mumbai is the commercial and cultural, though not the political, capital of a pluralistic democracy. In short, like New York, Mumbai is one of world’s great nerve-centers of contemporary capitalism. Also, the attacks on Mumbai were not on the Hindu chauvinist politics of Bal Thackeray, just as the 9/11 attack was not on the neo-liberalism of Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg. In both cases, the targets were the profane pleasures of modern society. In both cases, the attacks were made, so to speak, in plain view, so that the fascistic menace was unmistakable (albeit in the absurdly comic form of expressionless young men who might, but for the assault rifles in their hands, be easily mistaken for ravers en route to Goa). Finally, as with 9/11, the regional strategic consequences bound to flow from the Mumbai attacks are profound.

In a certain respect, the semiotics of the attacks in Mumbai were even more ghastly than those of 9/11, since it witnessed the deliberate hunting of Jews qua Jews, especially at the Chabad House, where Jews were subjected to savage beatings before their execution, unlike even the Americans and Britons who were also singled out. For those who planned the attacks killing Jews was a priority and it was executed in the midst of a police siege by killers who had, in all likelihood, never so much as seen a Jewish person before. Though the murderous anti-Semitism on display in Mumbai ought by now to be an all-too-familiar aspect of Islamist ideology, Guardian correspondent Richard Silverstein, like Gopal on the editorial page, declines to acknowledge the obvious. Instead he insists that the attack on Chabad House was “not necessarily anti-Semitic,” claiming that the attackers were seeking “redress for crimes against Palestine” [“Why did the Attackers Choose to Attack Chabad House” Guardian 12/4/2008, cf. Alex Stein “Inspiration from India” Guardian 12/4/2008]. From this we may safely conclude that, for Silverstein, anytime a Muslim kills a Jew he need only utter the magic word “Palestine” to have his guilt absolved: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza means that it is open season on Jews all over the world. In the same vein, William Dalrymple, informs the wised-up readers of the Guardian that “the horrific events have to be seen in the context of. . . the abject failure of the Bush administration” and the “ill-treatment of the people of Kashmir” [“Mumbai Atrocities Highlight Need for a Solution in Kashmir” Guardian 11/30/08]. In Arundhati Roy’s column, too, we rely upon the terrorists to tell the truth and to remind “us” of the “things we don’t want to talk about any more” [“The Monster in the Mirror,” 12/13/08]. It is one thing for a journalist to report the content of authoritarian manifestoes or the statements terrorists make in the course of an attack; it is quite another matter to rationalize such statements in the manner of Silverstein, Dalrymple, and Roy.

Highlighting the political significance of the attack on Chabad House cannot be allowed to obscure the fact that there was also something quite discriminating about the seemingly more indiscriminate killing of commuters at the Victoria Terminus. It is not enough to say simply that, compared to the foreigners and the rich people at the Taj and Oberoi Hotels, the victims there were poorer, working people, though this is true. It is also worth pointing out that at the train station, the attackers fired directly into crowds. The Muslims among the dead there were not unintended victims. They were punished for living and working in peace in secular democratic India, i.e. of having failed to join the jihad. Of course, the Hindus regarded as pagans were positively marked for slaughter. As for the attacks on Mumbai’s elite hotels, likewise, the clear intent was to comingle on their marble floors the blood of dying unbelievers of all sorts — Zionist, Crusader, and Infidel. There again was the same unbridled murderousness that has been a significant feature of previous attacks, such as the 2006 commuter train in Mumbai and the serial bombings earlier in 2008 in Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, and Delhi, to name just a few. These rather elementary aspects of the politics behind the Mumbai attacks rarely merit mention in the analysis to be found in the Guardian. But while the “Left” cannot remain at this elementary level of analysis, neither can it afford to ignore the obvious.

While Gopal is right to claim that in many respects 9/11 is not unique as a point of comparison (there have been many other Islamist terrorist attacks besides 9/11), her aim seems not to locate the attacks in an alternative history of recent Islamist terrorism, as, for instance, in relation to the bombing in Pakistan in September of the Islamabad Marriott that killed 53 and injured more than 250. Rather, the Mumbai attacks are treated as have no determinate character whatsoever, Gopal preferring to speak only of a “massacre of defenceless innocents.” Presumably the same is true of the bomb detonated December 5th, 2008 in a market outside a Shi’a mosque in Peshawar in which 22 people were killed and more than 90 were wounded. While 9/11 posed for everyone worldwide the question of modern Islamism, Gopal’s editorial reveals once again how the Left continues to rely on its old reflex responses — supposed “anti-imperialism” — to defer any confrontation with the full scope of the barbarism in our time. In this way, the piece tends to obscure or deny what is salient for advancing (or even imagining) a politics genuinely capable of both countering fascism and reconstituting an emancipatory politics in South Asia.

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Written by Andrew Coates

February 18, 2018 at 1:41 pm