I stress very strongly, not the left at large or overall. It’s a very small tradition of anticolonial, pseudo-nationalist radicalism that eclectically and often incoherently grabs what it needs from Marxism, poststructuralism, postcolonial theory, and even conservative thought now and again (though often in unacknowledged ways).
It is also a tradition that is completely unable to face its own contradictions. Churchill’s much-cited remarks on 9/11 are an indication, for example, of the underlying moral incoherence of his writing (and writing like his). The principles that are used to value some lives (Iraqi babies dying under sanctions) and not others (people in the World Trade Center) have no underlying ethical or moral foundation: they’re purely historicist and instrumental. The original sin of modernity is seen as the expansion of the West; it is perceived as a kind of singularity that utterly destroyed or erased historical experience to that point. The only moral vector, the only capacity to act immorally or to commit evil, descends from that original sin. If you’re associated by social structure with that expansion, you are bad. If you are a victim of it, you are good.
This perspective on history and contemporary global politics is incapable of explaining its own existence. How is it possible to value life in a world produced by the expansion of the West, even the lives of the victims of colonialism? What are the sources, in a purely historicist account of ethics, of a belief in the sanctity of human cultures, or a belief that it is wrong to colonize or practice what Churchill would call genocide? Churchill, like others who write within his intellectual tradition, has no way to explain the genesis of his own political and ethical position. He can in fragmented ways claim an authenticity rooted in Native American traditions—but if it is possible today in the here and now to construct and disseminate a whole ethical practice founded in those traditions, then his claim of genocidal eradication by the West is clearly is false. If on the other hand, the West contains within it the seeds of its own critique, then the expansion of the West is itself a much more complicated phenomena than it would appear to be in Churchill’s writing.
Sorry for the very long quote, but the four paragraphs hang together.
Much of what is wrong in Churchill is also present -- and also wrong -- in the more radical exponents of postcolonial theory. There is a kind of forgetting of the origins of terms which make the critique possible, and a disregard for the fact that the "West contains within it the seeds of its own critique" (I think Burke is echoing Edward Said's essay on Conrad here, in Culture And Imperialism). Tim's point is that a system of values that is universal, or nearly so -- is both necessary and inevitable (in theory, they would say it's "always already" involved).
One of the things I've been trying to think about, both in my book on secularism (sadly, still languishing without a publisher!), as well as in what will perhaps be my next project, is the possibility of thinking about a historical (rather than "theoretical") critique of colonialism, with something like a liberal, humanist lens.
It's really not that easy to do. If you believe that colonial modernity was indeed a kind of original sin, there is precious little to stop you from justifying resistance to it using what I would call immoral means (i.e., terrorism). A certain way of reading Foucault also leads one to this place...
If you disagree, you are left in an uncomfortable position somewhat akin to the Zamindar (landowner) Nikhil, in Tagore's The Home and the World. You accept the potential benefits of colonization (incidentally, this might apply to the current situation in Iraq), while also aspiring to end colonialism as a political and military strategy of the dominant powers.
But in wanting both things at once you also run the risk -- again, like Nikhil -- of undermining the basis of your own authority. You have your humanism, but to a great extent you lose your politics.
[Still thinking about these issues... criticism welcomed...]