Sunday, July 01, 2007

On colonialism and Ronald Suresh Roberts

It is the most disconcerting experience to be reading Ronald Suresh Roberts´book on Thabo Mbeki while also reading the Rough Guide to Peru. Roberts talks at lenghth about the way Western discourse has infected our world view and at times he is actually quite interesting.

I like the fact that he is trying to create an alternative intellectual universe in which Thabo Mbeki always makes perfect sense and is really an intellectual hero. When he talks about the ways in which what we see as normal is really situated, he is rather good.

The problem is that he often argues like a little boy. For example he points out that Tony Leon (not his favourite man!) quotes Lord Acton. He then argues that Lord Acton was a dreadful man. Then this must inevitably mean in his book that Leon is also a terrible racist pig. Nee what, this is lazy reasoning of the worst kind.

The book also gives the impression of a rush job. It is not clear whether this is because he knocked it off in the past few months when the sponsors started asking questions about the million Rand they gave for the project or whether it is because he has such a busy mind that he cannot fix on one thing for long enough to actually build a sustained and coherent argument.

In any case, to read Suresh Roberts and then the guidebook makes the colonial mindset of the guidebook jump out at you. White people from Europe invariably ¨discovered¨all the great tourist attracions - as if locals did not live here and actually built the very same attractions. It is deeply irritating and almost puts me off travel.

The guidebook us aklso deeply patronising about local culture and politics. When pointing out some problem with Macchu Picchu they add that the authorities are aware of the problema nd claim to be doing something about it. The guidebook would surelñy not say the Italians are aware of the fact that the tower of Pisa is falling over.


Thomas Michael Blaser said...

Good observations. I agree, I mean especially most of the tourism stuff is so biased and ethnocentric. And ironic. While the SA government bemoans the colonial legacy, the SA London embassy promotes tourism with the usual stereotyps, Zulu warriors and maidens, not to mention the lions and giraffes. But what is troubling with Roberts (and also with the discursive universe of Robert Mugabe) is the dissemination of half-truths. There is a kernel of sense in what he writes but then he turns it into something exaggerated and neglects contradictory evidence. In this sense, he is a true propagandist.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your analysis. What I found particularly amusing was listening to Suresh Roberts frothing at the mouth at being considered a 'foreigner' (during a recent debate with Jeremy Maggs on SAFM). Yet, at the same time, he labels anyone who disagrees with him a 'settler' or 'settler intellectual' or 'a colonial'. This irony seems to escape Roberts entirely. As Drew Forest pointed out in a recent column in the M&G (referring to Roberts's trashing of Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya):

"Makhanya is an outspoken opponent of racism and colonialism. As a young activist in the 1980s, he fought running battles with the apartheid police and their Inkatha shock troops. Who is Roberts, a well heeled scribbler who was safely elsewhere during the emergency years, to defame him as 'the colonial creature'? "