This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 20 2017.
Last week, I wrote about the farrago of error that was Thomas Meaney’s article on Sri Lanka in the London Review of Books.
Dayan Jayatilleka described Meaney’s article thus: “The usual, wry well-written Orientalism, just like all the LRB pieces on SL through the years.” This prompted me to look at Edward Said’s seminal book, Orientalism.
Wilson, Keppel and Betty
Said published his book in 1978 and died in 2003, so he was not able to include in his bibliography a book published in 2016 by Alan Stafford. The book did not win the international acclaim of Said’s work but it did win The Bookseller’s annual Diagram prize for the year’s oddest title. Too Naked for the Nazis is a biography of Wilson, Keppel and Betty. Second place went to Dr Jonathan Allan’s Reading from Behind: A Cultural History of the Anus. Apparently, Hermann Göring was outraged by the sensuality of Betty Knox’s dancing. She went on to become a war correspondent and was the first to report Göring’s suicide.
I am old enough to have seen Wilson, Keppel and Betty perform live on more than one occasion. They represented Orientalism at its finest. The “sand dance” that formed the highlight of their act was a parody of postures from Egyptian tomb paintings, combined with references to Arabic costume. The act was usually performed to the Egyptian Ballet (1875), by Alexandre Luigini. I recall them dancing to In a Persian Garden.
What is Orientalism?
Edward Said redefined Orientalism to describe a pervasive Western tradition of prejudiced outsider-interpretations of the Eastern world, which was shaped by the cultural attitudes of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is a form of cultural imperialism. Oriental culture is an Other that can be studied, depicted, and reproduced. This implies that Western society is developed, rational, flexible, and thereby superior, whilst Oriental societies are inferior for being undeveloped, irrational, and inflexible. Said develops Antonio Gramsci’s of cultural hegemony, and Michel Foucault’s theorisation of discourse (the knowledge-and-power relation).
Said wrote, “The Orient is a stage on which the whole East is confined” in order to make the Eastern world “less fearsome to the West” so that Western nations and their empires could exploit underdeveloped countries, by the extraction of wealth and labour from one country to another country.
Orientalism and Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has been cursed with many “prejudiced outsider-interpretations”. Starting in 2009, I used to write a monthly column on Sri Lanka for Diplo, the blog of the prestigious monthly Le Monde diplomatique. The articles were appreciated by Wendy Kristianasen, the editor of the English-language edition, and for a while she pressed me to send more copy. Most comments on these pieces were along the lines of “professional” and “unbiased”, and one reader in Canada compared me to a famous Canadian journalist. Not everyone was happy. One reader called me a government lackey and another called me a regurgitator of terrorist propaganda. I received an e-mail addressing me as “you crazed Irish monkey, you IRA fugitive. You should be in a zoo or an asylum”.
Diplo turned nasty when Wendy asked for my opinion on a piece about Sri Lanka by a Frenchman called Cédric Gouverneur. “It will be rather a statement of the obvious for you, but it is a good way to get the wider world interested in the country and its complex politics.” My response was that it was unhelpful to get the wider world interested if the wider world gets interested in a distorted picture. Her response was : “I think, for what it’s worth, that the West knows very little about Sri Lanka, particularly outside of the UK. …Most ordinary people simply know that there was a long, difficult conflict. That’s all. Whereas what goes on in Iraq, Afghanistan, and particularly Israel, is widely reported on, in every detail, and closely followed. Every ordinary person has an opinion on those subjects, and may even feel him/herself to be an armchair expert.”
Cédric Gouverneur wrote about Sri Lanka back in 2004: “Many observers would wager that the LTTE will evolve mid-term, influenced by the Tamil diaspora (accustomed to Western democracy after 20 years of exile) and their own pragmatic leaders, who are increasingly political and less warlike.” So much for that armchair expert! That ludicrous prophesy did not stop Le Monde diplomatique giving him another shot at analysing Sri Lanka in 2010.
As well as many highly debatable judgements gleaned after interviews with LTTE supporters the article was riddled with factual inaccuracies. There many serious howlers in the historical timeline headed “Thirty years of civil war”. I will not bore you with all of them. The thirty years begins with 1815 (surely something wrong with the arithmetic!). “The British finish colonising the island, previously divided into three kingdoms – two Sinhalese, one Tamil”. The most egregious error is “December 2009. Rival candidates President Rajapaksa and the former chief of staff, Sarath Fonseka, dispute the election results”. How could they dispute the results in December 2009 of an election which did not take place until January 2010?
Ms Kristianasen was not pleased when I drew her attention to these flaws. She said “I must ask you to commit yourself to responsible journalism”. This schoolmarmish rapping of knuckles was particularly galling because she was not paying me and was passing my articles on to others who were not paying me. One article appeared in the New York Times who did not pay me, ask my permission or even notify me that they were going to publish. Monsieur Gouverneur sent me an angry and abusive e-mail after Wendy forwarded to him my e-mail to her without my permission.
Way Down Yonder
Way back in 2010, Joshua M Schoop, after spending a full three months in Sri Lanka , decided to tell us -in an article in the magazine Groundview (published by CHA – Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies)- where we were going wrong. “The destitution and ineptitude in Mannar Town and the surrounding area is visible to anyone”. “Natives are suffering immensely from the impacts of the war”. Does anyone use the word “natives” anymore? “In progressive nations, this is where a government would come in to assist.” Josh conceded the government has built new roads which helped the local economy but the roads were“helpful for military operations”. Was the army not doing useful work de-mining and rebuilding? What have the Romans ever done for us?
Josh was studying for a Masters in International Development at Tulane. It was very Orientalist for someone from Louisiana to be superior about Sri Lanka. Following the American civil war, Louisiana, was under martial law. Before the civil war, Louisiana’s wealth depended on slavery. White Democrats blocked black voter-registration and institutionalised racial discrimination. 47% of Louisiana’s population in 1900 was African-American – 652,013 black citizens. By 1910, there were only 730 black voters. White Democrats had established one-party rule which they maintained long into the 20th century. Today, Louisiana has poverty, crime and health indicators, particularly for blacks, equivalent to third- world nations. The average life-span of an African-American in New Orleans is nearly as low as in North Korea. Louisiana’s poverty rate is 19.2%; more than 26% of the state’s children live in poverty. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Use of food stamps jumped 13 % in 2008 to nearly 9.8 million U.S. households, led by Louisiana. Louisiana’s murder rate has been the highest in the US for 21 consecutive years. Louisiana’s incarceration rate has been the highest of any state for the last 20 years; it retains the death penalty.
Cédric Gouverneur thought I was annoyed because he was in the print edition of Le Monde diplomatique and I wasn’t. Damn right! The chaps at LRB probably think that I am suffering from sour grapes because I have submitted articles to them that they have thought were not up to their impeccable standards. Too true! They have rejected my articles but are quite happy to publish articles that are crawling with errors. I forgive them. I will continue reading and enjoying and being stimulated by LRB. I just hope that the next time they deign to look at Sri Lanka they will ask me -or Jonathan Spencer.