Tag Archives: imperialism

The Extermination of Charismatic Megafauna

rhinoThe world’s last charismatic megafauna are being exterminated.

This slaughter is taking place with particular gory ferocity in Sub-Saharan Africa, for reasons linked to the continent’s enduring poverty and vulnerability to global regimes of resource exploitation.

An article in The Guardian describes the record-breaking tally of rhino deaths in South Africa. So far this year, 558 rhinos have been killed. The slaughter is on track to exceed last year’s horrendous tally of 1,004.

Articles such as the above one often mention that animals such as the rhino are killed for Asian markets, where the horns are (falsely) believed to augment male sexual potency. elephantUnfortunately, these articles seldom mention the decades of structural adjustment programs – administered by Western-dominated institutions such as the World Bank – that have made sub-Saharan nations and peoples vulnerable to the globe-girdling trade in illicit megafauna flesh.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in The New Yorker offers a similarly decontextualized analysis of the contemporary slaughter of elephants such as Satao (pictured above). Her article puts these tragic deaths in the context of the worldwide extinction of megafauna since the Neolithic revolution. What she does not mention, however, is the culture of European colonial big-game hunting that was responsible for the vast majority of such extinctions around the globe. Nor does she talk about how Western policies of  “development” are linked to enclosures of land and resources around the world, encouraging strapped locals to plunder the remaining resources for global markets.

A lot of work remains to be done to place this slaughter in adequate political-economic context. Tragically, animals like the elephant and the rhino may well be effectively extinct before the policies that are promoting their slaughter are reversed.

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Avatars of Apartheid

At first blush, James Cameron’s Avatar appears to be a Dances with Wolves for the digital age.  True, the digital effects are breathtaking, taking the encounter with otherness to a new level.  Avatar conjures up an incredibly lush imaginary world, rendered particularly engrossing by the film’s use of unobtrusive new 3D technology.  This use of powerful digital technology is rather ironic given the film’s dystopian take on the human use of technology.  The whole point of this immersive technology, however, is to transport viewers into an alternative reality in which the present can be imagined otherwise.

What is this alternative reality?  As in Dances with Wolves, the film’s critique of U.S. imperialism is stinging.  In Dances With Wolves, the Union cause during the Civil War is dealt with in an offhanded fashion, and the film quickly shifts its interest to the reborn nation’s frontier politics.  Here madness, in the form of the delusional alcoholic Major Fambrough, and grasping dishonesty reign.  In Avatar, this critique is updated for the era of the War on Terror: the unscrupulous corporation that is mining the world of Pandora employs an army of mercenaries who deploy “shock and awe” in order to subdue the native Na’Vi.  Tellingly, the pitbull-like leader of this corps, Colonel Miles Quaritch, eventually pushes the civilians out of the way as “preemptive strikes” are launched in order to dislodge the Na’Vi from their territory.  This nicely captures the U.S.’s slide towards a privatized neo-fascist militarism during the War on Terror.

In order for this critique to stick, of course, the protagonist (and, by extension, the audience) must become disillusioned with Empire.  How does Avatar engineer such disillusionment?  Again resembling Kevin Costner’s film of 1990, Avatar plays out the seduction of going native.  In Dances With Wolves, the protagonist John Dunbar is first physically isolated from imperial culture and then immersed in the indigenous culture of the Lakota.  Dunbar finds his way into the culture with the help of a responsive woman, played by an assimilated white woman named Stands With a Fist.  Once he goes native, Dunbar becomes a leader of the tribe and attempts to save them from the depredations of Empire.  This scenario is replayed in Avatar, with the crippled ex-Marine Jake Sully initiated into the culture of the Na’Vi in his avatar form, won over to their cause through his awe at their symbiotic relationship with Pandora’s natural world and through his attraction to the Pocahantas-like Neytiri.

The problem is that this myth of going native is itself an imperial fantasy.  Although Neytiri initially tells Sully that he’s like a child and subjects him to a long period of apprenticeship, he not only ultimately learns the ropes and becomes a member of her Na’Vi tribe, but, after the nefarious Colonel Quaritch destroys the tribe’s home, goes on to lead resistance efforts to the Empire.  So the white male self ultimately remains in control.  Where is the anti-imperialism in this?

Although Avatar appears to engage most directly with the U.S.’s particular genocidal history, the racialized imperial fantasy enacted in the film also shares DNA with anti-apartheid films set in South Africa during the late 1980s such as Dry White Season.  In these films, a clueless white protagonist suddenly has the scales drop from his eyes after a chance encounter leads him to see the venality of the apartheid system.  Typically, a gardener’s son is “disappeared” during protests in the townships; the protagonist, moved by his personal ties to his servants, becomes involved, believing that justice will quickly be done and things set aright.  Of course his efforts not only fail to produce justice, but in addition show him the venality of the apartheid system’s treatment of non-whites.  In the course of his odyssey, the protagonist is increasingly alienated from the complacent white people with whom he has heretofore lived; these people in turn ostracize him, closing ranks against a perceived race traitor.  The protagonist’s abjection is redeemed, however, by his newfound status as hero of the anti-apartheid movement.

Such anti-apartheid films go beyond a guilt syndrome in which fiction enacts a white desire to be absolved of racial injustice.  In these films, the black-led anti-apartheid movement becomes a vehicle for white aspirations, upending the dynamic on the ground and imposing white needs and subjectivity onto an otherwise alien landscape.  This apartheid-era narrative was slyly remade recently in District 9, which stages the mutation of an Afrikaner into an alien who, like Avatar‘s Jake Sully, goes native and resists Empire.  Given the history of South Africa after apartheid, with the ANC cleaving faithfully to the neo-liberal precepts of the international financial community, this colonization of the anti-apartheid struggle his ominous historical implications.

The remarkable resemblance between District 9 and Avatar suggests more than simply the striking trans-continental continuity of the white imperial imaginary; this similarity also underlines the enduring need to decolonize the anti-imperial imaginary.  Apartheid, it seems, has many avatars.

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The continuity of imperial discourse

President Obama recently gave two speeches that should be seen as signposts of contemporary U.S. empire.  Their continuity with American exceptionalist rhetoric of the past is striking, underlining the extent to which Obama is trapped within the paradigms of the past.

The first of these speeches was Obama’s Nobel laureate acceptance address.  This address was notable for invoking Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ringing condemnation of violence during the era of the Vietnam War: Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.”  President Obama then went on to twist this argument around by invoking the concept of just war.  As he summarized it, just war doctrine insures that state violence is only legitimate when it meets three conditions: “if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.”

The problem with Obama’s argument is that just war doctrine cannot support the imperial occupation of Afghanistan that he is currently bent on intensifying.  The war in Afghanistan can hardly be said to be in self-defense when the Taliban pose no direct threat to the U.S. and when al-Qaeda has been reduced to a shadow of its former self.  The force being deployed in Afghanistan is anything but proportional since the U.S. is the world’s only military super-power and Afghanistan is one of the poorest and weakest countries on the planet.  Finally, civilians have NOT been spared the violence of the war.  Stephen Walt recently argued that the United States has killed 12,000-32,000 civilians in Afghanistan since the war’s outbreak.  Many of these civilian deaths were caused by drones operated by private contractors.

It seems that there’s an emerging pattern in Obama’s rhetoric.  In the Nobel speech, he replayed the tropes he deployed in his celebrated Cairo address: gesture towards universal peace and understanding using lofty rhetoric, then go on to lay out plans for expanding war-making.  As Farrah Hassen points out in The Cairo Detour, U.S. policies in these countries, with their high toll of civilian deaths, have increased the risks of blowback against the U.S. rather than winning over Muslim hearts and minds.

We see a similar set of imperial contradictions in Obama’s recent speech at the Copenhagen climate summit.  After swooping in to the summit at the 11th hour, Obama delivered a talk that began by acknowledging the gravity of the global climate crisis and went on to exhort the nations of the world to make radical changes in order to save the planet.  After this uplifting beginning, however, Obama unleashed a thinly veiled attack on China, laying bare the increasing inter-imperial conflict over the right to pollute the atmospheric commons that was woven through the last two weeks of climate brinksmanship.  While calling for decisive action, Obama announced no new commitments for reducing emissions beyond the risible 4% goal announced at the onset of the conference, no significant new financing for climate adaptation and clean technology among poor countries, and no intentions to press Congress to pass climate legislation.

The U.S. under Obama thus seems to be operating firmly in the unilateralist groove carved out by the Bush administration.  He may be an exceptional man, but he’s working firmly within an exceptionalist tradition.

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