The following is an extract from my chapter, “Imperial Abduction Lore and Humanitarian Seduction,” which serves as the introduction to Good Intentions: Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism (Montreal: Alert Press, 2014), pp. 1-34:
In Canada, there have been official government apologies for the abuses committed during the residential schooling era (which lasted until 1996), plus monetary compensation, and a truth and reconciliation commission that was constituted and recently finished its work. Nonetheless the fundamental ethos of residential schooling has not only been preserved, it has been amplified into a template containing the basic operating instructions for how to approach peoples around the world who are understood to be inferior. Such inferiority can be understood, for example, in the way that other people’s governments, no matter how indisputably democratic or legitimate they may be, are consistently treated as if they were disposable.
Residential schooling in Canada and its counterpart systems in Australia and the US, all intended to “save” Native children, to “educate” and thus “improve” them, is reflective of a classic settler state ideology of the late 1800s, which emphasized evolutionary progress through assimilation. It is not an unfamiliar ideology either, for those familiar with the thinking behind “modernization” theory and the basic thrust of international developmentalism. What is interesting to note is that it is only out of these same settler states that ideas of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) emerged and were propagated at the UN in recent years. The main actors who articulated and advocated for R2P have been primarily Canadian and Australian.
The globalization of residential schooling means that certain basic working principles now constitute a template that is applied to a broader set of international relations, as well as revamped forms of counterinsurgency in foreign military occupations. This template consists of the following elements:
- the binary between racially and/or culturally differentiated tutors and wards;
- a process of abduction, understood broadly, and exemplified by such phenomena as the international traffic in non-western babies in the adoption industry, to the re-implementation of the trusteeship system, to the neoliberal destruction of state-regulated economies and the military occupation of other nations—thus the seizure of individuals and nation-states, rendering them more or less captive to agendas imposed by western powers; and,
- what is still essentially a civilizing mission cloaked as “humanitarianism,” the defence of “human rights,” or “democracy promotion”—that is, ideological narratives and their corresponding practices whose aim is sill that of “saving the natives from themselves” and to prepare them for life in the white man’s world (the “international community,” or “the community of civilized nations”), so that they may lead productive lives as law-abiding, well mannered servants of the global capitalist economy.
What “abduction” can also mean is that in order for “us” (the interventionists) to presume to “care” for little known and even less understood strangers, these “others” must be seen as living in a state of some sort of neglect and unfulfilled need. That other thus becomes like an object that is first “seized” so that it can be set free. That other is an object set low within a hierarchy, one that resembles old cultural evolutionist schemes where Europeans were always at the top, and Africans locked far down below in a Paleolithic time zone awaiting redemption. Western “humanitarianism” thus works within an imperialist ideological framework: that object—for example an Africa once again imagined as a zone of ultimately helpless destitution—needs our “protection” (we are the prime actors, they are the terrain upon which we act). This requires that we do at least two things that one would expect of imperialists. First, we need to construct images of “Africa” as a dark place of gaunt, hungry, pleading quasi-humans, where we effectively open the door to ourselves, and usher ourselves in as their self-appointed saviours. This is not the same thing as abduction in the form of kidnapping (not yet anyway): it is more of a virtual abduction, an imaginary capture that places “Africa” on a lower scale of welfare and self-fulfillment, and implies our “duty” to rescue them by “raising” them “up” to where we are. Second, we can work to ensure that the material conditions of need are effectively reproduced: we can do that with “aid,” with “investment” (an odd word, because in practice it means taking away), with “trade” (where the preconditions are that Africans privatize themselves3), and with direct military intervention to bomb back down to size any upstart that threatens to guard his dignity (Libya). These too constitute capture. And then there is actual capture: seizing children, indicting “war criminals,” or inviting students to come on over and “learn” like we do so that they can become “educated”—or stay there, and let our students teach you.
Two of the most widely read proponents of this application of a neocolonial form of residential schooling, more properly known in international law as “trusteeship” and “conservatorship,” were Gerald B. Helman and Steven R. Ratner, both of whom served in the US State Department in different capacities at different points in their career. In what is in many ways an intellectual continuation of Kaplan’s “Coming Anarchy,” “Saving Failed States” by Helman and Ratner not only posits the existence of such a phenomenon as a “failed” state, they assert that it was brought about by rapid decolonization since 1945 (Helman & Ratner, 1992–1993). They frame their argument in terms of risk and emergency, and demand: “something must be done” (Helman & Ratner, 1992–1993, p. 3). Fortunately for them, intervention does indeed constitute “something,” and it is precisely the kind of “something” for which they were looking.
Nations, they argue, need to be “saved” because self-determination has been a failure (they would let the leader assume it is largely due to internal inadequacies), especially in Africa which becomes the primary focus of their article. They object, almost mock, the “states that achieved independence after 1945,” who attach great and “almost exaggerated” importance to the concept of sovereignty (Helman & Ratner, 1992–1993, p. 9). What matters is “survivability” and this only comes from external benefactors, such as a suitably restructured UN which has increasingly become a leading agent of neoliberal transformation (see Cammack, 2006). If it seems like Helman and Ratner are articulating something like a global application of the basic template of residential schooling, as argued above, it is an observation that is commended by their own wording:
“The conceptual basis for the effort [UN-led nation-saving] should lie in the idea of conservatorship. In domestic systems when the polity confronts persons who are utterly incapable of functioning on their own, the law often provides some regime whereby the community itself manages the affairs of the victim. Forms of guardianship or trusteeship are a common response to broken families, serious mental or physical illness, or economic destitution. The hapless individual is placed under the responsibility of a trustee or guardian, who is charged to look out for the best interests of that person”. (Helman & Ratner, 1992–1993, p. 12)
“The very fact that scholars and commentators are seriously advocating this approach,” Ruth Gordon comments, “is an indication of how negatively we view certain communities” (1997, p. 907). As Gordon, a professor of international law, further explains, advocacy such as that of Helman and Ratner and other western “humanitarian interventionists” is necessarily based on conceptions of inferiority:
“The ‘civilized’ nations of Europe and the United States had the right to control their own destinies free of foreign intrusion. The less civilized Asian and Latin American States, however, were fair targets of intervention. While this view has partially dissipated in this century, ‘the power of intervention remains the power to stigmatize and political meaning is in large measure rooted in historical memory’”. (Gordon, 1997, p. 908 fn. 15)
The same binary applies to the military instruments themselves: a US President can declare a “red line” against the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, while still using white phosphorous, depleted uranium, and various cluster munitions in the US weapons stockpile. Poisoned gas becomes the weapon of the “uncivilized,” and the cruise missile the weapon of the “civilized”.
The basic operating premise is that “certain human beings, who were predominately black and brown peoples, were inferior to Europeans and simply incapable of governing themselves” and this is part of the same baggage of assumptions that, to varying degrees, “underlie current paradigms to utilize forms of conservatorship” (Gordon, 1997, p. 909). The abductive narrative here is framed in a manner that “makes this result seem logical and in the interest of both the peoples of the Third World and their kindhearted patrons in the West” (Gordon, 1997, p. 910).
Gordon goes even further, noting that the western tradition on which international law itself was founded, a tradition whose “underlying subcontext…was a belief in racial and cultural inferiority”—indeed, the “very roots of international law are mired in the heritage of colonialism” (Gordon, 1997, p. 911 fn. 30). Again, the basic structural logic of residential schooling comes back to the fore:
“Once it is determined that particular states have ‘failed,’ these states would be deemed victims and incapable of managing their own affairs in much the same way we view children as being incapable of managing their own affairs. The international community would then be designated to act on their behalf”. (Gordon, 1997, p. 924)
Thus when we in Canada “apologize” for an institution such as residential schooling, for what are we really apologizing? What have we learned about ourselves and our basic values and working assumptions? The answer to both questions unfortunately appears to be: little or nothing.
Cammack, P. (2006). UN Imperialism: Unleashing Entrepreneurship in the Developing World. In C. Mooers (Ed.), The New Imperialists: Ideologies of Empire (pp. 229–260). Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications.
Gordon, R. (1997). Saving Failed States: Sometimes a Neocolonialist Notion. American University International Law Review, 12(6), 904–974.
Helman, G. B., & Ratner, S. R. (1992–1993). Saving Failed States. Foreign Policy, 89, 3–20.
Edited by Maximilian C. Forte
Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 2014
Hard Cover ISBN 978-0-9868021-5-7
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