Features, Politics, Privilege

Neo-Orientalism and the Left

Stroll through the streets of major cities in Southeast Asia – whether it be in Malaysia, Vietnam, or Thailand – and you start to notice a new fad among Western tourists. It is referred to as ‘beg-packing,’ and involves primarily white Western tourists begging on the streets for money to fund their travels across the region. Some may sell small trinkets or busk for money. I encountered this persoally in the Little India area of Kuala Lumpur, where I watched a young dreadlocked white woman solicit change from passers-by with her kettle drums.

Beg-packers who depend on the charity of a poorer country to fund a luxury like travel have rightly received much derision on the Internet since the phenomenon was first reported. As one Malaysian writer noted: “I think that this kind of behavior shows how many people still look at the world with an orientalist view. They see Asia as an exotic place of spiritual discovery.”

According to the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said, ‘orientalism’ describes how Westerners have historically viewed the East (and basically any non-Western region) vis-à-vis the West. Such Western attitudes, however, are not and never were monolithic, and much of Said’s work has been discredited by other scholars as either simplistic or overtly polemical. Nevertheless, while the term is still used as a slur by many on the far Left, increasingly it is self-described progressives who are responsible for the most thoughtless and egregious examples.

The Left’s new (or old) kind of Orientalism romanticizes the Global South as a nirvana of spirituality and eccentric traditions in contrast to the banality and empty materialism of the West. It is both an exotic playground and a place crying out for salvation; its people are simple and forever the helpless victims of circumstance. Such a view treats what for many locals is a miserable, inescapable experience as something to be fetishized. Instead, the East becomes a place of self-discovery and experience – a place for wealthy narcissists and dilettante pilgrims to ‘find themselves.’

But the non-Western world is also a place in need of their assistance. In a 2013 article for The Independent entitled “The Tragic Rise of Gap Year Voluntourism,” Ritwik Deo sternly criticizes students who take package tours to the Global South for the purposes of humanitarian work. He warns that this cheapened form of charity can become a sort of White Man’s Burden, with today’s generation “thinking that it is their moral duty to intervene in the darkest stretches of the planet.” He warns that ‘voluntourism’ breeds “envy and contempt. It breeds smugness. It breeds boastfulness at cocktail parties.” It can also leave people under the misapprehension that they have gained some special expertise and insight into countries, about which they actually understand very little.

This Orientalism has clouded how many on the Western Left understand and approach minority cultures within their own societies. This has been particularly noticeable on the identitarian Left, which judges individuals primarily on the basis of factors over which they have no control, such as race, sex, or ethnicity, rather than character or values. Within this peculiar framework, minorities are treated as perpetually victimized but ennobled savages – peoples to be protected, coddled, and gawked at. They bring color, life, and exotic arts, crafts, and cuisine to an apparently soulless and culturally vapid West, as though their only value and purpose is to provide others with entertainment. Eastern cultures and religions are portrayed as inherently peaceful and wise compared to those found in the materialistic, hyper-rational, and warmongering West. But this only recalls a condescending 19th century colonial discourse which regarded Eastern peoples as feminized and residing in a mythical Edenic splendor unpolluted by the evils of modernity. Like the beg-packers, these leftists fetishize non-Western cultures, no matter how oppressive and miserable it may be to actually live in them.

Determined to preserve these cultures in their ‘natural’ state, this kind of leftism divides society into increasingly rigid ethnic and religious community enclaves, characterized by what is held to be most culturally ‘authentic.’ Those individuals within minority communities who do not toe the line – reformist Muslims, conservative blacks, or basically anyone who doesn’t feel sufficiently victimized – are denigrated as ‘native informants,’ ‘Uncle Toms,’ and ‘sell-outs.’ Not only do these leftists view the world increasingly through an identarian lens, they also take it upon themselves to judge how these identities are to be applied.

Recall the abuse suffered by British Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz for daring to speak to prominent neuroscientist Sam Harris in 2015 as part of a conversation about the future of Islam. For this transgression, Nawaz was subjected to a depressingly familiar catalogue of racist and dehumanizing slurs, including ‘lapdog,’ ‘porch monkey,’ and ‘native informant.’ This desire to find the most ‘authentic’ voice among minority communities often ends up hurting members of those communities the most, as it inevitably leads to the most reactionary and bigoted voices being hailed as the only ‘true’ community representatives, thereby perversely silencing more liberal elements. As Nawaz himself noted:

The pitfalls of “Am I Black Enough” are well-known. It is equally dangerous to disappear down the “Am I Muslim Enough?” rabbit hole. For the only winners in this gutter game of one-upmanship are ultimately the religious fanatics.

Even when the most toxic strands of these non-Western cultures erupt beyond the community to actively harm the wider society, many on the Left will only obfuscate or deflect. This is particularly noticeable in a common reaction to recent jihadist attacks in the West. Rather than confront the toxic subcultures found within ghettoized Muslim communities in Western cities and that promulgate the hatred of women, homosexuals, Jews, non-Muslims, and other minorities, many on the Left prefer to declare that it is the West which is always and everywhere at fault.

Following incidents of jihadi mass-murder that claim the lives of innocent citizens of all faiths in Western cities, the Orientalist Left point their fingers of blame, not at the perpetrators or at the doctrines they espouse, but at past and present Western actions in the Muslim-majority world. US actions in Iraq, for example, are believed to explain why a man who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State decided to murder 50 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. The alarming prevalence of homophobia within Muslim communities – and its importance to Islamist ideology in particular – are, it seems, to be considered irrelevant. By the same token, Israeli policy in the occupied territories is blamed for the increasing frequency of anti-Semitic incidents perpetrated in Sweden, which have become so bad that children at a Jewish kindergarten in Malmo play behind bulletproof glass. Meanwhile, it is not Islamist blasphemy doctrines that explain why 12 people were murdered in the Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, but the historical colonization of North Africa and France’s supposedly systemic racism.

What is striking is that the attitude of the Orientalist Left towards the non-Western world reflects the colonial pundits whose ideas they hold in such contempt. Both robbed the non-Western world of its agency and the capacity to decide its own destiny. It is the West which is the vehicle of history and Western actors alone who are considered to be moral agents. Should anything occur in the East, it is because Westerners caused it, either intentionally or not. The East is simultaneously exoticized and treated as a blank slate, its own ideologies and cultural views somehow both romanticized and irrelevant. Its peoples are inherently innocent and perpetually vulnerable, requiring outside salvation both in their native lands and their adopted Western homes.

During the dawn of the modern world, Europeans arrived on eastern shores with a vision of its societies as historically stagnant, its traditions as timeless and pure, and its peoples as victimized and noble. With a mixture of good intentions and ignorant condescension, millions of natives were oppressed and their societies ruined. The Orientalist Left should stop to consider whether their own good intentions are paving a new road to Hell.

 

Imran Shamsunahar is a political risk analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He also works as a freelance writer in his free time, writing mostly on international security. He has contributed articles to War Is Boring, The National Interest, and The Strategy Bridge.

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22 Comments

  1. Santoculto says

    ”Bourgeois buddhists”

    India is to this people what Santiago de Compostela has been to medieval christians, a place of peregrination because they think there is something special there that cannot be found in the industrialized//dehumanized/ sterilized places they live.

    ”Both robbed the non-Western world of its agency and the capacity to decide its own destiny.”

    Partly correct in my view, this days many people believe only way to ”develop’ a country is via industrialization: destruction of most part of natural places; consumerism/excessive materialism.

    But… i don’t think ”non-westerners” has been capable to decide their own destiny either since a very long time. How time to indians started to think seriously/critically about the unfairnesses of their caste system without ”western cultural and political penetration”**

    • Santoculto says

      Another importante and obvious points is that to avoid OVER-GENERALIZATIONS about them, there are a lot of different people being placed in the same derrogatory classification AND seems hyperbolically to state that ””westerners”” included this people, are responsible for third world problems and challenges, while it’s quite correct to say that it’s POLITICAL and ECONOMIC ELITES who are always behind any s..it.

      Many if not most of this people peregrinate in India by good intentions.

  2. Daniel PV says

    Interesting discussion. You’re correct about anyone who refuses to stay in the victim narrative and takes responsibility for themselves as an individual rather than limiting themselves to their pre-ordained group ideology (that someone bestowed upon them). Woe betide anyone that shows blasphemy against the ideology. Why is that though?

    • ANDY WONG says

      Because most people are lazy to get to know people as themselves and not as preconceived stereotypes. The victimhood narrative foisted on minorities and non-Western countries is one such thing. They can’t stand it that someone else who isn’t white can stand up to them eye to eye and be judged on equal grounds as them. Their inner superiority complexes will always get into the way.

  3. Jeff York says

    Mr. Shamsunahar, very good article. Thank you. Westerners begging in the streets of less affluent countries to fund their vacation or “quest for enlightenment” or whatever—blows my mind. Just when I think that I’ve seen it all. Western Civilization continues its downward spiral.

  4. Debbie says

    “This Orientalism has clouded how many on the Western Left understand and approach minority cultures within their own societies.”

    I disagree. This Orientalism is an _extension_ of how many on the Western Left understand and approach minority cultures within their own societies.

  5. White liberals cling desperately to their self-aggrandizing self-image in order convince anyone still listening, that they’re still pointing the way for all to follow.
    A world lead less and less by white males, lead less and less by one group, needs liberalism, a playbook designed for speaking for other people, less and less.

  6. “Beg-packers who depend on the charity of a poorer country to fund a luxury like travel have rightly received much derision on the Internet since the phenomenon was first reported.”

    I wonder, how do they actually get that money from the inhabitants? What are the reasons as to why the money is given in the first place to these “beg-packers”?

    Maybe I am wrong but a sucker is a sucker, or a generous person a generous person, regardless of what country you’re from. The articles narrative seems to place the moral and economic blame on the people who do the travelling and countries they are from, but none of the blame on the poor, clueless, and unable-to-make-decisions-for-themeselves natives who are bilked out of their hard earned money by the cruel and manipulative Westerners there to rob them by…ferociously begging.

    Then, these individual Westerners are lumped together into the shapeless blob called progressive/liberal etc, all assigned the social justice warrior title and then consigned to the flames of hypocrisy. Wasn’t that same approach shown false somewhere else? Like here: “Western attitudes, however, are not and never were monolithic, and much of Said’s work has been discredited by other scholars as either simplistic or overtly polemical.”

    Does that mean lumping all the “beg-packers” in together as “Orientalists” simply because of their country of origin, their skin color, their current economic status, and the fact they are begging doing the same thing as this “…judges individuals primarily on the basis of factors over which they have no control, such as race, sex, or ethnicity, rather than character or values.”? Is that worth scorn as well? Could it be “simplistic or overtly polemical”? And, is begging something that originated in Asia? Or can every culture claim that one? Is begging a reflection of character or values? And, what if a Japanese tourist does the same “begpacking” in India? Would they be accused of the same “Orientalism” and hypocrisy of the Western invention of being “Leftist”? If an Indian national begs in NYC Grand Central, then there is no problem. Move along all of you Leftist social justice warrior gwailou, all is as it should be.

    And what about all those yogis and priests who directly benefit from, and so are incentivized, to maintain the illusion that “Asia as an exotic place of spiritual discovery.”? Of course, they are blameless and deserve zero “Internet derision”. But I don’t think anyone should worry. The really good and entertaining Asian religidiots move to set up shop in the West anyway. They can bilk the money back from the begpackers and their families…with interest.

    Or, if it is really a true problem, perhaps the Asian countries who face such “Orientalist attitudes” from faceless hordes of invading Colonial Western Leftists and whose citizens are further impoverished through the coercion of white girls begging could simply make a law that if you aren’t a citizen then begging is against local or national law. Is that thing?

    I also have to wonder, is there a similiar level of this “beg-packer” problem in China or Japan as it is in India or Malaysia? Is there any data as to whether or not the article narrative is lumping all of Asia into one example of Leftist “neo-Orientalist” manipulations from one experience in Kuala Lumpur and from a blogger in Malaysia? I wonder if that lack of data may “obfuscate” the narrative aim of this article, which seems to be tailored to the Western Center / Conservative Self-Haters who claim that Western civilization is on the decline and suffer the guilt of the actions of their embarassing Leftist, dreadlocked daughters.

    • phang says

      “I wonder, how do they actually get that money from the inhabitants? What are the reasons as to why the money is given in the first place to these “beg-packers”?

      Maybe I am wrong but a sucker is a sucker, or a generous person a generous person, regardless of what country you’re from. The articles narrative seems to place the moral and economic blame on the people who do the travelling and countries they are from, but none of the blame on the poor, clueless, and unable-to-make-decisions-for-themeselves natives who are bilked out of their hard earned money by the cruel and manipulative Westerners there to rob them by…ferociously begging.”

      the reason is locals worship white people thanks to a consistent media diet of hollywood for generations, and forced adaptation of quasi-Western values since colonialism.

      we aren’t robbed. we’re just stupid. so you’re right that a sucker is a sucker, but your context is way off.

      the very fact that white people deemed themselves privileged enough to beg us to fund their travels is the epitome of that neo-colonialism buoyed by orientalism.

      and us locals are stupid enough to submit and accept that as the way the world works because it’s been drummed into us for generations. by our own media choices as well as historical context.

      “Does that mean lumping all the “beg-packers” in together as “Orientalists” simply because of their country of origin, their skin color, their current economic status, and the fact they are begging doing the same thing as this “…judges individuals primarily on the basis of factors over which they have no control, such as race, sex, or ethnicity, rather than character or values.”?”

      nope. you have no control over race, sex or ethnicity, you have control over your understanding of the geopolitical social disparity between the context that shape your worldview and ours. that’s what the article judges and what you fail to see.

      “And, is begging something that originated in Asia? Or can every culture claim that one? Is begging a reflection of character or values? And, what if a Japanese tourist does the same “begpacking” in India? Would they be accused of the same “Orientalism” and hypocrisy of the Western invention of being “Leftist”? If an Indian national begs in NYC Grand Central, then there is no problem. Move along all of you Leftist social justice warrior gwailou, all is as it should be.”

      A Japanese tourist will never begpack anywhere in the world. the cultural context simply will not produce tourists like that. so no such Orientalism and hypocrisy may ever occur. your example is a strawman.

      same goes for the Indian national begging in NYC Grand Central. that guy won’t be begging to fund his travel for personal enlightenment, he’s probably illegal and homeless and in need of spare change just to survive another day.

      the problem with the Indian national beggar in NYC is poverty. not Orientalism.

      see the difference yet?

      or is your whiteness blinding you?

      “And what about all those yogis and priests who directly benefit from, and so are incentivized, to maintain the illusion that “Asia as an exotic place of spiritual discovery.”?”

      Please, do show a link to real life example of yogis and priests that are actually incentivized to cultivate that illusion. i live here, i’d like to see that.

      and here’s the thing, the illusion exists first, therefore Asian countries exoticize themselves in travel ads for westerners. we did not create the illusion. Orientalism did.

      “The really good and entertaining Asian religidiots move to set up shop in the West anyway. They can bilk the money back from the begpackers and their families…with interest.”

      again, please do show a link to a real life example of this, and where the money is actually, truly bilk back from the begpackers and their families… with interest.

      i guess in your mind, us third worlders are so dirt poor, every Asian hack swindling in your backyard gotta be sharing the dough with the rest of the damn country.

      so like, if an American works in my country, does it mean his/her cash is some kind of geopolitical payback or is that just with Asians living in yours?

      “Or, if it is really a true problem, perhaps the Asian countries who face such “Orientalist attitudes” from faceless hordes of invading Colonial Western Leftists and whose citizens are further impoverished through the coercion of white girls begging could simply make a law that if you aren’t a citizen then begging is against local or national law. Is that thing?”

      well surprise surprise, you know jack all about our customs, laws and governments, don’t you? we can’t even convict white drug smugglers or condemn assholes who piss on our holy mountains without the West screaming at us for our barbarity and backward beliefs. how dare we ban you people from begging on our streets? you guys deserve all the help you need. travelling for your all important self-discovery. how dare we stop you?

      “I also have to wonder, is there a similiar level of this “beg-packer” problem in China or Japan as it is in India or Malaysia? Is there any data as to whether or not the article narrative is lumping all of Asia into one example of Leftist “neo-Orientalist” manipulations from one experience in Kuala Lumpur and from a blogger in Malaysia? I wonder if that lack of data may “obfuscate” the narrative aim of this article, which seems to be tailored to the Western Center / Conservative Self-Haters who claim that Western civilization is on the decline and suffer the guilt of the actions of their embarassing Leftist, dreadlocked daughters.”

      you clearly have not been to this part of the world at all, or if you have, simply ignore the phenomenon.

      i live here. so what’s that about lack of data?

  7. Don’t get offended but I totally could’ve read this article in The American Conservative. That’s not a negative by the way, they have very thoughtful articles on all kinds of topics. But conservatives have been saying this EXACT same arguments for the past 45 years. Read The Vision of the Anointed by Thomas Sowell or Intellectuals and Society or anything by FA Hayek wherein he talks about the hubris of intellectuals thinking they can plan a whole society from top down.

  8. Sean,
    You’re doing the left pole thing. Just because the author has called out this hypocritical and mindless tendency of the progressive left (rightly so) does not make him anywhere near conservative. Remember American conservatives and classical liberals have a few overlapping ideals in common. Let us not fall down the progressive spiral.

  9. Pingback: Lost Cogs In A Global Machine With No Identity - Banter Loud

  10. Overall, I love this article. I spend a significant portion of my year traveling, and am disgusted by the white “beg-packers” I see along the way. Like, do they seriously just have NO perspective or compassion? (Given the glee so many regressives felt when Otto Warmbier was tortured and murdered by North Korea, I guess the answer should be clear…) As a feminist, I can’t stand when regressives defend human rights violations and violence in the name of “tolerance.”

    BUT. I did disagree with the idea that voluntourism is tragic and bad. I work in education consulting, and often encourage students to take a gap year. It gives them maturity, insight, and direction. I’ve never seen someone come back “smug”, just more mature. No one goes out of a “moral duty” — they go because they want to learn and grow. Are they “experts” when they leave? Not necessarily. But they certainly know things their future classmates won’t. If “boastfulness at cocktail parties” is the worst thing a gap year breeds, I think the pros FAR outweigh the cons.

    • yandoodan says

      I think the author is talking about the type of voluntourism that is organized as a tour, lasts a couple of weeks, and consists of contact with a carefully curated collection of “needy” locals, or even complete isolation from the locals in a location they’ve been told is environmentally threatened. (An American example of this would be a two week tour, organized by a travel agency, to a carefully selected Salvation Army mission; you’d come away with stories of the wisdom of the homeless, which you’d claim as insights to those who fail to duck you in time.)

      An entire year living in poverty to help others would be another thing. You wouldn’t even have to travel across the world to do it.

  11. AliRadicali says

    If any opinion or attitude one can have regarding the east is “orientalism” the phrase becomes a meaningless catchall. This article perfectly (albeit inadvertently) captures the reasons I loathe the word Orientalism.

  12. francisluong says

    This is a lame echo-chamber hit-piece lacking substantiation. Like an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians, Regressive Left edition.

    There are about two quotes, one tweet, and not a lot new ideas. Do better.

  13. Nice article. My personal policy is not to generalize, and not worry about being too “reflexive” (a la Said) about Orientalism. I liked being in Asia as an Army enlisted man. These young people are bourgeois shits, but hell they’re bringing in bucks, so that’s good. People who say imperialism had a hand in sparking terror are right, but the process is inevitable. It’s our job to fight terror right back, and continue to be imperialists until the Chinese take it over.

  14. Wayne Hall says

    I wouldn’t say that begtourism is an exclusively “left” phenomenon, but more something associated with a particular stage of mid-20s progress to maturity. I’ve lived in Asia for almost 20 years as an English teacher, and I’ve seen many examples of new university graduates coming to countries like Korea or China and assuming they can get paid very well for what is essentially goofing around in the classroom. They often experience a rude awakening, particularly when they are not invited back to teach a second year. But at the same time, I have also seen and heard of examples of fairly well-off Korean or Chinese tourists acting badly when visiting other Asian countries, or the US or Canada. It seems that some people assume, because they are in another country and the normal “rules” or social mores back home no longer apply, take from this that there are NO rules or customs of etiquette they have to follow anymore. It’s not so much ideology, but reaching a level of maturity to realize your preconceptions about another culture are just that – preconceptions. And you need to keep an open, and respectful, mind.

  15. Those individuals within minority communities who do not toe the line – reformist Muslims, conservative blacks, or basically anyone who doesn’t feel sufficiently victimized – are denigrated as ‘native informants,’

    This perfectly captures the socio-political mind frame with respect to minorities in America. I find it so frustrating that to be black and conservative is almost becoming taboo now. Whenever I attempt to explain to people how Democrat policies can actually harm us, for example, they immediately assume I’m a Republican and the Uncle Tom insults ensue.

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