28 August 2012

When is anti-colonialism un-American?

It's always news in the entertainment business when a documentary does well at the box office, so the story of the week so far has been the opening-weekend success, by documentary standards, of Dinesh D'Souza's movie 2016, an expose of President Obama from a Republican perspective and a warning, needless to say, against his re-election. The numbers don't compare with those for Michael Moore's films, but they're still impressive. Success has brought scrutiny, of course, and many observers are understandably confused by D'Souza's condemnation of the President's "anti-colonial" mentality. Isn't this country anti-colonial in origin? goes the typical objection. Helpfully, D'Souza has clarified what he means by "anti-colonialism" in an interview with Katie Pavlich at the Republican website TownHall. Since D'Souza isn't ready to say that some countries have a right to rule others -- he isn't willing this time, at least -- it becomes obvious that "anti-colonialism" must mean something different from its most obvious meaning for the author. It even turns out that there is a good anti-colonialism as well as the bad kind allegedly espoused by Barack Obama.

[T]he core idea of anti-colonialism is that wealth is acquired by stealing, by theft. So anti-colonialism developed in the third world in the 20th century. And it was an attempt to explain why the west, particularly Britain, dominated the world, and had a better standard of living than other countries and actually ruled many countries in Asia, and Africa, and South America. The basic idea was that the west became rich by invading and occupying and looting everybody else - so rich countries got rich by stealing.

From this it would seem that the American revolutionaries of 1776 could not be "anti-colonial," not just because of a presumably different attitude toward wealth but because "anti-colonialism" didn't exist in the 18th century. But here's where D'Souza cracks under challenge from perhaps the most sympathetic interviewer he'll encounter this year.

Pavlich: Well that’s interesting, considering obviously America fought its revolution against Great Britain for a reason – it’s interesting that Barack Obama doesn’t really necessarily believe in the Founding Fathers considering they fought against that in a certain way.

D’Souza: Right, America was an anti-colonial country, but America was an anti-colonial country first of all within western civilization. It was not a repudiation of the west. In fact, the American founders believed they had found a new recipe with in [sic?]the west, for how to create a new kind of society, better than European society. Also America’s free market anti-colonialism, the core right in the American constitution is property rights. And, the right to patents and trade, and so there’s free market anti-colonialism and then there’s collectivist anti-colonialism.

In that case, is the "core" idea of bad 20th century anti-colonialism the idea that wealth is theft, or is it "a repudiation of the west?" For that matter, is the mindset described in the first excerpt correctly described as "anti-colonialism?" Notice, again, that the core idea of bad anti-colonialism is not "one nation doesn't have a right to rule another." In D'Souza's account, anti-colonialism is more a matter of attitude than a matter of principle. It's an expression of resentment. His anti-colonialists say, "Those Europeans don't rule over us because they're better than we are, [Is this what D'Souza thinks they should have thought?]  but because they're cheaters and bullies." Worse, perhaps, from his standpoint, they seem to say "We don't have anything to learn from Europe," as opposed to the American Founders, who in this account sought to improve upon rather than repudiate Europe. Notice, however, that D'Souza doesn't really answer Pavlich's implicit question: why did the American colonies revolt? Answering might force D'Souza to consider whether, to an extent, the Founders did believe that Great Britain had stolen from them. He could have answered without compromising himself simply by sticking to the "free market anti-colonialism" label, by arguing that the mercantilist trade regulations imposed by Britain did amount to a kind of stealing. But that might beg the question of whether the "theft" the bad 20th century anti-colonialists complained against also took that form -- whether, despite D'Souza's attempted distinctions, the 18th century Americans and the 20th century Africans, Asians, etc. really opposed the same thing.

What has this labeling question have to do with 21st century domestic politics in the U.S.? You'll notice that D'Souza's so-called "anti-colonialism" is not a critique of colonization, of the invasion and occupation of one country by another, but a critique of wealth creation. As such, it has crucial relevance for the author in purely domestic contexts.

[T]he same idea that extends to how do people get rich within countries, and the answer is that they don’t earn their wealth, they don’t get it through hard work or creativity, they get it because of their greed and exploitation. They essentially steal it from the society.

In other words, "property is theft" -- an idea with an impressive European pedigree, by the way, though more anarchist than (as most TownHall readers may suspect) socialist. Back to square one, then: why call this belief "anti-colonialism?" If he must tie it to international politics, why not call it "anti-imperialism," a term still strongly identified with leftism? Perhaps because D'Souza did not want to imply that, by opposing "anti-imperialism," he endorsed imperialism. So does he endorse colonialism? I suspect he does endorse a kind of intellectual colonialism, a mentality that would, presumably find a nation ruling his own against his people's will worthy of emulation for that fact alone, rather than deserving of resistance. The implicit argument of the first quotation is that one country's rule over others is proof of some sort of praiseworthy superiority. If it's wrong to say that conquest and colonization are crimes, what else can you conclude? It might be more fair of me to say that D'Souza can countenance resistance to unjust colonization so long as it doesn't come with a knee-jerk repudiation of all the colonizing power represents. Such a repudiation seems definitive for him as far as the bad 20th century anti-colonialism that supposedly influenced the Obama family is concerned. And that may be why he insists on this label, even though it may mean more to him than to his audience. By definition, the "anti-colonial" person is the foreigner who refuses to be assimilated into the higher culture, who insists on his foreignness to rebuke both the erstwhile or would-be colonizer and the assimilated among the colonized. He is everything Dinesh D'Souza, an India-born Catholic born again into evangelicalism, educated at Dartmouth, and a champion of plutocrats and rednecks, is not. Therefore he cannot be right, or else D'Souza isn't right. It may be just that simple.


Aaron Christiansen said...

Here is something that occurs to me. D'douche uses the word "collectivist anti-colonialism". Right-wingers seem to use that term very often as a pejoritive term, as opposed to, I'd assume, their selfishness termed "individualism".

Perhaps what they really dislike about the left is the FACT that so much of the right-wing idiotology seems to revolve around alienating everyone around them, whether racially, sexually, religiously, etc. So my guess is that the reason they hate the idea of "collectivism" so much is that in a collective society, that marginilization doesn't exist. They wouldn't get to exclude anyone.

This goes to show just how truly misanthropic, self-centered and reprehensible the right truly is. They deserve nothing but to be despised by any thinking human being.

Samuel Wilson said...

The right is as collectivist as the left when it suits them. As I wrote recently, the right justifies "creative destruction" on collectivist grounds; the nation will be better off despite the suffering of individuals. Right and left alike too often think of the "collective" as something bigger than the sum of its parts, some of which are always dispensible. But I'd think true individualism would insist that we're all equally indispensible, at least on general principles, and that the collective is exactly equal to the sum of its parts. Then a collective government would not impose policies that inflict suffering selectively on individuals who've done no wrong.