Ahh, the precocity of youth!
I have been a long-time listener to the BBC World Service, since I was maybe 12 or 13, and sent my first letter to them when I was 15. Got it read on the air, too. It was a stupid letter, one that betrayed my complete and absolute ignorance of the inspiration for Gustav Holst’s Suite of the Planets. That’s what happens when you’re young, self-assured and publicly educated. So it goes. I am 30 years older, and significantly wiser. Most of the time.
As an aside, the BBC World Service is not what it used to be either. Not as serious. Not as newsy. Maybe as a callow youth in my teens and 20’s I was too impressed with tidbits from far away places. But while World Service isn’t as constantly dumb as CNN, it isn’t anywhere near as smart as it used to be. Radio Netherlands and Radio France International — in English — still manage smart, but the BBC has stuffed itself with irrelevant news, call-in shows (international call-in shows? Really, do we need those?) and fluff. At least the announcers don’t play dumb like the FoxNews and CNN crews.
Or maybe they really are dumb. Who knows?
At any rate, I was listening to a World Service podcast earlier this week and came across what has to be one of the most frightening interviews I’ve ever heard: a phone conversation with Alaina Podmorow, a 13-year-old Canadian "human rights activist" who has been raising money and "helping" educate women and girls in Afghanistan since she was nine-years-old.
Oh, they grow the annoying ones young in Canada.
It seems Podmorow, listening with her mother to a lecture about the condition of women in what is now NATO-occupied Afghanistan, felt both guilty and responsible. Guilty that she has privileges, and responsible that the plight of the women of Afghanistan be helped. Be educated. No, not educated. Schooled. (Because, as John Taylor Gatto points out, they are not the same thing.) Because, you see, Podmorow actually really likes school, and views it as a privilege everyone should have. A human right. One that crosses boundaries, cultures, continents and languages.
She even started a charity to fund schools in Afghanistan — Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan.
In the interview, her young voice was sharp with certainty. She has never had any doubts about this mission, this calling of hers, and mostly likely she never will. She has probably only had encouragement from family, friends and community. My guess is she has never questioned, never been questioned, never even faced, the possibility that this desire to educated Afghan women (a desire she says the women of Afghanistan also have, and no doubt many do) has come bundled with an imperialistic war, and is only possible because of that war. Only possible because Westerners are busily killing Afghans — including women and children. You know, all those wedding parties Americans and others have bombed, all those families shot up at checkpoints? All those villages shelled?
Melanie Butler, in a master’s thesis at the University of British Columbia, took Canadian women’s groups to task in 2008 for the efforts in Afghanistan, noting (from the abstract) that in "Canada as in the United States, government agencies have justified the military invasion of Afghanistan by revitalizing the oppressed Muslim woman as a medium through which narratives of East versus West are performed." (I’ve had no luck brining up the thesis itself.) Podmorow quotes a bit of Butler’s thesis in a response:
At the heart of the relationship between feminism and imperialism is an Orientalist logic that posits Western women as exemplary and emancipated in relation to "Other" (Afro-Asian/colonized) women, thereby charging the former with the responsibility of saving the latter from their backwards (i.e. Muslim), uncivilized cultures.
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Podmorow, who hasn’t had the benefit of a university education steeped in Frankfurt School theory and post-modernist lingo, and thus doesn’t entirely understand Butler’s rhetoric, at least grasps enough post-modernism to say she wants to "speak my truth" about the matter. And her truth is:
I have just turned 13 and I know there is a lot for me to learn but I am sure of this one thing. Education=peace. To me that means that once everybody is educated, peace will follow. In Afghanistan, girls don’t have the chance for that. Less than 10% of girls in Afghanistan are able to attend school and 11,000,000 Afghans are illiterate. The schools that are operating don’t have running water or bathroom facilities. There is a very low number of qualified teachers so people are not getting educated and when people aren’t educated, they fear the unknown, they are unable to support their families and they become desperate. I believe this creates violence and war, and supports beliefs that violate all human rights. I believe that education is the most powerful tool we have to move towards peace.
All this after nearly ten years of US and allied efforts in Afghanistan. How long, then, must soldiers stay, and continue bombing and killing, to ensure that the children of Afghanistan are "educated?"
And aren’t all those soldiers educated? This "education=peace" is a really nice idea that’s not grounded in any kind of reality. (What cute little corner of Canada did she grow up in to acquire this ridiculous notion?) Lots of really well-educated people fight, maim, kill and destroy. Indeed, it takes a very serious, quality education to engage in serious warmongering. Warmongering on a mass scale. Unless, of course, Podmorow is speaking of a magical, theoretical education with a particular ideological content that everyone should — no, must — have, in order to ensure peace. (I have lots of schooling, but I’m guessing I don’t have that.) And what, exactly, will Podmorow do with those who do not wish to be educated? Well, I’m guessing because she’s 13, she won’t even understand why anyone would ever not want what she sees as such a clear and present good for them. Not properly educated, she’ll probably conclude, and they’ll need to be forced to get that education. At gunpoint.
After all, isn’t that what soldiers and police officers are for? To make people go to school? And shoot them if they don’t?
Of course, none of the violence done by Western armies in Afghanistan matters. What matters is the local culture. Podmorow writes:
No one will ever tell me that Muslim women or any women think it’s ok to not be allowed to get educated or to have their daughters sold off at 8 years old or traded off at 4 years old because of cultural beliefs. No one will tell me that women in Afghanistan think it is ok for their daughters to have acid thrown in their faces. It makes me ill to think a 4-year-old girl must sleep in a barn and get raped daily by old men. It’s sick and wrong and I don’t care who calls me an Orientalist or whatever …
She notes, quoting a heroine of hers, Sally Armstrong, that "There are no Western rights or Eastern Rights, there are only human rights."
This is a nice sentiment, and look good on paper and proclaimed at conferences. But like all universals, it is a womb that births imperialism. And with it war, devastation, suffering and domination.
I am all for helping and assisting people who want help. I would not have spent six months in Saudi Arabia helping to train journalists (including this young lady, of whom I am inordinately proud) were that not the case. But my efforts followed neither flag nor army. And I did not assume that what I wanted for someone was what they wanted or should want for themselves.
Podmorow will probably live a long and relatively happy life, never wanting for work (there will always be foundation and tax-payer dollars to support whatever activism she is up to) and never considering the truly gruesome effects of what she agitates for. Thank God she’s a Canadian, and lives in a country where imperialism (outside of its UN garb) is simply not an option. It means that most of her efforts, outside Afghanistan, will have to rely more on something resembling cooperation, as opposed to coercion.
But she could grow up to be a very influential liberal warmonger, fawned over and listened to across the Western world, one who aches so much to make the world a better place that she doesn’t care what it costs — or who gets killed — in the process. She could end up with a great deal of blood on her hands.
While it probably seems unfair that I’m devoting a column to beating up on a very idealistic 13-year-old, consider that her excuse for doing what she is doing — improving the lives of the people of Afghanistan — is no different than the Bush regime’s excuse for invading Iraq. She will have decades to continue perpetrating this evil.
Personally, I see no good for others that involves sticking guns in people’s faces, threatening their lives, invading their countries, or bombing their cities. There is no help that stems from the barrel of a gun. Podmorow, and other liberal and left-wing warmongers throughout the West, seem to believe differently. (And their view seems to be a majority view, too.) It is how the center-left is selling the war in Afghanistan to Americans these days — a war to aid women and children. For them, it is possible to kill and destroy in order to aid and assist. Or they just don’t think about it, and keep their minds solely on the good the war allows them to do. This is the worst kind of war — self-righteous war to aid others. To support such war is to ignore the violence their very own governments are waging, the death their very own nations are dealing, because somehow it’s much less reprehensible for our governments to invade and occupy countries at a whim, to drop bombs on villages or kill families at checkpoints, than it is for some Pashtu man to throw acid in a 15-year-old’s face.
And that is an ethic I simply don’t understand.
Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a seminarian, essayist and songwriter currently living in Chicago.