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Iraq's New English Studies

The currency of the phrase "imperialism," which had once been the province of either history texts or marginal elements of the Left, recently has been revived and revitalized by right-wing Anglo-American intellectuals with close access to political power.

Joe Lockard

Sunday, May 11 2003, 09:05 PM

The currency of the phrase “imperialism,” which had once been the province of either history texts or marginal elements of the Left, recently has been revived and revitalized by right-wing Anglo-American intellectuals with close access to political power. If in truth imperialism never disappeared and old imperialists never faded into suburban comforts, a distaste for and discomfort with its terminology has prevailed in US and European politics. Majority opinion in Europe preferred to believe that former colonial powers had embraced a postcolonial age and international co-equality; popular understanding in the United States refused to believe that the country was ever a colonial power, so falsely distinguishing the US from Europe. Where from a narrow perspective the repeated dismantling of hapless English sides by Indian, Pakistani and Caribbean cricketers might be seen as establishing competitive terms in a postcolonial world, from a broader perspective this simply manifested cultural consolidation and integration within global anglophone culture. This transformation of political and military intervention into commercial and cultural advantage represents a fundamental feature of imperialism, and it is such an attempted transformation that we are now witnessing in Iraq.

An essay entitled "Democratic Imperialism: A Blueprint," by Stanley Kurtz -- otherwise amusing for its Conradian irony for invoking another Mr. Kurtz -- which appears in the April 2003 issue of Policy Studies, is one of the more egregious examples of this emergent wave of unapologetic defenses of colonialism and imperialism. One might have thought, after over a century of explicit anti-colonial literature, mass political movements throughout former Euro-American colonies, anti-colonial conflicts involving tens of millions dead, and the resounding triumph of anti-colonialism, that such nonsense would remain confined to a lunatic fringe incapable of the articulateness that Kurtz, Niall Ferguson and Daniel Kruger on the British side of the Atlantic, and other advocates of neo-imperialism can bring to bear. In the immediate aftermath of the Iraq invasion, however, an expanding class of right-wing US intellectuals is in the midst of servicing political needs to rationalize the establishment and maintenance of local rulers who putatively share those much over-estimated beliefs called 'Western values.'

What separates Kurtz from the crowd lies in his explicit historical reliance on the British model of colonial rule in India as a model for the future governance of Iraq. Specifically, Kurtz advocates the deployment of the English language as a means of ideological acculturation and language education for mass control. "India's English-speaking bureaucratic class made up only 1 or 2 percent of the population," he writes. "Yet that class was sufficient to manage a modern democracy and slowly transmit modern and liberal ideas to the larger populace." Since Arab nationalism would not permit prolonged US rule in Iraq, as in 19th-century India, Kurtz suggests reliance on immigrant returnees "who have lived in the West and imbibed its culture for years...a class of modern and liberal citizens who can help to govern and reform their society." In other words, an English-educated wave of returnees, presumably coerced to return by deportation from the United States and its allies, would be positioned to undertake the work of Western-oriented cultural reform. Together with imported Americans and other Westerners who would assume positions in education and administration, an English-speaking corps would emerge as a liberal bureaucratic elite to create a "blended rule" that was neither direct colonial rule nor indirect rule through traditional elites.

This neo-colonial fantasy, constructed with far more knowledge of bygone British administrative debates than the history or cultures of contemporary Iraq, promotes English-language knowledge as key to long-term political consummation of military conquest. The passions of the savage Iraqi breast will be cooled, molded and trained, as it were, by the marvelous tongue of English. Little differentiates such advocacy of a civilizational power inherent in the English language from the 1890s imperialist writings of Josiah Strong, John Fiske, and John Burgess, all US writers who claimed that the 'Anglo-Saxon race' and English-speaking peoples were natural or divinely-ordained torch-bearers for civil liberties and world progress. One point that does separate this present-day rhetoric of imperialism from its predecessors of a century previous lies in its avoidance of explicit racialism. Given the multi-racialism of English-speaking, a global language hierarchy has subsumed the older race hierarchy of Victorian-era imperialism. Even as English has become the poster child of multi-racialism among world languages, as a language it has come to embody a global chain of social/racial command organized by English-speaking economic elites.

Iraq has been a participant in this international organization of imperial English studies for many decades. During the early British occupation of the 1920s and 1930s, British consular staff established and maintained a chain of reading rooms in Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk and several smaller towns, providing current journals and lending libraries. This institutional base and accompanying English-language teaching activity emerged from a British policy that supported the English language throughout the Middle East as a cultural tie that ultimately would bind more effectively than military presence in the region. After the British Council was established in 1934, these activities were consolidated within a new institutional presence in Iraq. During the 1940s, a series of English studies programs encouraged the Baghdadi intelligentsia to learn English in order to participate in the post-war international order. One student who adopted this language-based approach to national modernization was a young English major at Baghdad University, future foreign minister Tariq Aziz. English studies in the Middle East, however, suffered a series of setbacks beginning the mid-1940s as Arab nationalists chose the language as an anti-imperialist target. They closed down university English departments, English-speaking private schools (Egyptian nationalists actually dynamited and destroyed a British Council-sponsored high school), and English-language radio programs.

Proposals to intensify English usage in order to change political culture have a lengthy and inglorious history throughout the Middle East, usually associated with competition between European powers via language education. However, the English that will receive new emphasis as Iraqi schools re-open is no longer simply the successful competitor between foreign language choices. The English language, once a mere communicative medium, has now attained the status of a 'Western value' in its own right. English today is the language of global winners telling the stories of winning and how to succeed; it is the language of the transnational elites of the world capitalist system. Strata of regional and local vernaculars tell the submerged stories, those that have few global outlets. This division of communicative labor represents an emergent tension between the old Fichtean nation-languages, with their emphasis on national rights, and the new anglophone globalization that heralds itself as universal and the manifest medium of human rights discourse.

Yet that the same English language may be used to seriously promote an impossibly contradicted oxymoron such as 'democratic imperialism' speaks equally to its capacity to confuse as to communicate. With similar phrases being introduced into policy discussions, 'forked tongues' is now more than a Native American metaphor for Euro-American false promises; it describes a social phraseology that reduces democracy to a diminutive adjective and turns English language practice into the invention of lexical means to anti-democratic ends. The Victorian English that labored so long to encode a racial order within promissory phrases of civilizational progress has re-emerged as a global English that sugarcoats the political realities of imperial rule with promises of a democratic future. To learn English has become to learn the future, once again.

Opposition to English is a futile cultural position, however, one most frequently adopted by cultural and religious obscurantists or blinkered advocates of communicative borders. The necessary task of antagonized imperial subjects, whether in Iraq or elsewhere, has become to learn to decode the ideological mechanisms embedded in such phrases as 'democratic imperialism.' English studies today are equally counter-hegemonic self-defense; learning the Englishes of globalization can provide a paradoxical safety from their more malignant effects. All human languages bear an inherent concept of an empowered speaking subject, the possessor of independent narrative rights, and English serves subversive purposes as well as any language.

Joe Lockard is assistant professor of English at Arizona State University and a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.

Copyright © 2003 Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.