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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.


 

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