Western attitudes to Syria: paternalist patronage rules

17-05-2015: A consistent feature of the Western political and media narrative on the Syrian revolution from all sides has been a staggering level of condescension. Whether it’s former ‘community organiser’ Obama sneeringly dismissing the “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists, and so forth” of the Free Syrian Army, Bashar’s UN butler de Mistura mirroring Assad’s contemptuous dismissal of the Syrian people’s wishes, or self-appointed ‘Middle East experts’ like Patrick Cockburn pontificating loftily on the all-round ghastliness of the Syrian opposition on the basis of having sundry officials in Damascus and Tehran on speed-dial, the message has at best been one of smirking Orientalist superciliousness.

This is, of course, nothing new: Orientalist patronage, whether supposedly benign or overtly malign, has always been a hallmark of Western imperialism, as Said noted, as well as becoming a defining characteristic of Western pseudo-leftist internationalism (see Cockburn, Galloway, Code Pink et al). The rhetoric and axis of Western imperialism may have changed since the days of the inglorious British Raj, but the supercilious attitude remains the same; the noble, long-suffering West bears the same old White Man’s Burden of bringing innately superior Western civilisation to the revolting natives and telling them where they’re going wrong should they contradict an innately superior Western narrative with their own.

This is achieved by Western governments via the time-worn strategy of carpet-bombing various nations and overtly or covertly backing sundry blood-drenched despots and totalitarian regimes, currently in the name of an oxymoronic (and plain old moronic) ‘war on terror’. As a ‘counter-terrorism’ strategy, of course, this morally bankrupt lunacy in the guise of foreign policy ensures near-constant war and a steady supply of terrorists to fight, even if these didn’t exist initially; blowing or helping blow countries to kingdom come with F16s and drones and supporting various 1984-style regimes to do so guarantees that at least some of the surviving locals, after seeing their homes, families, nations, annihilated, will react with more than a strongly worded letter to the local paper (assuming the local paper’s offices haven’t been blown to bits too); those who react violently and in kind to the relentless destruction and oppression visited on them are automatically designated extremists and terrorists justifying more bombing and dictatorship, and so the cycle continues ad infinitum. While dastardly Islamists have now replaced dastardly commies as the current Threat to Civilisation as We Know It, the hyperbolic song remains otherwise largely the same.

With Western pseudo-leftists, meanwhile, the same supreme condescension is achieved via a veneer of solidarity with whichever regime or people the same Western governments are currently genuinely or supposedly aiding in the oppression of at a given moment, meaning that the pseudo-left is engaged not in any real universalism or solidarity with the oppressed elsewhere, but in a sort of mirror dance focused on Western government policy. Even this thin patina of faux-solidarity is contingent on location; as Palestinians in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere have found out, the very selective Palestinian solidarity movement won’t be marching for those Palestinians fighting for the ‘wrong’ freedom any eon soon.

In neither case – governments or pseudo-leftists - are the peoples of non-Western nations viewed as worthy of consultation, consideration or respect, being effectively reduced to prop status, providing a backdrop of either menacing or pitiful one-dimensional collateral damage-in-waiting existing only as abstract passive subjects of alternate political usefulness, loathing, pity and/or possibly occasional charity telethons.

This effective dismissal of Syrian and other non-Western peoples’ agency and struggle for freedom from oppression also extends to media. As we’ve seen every day for years in Syria, pro-revolution Syrian and Palestinian analysts’, journalists’ and activists’ exhaustive coverage and analysis of the nightmarish events in the country is felt to be non-credible unless a Western ‘expert’ first verifies it; every report, no matter how well-documented, photographed, video’ed, authenticated and widely witnessed by locals, must be hedged around with qualifiers intended to ensure skepticism as to its veracity – “activists claim”, “opponents of President Assad assert…”, etc.

Should an event be witnessed by a Western journalist, however, no such qualifiers are felt to be necessary; the fact that it has been attested to by a soi-disant Western Expert it is authentication enough, meaning that the credibility of the report is unquestionable. No matter that Patrick Cockburn and Robert Fisk are more embedded with Bashar al-Assad than Asma; the fact that they are Western means that their integrity and the trustworthiness of their reports are unimpeachable. The regime-spoonfed dementia ramblings of Seymour Hersh, whose report on the regime’s 2013 CW attack in East Ghouta must rank as one of the vilest journalistic apologia for evil since Julius Streicher’s editorials for Der Sturmer, are republished in august journals largely on the basis that he is, after all, A Leading Western Voice.

Even the most junior British or American freelancer propping up the press bar in Beirut or Istanbul is accorded greater authoritativeness than veteran Syrian or other regional journalists, analysts and media activists. No matter that Jessica or Toby is fresh off the plane equipped with a map and the name of a friend’s fixer in Kilis; news editors in New York and London want their accounts second-hand and filtered through the unique, nay mystically insightful, expertise that only a Western upbringing and education apparently confer.

There’s little chance of this profoundly Orientalist paradigm changing any day soon; even the supposedly alternative Western media – which are in reality simply peddling a mirror orthodoxy no less reactionary (indeed often more reactionary) than their mainstream counterparts – refuse to countenance the idea that the experts from and in the Middle East might in fact be more expert on the region than the West's ‘Middle East Experts’ whose knowledge extends to familiarity with the Damascus Four Seasons room service menu and having various regime officials on speed dial. But that woeful wilful blindness doesn’t mean that this worldview, which should have become history at around the same time as the crinoline and cravat, should be unacknowledged or its role in effectively legitimising and giving a veneer of respectability to genocide should be any less excoriated.
It's time that this monstrous and shameful paternalist patronage was treated with the absolute dismissive contempt it richly deserves.

By: One Woman