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
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
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.