Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Thoughts on Imperialism

This part of Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism caught my attention. I'm going to quote it even though I haven't finished reading the whole thing yet.
...many people in the West came to feel that enough was enough. After Vietnam and Iran--and note here that these labels are usually employed equally to evoke American domestic traumas (the student insurrections of the 1960s, the public anguish about the hostages in the `970s) as much as international conflict and the "loss"of Vietnam and Iran to radical nationalisms--after Vietnam and Iran, lines had to be defended. Western democracy had taken a beating, and even if the physical damage had been done abroad, there was a sense, as Jimmy Carter once rather oddly put it, of "mutual destruction." This feeling in turn led to Westerners rethinking the whole process of decolonization. Was it not true, ran their new evaluation, that "we" had given "them" progress and modernization? Hadn't we provided them with order and a kind of stability that they haven't been able to provide for themselves? Wasn't it an atrocious misplaced trust to believe in their capacity for independence?...
The thing to be noticed about this kind of contemporary discourse, which assumes the primacy and even the complete centrality of the West, is how totalizing is its form, how all-enveloping its attitudes and gestures, how much it shuts out even as it includes, compresses, and consolidates. We suddenly find ourselves transported backwards in time to the late nineteenth century.
This imperial attitude is, I believe beautifully captured in the complicated and rich narrative form of Conrad's great novella Heart of Darkness, written between 1898 and 1899...
Conrad would probably never have used Marlow to present anything other than an imperialist world-view, given what was available for either Conrad or Marlow to see of the non-European at the time. Independence was for whites and Europeans; the lesser or subject peoples were to be ruled; science, learning, history emanated from the West. True, Conrad scrupulously recorded the differences between the disgraces of Belgian and British colonial attitudes, but he could only imagine the world carved up into one or another Western sphere of dominion.

The sort of thinking that Said was describing when he wrote the book (published in 1993) seems to be quite common in American thinking. I'm frequently surprised by how many Americans seem to unquestioningly believe in the American "destiny" and regard it as perfectly natural that America is the most powerful nation in the world and is some how superior to other nations. In my opinion, this is far from a certain thing, and historically has not always been true. Furthermore, this view also strikes me as dangerous, we started invading, and dare I say it, colonizing other countries with the firm belief that the people we conquered would rejoice and welcome us with open arms. Why did we think this? Because America is the bringer of freedom and possessor of a great destiny. Even when reality is staring us in the face, we seem incapable, as Said describes, of conceiving of a world order where the US is not on top, or imagining that our cause may not be just or even justified.


Blackamazon said...

Whylast picture I love them want more

lovelesscynic said...

well, the last picture of the Forbidden City anyway, not the last picture ever. Don't worry, there are plenty more where that came from.

Magniloquence said...

Nice passage! And a good point, too.

Somehow, that makes me think of all the discourse that's going on around SiCKO in the mainstream femisphere. I don't know why, exactly... I guess just that the whole 'American Exceptionalism' thing carries over even (especially, as Belledame points out) into areas in which we know we've been screwed. People sit around kicking and screaming that it can't possibly work for us, because we're so big and so independent (and if it was so good, we'd've done it already, clearly... so there must be something wrong with it) ... and besides, we have much better healthcare in the "right tail", so we're better, got it? If you need a hyperexpensivesupercomplicated procedure that only two surgeons in the world know, there's a good chance they practice here. Aren't you proud of us?

Ahem. But of course, the colonialist thought goes farther than that... after all, it's not just about making ourselves feel good, it's about making ourselves feel good by making other people's lives worse. Because freedom means acting just like westerners, and if we have to prevent half of your population from recieving life-saving medical care to make a point that your cultural practices are bad, so be it. You'll thank us for it later.

*rolls eyes*

(On a really tangential note, what is it with people naming things "Colonial" like it's a good thing? I keep seeing cars purchased from Colonial Honda... and Googling to try to find it turned up way more hits than I was expecting. Apparently it's a popular naming scheme. Same with "Imperial," though that's usually because the city/area/street is named Imperial, rather than that they're trying to evoke it as a cool thing that makes you want to buy cars.)

Anonymous said...

just a couple thoughts i had reading your post

it would certainly make sense for Americans to feel that superiority is intrinsic rather than artificially created from the looting of other people's resources. What is interesting to me is that the underlying moral groundwork hasn't been removed -- that is the definitions of what things are humane and what things are not have not been changed. Hence the requirement for a grand justification scheme. We have step away from being just ethnocentric, to ethnocentric with a mission.

But, as magniloquence already pointed out, the vast majority of the advantage we take from other nations goes undetected. These issues only seem to threaten our nation-identity when actual force must be used against those we oppress. In the meantime, our industrial machinery runs quietly and powerfully underneath our feet.


lovelesscynic said...

Mag, please start blogging again, you always managed to synthesize everything, all the shakeups and discussions so nicely and neatly, with meticulous linking, so lazy jerks like me could follow them.

You make an interesting point about the Colonial Honda, and the Imperial Honda. Salman Rushdie had a really awesome essay about Colonial Chic/Nostalgia for Empire, and despite our supposedly changed perspectives about imperialism, there is a certain glamor that is associated with the imperial period. And the car names are designed as you say, to reflect that.

Michelle, it's true as you say. And you put it very well I think, our debts to other nations are covered up in our national consciousness. Manifest Destiny is still alive and well in America.