Wednesday, April 28, 2010



Over the last half century, "imperialism" has become a dirty word in American academic discourse. During that time, prevailing rhetoric has extolled multiculturalism, tolerance and multiperspectivism. It has championed the rights of historically disadvantaged groups while denigrating traditionally powerful ones. It has empowered the downtrodden and strengthened the weak. It has justified the historically unjustifiable. In the process, university rhetoric has identified "imperialism" as the worst thing one culture can do to another. Great civilizations, so the rhetoric goes, no longer conquer and dominate others. Great civilizations tolerate everyone and allow every culture to flourish within their borders.

Yet I venture that this is an anomalous trend. In fact, I argue that Nations unafraid to act imperialistically are strong Nations, while Nations afraid to do so are weak.

I understand that this squarely contradicts how we are "supposed to think" about imperialism today. But true to my word, I am determined to speak out this week about uncomfortable subjects. To use Nietzsche's term, I am determined to make "Uncontemporary Observations" concerning subjects we have been taught never to consider any other way.

Imperialism is about national power. In its purest form, it means the purposeful, intrusive projection of one Nation's military and cultural power over another Nation. To understand what that entails, it is essential to understand what "Nations" are. In past essays, I have noted that "Nations" and "States" are distinct terms. "Nations" refer to discrete populations united by common linguistic, cultural, genetic and religious traditions. "States," on the other hand, refer merely to a population's adherence to a particular governing instrument for the sake of common administration and convenience. Many Nations can exist under a common State. But Nations are unique.

Throughout history, some Nations have prevailed, while others have fallen. Nations that have prevailed generally have successfully engaged in imperialism. They have crushed and dominated their neighbors. They have brutally stamped out opposition and imposed their own cultural traditions on their defeated enemies. These Nations cared nothing for multiculturalism or tolerance. They did not blink at brutality. Rather, they felt so secure in their own power that they gladly violated other Nations' territory to absorb them into their own realms. This is not a popular thing to do these days. But history shows that the most influential Nations have been the most imperialistic, too.

Consider Rome. Rome grew to eminence because it projected its values across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. By sheer will and military prowess, it subjugated its neighbors, occupied their territory and imposed its values on them. It even made them speak Latin and build infrastructure according to the Roman model. It forced them to live under Roman law and observe Roman customs. Rome was strongest when it was unafraid to conquer. It affirmed its own beliefs when it ruthlessly destroyed all who stood before it. Through imperialism, Rome made itself great. At its height, Rome conquered and killed without a second thought. It believed so strongly in its own values that it did not hesitate to eradicate whole Nations.

But consider now how Rome fell. Rome collapsed several centuries after it stopped waging imperial wars. Once it reached its territorial zenith, Roman values began to weaken. Its government began tolerating new ideas and new cultural trends. Internal cultural cracks developed. Its military power waned. Barbarians began picking away at the frontiers. Put simply, Rome lost its appetite for imperialism. It lost faith in its own rightful dominance. So Nations with more assurance in their own values filled the void. They overran Rome and destroyed it.

Turn now to England and Spain, the "great" European colonizers of the Americas and Asia. Both Nations achieved spectacular eminence because they shamelessly engaged in imperialism. Both Nations reached their zenith when they brutally laid claim to others' land and genocidally slaughtered anyone who opposed them. They unswervingly believed in their own causes: Just like the imperial Romans, the British and the Spanish believed that their values were far superior to the Natives they displaced. So they killed, enslaved and uprooted them without a second thought. In the process, they reshaped the world. Like it or not, the fact that English and Spanish are among the world's most spoken languages is the direct result of unabashed, vicious global imperialism. Like it or not, the only reason why European white people live in North America today is because England and Spain barged in and killed everyone else who used to live there. The very existence of the United States is the product of an original, shocking act of imperialism by Great Britain.

To summarize, Nations are strong when they conquer. They believe in their own values so much that they do not shrink from trampling and absorbing other Nations. Nations weaken when they lose faith in their own dominance and begin tolerating dissention in their own borders. Imperialism showcases a Nation's shameless belief in itself; and its contempt for any culture that differs from it.

Needless to say, it is no longer popular to endorse imperialism. It is no longer acceptable to say that one Nation is rightfully superior to another, let alone to suggest that one Nation has the authority to seize territory and butcher native inhabitants in another country. Yet it is precisely that vicious cultural intolerance that created the United States. That same intolerance sustained all the world's mightiest empires. When a Nation engages in imperialism without shame, it declares to all the world: "My Nation is so great that it deserves to dominate you."

America presents an interesting case. Despite all the recent discourse condemning imperialism, the United States remains an immensely imperialistic country. Since roughly 1865, America has engaged in imperialism all over the world. First, it eradicated or marginalized native populations in its own continental borders. Second, it overran Hawaii. Then it battled Spain and conquered Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Philippines and numerous Pacific islands. In World War I, it projected its national power into European affairs, playing a substantial role in dictating the peace terms at Versailles. In World War II, the United States achieved monumental national power by almost single-handedly defeating Japan and Germany, then permanently occupying both defeated countries. After World War II, the United States created the United Nations and oversaw "world peace" by policing various national conflicts from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan and Central America. Later, the United States invaded Iraq on fabricated "self-defense" grounds, plunging that country into civil war.

America's voracious imperialism does not end with military conquest. Beyond physical incursions into other Nations' affairs, America also engages in unabashed cultural intrusion. Its music and film industry dominate the entire world. Children from China to Germany to Africa all learn English so they can listen to American songs and watch American movies. People in Beirut listen to Michael Jackson and Rihanna. Business people all over the world adopt English as their lingua franca. America's cultural imperialism is so complete that when two foreign businessmen meet, chances are they will speak English to each other, even if neither is a native English speaker. None of these things would ever have come to pass if America had not engaged in overwhelming, successful imperialism over the last 150 years.

In this light, perhaps it is not a bad thing to say that a Nation like the United States is "imperialistic." After all, America dominates the world in a way not seen since Rome. Its culture, language and military cow the globe into submission. All other Nations measure themselves by the American standard. Like all empires in history, America's imperialism shows that the United States ruthlessly believes in itself. It does not tolerate dissention abroad. And it has shown that it will crush any Nation that opposes its power. Put simply, America is strong; and it is not afraid to beat anyone down who thinks otherwise.

Is imperialism unpopular? In university rhetoric, of course it is. But when we look closely at what imperialism means--and what it has wrought in the United States--we discover an embarrassing truth: We are all the products of imperialism. Our "American civilization" arose because England and Spain were unafraid to savagely kill the natives who once occupied this land. We speak English and Spanish in North America because the British and Spanish felt so superior that they had a right to set up shop on a foreign continent. And we now live in the world's most powerful Nation because the United States carried on the imperialistic tradition that gave it life in the first place.

America was born in imperialism. It will always be imperialistic. Imperialism showcases American values. It reflects intolerance for all who oppose us. In a perverse way, however, it also confirms America's health. As long as America is unafraid to savagely destroy its enemies and to project is culture over all the world, it is still--as Rome was--at the height of its power. America has not stopped expanding. Indeed, it is not in our nature to stop expanding. Once we stop expanding--whether culturally or militarily--we are no longer imperialistic. And when that happens, we can expect our power to gradually wane, just as Rome's did.

Thus, despite all the criticism, an imperialistic Nation is a healthy Nation. Imperialistic Nations might act like ferocious animals, but ferocious animals defeat any living thing that opposes them. In that light, we can thank imperialism for giving us this mighty Republic, as well as all the comforts it brings.

This is my uncontemporary observation for the day.

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