Author Archives: jusimcoe

Self-Healing from Imperialism

What happens when two of the world’s most rapidly developing and most populated nations rework capitalism so that it fits with their political and cultural identities? Zakaria makes the case that this is happening in China (“The Dragon”) and India (“The Cow”). Throughout the text, I became uncomfortable as I pondered the tactics that China and India are using to become important world players in the political and economic scenes. Both nations have catapulted themselves from poor, rural nations to industrialized, urbanized ones. They have done so by incorporating many of the same tactics as Western imperialists. China has turned to African nations for trade and resources and India is trying to develop nuclear power. Have India and China gone from bullied to bully? Have they sold out?

I don’t want to make the claim that these countries have “sold out” and have become as imposing as Western nations have in the past. Rather, I want to postulate that these actions could be seen as a way for China and India to self-heal from the torment of imperialism and humiliation of a low global status. In this theory, the final step in a nation’s break from being colonized and humiliated is to become the colonizers and those that inflict the humiliation.

While China is not literally colonizing Africa as had England, its heavy presence in Africa can be described above all as “capitalist.” It has no qualms over selling platinum and iron ore to Zimbabwe’s President, Mugabe, “which he uses to intimidate, arrest, and kill domestic opposition” (Zakaria 131). In this example and in others listed in chapter four, China comes across as a shrewd, dollar-first capitalist nation that scours the globe for markets and resources—just like imperialist governments in the past. For a Communist nation, I find this to be ironic and hypocritical. How can China show pride in its rising influence when its dealings with Africa echo former Western involvement? As postulated previously, I think that psychologically—that is, if the term “psychologically” can apply to an entire nation’s consciousness—China may need to wield this influence in order to aid its self-esteem that was damaged from years of loss of status under Mao. By being a major economic presence in Africa, China builds up its confidence by dealing with impoverished nations with often corrupt officials (according to Zakaria).

Similarly, India’s demand for its nuclear capabilities to be categorized with the other powers instead of being considered “illegal” seems to be motivated by pride instead of pragmatism. Britain and China are amongst the 5 nations that are “allowed” to possess nuclear technology. If its nuclear plants had to be maintained by International Atomic Energy Agency, this would be a significant humiliation for India. In this theory I have asserted, India cannot “psychologically” see itself below Britain, or else it might interfere with India’s self-healing process as a nation trying to recover from centuries-long imperialism.

This is not to condemn China and India’s actions. By far, America has acted much more atrocious while pursuing its endeavors as a modern superpower.

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On another note, here is an interesting article that can help us understand the character of Zakaria: http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/politics/national/features/n_8621/.

“My Struggle Is Not Your Struggle”

This weekend, Unbound presented a piece at the Shiva called Not Anonymous. The premise of Not Anonymous was a combination of spoken word and stage choreography to let members of the Vassar community talk about uncomfortable topics. In a scene in which an actress described how her friends dubbed her an “honorary white girl” because she “talked white” despite being a person of color, the actress reminded the audience: “This is my struggle, not yours.” Yes, we can have sympathy for people who have struggles we do not face ourselves. No, we cannot conflate their suffering with ours.

This actress’ words repeated themselves over and over when I was watching Bling. The cast of hip-hop artists, a reputed grill-maker, and a former Sierra Leonean child soldier seemed to be telling a story that was not theirs to tell and also taking on their suffering in the process.

Raekwon and Tego are people of color and referred to the Sierra Leoneans as “my people” throughout the entire documentary. This is problematic because, though these artists are people of color like the Sierra Leoneans, they are not necessarily descendants of Sierra Leonean slaves; they could have descended from slaves from a number of other regions in Africa. When Raekwon and Tego refer to the Sierra Leoneans as “my people,” they participate in the homogenization of African culture that mainstream American culture already promulgates. This is similar to the way minstrel blacks in Baptiste’s introduction blackfaced themselves and contributed to imperialist stereotypes.

As a non-descendant from Africa altogether, the role of artist Paul Wall in the
documentary confounded me. As a white rapper who grew up in the middle class, his
relevance to the Sierra Leone voyage is not obvious—at least until one remembers that
his song “Grillz” contributes to the expectation that hip hop artists wear bling to portray
their steep rise in social class. (Why he wears diamond grillz to show his rise from a
middle-class upbringing that sent him to university is another issue in and of itself; that of
his relevance to hip-hop in general). I am uncomfortable with the way that Paul Wall’s
presence dominated the documentary. His personal reactions to the poverty in Sierra
Leone is made central to the narrative. Several minutes are spent fussing over his
sensitivity to the suffering of mutilated refugees. I got a sense that the film was trying to
project “Poor Paul Wall, this must be really hard for him.” Before that, he is seen arguing
with the diamond tycoon about his role in the blood diamond war. The film spends too
much time showing Paul Wall’s “sensitive” disbelief that people live in such hopeless
conditions. The audience is led to pity his difficult struggle.

One could interpret the time spend on Paul’s reactions as a sort of “oppressor
seeing-oppressed-for-first-time,” but the cruel joke is that Paul does not recognize
himself as inherently different from Raekwon and Tego. Necessarily, his experiences as a
white man have been different than those of the black hip hop artists. When the film
promises that this is not a story of race, but a story about wealth, it falsely pretends that
stories can actually be absent of race. If this voyage was not going to progress Paul
Wall’s exploration of his white privilege, it should have spent less time on his personal
journey in general because, after all, this documentary is not about his struggle.

Ishmael Beah’s situation is vastly different. As a former-child soldier from Sierra Leone, the all-but-enslaved Sierra Leoneans the cast sees mining for diamonds are more accurately “his brothers.” (Interestingly, he never remarks this). It is not until the last twenty minutes of the film that the audience learns he is a refugee of phenomenal exception: he had been chosen out of three hundred refugees to be an ambassador. Pictures of him and Bill Clinton flash on the screen. Ishmael received a college degree. His situation has ended up completely differently than almost every other child soldier in Sierra Leone, of every proto-enslaved diamond worker. He has suffered like them in the past, and he may be facing psychologically damaging circumstances as a refugee in the United States, but his struggles are not exactly the same as those who will never leave Sierra Leone.

The cast of this documentary may face their own struggles, but at the end of the day, they sit higher up in the global caste system that Kanye refers to than the slave-laborers in Sierra Leone. How can they be anywhere near to understanding what it means to be true brothers with them? “It will soon be Friday. I’ll go back to Texas. But a year from now, they’ll still be sleeping in the ditch at night,” says a self-realizing Paul Wall.

This film is progressive, but not progressive enough to give voices to the millions of Sierra Leoneans who have neither the means of Raekwon and Tego, nor the chance of upward mobility like Ishmael. I would have liked for this movie to focus more on the differing situations of the cast members and their commitment to a diamond-free hip hop culture.

Exploring U.S. Colonization of Puerto Rico

Last class, Professor Alamo ended the discussion by asking us to resist the urge to vaguely abhor the United State’s colonialism. Part of what he meant was that we should think critically about the specific, evil-doing (here meaning racist, classist, and sexist) mechanisms that gave U.S. colonialism a dirty reputation. But he also meant that if we demonize U.S. colonialism, we must also critically analyze other imperialist endeavors, such as those of Spain in South America.
The editorial cartoons published in Harper’s Weekly between 1898 and 1900 address U.S. colonialism in relation to Spanish colonialism. The cartoons’ overarching opinion on this topic is that territories like Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines make the decision and are in favor of transferring colonial power from Spain to the U.S. (as in the cartoon She Can’t Resist Him). In other cartoons, Uncle Sam is seen as providing a ticket to the “winning team,” or to the side of prosperity and vitality when he offers political control of an area. The message that these cartoons convey is that these territories, which are personified by small, dark-skinned, ragged caricatures, believe that they would prosper more under American rule than Spanish rule. This feeds directly into the problematic narrative of Americans as perceiving their colonialism as positive for other cultures.
The term “benevolent assimilation” was meant to portray U.S. involvement in Puerto Rico as a chance to improve Puerto Rico’s economy, sanitize its citizens (as was the case with VD-infected prostitutes), and offer Puerto Rico a chance to side with them, the perceived dominators of global affairs. Yet as almost every article in “Reactions to the U.S. Takeover in Puerto Rico 1900-1917” shows, most Puerto Ricans opposed U.S. “occupation,” as one called it.
The American attitude of perceived goodness in its colonialism is ironic because it marks a complete transformation from American colonials as victims of the British crown to perpetrators of harmful colonialism abroad. The question that these cartoons unearth, alongside professor Alamo’s question, is how the American’s perceived “benevolent” assimilation and colonization during this time period is linked to how Spain’ perceived its own colonization. Also, it can call into question how America views its own, former subjugation to British colonization centuries before. Also, when a country reverses its role in the machine of colonialism, how does this change the way it views its past involvement in it?
If we think of the U.S. as a body, the transformation from victim of colonization to perpetrator of colonization reminds us of a common psychological path taken by those who have suffered in the past. According to Abbe Smith, “Although victims do not always become perpetrators, a truism repeated by prosecutors at sentencing as if it were a profound revelation never before put into words, it is the rare serious perpetrator who was not also a victim” (369).
Thinking of the U.S’s reversal of roles in this context, did our route to aggression result from past trauma as a nation at the hands of the British?

Works Cited:
Smith, Abbe, “The “Monster” in All of Us: When Victims Become Perpetrators” (2005). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. Paper 219.
http://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/facpub/219

Discomfort Regarding Mass Agreement of America as an Empire

When I read Amy Kaplan’s Presidential Address, I was shocked to hear that most scholars agree that America is an empire; from conservative writers across the political spectrum such as Charles Krauthammer, to liberal “reluctant imperialists,” America is accepted to have been formed as and to currently be an empire. Even public figures such as Dick Cheney are in on this semantic movement.
What are the repercussions of America accepting itself as empire? As some have hoped, “coming out” of the empire closet (Streeby 190) does not reduce the strength of the imperialism. “Empire,” as it applies to us, ceases to be the dirty word that it was when it was associated with former empires. When political leaders and pundits agree on what America is and has been, from a humanitarian, democratic, bottom-up vantage point, why should we want to be associated with imperialistic past empires? What do we have to gain by associating the American Empire with Roman, Spanish, and British empires?
I think our acceptance of our empire, accounting for both of Streeby’s narratives, is one framework through which our American Exceptionalism manifests itself in material, harmful ways. Because we see ourselves as morally superior, as champions of “universally-accepted” ideals such as freedom and democracy, we go as far as to wage modern holy wars, violently deciding who is on which side of humanity (a la Bush at Guantanamo). On the side, we yield our “soft power” to maintain our powerful status.
This summer, I worked at a camp named “American Village,” which was located in France. I spent July as a skit-making, ESL-teaching tendril in the machine of supporting our empire by means of soft power. Because of our continued Manifest Destiny, we feel just in spreading at the international level, and truly believing, “America, God Shed His Grace on Thee.”
On a more speculative standpoint, I end with this assertion: the prevailing sentiment willingly aligns us with the Roman Empire’s might because we want to secure our place in history as working tendrils of the American Empire. Both the conservatives and “reluctant imperialists” Kaplan identifies are proud to be theorizing from within American borders because they believe this will be the “right” side of history.

Marti: The Border Created By the “Other”

“…The urgent duty of our America is to show herself as she is, one in soul and intent, rapidly overcoming the crushing weight of her past and stained only by the fertile blood shed by hands that do battle against ruins and by veins that were punctured by our former masters,” (6) Jose Marti proclaimed with revolutionary fervor. In his 1892 article Our America, Marti calls for all Cubans to shake off their regional, hometown mindsets and unite under a common Cuban voice in order to gain independence from Spain and resist American expansion. He urges his compatriots to have faith in their land and trust in their heritage, of which he asserts, “No Yankee or European book could furnish the key to the Hispanoamerican enigma” (5).

In this article, Marti does not discuss exactly what he means by “ the Hispanoamerican enigma,” but instead unites his targeted readers by building an imaginary border around Cuba and condemning the imperialistic powers beyond it. He seems to say, “We have a common Cuban patrimony that must be protected. But instead of focusing on that, let me remind you that our way of life is imminently challenged by European and American powers.” He works to create a sense of urgency, a sense of anger toward the races that recklessly “drive Persian ponies and spill champagne” (2). Thus he creates a border for Cuba by defining a tangible “Other.” He defines a Cuban identity not by listing their unique patrimonial links, but by listing what they are “fighting” against: the Other.

What is the most meaningful border for a sovereignty? Is it a physical border that delineates where one culture starts and another begins? Is it an imagined border beyond which one’s way of life is under attack? Is the more real border one that is physical or one that is symbolic or cultural?

I think Marti effectively uses his platform to draw Cubans together. By insisting who Cuba is not, he defines who Cuba is.

Justice in Benito Cereno: Justified?

With the novella Benito Cereno, Herman Melville adds himself to the ranks of white men that have written about slavery, black people and/or African Americans, and race-based oppression by white people. While reading this novella, I came to conclusions on Melville’s attitude about African slaves. But first, I want to briefly examine another literary comparison to Benito Cereno.
Written some 30 years after Benito Cereno, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) publicized the character of Jim, an adult, black slave. Twain presented Jim as a wise, good-natured, caring figure, though many question Twain’s often patronizing tone with Jim’s character. As a white man growing up in the post-Reconstruction Era South who was critical of slavery, Twain was able to give an honorable face to black people to mainstream white, American readers.
Melville wrote Benito Cerino in the pre-Civil War years. I consider the pivotal villain-hero, Babo, to be a sort of pre-Huck Finn “Jim” in the sense that Melville endowed Babo with rare traits that even surpassed the white characters in the novella. In Huck Finn, Jim is presented as more street-smart than the other white adults Huck knows, and, more importantly, Jim is presented to be more loving and paternalistic than Huck’s own parents and legal guardians.
In Benito Cereno, the “Negro Babo” is presented with cunning so infallible that he—along with the cooperation of his fellow captured Africans—is able to overthrow his captors, actively control them, and hide the truth from the growingly suspicious American Captain Delano. Melville presents Babo with villainous omnipotence and he uses Babo’s power to invoke a sense of discomfort or even fear among readers. In passages such as, “[Babo’s] body was burned to ashes; but for many days, the head, that hive of subtlety, fixed on a pole in the plaza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites…”) (p. 123), Melville ensures that Babo shows his position as a leader who must be followed even after his death.
Yet we must remember that the overall tone of the novel is one that does not condemn the slaves for their uprising. It is a story that allows a set of slaves to seek vengeance after hundreds of years of merciless treatment as a human subspecies. Particularly to the 21-st century reader, with our more progressive ideas about race than Melville’s 19th century readers, we cannot immediately write off Babo and company as ruthless, soulless, and unjustified. There is something that feels vindicating about Babo’s triumph in the end, as if for just a moment in history, we hear about African slaves rising up in a rare moment of justice, if a violent form of it.
Lastly, this form of rooting for violent justice reminds me of the plot of Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglorious Bastards, which portrays a group of Americans that assassinate Hitler. Throughout the film, the viewers are expected to share the anger that Brad Pitt and his mates feel when they encounter Nazis, culminating in a climactic cinematic justice when Hitler is slaughtered while in a cinema.
The tactics used in this film made me feel conflicted; for is it ever moral to delight in the violent murder of another human being? The tactics in Benito Cereno similarly trouble me. Does Melville wish for his readers to triumph alongside Babo’s terrifying, yet redemptive violence?

A slave ship being loaded off West Africa