20 July 2011

Navigating the transnational contours of denial and fear

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—I had students in Kabul who consistently minimized the security threat of the war and were optimistic beyond reason that the U.S.-led NATO forces would accomplish their mission, leaving Afghanistan on the road to recovery after decades of violence and poverty.

But that isn’t the way the war was being played out. The number of casualties involving uniformed personnel or civilians and the number of incidents, whether roadside attacks with improvised explosive devices, suicide strikes, night raids or, firefights, steadily increased during the two and half years I taught at the American university. Just last week, for instance, the UN reported that civilian deaths for January through June reached a record high in 2011.

Certainly some Afghans, a small minority, have benefitted economically from international spending over the last decade and in a handful of cities women are working jobs outside the home that they denied under the Taliban. But most of Afghanistan remains a dirt-poor country with no economic base, save illegal opium, and for most Afghans, particularly those in the rural provinces, life is not getting better.

The vast majority of western aid to Afghanistan is directed to the military, but some civilian aid funds salaries for international workers, like myself, and while other aid provides comparatively well paid jobs for local employees. Many of my students took evening classes because they worked fulltime jobs with international non-governmental organizations, Afghan ministries, or foreign embassies. They were beneficiaries of the western presence and had plenty of reason to fear that their gains, and that of their families, would vanish with the withdrawal of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). So they ignored the evidence showing the war was becoming more fierce and deadly. Denying unpleasant realities is a coping strategy and often is an alternative to despair, the theory goes.

Social denial is no less rampant in the homeland of the collapsing American empire, in which 40 million people struggle in poverty while the political class engages in debt reductions talks without considering substantial tax hikes on the wealthiest Americans or major reductions in defense spending. Since 2000 the U.S. defense budget has increased an estimated 80 percent without including the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Harper’s Magazine. “Why is the one part of government that best epitomizes everything conservatives say they hate about government—- waste, incompetence, and corruption—all but exempt from conservative criticism?” wonders David Morris.

Morris’ question assumes there is an alternative to conservative voices, which of course there are, though they are not sitting around the tables of these talks. Those seats are reserved for the protectors of the rich and the war profiteers from both political parties who have no self-interest in criticizing the status quo from which their privileges flow. But what motivates the denial of many millions of Americans who are victims of this class warfare? What motivates their stubborn acquiescence in the face of their own decline? Is it a fear similar that of my former students from Afghanistan?

When I pushed my students, many of them would eventually admit that they had moved beyond feelings of disappointment and had come to resent and dislike the American government’s performance in their country. They were often reluctant to say that out loud, especially in an American university, but their unwillingness had a deeper logic. As much as they disliked the U.S. effort, they feared the return of the Taliban even more. Extending the comparison, what is it that many Americans fear so much that they will tolerate cruel oligarchic rule and the steady erosion of their dreams?

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