by Mary Harrington
Monday, 9
November 2020

The new American empire of anti-imperialism

by Mary Harrington
1899:American Empires have appeared in many guises. Credit: Getty.

Fireworks erupted in London last weekend, according to The Hill and ABC News, in celebration of Joe Biden winning the US election.

ABC has since deleted its version of the story, after being roundly mocked by for not knowing that fireworks are often heard in England around the fifth of November, for reasons unrelated to American electoral politics. But the moment left behind a distinct impression that despite taking a battering in recent years, reports of the death of American exceptionalism have been greatly exaggerated.

Nowhere is this truer than among those keenest on critiquing this exceptionalism. The 21st-century critical theory left is now increasingly dominant in the US liberal mainstream (check out the vice-president elect’s pronouns in her Twitter bio), and those who embrace this worldview are fond of warning about the dangers of universalising a dominant worldview. We must, for example, ‘decentre whiteness’, ‘decolonise the curriculum’ and ‘check our privilege’ — all exhortations to set a hegemonic perspective in parentheses and consider power dynamics which could stifle the inclusion of less well-amplified voices in a debate.

This is in many respects wise counsel, and disregarding it has historically led to cruelty and oppression. So it’s all the more striking to discover such a jarring lack of reflexivity in this worldview. Instead, a defining characteristic of America’s emerging ‘woke’ cultural elites is a reluctance to analyse on its own terms their own desire to spread an anti-imperialistic worldview beyond American borders.

This propensity was at work a week ago, as Liam Duffy noted in these pages, in the American liberal media’s determination to export its particular preoccupations to Macron’s increasingly hardline stance on militant Islam. This was typified in the New York Times’ response to the decapitation of Samuel Paty, which seemed more nervous about ‘rising nationalism’ than an increasingly militant Islamism.

Everyone, worldwide, must of necessity be as fixated on the triumph of American good over American evil as Americans are themselves. Other culturally specific anxieties, celebrations or political priorities can only become intelligible inasmuch as they’re relativised from the ‘neutral’ American standpoint.

It’s probably an inescapable feature of empires that they use their soft (and sometimes hard) power to export their cultural values across their sphere of influence, and America is no exception. Despite an apparent waning of aspirations to cultural imperialism in recent years, the instinct to evangelise ideologically seems as strong as ever.

But perhaps we should see this not as a bug but a feature. After all, it keeps the international artillery of American ideological imperialism humming, while providing the justification for takeover of that engine by new political interests, in the name of anti-imperialism. Those of us who live elsewhere, and occasionally set off fireworks for reasons unrelated to American politics would perhaps do well to watch what the new, incoming anti-imperialist imperials do, rather than what they say.

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