Thursday, February 08, 2007

Identity, Politics and Identity Politics

It gets quite 'interesting' When you have Europeans, North and SOuth Americans and Asians in one classroom talking world politics. In UP, it is hardly 'radical' to be critical of the US, international institutions and the 'evils' of capitalism. It is 'mainstream' to be anti-everything. When you have people from all around the globe to instantly refute or support your opinions on these matters, the clashes in opinion give you a mini-snapshot of clashes in discourses happening all around the globe. This might explain the rather conspicuous absence of theory in the classes I'm taking this semester.

I have 3 classes, 2 of which are under Professor F. Professor F is a raving Realist if I ever saw one. A 'Realist' in International Relations jargon is one who takes the 'State' for granted, as though 'States' have always been and always will be. It doesn't recognize that States in how they function and in the way we understand them today, have only been in existence for about 5 centuries or so. Another key charactersitic of a Realist scholar is the fact that it takes the State as a 'rational' entity, as though it can homogenously make decisions and respond to external actors reflecting the country's 'national interest.' As though the State's decisions will benefit everyone in the country. Lastly, Realism (and all its permutations) is unfortunately still the most dominant school of thought in IR scholarship. This is because American scholars have dominated the discipline since the end of the second World War.

In practice, Realism in its 'calculations' also neatly translates into policy options for US foreign policy. Unfortunately, it doesn't apply as well to the complexities of politics in developing countries.

While the classes are 'advanced' in that Professor F doesn't explain basic concepts to the undergrads in class. He also takes a lot for granted. If I hadn't been a postgrad in UP, I can't imagine how I would've coped. Thankfully, I have a background in getting to know two regions (Latin America and Eurasia) I know very little about. Reading up on Latin America and its history is similar to reading our own. The long Spanish colonial occupation and administration, the creation of landed mestizo elites and feudal relations, the early integration and strong links to the global capitalist economy, the US intervention, the fall to military authoritarianism and consequent democratization, the intervention of international financial institutions (IFIs) and structural adjustment programs (SAPs) that further open up the economy as well as as change the complexion on local politics. In general, the problems of many of these Latin American countries are eerily similar to our own even though we are half a world away.

I worry that the simplistic way in which Prof F teaches his developing country politics is reflective of how other teachers in the developed world teach theirs. That is - they are sympathetic of the the Third World's woes. They recognize the presence of corruption and extreme poverty. They recognize the need for change. But they never ask 'WHY' things are the way they are in the world of the 'Other.' An American student once asked what 'poverty' meant exactly and I am suddenly made aware that I am the only student in class who is actually from a developing country.

There is also a tendency to paint the picture even worse than they are. The other day I went to an interview with a Russian editor in chief of a news website. One student asked if there was State repression in the media and whether she (the editor) felt like her life was in danger given the killing of another journalist who was highly critical of Putin.

I then remember a Texan (who is actually now a good friend) who mentioned the horrific killings of Philippine journalists. I had to correct her that although there are these killings, it has done nothing to keep most of Philippine media from being highly critical of the government. Democracy is alive and well and thriving in the Philippines despite these killings.

I tend to think then that the West tend to see the rest of the world as a basketcase against which they identify themselves. They tend to to only see the worst of the 'Other' to feel grateful of their own comfortable existence. They tend not to see the resistance, the struggle, the tenacity of these countries to better their condition because they themselves have no concept of this kind
of struggle.

What is constantly demonstrated in class is how poor and corrupt these countries are. The tendency then, for the student who has never set foot in the Third World, is to want to 'help' these countries. The solutions they come up with are those derived from the conditions in their own countries. It reflects their values, assuming these can easily be transplanted in other regions with radically different histories and cultures and religions and ways of life.

I then tend to think of all those technocrats working for global institutions that govern the world. The WTO, the IMF-World Bank, even the United Nations. Although some may genuinely want to make the world a better place, complete ignorance of the 'Other' tends to create more harm than good.

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