On the advice of loved ones—and against my better instincts- I attended an event at Seattle University, October 27th, featuring noted author Khaled Hosseini. He was accompanied by Razia Jan, founder of Razia’s Ray of Hope.
On the surface, such an event would seem not only worthwhile but uplifting. After all, both of the speakers are of Afghan origin, incredibly involved in the affairs of the country, and are articulate spokespeople. On the surface, how could one not be moved by a strong woman’s successful attempts to educate girls in one of the world’s poorest countries with a terrible track record of human rights as it pertains to its female citizens or by the words of a feted author and advocate for refugees? Such rhetorical questions, unfortunately, are par for the course when it comes to the Bono-rati.
Attractive surfaces beguile and ease us all into our wombs of comfort. Attractive surfaces tend also to reflect critical thought back into space.
In the case of this event, the surface gave very, very quickly and the murkiness just below became apparent. The event was anything but uplifting and, unfortunately, proved my instincts right.
It is rare indeed for people to betray the caste which they sought with all their vigor to join. Once the awards, selfies, and invitations come, once the dollars roll in, even the honest get corrupted. The movie has been seen before. Not even the emergence of Trump can change the script, it appears.
Certainly not with Hosseini and Jan.
Jan plays to liberal white, “eat, pray, love” audiences brilliantly. She is no doubt a dynamic and powerful woman who has worked hard to help her students. No one can or should attempt to diminish her considerable accomplishments. She thunders when she speaks and this very likely inspires many who revel at the presence of such a powerful person. But there is, unfortunately, more to it than that. In her zeal to describe her achievements, she resorts to – yes, really- the same racist tropes that White Westerners use to either justify violence towards the darker, poorer races or to paternalistically belittle them. In one story- meant to impress- she tells a joke about bulldozing an Afghan man and planting a flag on his grave. As if on cue, the crowd roared with childish affirmation. She speaks of both the girls she helps and the men she “bulldozes” as simplistic and easy to overpower. Imagine for a moment, a joke about bulldozing a white American businessman and planting a flag on his grave….would the crowd have roared in laughter? Imagine for a moment, the head of a foundation in the United States, referring to ordinary Americans as simplistic morons…would the crowd have found that appealing?
The plot thickens.
Moderator Dr. Sonora Jha posed a question from the audience about the US involvement in Afghanistan. Here, both speakers went out of their way to deliver ahistorical and pro-imperialist comments, with Jan declaiming that “America is the greatest country in the world.” She then suggested that while there hasn’t been enough progress or good ROI for the “amount of money spent,” that the American “heart is in the right place.” Sure, her argument goes, things didn’t go as planned but boy did we try to do some good. The 6M ghosts of Indochina likely shuddered as she uttered these words.
Hosseini dutifully followed on by saying that he agrees with most of what Jan said but added that things are “complex.” He went on to suggest that if one asks ordinary Afghans if they want the Americans to leave, they all suggest that the alternative would be worse. He then recited some statistics about the general uplift in the health and welfare of Afghans during the last 17 years. Echoing Jan, he delivered his own dose of paternalistic elitism about the buoyant effects of the American invaders.
Unpacking these comments would require a treatise on Colonialism, Warfare, and, as it turns out, History. While Hosseini, himself no stranger to the history of his birth country, suggested several times that the country has been “at war for 40 years,” he selectively quotes statistics to buttress his points about the beneficence of the American presence, as though in fact the country had no history before 2001. Not once did either suggest that dropping bombs on a people, killing civilians, and destroying the very infrastructure that could-in fact- allow a people to survive without military occupation is, well, not an example of the “heart” being “in the right place.” He didn’t mention the Kandahar massacre. Nor did he educate the audience on the struggle of a people who survive on a per capita GDP of $600 per year, while caught in the pincer of a racist American military and the violent atavism of the Taliban (the predecessors of whom, Ronald Reagan referred to as “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers.”) He did mention- with very believable sadness– that over 10,000 Afghan civilians are killed every year but he then quickly proceeded to blame insurgents for these atrocities. No mention of US guns, drones, and bombs.
Hosseini then took an even more Orwellian turn. He said that he has enormous kinship with the US because it has been “peerless” in its welcoming of displaced and needy peoples from around the world. Echoing Jan’s statement that “the US has fought to help countries around the world,” Hosseini not once mentioned the violence, nativism, and anti-people policies of the Trump administration all the while trumpeting his role as a member of the UN High Commission on Refugees (and not mentioning Trump’s attacks on the UN itself.) In an earlier part of his presentation, he spoke of the plight of Syrian refugees with a great deal of empathy- showing a glimmer of hope that his presentation would be palatable–and even suggested that Lebanon (home to about 1M Syrian refugees) has much to teach the rest of the world. Very meaningful.
Unfortunately, he then proceeded to betray that very sentiment by his feel-good and even jingoistic celebration of the United States, ironic –if not cruel- as the US President has threatened to completely shut the US border with Mexico as a caravan of poor and hapless Central Americans are attempting to flee violence and misery (much of it the result of US Foreign Policy) as they trudge- hungry and fatigued- to this “peerless” country. Nativist American attitudes to Syrian refugees could have been mentioned too, but then that would have likely upset the fawning audience.
Why such compromised positions?
Perhaps both Hosseini and Jan really believe what they said. After all, on the homepage of Razia’s Ray of Hope, one can find a picture of Jan standing in an embrace with Laura Bush. In no possible interpretation- other than one that would likely shock even Orwell- can this suggest anything but the worst sort of compromise or a real- if misguided-belief in their own ahistorical and apolitical views.
Perhaps both Hosseini and Jan are in their own ways dependent on the paternalistic largesse of the powerful, donor classes and thus engage in self-censorship. In this circumstance, one might understand both the apolitical and the anodyne nature of their comments, but it certainly not the pro-US cheerleading in which they both gleefully indulged.
Perhaps, neither is a particularly critical or profound thinker. Of that, one can be sure.
Hosseini, for his part- explained his mode of thought clearly in a question about his writing. He suggested –with a paucity of originality- that he “writes for himself,” not for others and not for outcomes. Such solipsism is the basis for what is known- to anyone other than those who retreat to the protective cover of “art”- as selfishness. In these times, such attitudes are not of any value. For Jan, who indeed knows what drives her cheerleading? Callous pragmatism is the only conceivable explanation outside of Orwell.
All people have responsibility for what they think, do and say. Those who are invited to the pulpit and who command- for whatever reason- large audiences carry even a larger burden. Those who represent themselves as offering an authentic view of 36M people and their life conditions take this responsibility even a step further. This responsibility while constant is also contextual. One could understand soft language and soft compromise in neutral circumstances but to exonerate (and, further, glorify) the US as it relates to Afghanistan – when speaking in the US itself—is hypocritical and, in fact, reprises the very basis of neocolonialism- the dark and once colonized races hold guns to their owns heads, in effect replacing the colonizer with the self. In the case of Hosseini and Jan event, the able moderator Sonora Jha lobbed several softballs in her attempt to elicit critical opinion; she got clichés about Afghans and hosannas about America in return.
Yes, the “Bono-rati” of the world, those who covet awards and selfies with powerful people, have not, even in the times of Trump, come to an honest position. Their views narrowed by both one-issue-ism and the addled mental state that even at the outset, led them to seek the affirmation of the very people whose actions created the precise parlous state of affairs that require the work of big foundations and big NGOs to ameliorate, members of this this self-appointed moral upper-caste feed on the naiveté of liberals who refuse to exercise the elemental responsibility of an honest and self-critical human existence.
A not-so-splendid caste after all.
Romi Mahajan is a writer from USA