November 21, 2002
The "C" Word

You hear it all the time in the foreign media, or from foreign world leaders:

"The confrontation of pious and martyrdom-seeking forces with the highest forces of colonialism is extremely dangerous, and might inflame a third world war."1

"In contrast [to Arabic history], terror as we know it today was introduced in the region only at the beginning of the 19th century, by Western colonialism and the Zionist gangs."2

"I am not against liberation of the nations of the world and the rebuilding of the Arab nation and confronting all the unjust forces of colonialism."3

"The Americans are coming! The Americans are coming! Imperialist pigs are coming to steal our land, eat our children, take our women, destroy our very culture!" On and on and on in so many varied, colorful, and different ways it actually becomes quite amusing to watch. Imperialism and colonialism, the two best, worst, "isms" the "developing" world has ever seen.

As with predictions of America's imminent demise, it's all crap. Moronic crap. It is the last, best, most useful Big Lie.

There are actually two different brands of "modern western" colonialism: settlement and economic. The first, settlement, is actually the earlier of the two. Developed primarily as a way of ridding oneself of meddlesome troublemakers and malcontents, as well as creating sources of cheap raw materials and "captive" markets for manufactured goods, this kind of colonialism was almost exclusively limited to the relatively (by eurasian standards) unpopulated western hemisphere.

But this is never what is really meant when you hear the words "colonialism" and (almost interchangeably) "imperialism". These terms are almost exclusively used in reference to the second type, economic colonialism.

Basically, economic colonialism is all about carving out more "captive" markets, places to buy cheap raw materials from and sell cheap finished goods to, by using existing populations instead of merely exporting the less desirable/more annoying parts of your own to unsettled lands. It's important to emphasize that, with one notable exception, this particular brand of colonialism really didn't exist until about 1870.

The history of colonialism is often presented as if some monstrous Rob Zombie-inspired steam shovel hacked its way through idyllic, peace-loving native peoples, turning them into shriveled famine victims living a dystopian nightmare of smokestacks and filth. This of course ignores the fact that all of these colonial holdings, all of them, were carved out of pre-existing empires, such as the Mughal in India, the Mamulkes in Egypt, the Manchu Dynasty in China, and the Ottomans in Asia. It's also not emphasized enough that before 1870 the greatest post-Roman empires were almost exclusively Muslim empires, the last of which lasted a full four centuries.

While fabulously profitable and only inconsistently oppressive, modern economic colonialism wouldn't last. Europeans' attitude toward the rest of the world may have changed, but their attitudes toward each other had not. The wealth their empires provided was squandered in not one but two massive bloodlettings we all know as the world wars, the end of which rendered them incapable of hanging on to what they'd built. The majority of the empires, most spectacularly that of the British, were completely dismantled by the 1960s. Even sub-Saharan Africa largely freed itself by the early years of the 1980s.

In other words, the vast majority of old-world peoples felt the "yoke of imperialist oppression" for less than a century, many times within the space of a single human lifetime. None lasted more than two centuries. When compared to the "native" empires that came before them, industrialized colonialism is just a blip on the radar screen.

Of course it's not Europe the world is supposedly worried about nowadays, it's America. "Imperium Americana" is regularly decried in the editorial pages, academic journals, and history books of the European, Arab, Asian, even at times American, press. Again, this is just more moronic crap from people who are exceeded in their ignorance only by their sincerity in expressing it.

The United States of America has never been a global imperialist on the scale of the European powers. During the first century of our country's existence we were dedicated solely to the expansion of our territory within the geographic boundaries of the North American continent. Certainly sections of America wished for empire, some quite vocally, but these were always kept in check by the vast majority of citizens who did not.

It is true America did eventually become a global empire, if only briefly, after the Spanish-American war of 1898. Puerto Rico and Guam became formal US territories. The Teller Amendment prevented America from annexing Cuba, and it was quickly (albeit with considerable and continuous meddling by US business interests) removed from direct American control. The Philippines were at first brutally suppressed by a US military far out of sight and mind of America, but even this island nation was quickly granted self-determination, with a fully elected legislature by 1916, less than 20 years after their "conquest". Indeed, by 1934 a plan was in place for complete Philippine independence, interrupted only by WWII.

This is not to say the US is an innocent lamb of peace wandering amongst European wolves. We quite merrily meddled in the affairs of nations less powerful than ourselves, mostly in Latin America before WWII. After WWII, the US acquired an unhealthy obsession with "communism" (although very few actually understood what the term meant). While Stalin was in power this was not necessarily just paranoiac ravings, but eventually it became little more than a lever used by big business to manipulate both the government and the people into most of our less savory actions in the last half of the 20th century. Regardless, the US never simply walked in and set up a colonial protectorate along the lines of French Indochina, India, or China. Never.

As for "cultural imperialism", it's a myth. There is only one country in the world completely taken over by America in the past sixty years: Japan. It's hard to imagine a more different culture when compared to the US. And yet America undertook a massive reconstruction effort, and less than ten years later Japan was again an independent nation.

Were the Japanese destroyed by this experience? Did they become slaves of white imperialist oppressors? Do we still rule Japan? Can anyone honestly say we exploit her?

Colonialism and imperialism were bad, very bad. But certainly no worse than what had come before, and undoubtedly would've come after had these peoples been left to their own devices. Colonialism, along with its big brother Imperialism, is a fact of history, with roots going back to first dynasties of ancient Egypt. By now most countries have had forty years to recover from the "modern western" variety, and all have had at least twenty.

Of all the great western powers of the colonial era, the United States in particular stands out as fantastically non-imperialistic. We consider it literally not our problem if your culture, government, religion, or power structure cannot stand up in the face of clean water, live babies, comfortable shoes, equal rights, air-conditioning, and automobiles. However, it does become our problem when your culture creates people who are willing to fly airplanes into our buildings to protest these facts.

Japan was the last country to directly attack the United States.

The Japanese experience should be most instructive to those who applaud terrorists.

Posted by scott at November 21, 2002 06:58 PM

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