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Michael Ignatieff The Seductiveness of Moral Disgust HEART OF DARKNESS IN HEART OF DARKNESS, CONRAD OBSERVED THAT IMPERIALISM , WHEN looked at closely, is not a pretty thing. “What redeems it is the idea only.” The ferocious rapacity of Kurtz’s search for ivory is ennobled in his own eyes by his plans to bring civilization to the savages. In the end, of course, this idea redeems nothing at all. When Marlow finds Kurtz, at the final bend o f the river, all there is to show of Kurtz’s civi­ lizing mission is a row of native heads stuck on pikes and the tattered remains of Kurtz’s concluding report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, on the final page of which the delirious Kurtz had scribbled, “Exterminate all the Brutes!” Conrad’s work is a fable about late-nineteenth-century imperi­ alism at the end of its tether, paralyzed by futility and sapped by the temptations of an all destroying nihilism. It is also about the seduc­ tions of moral disgust: having failed to civilize the savages, Kurtz turns against them all the force of his own moral self-disillusion. We tell ourselves that we are living in a postimperial age. What is “new” about the new world order, supposedly, is that it is not imperial. Decolonization in Africa and Asia, the collapse of the Soviet empire, the general triumph of the principle of national self-determination all lead us to think that the reflexes and impulses laid bare so mercilessly by Conrad now belong to the forgotten history of our conscience. Central to this assumption is the idea that the interventions of the post-1989 period were humanitarian rather than imperial in their ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN SOCIAL RESEARCH VOL. 6 2 , NO. 1 (SPRING 1995) social research Vol 71 : No 3 : Fall 200 4 549 essential motivation. The three key rescue missions undertaken since 1989—the Kurdish, Somali, and Bosnian operations—were understood as noble attempts to give substance to that formless yet blameless entity, “the international conscience.” Yet Conradian continuities continue to haunt these operations: the ironic interplay between noble intentions and bloody results, between fantasies of omnipotent benevolence and impotent practice, between initial self-regard and eventual self-disgust. Conrad him self could hardly have imagined a more terrible image of these ironies than the spectacle, on all our television screens, o f UN soldiers, mostly Pakistani, firing upon Somali crowds and killing the women and children they were mandated to protect. When Conrad encapsulated imperial impotence in the image of the gunboat in Heart of Darkness, moored off the African shore, lobbing useless shells into the unanswering jungle, the contemporary imagination leaps to the image of NATO warplanes lobbing shells into abandoned Serbian artil­ lery dugouts. Past and present meet in a shared image of the futility of great power. Yet we resist thinking about such continuities. We prefer to imagine the acts of rescue undertaken since 1989 as exercises in post­ im perial disinterestedness, as a form o f moral therapeutics uncon­ taminated by lust for conquest or imperial rivalry. Nor is this mere illusion. In the case of the Iraqi operation, we explicitly forswore the imperial occupation of Iraq and the remaking of its polity. The troops were halted on the road to Baghdad. In the case of the relief of the Kurds, again we forswore actual occupation and contented ourselves with an air umbrella to allow the Kurds to shape their future as best they could. In the case of Somalia, we precluded taking over the coun­ try for the sake of what was called “a quick exit” strategy. In Bosnia, a land kept in peace throughout the nineteenth century by either Austrian or Ottoman dragoons, we supposed that the mere threat of our disapproval, trade embargo, and the occasional lob of a shell from our aircraft would make the recourse to dragoons of our own unnecessary. Skeptical spirits might be tempted to speculate that had 550 social research we been more ruthlessly imperial, we might have been a trifle more effective. Had General Schwartzkopf allowed him self to become the General MacArthur of a conquered Iraq, the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 549-568
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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