By Choo Zheng Xi/ Consultant Editor
Yale lecturer Jim Sleeper’s provocatively titled column in the Huffington Post didn’t quite deliver.
Captioned: “Blame the Latest Israel-Arab War on…Singapore?”, the article itself was more prosaic, recycling the less than titillating comparison between the militarization of Singaporean and Israeli societies and the relationship between the two countries’ armed forces.
Hardly original, considering Lee Kuan Yew himself discusses the Singapore-Israel military relationship extensively in his autobiographies.
Sleeper didn’t tell me how Singapore inspired Israel’s latest assault on Hamas.
Predictably, a good number of Huffington Post readers who did not make it past the snazzy headline misunderstood what Sleeper characterizes as his “wan humour”. Others disagreed with the premise and logic of his piece.
Just another day on the internet, no?
Not quite. What came next was a tirade by Sleeper that goes down in my books as one of the most thin-skinned and misdirected ad hominem attack on his readers that I’ve ever seen a columnist make.
Apparently unable to comprehend the concept of large numbers of people disagreeing with the views he holds, Sleeper attributed the backlash to brainwashing:
“The tone of the comments conveys the erudite but bitter defensiveness that characterizes some products of authoritarian intellectual strait-jackets such as that of Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party, which has controlled schooling and almost all news media since 1965.”
According to Sleeper, “The sheer number and similarity of such comments here reflects a combination of naivete and academically pretentious bad faith that curdles the pronouncements casualties of such regimes, who can never direct such criticisms against their own governments, as we Americans are free to do against our own”.
Perhaps Sleeper’s culture shock dealing with large numbers of people disagreeing with his view isn’t surprising considering that he’s a left-leaning columnist on the Huffington Post.
Maybe Sleeper should do a guest op-ed on right wing echo chambers Fox News or the National Review to acclimatize himself to hostile viewpoints.
Savages, Victims and Saviors
One of my favourite writers on human rights law is the Kenyan born Dean of the University at Buffalo Law School in New York, Makau Mutua, and one of his best articles is one titled “Savages, Victims and Saviors: the Metaphor of Human Rights”.
In it, Mutua critiques one self-serving dynamic in the global human rights movement that portrays International NGOs from the developed world as “saviours” out to rescue hapless natives (“victims”) from their abusive governments (“savages”).
Mutua’s argues that unless the global human rights movement moves away from the “Savages, Victims, Saviours” (SVS) paradigm and becomes less Eurocentric and more adaptive to local cultures, the entire human rights movement risks being discredited.
Sleeper’s skewed tirade is a retreat into the SVS paradigm: in Sleeper’s universe, Singaporeans are the hapless victims of the savage ruling party who need to be saved by a Western liberal like him.
The problem with Sleeper’s world view is that in deriding his Singaporean critics as brainwashed fools, he robs them of precisely the agency and choice he purports to want to return to them by his scathing critiques of the ruling government.
In 1899, British poet Rudyard Kipling encouraged America to go forth and take up the noble burden of empire, writing the racialized poem “The White Man’s Burden”.
The phrase has since passed into shorthand for a misguided imperialist sense of superiority over non-white cultures.
Still, the blinkered bigotry of Kipling is worth setting out in full. Kipling tells his American counterparts:
“Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go send your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child”
It wouldn’t be entirely fair to compare Sleeper’s condescension to Kipling’s racism.
Sleeper’s is more subtly clothed in the language of human rights and freedom: ostensibly Sleeper points out that Singaporeans “can never direct such criticisms against their own governments, as we Americans are free to do against our own” because he wants Singaporeans to be, like America, land of the free and home of the brave.
Sleeper’s burden is to unshackle the natives who live under the repressive thumbs of authoritarian regimes and is made heavier by the fact that those natives are so brainwashed and benighted that they don’t know what’s good for them.
Ironic, because the kind of dismissive, patronizing tone Sleeper adopts in dismissing dissent is precisely the type of absolutist language often used by authoritarian regimes in writing off their critics.
Zheng Xi is a co-founder of TOC and a lawyer in private practice at Peter Low LLC