Culture of Imperialism

by Eqbal Ahmad


The expansions which followed Christopher Columbus' s voyage to the Americas resulted in the destruction of great civilizations the Aztec, Inca, and Maya. The Indians of North America suffered a similar fate. Nearly all of God's creation including land and labour were turned into commodities in the capitalist sense of the word. People were kidnapped, bought, transported and sold. The demographic colour of continents changed with white settlers and black slaves displacing the brown natives in the Americas and the Caribbean.

A world system of unparalleled political, economic and cultural dimension, was created and continually reinforced by new technology. In the industrial age, the expansionist drive moved on to Asia and Africa most of which was colonized. At the start of the 20th century, nearly all of the world's non-Western peoples were under some form of Western domination, and remain hopelessly trapped in structures of extreme inequality which is not merely economic.

"The conquest of earth, which means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much", wrote Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, a novel set in Congo which was colonized by Belgium at the turn of the century. Conrad, who sailed up the Congo river in 1890, witnessed the enterprise that cost an estimated ten million lives. He betrays but little empathy for the African victims and none whatsoever for their history or culture. The "heart of darkness" is situated, nevertheless, in Europe not Africa, in London and Brussels, above all, in Kurtz, the legendary agent of the Belgian company "his mother was half English, his father was half French who symbolizes corporate greed, inhumanity in extremis and the quest of redemption in an idea. "All Europe", wrote Conrad, "contributed to the making of Kurtz." How could an enlightened civilization engage in so "not a pretty thing"?

Conrad's answer is implied in the above quotation: do not "look into it too much." That requires the complicity of intellectuals. From inertia and ignorance no less than active belief in the imperial mission, the intellectuals of the West complied by and large. The fate of the great hemispheric civilizations merited but a rare and eccentric recording. Until very recently, we knew little about the holocaust in the Congo which had gone on right into the twentieth century. We did not hear about the struggles in which civilizations perished and some 200 million people died until a battle occurred in which a Custer was killed or a Gordon was besieged.

The habit of 'not looking into it too much' persists. Since the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, not one major work of history, art, or cinema has examined Vietnamese experience of the American intervention. By contrast, America's experience of Vietnam has yielded a significant body of analysis and narrative. Or take a recent instance: as thieves and killers go, Mobuto, who fell from power recently, a likeness of King Leopold I, was sustained for three decades by Washington and Paris. How much did we know of his doings until the spring of 1997? Excavation of continually suppressed truths remains one of the great intellectual tasks of this our information age, a task rendered enormously difficult as governments and the media corporations democratic and otherwise have gained a certain monopoly over historical truths. They distort and bum them freely. I have just learned that the CIA has destroyed the records of its murderous Third World interventions, including its overthrow in 1953 of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh's elected government in Iran.

Conrad suggests another mechanism of rescuing imperial conscience: "What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea something you can set up and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to..." We all know the idea from popularized redemptive phrases White Man's Burden, La Mission Civilizatrice, Manifest Destiny. Like all mobilizing slogans these were merely the lowest common denominator of the imperial consensus. Notions of racial superiority and divine ordination, the contrast between the West's higher mission and the native's humble reality, were not the only ideas that redeemed imperialism. Beginning with Edward Said's Orientalism, first published in 1979, a significant body of works in criticism, history, and cultural studies have excavated the deep roots and complex structures of imperial ideologies. They took many forms which have penetrated deep in our knowledge system and consciousness both Western and non- Western.

Boundaries were drawn to deny our common humanity. An ideology of difference possessed the empires' intellectuals and administrators. They had a mania for classifying people and viewed each as a distinct, necessarily divisible entity. Easy intermingling of peoples was regarded as somehow unnatural. Edward Said points to how the English were astonished to find Muslims, Christians and Jews socializing as though they were not different species. So in the novel Tanered, one of Disraeli's characters quips that 'Arabs are simply Jews on horseback, and all are orientals at heart.' The policy of divide and rule flowed easily from this sectarian outlook.

While the menace of miscegenation haunted imperial cultures and barriers of policy and social sanctions were erected to prevent it, complex mechanisms emerged to break the barriers to conquest and domination. There was the notion of mystery, as in the mysterious East, an invitation to exploration. Mysteries, after all, demand solution by enlightened, knowledgeable men. Or the idea of darkness, as in the dark continent to which one should bring light. Or the notion of empty lands which of course needed filling up. Or the veritable literature on identifiable, collective mind the Arab mind, Hindu mind, etc. that is still prevalent. All led to a set of common conclusions: they are not like us. They are different. Hence they can be treated differently, according to standards other than those that apply in civilized places. The outlook was so embedded in civilization that it traversed centuries. One finds strange bedfellows, separated in time and space. 'We must save Chile from the irresponsibility of its people', Henry Kissinger was reported to have said while proceeding to destabilize the elected government of Salvadore Allende. A century earlier Karl Marx had written: "They cannot represent themselves. They have to be represented." Third World dictators give precisely this argument to justify their tyranny. This culture is pervasive, it cuts across continents and penetrates our outlook by a variety of mediums. As I outline this talk in the flight from Islamabad to New York, Pakistan International Airlines shows Star Trek: First Contact. I snip at what looks like a high-tech, outer-space replay of an earlier voyage into an 'undiscovered' world. Commander Jean-Luc Picard plays a modern-day Cortes, leading the crew of the newly commissioned Enterprise E to war against the Borg "an insidious race", informs the PIA flier.

Those "half organic aliens" appear like Indians in the early Westerns mysteriously, ubiquitously and sometimes seductively. Violence flows freely as 'contact' is made. Fallen aliens are shot even as they beg for mercy. Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his crew commit quite a holocaust with an insouciance we are expected to appreciate only because they have vanquished an alien race mysterious, dangerous, seductive and, ultimately, vulnerable. The Borgs have no individual identity, only a collective one. Their defeat is deemed final only when their roots are destroyed, when their head which assures life's motion to the entire race is cut off. An idea redeems this "mission"; once contact has been made the world will change. Promises Captain Picard: "Poverty, disease, and war will end."

Star Trek is but a crude, popular expression of the culture of imperialism. This culture is not Western any more. Rather, it enjoys hegemony, it has become global. Note an irony: Pakistan International Airlines, which will not serve wine to passengers, happily serves up Captain Picard on its flights.

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