July 10, 2008

Last thoughts on Hari

Quico says: So I had a fun time picking apart that appalling piece by Johann Hari the other day, and readers seemed to appreciate it, too.

As I thought more about it, though, it struck me that I gave Hari a pass on the single most ludicrous bit in the whole thing: his off-hand mention of the "whiter-skinned, anti-Chávez province of Zulia".

It sent me straight up a wall, but not, as you may think, for the for the lunatic notion that Zulia is somehow a reduct of Venezuelan Aryan extremists. Actually, it's the fact that he called Zulia State a "province" that set me off.

It may seem like a minor thing to get worked up about, but think about it. Would a British journo ever slip up and write something about the Province of Texas? The County of Ontario? The Department of Queensland? The Prefecture of Scotland? The Borough of Catalonia? Couldn't happen!

It's a SNAFU that telegraphs more than just a lazy unfamiliarity with the subject Hari's pretending to enlighten his audience on. What it shows, really, is a form of contempt for his subject. A taken-for-granted assumption that, c'mon, everybody knows you don't really have to bother yourself trying to understand the folkloric inanities of these third world people. Nobody really cares if you get these details right: they're just South Americans.

Scrupulous attention to detail is something you reserve for, y'know, people like you and me. People who live in proper Western Countries rather than some tropical ghetto to be either pitied for its dire poverty or fetishized for its way cool, vaguely retro revolutionariness.

The laziness, in other words, rests on a soft, feathery bed of unrecognized left-wing cultural imperialism. An attitude that dispenses with any sense that third world people's histories, societies and political cultures matter, that you may need to pay sustained attention to such things before you're able to write intelligently about our countries.

It's a longstanding gripe. When you get down to the nitty-gritty, what actually happens in Venezuela doesn't much matter to people like Hari. In this type of writing, countries like ours only masquerade as the subject. They act as screens needed to project a story onto.

Again and again, our countries are reduced to the status of narrative ploy: the alternatively brutalized and heroically resisting Other needed to frame the story about the only actor these people are actually interested in. Our role in the psychodrama that unfurls daily on The Independent's op-ed page is, in the end, only half-a-step above that of movie extras, mere foils for the real villain-star of the show: Uncle Sam.

Nobody expects you to know much about the lives, loves, histories and aspirations of the people inside the buildings Godzilla's smashing. They're incidental; filler needed to move along the narrative arch of the movie. When it comes down to it, you could shoot the film using an entirely different set of extras and you wouldn't even have to redo the script.

So it doesn't matter if it's Zulia State or Zulia Province or Zulia County or Zulia Refugee Camp. It's an afterthought. The single-minded obsession with US perfidy allows PSF hackdom to exempt itself from the dreary, time-consuming task of educating itself about the particulars of the places they write about.

The point is simple: George Bush is bad and American empire is awful. Once you've grasped that, why would you bother with esoterica about some godforsaken backwater where you couldn't get proper sushi if your life depended on it?