Johann Hari, V.S. Naipaul, and bigotry

by zunguzungu

If you’re interested in looking for them, you can find examples of people believing all sorts of dumb and pernicious things. Some people think gay people are pedophiles. Some people think women are asking for it when they dress like that. Some people think Obama is a socialist. Some people think colonialism was beneficial to the colonized. Some people think global warming is a hoax. Some people think having school lunch programs is the road to serfdom. Et-fucking-cetera.

When Africans believe in dumb and pernicious things, though, it isn’t just people believing dumb and pernicious things. Instead of being specifically limited to the particular people that believe such things — instead of looking at it as the result of their specific, particular situation — it becomes a continent-level generalization, as well as a Serious Problem in which it is Our Moral Duty to Intervene. So serious that when a bigot like V.S. Naipaul rolls through five countries in Africa and “discovers” that all the crap he read in Mungo Park and John Speke from two centuries ago is still completely valid and true, someone like Johann Hari takes him seriously.

I’ve got a post brewing on Naipaul’s book, The Masque of Africa, a book that is terrible, if not quite as terrible as we all expected it to be (though still terrible). First, though, I’m more interested in Hari’s weird use of Naipaul in an article that is, ostensibly a review, but which is actually not that at all. Hari tweeted his article for Slate this way:

To read my latest article for Slate – about one of the trickiest taboos of our time – click here: http://www.slate.com/id/2272098

And this is his opening paragraph:

There is a great thudding taboo in any discussion of Africa. Western journalists and aid workers see it everywhere, yet it is nowhere in our coverage back home. We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t know how to. We smother it in silence, even though it is one of the most vivid and vibrant and violent parts of African life. We are afraid—of being misunderstood, or of sounding like our own ugliest ancestors. The suppressed topic? The African belief in spirits and spells and ancestors and black magic.

For a start, how does the fact that he has just written an article talking about black magic contradict his claim that you can’t write about African black magic? How can you be a journalist, write stories about “The African belief in spirits and spells and ancestors and black magic,” and then complain that journalists are prevented from covering such things? Let’s put aside the fact that he uses “African” as an adjective to strongly imply that the entire continent has in common a belief in “black magic,” that he is, in fact, defining African by reference to “black magic.” Let’s put aside the fact that “black magic” is as ridiculous a term to use in this context as “voodoo” or “mumbo jumbo” would be. And let’s put aside the fact that a belief in “ancestors” and “spirits” is, um, not exactly a unique characteristic of Africa. Because when you put all that aside, you find that there’s nothing left but an empty shell of self-pity mixed with self-aggrandizing posturing, the contradictory notions that he has been silenced by a political correctness even as he gloriously refuses to be silenced and speaks Truth.

In other words, this is not a column about Naipaul’s book or even, really, about Africa. It is a column about how Johann Hari dares to talk about how Africans believe in dumb and pernicious things, how Political Correctness Gone Mad wants to stop him from telling you The Truth, and how he refuses to listen to such “taboos.” Because, not to put too fine a point on it, his pride in not being bound by the “taboo” that prevents him from speaking truth about the false stupid ways Africans are bound by taboos is weird. And because it’s obviously wrong. There is no taboo. Andrew Sullivan was writing just the other day about how “Albinos [in Tanzania] have been killed and maimed because of the ludicrous belief that albino body parts hold magical powers,” an interest in African “witch doctors” which he shares with Graeme Wood, with the BBC writer who wrote this piece on witches in Malawi, the BBC writer who wrote this piece on witches in Burundi, this one on Swaziland from Christian Science Monitor, and so forth. There are countless other examples, each one a news story driven by the same kind of desire: Darkest Africa horror stories!

Now I’m not trying to dismiss this stuff. Real human tragedies of this sort are real, and tragic.* Let’s just have some perspective. Hari says that “Western journalists and aid workers see [the African belief in spirits and spells and ancestors and black magic] everywhere.” I lived in Tanzania for six months and saw literally nothing that resembled “black magic.” I’m not saying there wasn‘t something like that going on somewhere; I wouldn‘t claim to know. But if you’re seeing it “everywhere,” Johann, maybe it’s because you’re looking real hard for it?

Let’s look at the issue from another perspective. This chart, for example, is from a paper by Virgil Hawkins on how the international press had zero interest in talking about one of the largest and bloodiest multi-state conflicts of our times, what has been called “Africa’s World War” in the Congo:

As Hawkins puts it, “Perception defines our reality. Where access to information that may enhance our perception is limited, the reality we see becomes distorted and warped.”

I cite this to make two points. One, in the grand scheme of African tragedies, it’s hard to argue that the number of people who have been dismembered for being witches is all that much compared to the number of people who have been killed or murdered in boring old rifle-and-machete warfare. Not that Hari is arguing this; he’s simply implying it. And he doesn’t know. You don’t know. I don’t know. But that doesn’t stop him from saying that it’s “everywhere.” That doesn’t stop the issue from sucking up a disproportionate amount of space in Western newspapers that never have time for the much bigger stories that aren‘t nearly as satisfyingly flattering to the Western ego.

The second point is the more serious one. Because “we” don’t know a lot about Africa, what we choose to know — the isolated elements we focus on and highlight — take on a huge significance. And “we” certainly do choose. This is Hari’s second paragraph:

[The African belief in in spirits and spells and ancestors and black magic is] at the core of many Africans’ understanding of themselves and the world. I have stood in a blood-splattered house in Tanzania where an old woman had just been beaten to death for being a “witch” who cast spells on her neighbors. I have stood in battlefields in the Congo where the troops insist with absolute certainty they cannot be killed because they have carried our a magical spell that guarantees, if they are shot, they will turn briefly into a tree, then charge on unharmed. I have been cursed in Ethiopia by a witch-doctor with “impotence, obesity, and then leprosy” for asking insistently why he charged so much to “cure” his patients. (I’m still waiting for the leprosy.)

What a bad-ass he is. He has seen Africa! He has even stood there! And in each case, he went to a specific site and looked for the specific thing he wanted to write about. The fact that he was actually there seems to authenticate what he saw. But all the other parts of Africa he didn’t go to — not being sufficiently sexy — just sort of disappear into the great not talked about. That doesn’t mean, again, that the things he saw weren’t true. I don’t disbelieve him when he talks about that blood spattered house in Tanzania, the Congo battlefields, or Ethiopian witch doctors. But anecdote is not the singular of data, and he’s treating it as if it were (and implying that a war like the horror of the Eastern Congo was actually caused the belief in magic on the part of the guerrillas). 

Hari, of course, isn’t so much interested in Africa as he’s interested in what he can use Africa to say about religion. As Supriya Nair tweeted, “atheist dogma trumps all” for Hari, and this seems exactly the right way to read a column that has lines like this: “These beliefs—like all religions—can bring both sweet, illusory comfort and intense terror,” and cites Christopher Hitchens approvingly as an authority on religion. Wow, sweet lies and terror? How fair and balanced! By exactly that standard, I suppose, Naipaul is an authority on Africa: they both love talking about how stupid their subject is, and people who want to hear the subject condemned enjoy reading them.

Which is why, of course, is this a column about Naipaul. Because Naipaul is a bigot with a Nobel, a useful thing to have on hand when a otherwise fairly liberal journalist wants to be sloppy and bigoted.  Naipaul says the sorts of things a bigot tends to say. When he goes to Africa, he takes every anecdote about witches or story about black magic as the last puzzle piece in a giant Glenn-Beckian  puzzle he’s already completed in his mind: one piece of confirmation is all he ever needs to prove the whole.  As Hari himself says about Naipaul:

…in his nonfiction, he is often staggeringly cruel and dismissive about the people he meets on his travels, writing off whole countries as barbaric and even pining for a touch of imperial aggression against them. The thought of this Naipaul charging into Africa’s most sensitive subject made me reach for the Xanax.

And this book, actually, is no exception. Bharati Mukherjee once wrote that Naipaul only “travels to confirm his Eurocentric prejudices,” and this seems more or less an apt description of his latest iteration. In an offhanded moment, Naipaul claims, for example, that Africans are “great relishers of what they call ‘bush meat’ and, given guns and left to themselves, would easily eat their way through the continent’s wildlife.” What do you do with that? Did you take too many of your Xanax, Johann? Did you miss the oh-so-subtle suggestion that Africans are people who can’t control their horrible bestial appetites and need to be restrained and educated so that they can exist in the world with more enlightened people like you?

It’s exactly the same bigoted crap that British journalists have been writing for decades, centuries. Which is why it’s important to flag as utterly fallacious the idea that there is anything “daring” about V.S. Naipaul’s book: it’s the same move as when Sarah Palin complains about the Leftist media. There is nothing daring about this, nor is there ever much substantive uproar when Western journalists make sweeping generalizations about African savagery. Naipaul’s book is a thoroughly unsurprising effort, one that manages to tip its hat both to a liberal nostalgia for pre-colonial traditions — unhampered by any desire to know what they are, of course — and a conservative distaste for Africans who have become modern. That it wants to have it both ways is only surprising because Naipaul is usually content with crypto-racism of the latter type; it’s surprising, for him, that he can find anything to praise in the African traditionalism that he set out to study. But in terms of the larger media eco-system of Africa writing, he’s just covering the usual bases which are available for Western journalists and adhering to the same tired old script. It goes like this: proclaim that there is good stuff in the old cultures, complain about how there’s bad stuff too, assert that the problem is a modernization which has left Africans a mongrel people — stranded between modernity and tradition — and then imply by the entire comparison that there is something existentially different about the way Africans are dumb and brutal to each other from the way that non-Africans are dumb and brutal to each other. And then cash that check.

* For what it’s worth, one of the other things that’s pernicious about Hari’s way of framing the issue — a trap I’ve fallen into a bit here — is allowing indefensible practices like albino murder to stand in for the entire range of African religious practices. For a rigid secularist like Hari, this elision is obvious and polemical. But it’s utterly ridiculous, the same caricature of religion that people like Hitchens always offer, where a systematic blindness to everything that is good about religion allows them to take the worst that is thought and done in its name as the representative core of the entire edifice.