NOTE: I am finally reproducing my "Stupid Quote of the Day" series that ran in my previous blog, the now defunct "Random Notes", from December 28, 2011 to January 27, 2012. Please note that there are no entries for January 4 and January 12 through January 14 due to illness.
I admit up front my quote of the day is actually just a pretext for discussing a topic I find interesting. It is from someone famous, or relatively so, at least in some circles, so it is a legitimate quote, but I found it while looking for yet another pretext quote, and I freely admit I am using it just so I can talk about a topic I find interesting.
Initially, I had intended to follow up on my earlier posts critical of isolationism, or non-interventionism as the proponents call it1, and so I started searching for "American Empire" on various search engines. Of course this led to a slew of distasteful and absolutely absurd quotes, but none of them quite struck a chord with me. They were mostly so far out there that debunking them seemed a waste of time, with a smattering of tediously dull academic additions, and the rest just illogical jumbles of emotional buzz words with little sense to them at all. And so, I was thrilled when I came upon the quote of the day, from Edward Said:
[...], so influential has been the discourse insisting on American specialness, altruism and opportunity, that imperialism in the United States as a word or ideology has turned up only rarely and recently in accounts of the United States culture, politics and history. But the connection between imperial politics and culture in North America, and in particular in the United States, is astonishingly direct.For those who forget him, Mr. Said was a "scholar of neo-imperialism", who had what some might call slightly too friendly relations with groups which were fronts for Palestinian terrorists, but otherwise was mostly a pro-Palestinian far left academic in the Chomsky mold. And that is why this quote thrilled me. I spent yesterday looking through Chomsky fan pages for a quote like this one, but found nothing usable, so I was delighted to find this quote. It wasn't Chomsky, but it was the next best thing.
You see, I want to discuss two absurdities involved in the concept of cultural imperialism. Actually, there is almost nothing about the concept of cultural imperialism with which I do not disagree, but two particular concepts trouble me.
First, an idea I have discussed before, but need to address again. It is the anthropological version of anachronism in history, and that is judging a culture by some external standard rather than by the reality of all the cultures around it. In this case, criticizing the west for not being perfectly self-effacing in its pluralism while the rest of the world maintains a much more chauvinistic and xenophobic set of beliefs2. I am far from convinced that we really need cultures to abandon all sense of pride and abase themselves before their neighbors in order to have peace anyway, but even if we accept that position for the sake of argument, why is the west so roundly criticized, while much worse cultures are ignored, or even praised.
My second problem is with the entire concept itself, its foundations, specifically the use of the term "imperialism". Imperialism itself was often misapplied to cases where nations did not take control of nations but only exerted some control through diplomacy or commercial pressure, which may be objectionable to some, but is hardly imperialism. But in these cases, can a culture be imperialistic? Can we compare the spread of McDonald's and Coca-Cola to armies marching across borders? I think not. In fact, as I explained elsewhere3, I find efforts to fight cultural imperialism to actually be racist or chauvinist in themselves, suggesting as they do that cultures these supposed experts find less sophisticated should not be allowed the same freedoms of choice we have. That is a horribly condescending position, much more insulting than anything the supposed cultural imperialists have set forth.
But let us first look at the way the west is seen fit for special criticism. Time and again, critics decry the west for thinking itself special, for seeing something unique in the west, and for valuing western traditions. In a way, this is absurd, as only in the west could this talk even take place, as the idea that one must give up loyalty to one's culture is a purely western idea. No other culture developed such an idea, which makes it funny to hear the west attacked. In addition, even before the west began to place a value on rejecting one's heritage, there was in the west a tendency to embrace the foreign which was unusual, perhaps unique, in the world. Other nations around the globe simply did not express the same interest in other cultures, and they certainly did not embrace foreign ideas, even replacing their own concepts with them. Even today, it is only in the west, and in those non-western cultures with strong western influences, where these ideas exist. Elsewhere it is taken for granted everyone will think their own culture superior, will find their own traditions special. And yet, again and again, the west is denigrated for this. It simply makes no sense4.
Which brings me back to my remaining point, the whole question of imperialism. How, if anyone can explain this idea, is it imperialism to allow someone from another nation to see an American movie or buy a CD? Why is the marketing of Pepsi akin to an act of war? It seems to me that such a philosophy is a version of very condescending mentality which sees itself as almost a zoo keeper for people they see as primitive. They want to keep these other culture pure, so they want to deny those people the right to choose. And they know they must, as the success of American cultural products has shown that others want what our culture produces. It is not imperialism, it is simply a popularity contest and we are winning. But that goes against the beliefs of these would be zoo keepers, who can't stand to see American culture extend itself, and definitely can't admit we are winning, that our culture appeals to other nations, and so they speak of imperialism and try to deny others the ability to choose, and pretend it is for their own good.
I was going to write a longer argument, but I think this point is damning enough on its own that nothing more is needed. Cultural imperialism is nonsense. Cultures spread by consent, unless we are running PRC circa 1965 reeducation camps, which we certainly aren't. So, if our culture is spreading, it is doing so by the choice of others5. There is no imperialism, no coercion. Well, except for in the hands of those grotesque individuals who want to trap entire nations in their supposedly indigenous culture forever so as to prevent their supposed exploitation. That is an offensive enough position, I think no more argument is needed.
1. See "Stupid Quotes of the Day (January 8, 2012)", "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 5, 2012)", "Rational National Defense", "Rights Versus Laws", "Last Word on Defense", "Foreign Policy" and "Knights and Bandits".
2. See "Rousseau's Foolish Legacy", "Opinion Masquerading as Fact" and "Deceiving Themselves?".
3. See "It Is All In How You Say It", "Eurocentrism? Racism? Liberal Traits All", "The Condescention of "Understanding"" and "The Racism of the Left".
4. This pattern also appears in many multiculturalist systems of thought, where the majority culture is run down for any signs of pride or a tendency toward segregation, while the minorities are encouraged to show cultural pride and to separate themselves.
5. Some seem to think advertising is akin to brainwashing, and imagine our billboards are analogous to guns in traditional imperialism. This nonsense, as I explain (in a different context) in "Regulated Speech", and more recently in "The Great "What If?" - Advertising, Gullibility, Education, Capitalism and Socialism".
My apologies for the truncated quote without context. I found it on a Wikipedia page and was a bit lazy and didn't bother looking for the original source. As it is fully in character for Professor Said, and as the Wikipedia page seemed mostly laudatory, or at least balanced, I assumed it was legitimate. If it proves to be a false quote, or is wrong in any aspect, I will note that and correct it as soon as I am informed.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2012/01/11.