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The Problem with Speaking in the Name of Others

Recently a European based activist told me that he was happy because I do not have an American ‘accent.’ This comment was meant be a compliment because having an American ‘accent’, in this context, is a sign of being in North America ­ the geographical zone of the reigning global empire. Having an ‘African accident,’ on the other hand, can potentially shore up my ‘subaltern’ status as an ‘interloper,’ a former refugee from the Third World. This play of ‘accent’ shows the discursive political economy of ‘strategic marginality.’ I find this form of ‘identity politics’ playful and useful. On the other hand, as an academic teaching and doing research in a major Canadian university, I am expected to speak with ‘proper accident’. Here, proper accident, in the final analysis, means adopting as closely as possible, the vocabularies and the ‘accent’ of the Anglo-Canadian ruling class.

This takes me to my central point which is that one must avoid paternalistic assumptions about the capacity of the oppressed to articulate their own aspirations, political or otherwise. I am compelled to say this because, based on recent exchanges with certain European based activists, I’ve start sensing distinct ‘vibes’ that a new colonial amnesia is taking place in Europe that now the US is the reigning imperial power, Europeans can tacitly recuperate a sense of moral superiority over Americans and become ‘the real’ champions of the oppressed nonwhite masses of the world. This colonial amnesia and its concomitant sense of European ‘moral innocence’ is often accompanied by a revival of European ‘colonial nostalgia’ of ‘White Men’s Burden’ ( a.k.a. ‘Live Aid’ in support of the ‘dark/ diseased’ African continent) and such similar paternalistic gestures. Now, I want to be utterly clear that I am not accusing European activists of conscious acts of paternalism or malice. However, it is paramount that one must not assume having the moral authority to speak for or embody the aspiration of oppressed groups.

Now, while my current short piece is a conversation with Mary Rizzo, I want to make it clear that I wholeheartedly support her compelling argument against the virulent campaign designed to block Gilad Atzmon’s July 2, 2005 official address at the annual convention of the UK Socialist Workers Party (SWP). This form of censorship is chilling and we must be oppose it. The Part of Ms. Rizzo’s argument which I find rather troubling is her insistence that, because the Palestinians cannot speak for themselves others must speak for them. I am also troubled by her insistence on setting up of a moral litmus test on who can or cannot speak for the Palestinian people.

Palestinian society, with its massive and disorganized diaspora, is lost in dispersion, lacks the means to insist that the media gives equal time to its story, and has enormous difficulty expressing and sustaining a unified project, whether it be a vision of a Palestinian State, secular or religiously inspired as it may be, or co-existence together in a single State with the Jews of Israel.

Lacking dominant institutional infrastructure or powerful communication apparatuses in the part of the Palestinian people does not necessarily suggest that the Palestinian people lack the moral capacity, the linguistic skills or political vision of their own. While under the current status as dispossessed and occupied people Palestinians face severe economic, political and social institutional curtailments these material constraints do not suggest lack of Palestinian political will or of moral capacity for collective self-expression or of subjective political consciousness. Yet, while I am certain she does not actually mean it, non the less, Rizzo’s claims seem to suggest exactly that.

The sole element on which all Palestinians concur is their need to become political subjects and to abandon their stateless status. Only in this way will they be finally able to come into possession of their human rights, including the Right to Return (Ibid).

Here, Mary Rizzo fails to appreciate the distinction between a universal moral imperative of human rights which is predicated on being human being qua human being and the lack of effective power that can enable actual individuals to exercise these rights. In this way, Mary Rizzo unwittingly affirms Carl Schmitt’s doctrine that there is no morality outside of effective exercise of power in the Political. In this context, Palestinian have no human rights because they lack the effective power to first secure and define what these rights are and the effective power to defend these rights as subjectively defined values or way of life.

Only the actual participants can correctly recognize, understand , and judge the concrete situation and settle the extreme case of conflict. Each participant is a position to judge whether the adversary intends to negate his opponent’s way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one’s own form of existence ( Schmitt 1996, 27).

It can be said that the US invasion and the occupation of Iraq elegantly demonstrates Schmitt’s paradigm that the Political is between ‘enemy’ and ‘friend’. In this way, it is not because of alleged claim of Iraqi possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction but because Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction to defend its nation and way of life against imperialist conquering forces with much superior fire power which can best explain the US invasion of Iraq. Rizzo’s assertion regarding the Palestinians is particularly odd because the whole Muslim world had been and still is against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the US open, one-sided support of the systematic ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Palestinian people. Palestinian suffering in this context embodies the collective ‘silent bleeding’ of the whole Muslim world.

Another problem with Mary Rizzo’s argument pertains to her insistence that there are only certain individuals with the necessary moral and political credentials who can speak on behalf of the Palestinian people. Thus if the Palestinians cannot speak for themselves then there is need for a paternalistic tutelage of a chosen vanguard and the ‘overcoming’ of the malaise of ‘false consciousness’ in the part of the oppressed Palestinian people. But this is a ruse for since the Palestinians do not have the capacity for political consciousness, the vanguard must ‘invent’ them and enforce these needs on the behalf of the oppressed.

This is unfortunate because acts of solidarity does not and cannot entail the moral or political authority to decide who can or cannot speak for the Palestinian people. The salient point worth remembering is that those who are engaged in solidarity with oppressed groups must avoid unwittingly usurping the voices of the oppressed. They must also avoid promulgating their own personal and political aims under the purview of the just cause of oppressed groups. Personally, I do know or care about the substantive differences among various groups who are in ‘solidarity’ with the Palestinian people. My point is ONLY the Palestinian people can speak for themselves.

AMINA MIRE is at the University of Toronto and can be reached at <amina.mire@utoronto.ca>

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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