Whenever the US decides to bomb another country it is not uncommon to have that decision accompanied by debates about the efficacy of the bombing campaign, its stated pretexts, and its long term goals. Always underlying these displays of state violence is an unavoidable truth namely that these military attacks can only take place on the scale and frequency that they are occurring because the US is an imperial power and therefore feels entitled to behave as other imperial powers before it. Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism explores this unavoidable truth in many dimensions. Drawing from the wealth of cultural and literary traditions of France, Britain, and the United States, Said demonstrates how doctrines of colonial domination permeate nearly every aspect of life within metropolitan society.
One of the sites where this colonial ideology is given full expression is in the British novel. Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is a particularly dramatic example. In this novel, Said asserts, the pleasant and bucolic atmosphere that prevails at Mansfield can only be sustained through oppressive of slave plantations in Antigua. As Said states “If this is a novel about ‘ordination’, as Austen says, the right to colonial possessions helps directly to establish social order and moral priorities at home.” It is this kind of re-reading of classic European literature that Said terms “contrapuntal reading.” Under contrapuntal reading a work is read “with an understanding of what is involved when an author shows, for instance, that a colonial sugar plantation is seen as important to the process of maintaining a particular style of life in England.” Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, and E.M. Forester’s A Passage to India are also subjected to contrapuntal reading. Innate to all these novels is an ongoing interaction between the reigning norms within the dominant colonial society and those within colonized societies. It was this interaction between the colonizer and colonized within the British novel that laid the basis for Said’s assertion that “imperialism and the novel fortified each other to such a degree that it is impossible … to read one without in some way dealing with the other.”
Celebrated liberal theorists like John Stuart Mill also participated in this overarching culture of colonial domination. In his Principles of Political Economy Mill casually notes “our West Indian colonies … cannot be regarded as countries with a productive capital of their own … [but are rather] the place where England finds it convenient to carry on the production of sugar, coffee and a few other tropical commodities.” In this passage Mill adopted the “ruthless proprietary tones of the white master used to effacing the reality, work, and suffering of millions of slaves, transported across the middle passage, reduced to only an incorporated status ‘for the benefit of the proprietors.'”
Very much like members of today’s elite media, these proponents of Enlightenment ideology were critical of the crimes carried out in the domains of rival states but embraced crimes carried out by their own government. The writing of French political philosopher and author of Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville presents a classic example of this phenomenon. While harshly critical of the crimes carried out by European colonists against the indigenous and Black population of North America, he accepted French massacres against Algeria’s colonized population as legitimate: “Tocqueville said nothing ‘in 1846 when it was revealed that hundreds of Arabs had been smoked to death in the course of the razzias he had approved for their humane quality.” Within the apologetics for imperial power given by these Enlightenment philosophers one can vividly perceive the outlines of what in today’s international affairs jargon is called “humanitarian intervention” or the “right to protect.”
Another trait that 19th century European intellectual culture shares with elite opinion of the contemporary United States is that there was a strong consensus that brutally subjugating foreign populations was only problematic insofar as this use of force created difficulties for the aggressor and not the victims. “During the nineteenth century … debate over colonialism usually turned on their profitability, their management and mismanagement, and on theoretical questions such as whether and how colonialism might be squared with laissez-faire or tariff policies; an imperialist and Eurocentric framework was implicitly accepted.” Furthermore, “liberal anti-colonialists” did not “dispute the fundamental superiority of Western man or, in some cases, the white race.”
Pernicious beliefs of this kind were accepted as uncontroversial fact until the onset of decolonization and the emergence of an anti-imperialist discourse led by scholars like George Antonius, C.L.R. James, and Frantz Fanon. Realities which were previously ignored or suppressed were acknowledged and the hegemonic hold that imperial discourse exerted on mainstream scholarship was, in many respects, undermined. Said describes the emergence of this culture of resistance as a development that “effectively took away the monopoly of discourse held by Eurocentric intellectuals and politicians”, what he in another chapter terms “the consolidated vision … of the globe.”
Though the majority of Culture and Imperialism deals with the theoretical implications of imperial power, it would be a mistake to think of it as irrelevant to the practical concerns of current political struggles. Many of these same doctrines articulated by imperial France and Britain are repeatedly endorsed by the Obama administration and its allies around the world (Israel’s colonial ideology is a prime example). Instead of celebrating the “humanism” of the “white race”, contemporary centers of power hail the benefits of the “western liberal tradition”, “American exceptionalism”, and its other ideological variants which encode (poorly, it should be added) long-held notions of racial supremacy. How else does one explain the behavior of a National Security State that refers to Muslims as “Mohammad Raghead” or newspapers that routinely dehumanize those whose have historically been on the receiving end of imperial violence (Palestinians, the Latin American left, the domestic immigrant population, the domestic Black population, etc.)? In this respect, Said’s Culture and Imperialism is a valuable contribution to a culture of critical analysis that is desperately needed to mitigate and ultimately, it is hoped, put an end to the lawlessness that is pushing the planet closer and closer to total destruction.