On “anti-imperialism” and “decency”

I want to pick up on a recent exchange I had with Gregg in the Harry’s Place comments.

I wrote:

That some “anti-imperialist” leftists have turned “decent” into a sneer-word, thus devaluing its original meaning, is an indication of how far they have traveled from the concept of decency.

Would they ever dare to think of themselves, unironically, as decent? Or is decency a hopelessly bourgeois construct?

Gregg responded:

I don’t disagree with you, but – and I now I’ve harped on this point before, but it’s an important one – have you noticed how you and others keep doing the same with “anti-imperialist”?

Well, yes. But while I don’t routinely label myself as decent, I think decency is (or ought to be) a universal value, applicable for all people in every part of the world. The problem with the (self-labeled) anti-imperialists is that if there’s a choice between decency and their idea of anti-imperialism, the latter wins out. When that kind of anti-imperialism trumps decency– as I believe it has in a number of recent instances– “anti-imperialist” becomes an appropriate term of mockery.

First there’s the matter of defining anti-imperialism. Today’s anti-imperialists have no problem labeling Israel as imperialist or as a tool of imperialists. But as I touched on in another post, Israel has always been a thorn in the side of the real imperialists of the Middle East– the big oil companies extracting the wealth of Arab and Muslim countries, and those in government who support them. Big Oil has opposed Israel from the beginning, and has always been willing to sacrifice Israel’s interests for the sake of better relations with the leaders of oil-rich states, especially in the Gulf.

But what about the potential conflict between decency and a broadly-defined anti-imperialism? To choose an extreme example: whatever today’s anti-imperialists think of the Kim Jong Il regime in North Korea (and some like it more than others), they would– on anti-imperialist grounds– universally oppose an American effort to topple that regime. For a number of reasons, I think a military invasion of North Korea would be reckless in the extreme. So to the extent that we both oppose such an invasion, I stand with the anti-imperialists. But who can doubt that if it was possible, with a minimum of violence, to remove the Pyongyang regime (certainly one of the most horrific on earth) and replace it with one committed to democracy and civil liberties, this would be an act of decency– even if you have to call it imperialist decency?

To take a more current example: the government of Sudan has made it clear it wants no more outside interference as its armed forces and militias get on with the mass murder and displacement in Darfur. So by strict anti-imperialist standards, shouldn’t the rest of the world mind its own business and avoid interfering in what is, after all, an internal affair? But then what about decency– which would of course put the lives of hundreds of thousands of Darfurians ahead of “non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states,” or whatever other anti-imperialist formulation you want to use?

Of course you can avoid confronting this issue by claiming, as George Galloway did on a recent radio show, that what is happening in Darfur is not genocide. (On the same show, Galloway approvingly read an email from a fan referring to Israeli genocide in Lebanon.) Or you can insist, as bizarre MRZine editor Yoshie Furuhashi did, that concern about Darfur in the US has been whipped up by Jews and evangelical Christians itching for another war.

But after you do all that, the question remains: aren’t there occasions when simple concern about mass human suffering and death trumps stale slogans and dogma?