March 6, 2003
To have an ending,
one must have a beginning
There are good
reasons to prefer Foucaults geneaologies to histories, to look at the
past as a process and free ourselves from the tyranny of origins and endings.
The problem is,
as Homi Bhabha has observed about modernity, that newness enters the world.
History is not just one damn thing after another. It is not turtles all the
way down. Things really do change, and have beginnings and endings.
In the past few
weeks, I have read a lot of anti-war writers, both in and off the Net, who see
the coming war on Iraq as the beginning of an American Empire which they necessarily
take to also and inevitably mean the end of American democracy. I have also
seen a tremendous variety of anti-war writers and intellectuals that talk about
the erosion or ending of civil liberties and democratic freedom in the United
States as a result of the general war on terror, and in observing
this erosion, try to mobilize a wider population to protect or preserve those
I am apprehensive
about some of the same things. There is still to my eye something odd about
the implied history of such fears, at least coming from some of those who voice
If we should now
fear the inauguration of an American empire, it means that whatever role the
United States has played up in the world since 1945, bad, good or a bit of both,
it wasnt an imperial role, or if it was, it wasnt the same as the
imperial role we now say we fear. Otherwise, how could we try to mobilize against
the coming of some new rough beast? If it's just the same old same old American
imperialism, then it's just the same old same old activism, and the rhetoric
of unique urgency is misplaced.
If an American
Empire cannot coexist with a democratic America, are we saying that America
was not a democracy from the last third of the 19th Century to the middle of
the 20th Century? Because the United States had an empire: a small one, compared
to England and France, but an empire all the same. If it was a democracy in
those years, how did its democracy coexist with empire? How, for that matter,
did Britain democratize domestically while ruling a steadfastly undemocratic
empire, if the mere holding of empire always and inevitably destroys all democratic
If we should fear
the destruction or erosion of civil liberties, and mobilize to protect democratic
freedom in the United States, isnt that a concession that the US was and
still remains a free society whose existing liberties ought to be cherished?
Anyone who now
forecasts an ending of good things in the coming war is necessarily admitting
that those things had a beginning, a reality, that they once existed, and that
they were good to have. You cannot lose what you never had.
This seems like
an unexceptional observation until you look at who some of the people talking
about the desperate need for the protection of precious liberties are.
Most of the anti-globalization
left that came to Seattle and Washington cannot claim now that they wish to
protect liberties that they have never previously acknowledged as existing.
They cannot say they wish to save us from imperialism when they have habitually
claimed that America and its agents like the WTO and the World Bank were always
already an imperial actor in the world. The only distinction left for them is
between bad and badder, and given the fervor of their mobilization against the
bad, how much worse could it get?
The left of identity
politics, the postmodernist left, the cultural left, mostly cannot
claim to be trying to preserve hard-won freedoms, because they too have been
largely unwilling to concede that those freedoms were ever won or meaningfully
exercised by the communities and interests that they speak for. Before September
11th, dont look to bell hooks or Molefi Asante, Andrea Dworkin or Judith
Butler, Gayatri Spivak or Trinh Minh-ha for affirmations and defenses of existing
civil liberties and functioning democracies.
The Marxist left,
old and new, mostly cannot claim to be trying to preserve precious liberties,
because they largely have never accepted, with crucial exceptions, that bourgeois
liberties are anything more than a weak prelude to genuine emancipation. Whats
to preserve? Can a late capitalist world be worse than it has been in the eyes
of Eric Hobsbawm, Thomas Frank or Howard Zinn?
If we speak urgently about the need to preserve what was, arent we acknowledging that what was is better than what might come to pass, that the late 20th Century world and late 20th Century America really wasnt so bad after all?