Coming Full Circle

The advertisement shocked me when I saw it; I recoiled. Luckily it is perfect fodder for an article attempting to illustrate how very little has indeed changed with regard to the suzerainty of one set of peoples over others. So I’ll use it cheaply as a springboard for an analysis of Empire and some of the ways its logic works.

First, the ad. It was in Native Peoples magazine-a magazine that covers contemporary Native American art, music, and general culture. A CIA recruitment ad. And the tagline: “A Career That Takes You Full Circle.” Indeed. How apposite a tagline. Go full circle- from being slaughtered to slaughtering, all in the name of the Empire. Undoubtedly there are Native Americans who answer the clarion call of “their” nation and join the CIA, putatively at least to protect “us” from foreigners/the bad guys. In that respect, I guess we’ve come full circle albeit too late- they needed protection from foreigners/the bad guys three centuries ago.

Empire works largely by bringing things full circle, evolving from what I call “complete” ideas to fragmented ones; the trick is that the complete ideas are easier to fissure; the fragmented ones absorb the blow better. Lest language get in the way, let me explain exactly what I mean by this: complete ideas are Manichean, binary, simple, without nuance. Some examples of complete ideas:


Apartheid South Africa

The White administration and large percentage of White population in apartheid South Africa conceived of Blacks as completely inferior. This racist ideology had very real ramifications on the lives of the lives of tens of millions of people. In 1978, the facts were downright frightening: the infant mortality rate for urban Blacks was 20%; for rural blacks it was 40%. The corresponding rate for Whites: 2.7%. 19 million Blacks had 13% of the land. 4.5 million Whites held 87%. There was 1 Back doctor per 44,000 Blacks. The corresponding rate for Whites: 1 per 400. Real racism producing real results.

The racial divide was invidious, based it was on an enacted political ideology of utter discrimination.

From a 1963 Studs Terkel Interview of Albert Lutuli

TERKEL: Recently I observed a scene at Kruger National Park which I am sure must be repeated a thousand times. Two white men, talking near a Negro scrubbing the floor, were speaking about him and his people as savages and children as if he were not there but the man scrubbing knew some English. I wondered what his thoughts were. What is the nature of the pass book which an African must carry?

LUTULI: One of the sore points is that we feel we really are not regarded as human beings. Whatever else you must do when you segregate, if you must segregate, is respect the dignity of man. There is no respect of that dignity by the European in so far as black Africans are concerned. Europeans merely know the black man as a servant.

Examples of the utter depravity of the Apartheid regime need not be trotted out for anyone who is reading this to understand the nature of the complete idea that apartheid was/is.


White Genocide of Native Americans

What notions of race, morality, and philosophy were common among the White foreigners who decimated the indigenous population? No one documents it better than Ward Churchill who in an interview with David Barsamian says: “There is a profound historical legacy in the U.S., going back to what one scholar calls the `founding finaglers,’ people like George Washington, for example, describing Indians as `wild beasts of the forest’ and `savage as the wolf.’ Thomas Jefferson chimed in with also very judicious comments about Indian peoples. Jefferson said, `Driving them like wolves into the stony mountains.’ Which incidentally was a fairly adequate description of U.S. policy at the time. These were good reflections of the overall public sensibility, and I think probably goes to the demonizing trend…”

Andrew Jackson, who had horses’ bridles made of Indian skin and bragged about it in his campaigns. He claimed that he had never fought an Indian he didn’t kill and never killed an Indian he didn’t scalp and that the scalps were available for inspection in his personal residence. That got him elected President. That speaks well to the public sensibility in the U.S., too.

On the other hand, fragmented ideas are like sponges absorbing everything, incorporating individual stories and making convenient and easy concessions. They are fluid and thus hard to fissure or refute.

Take the same examples seen through the lens of fragmented ideas:


After Apartheid South Africa

Apartheid is over and Black South Africans are free right? Of course, the President of the country is a Black and a former ANC leader to boot! But are Blacks free? De jure perhaps but De facto?

With the new South African government having happily caught itself in the clutches of neo-liberalism, economic apartheid continues unabated and has created in some ways a worse dispensation for blacks in their own country.

Quoting Arundhati Roy: “…a small white minority that has been historically privileged by centuries of brutal exploitation is more secure than ever before…For them, the transition from apartheid to neo-liberalism barely disturbed the grass. It’s apartheid with a clean conscience. And it goes by the name of democracy.”

And Patrick Bond adds: “The end of the apartheid regime was a great human achievement. Yet the 1994 election of an African National Congress (ANC) majority–with Nelson Mandela as the new president–did not alter the enormous structural gap in wealth between the majority black and minority white populations. Indeed, it set in motion neoliberal policies that exacerbated class, race, and gender inequality. To promote a peaceful transition, the agreement negotiated between the racist white regime and the ANC allowed whites to keep the best land, the mines, manufacturing plants, and financial institutions.”

But then again, what about President Thabo Mbeki?


After White Genocide of Native Americans

From the same interview, Churchill continues: “You could probably divide the viewpoint of Americans, founding fathers or no, into two general categories. I’ve already described them as being romanticizing or demonizing. When in direct contact with Indians as autochthonous entities, demonization was always the mode. Once the Indians had been cleared, obliterated, then they could be romanticized, in the abstract. Jefferson in particular tended to do both, because he had a foot in each camp. On the frontier, where there was actual contact with Indians, his policy was virulent and his rhetoric of demonization was virulent. But also he lived in Virginia, where the Indians had been pretty much eradicated by the time of his birth, so he could romanticize at the same time.”

And how many of us know White Americans who today claim to be “honoring” the “culture” of Native Americans by buying Redskins and Braves tickets? Fragmented ideas allow the victors to romanticize the vanquished and thus to erase history. Fragmented ideas allow one to further impoverish an already impoverished people by claiming that they are equal in the eyes of the law; to immiserate them by the hand of a government putatively run by one of “them.” Full circle, from ruled to ruler (for Thabo Mbeki). Millions of his people aren’t quite so lucky.

Imperial strategy-and indeed imperial language- becomes more sophisticated. It has to. Imperial strategy is based on a “sophisticated racism.” “..This racism that aspires to be rational, individual, genotypically and phenotypically determined, becomes transformed …” according to Fanon into “cultural racism” and certainly if not cultural in its terms at least becomes a fragmented racism in which the subject peoples are seen as people, howsoever undeserving-or rather howsoever deserving of their plight. The era of scalping is over. The era of lynching is over. Why get one’s hands dirty when one can conduct the war by other means, by remote?

We come full circle, complete ideas give way to fragmented ideas and imperial ideology survives. Native Americans join the CIA (perhaps even the FBI and spy on their brothers and sisters) and a Black South African President opines like a quack about the science of a disease that is decimating his population.

Imperial ideology is covered in the thin veneer of de jure rights. It garbs itself in sequins but is naked underneath.

That’s the key- it is naked underneath. It is our job to unrobe it, decode it and destroy it. We too struggle for complete ideas – complete justice and complete freedom.


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