The subtle perils of Eurocentrism

Mihir S. Sharma in the Business Standard:

ScreenHunter_48 Aug. 24 21.00Few events have so up-ended the established order as Japan’s crushing victory over the Russians at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. This, the first salvo in the long war to push back the subjugation of the East by the West, was heard around the colonised world; and it is where Pankaj Mishra begins From the Ruins of Empire, which purports to be a history of the ways in which the East imagined that war. Sadly, the glaring flaws that populate Mishra’s book, reducing it even from pop history to puerile polemic, begin there, too. Misleading quotes, for example: he says Gandhi responds by recognising it was “self-respect” that won Japan the battle, except most of Gandhi’s writing on Tsushima actually praised Japan’s patriotism and national unity, a considerably more inward-looking and less reactive claim.

Mishra’s treatment of attitudes to Japanese ambition, in fact, is just one instance of the double standards – which match those of the most devoted apologist of empire — that riddle this book. The Russo-Japanese war was a battle of empires for land in Manchuria; but throughout, Mishra insists on describing the horrors of Japanese imperialism as “but a reaction”. So, too, could the British Empire be a “reaction” to the Spanish Empire, and the German Empire a “reaction” to the British. But white people are granted agency by Mishra, and people of colour are not – one of the many, many ways in which this book fits squarely into the Eurocentric, mentally colonised framework which Mishra wants us to believe he is helping us escape. Later on in the book, the moral blindness that comes with such double-standards is hideously exposed in his description of Japanese expansionism, where the Rape of Nanking is hastily glossed over, and that empire’s brutality against fellow-Asians is excused as “revenge for decades of racial humiliation.” Indeed, he goes on to say essentially that the occupied should be thankful for this good, Asian, empire: it allowed them to imagine what freedom from the West would be like.

More here.