In a review of some books on empires Felipe Fernández-Armesto describes a new imperial state:
The United States… grew by conquest. When those conquests spanned the continent, they spilled into the oceans. The US empire practised genocide on Native Americans… and victimized other subject communities, especially blacks and Hispanics. It espoused a universalist programme of values and sought and still seeks to promote and impose those values on others. It made its last permanent territorial acquisitions in 1917 and has uttered anti-imperial rhetoric ever since. But it has gone on bombing and invading other countries where peoples defy its will or impede its interests. To adapt a phrase, if it looks like an empire, walks like an empire, and quacks like an empire, you don’t need to define it as such.
In response Howard M. Kaminsky calls him an anti-American of “the usual sort”. He says he makes mistakes: not all the mainland was conquered; Native Americans or blacks were not subject to genocide (though the former “were indeed killed”); and the Hispanics, well, “there is nothing most of them want more today than to come and live in America.” Of course we have the hell-raising finale:
…the simple-minded charge that America’s wars in the modern era have been waged against people who defy its will ignores the function of that warfare in creating and supporting a world order of democratic peace, however imperfect, an order paid for by thousands of American lives but enjoyed by many who merely bite the hand.
In his original piece Fernández-Armesto described one author as unwilling to accept that America is an empire; in large part because they recognised that empires do bad things (TLS 24/09/2010). How strange that he should immediately receive a letter demonstrating his very point (TLS 08/10/2010). Lets have a look at Kaminsky’s reply, for it tells us something about the games intellectuals play:
- That some territories were bought doesn’t contradict the assertion that the mainland was conquered. Fernández-Armesto description captures the essential truth of America’s expansion; and which was recognised as such by the founding fathers – they knew that the United States was going to grow. This is the straw man argument – exaggerate your opponent’s claims until they become ridiculous.
- No genocide? The conservative estimate is that 1.25 million Native Americans were killed in 300 years.[i] This is a useful approach: ignore the facts, and talk in vague generalities.
- Why did he include the blacks in with the Native Americans – to throw dust in our eyes? Or did the red mist descend, jumbling up the TLS sentences? The longwinded reply can often be deadly: it bores the reader, while throwing in enough rubbish in the hope you’ll confuse and maybe sidetrack your antagonist.
- The intellectual’s favourite: a non sequitur. Why should Hispanics wanting to live in America today disprove that their countries have suffered from American power (does a Nicaraguan living in San Francisco erase Contra terrorism?). Indeed, his argument may actually point in the opposite direction; that people migrate to escape their present suffering – eg the squeeze on the Mexican economy since NAFTA.
- The last quote sums it all up. It doesn’t follow that by describing the US and its actions that Fernández-Armesto is opposed to the United States. He is, after all, describing only some of its characteristics. Or think of it another way: if the review was of the Roman Empire, would we call the author anti-Roman? The mistake, once you see it, is easy: a particular description is taken for a general value judgement.
- And the actual record, of America killing people for peace and democracy? The record contradicts him on nearly every count: Iran 1954, Vietnam in the 1960’s and 70’s, and Iraq in 2003, to name just a tiny fraction of the US interventions to maintain its power and influence. But note Kaminsky’s argument – he doesn’t deny that people resisted only that Americans fought for democracy. He avoids the actual argument! How easy it all is… for by ignoring the argument he ignores the people it contains; the actual populations of those countries have disappeared, to be replaced by the (imperial) idea. This is the strangest trick of all, and the most effect: pretend your opponent does not exist.
Though he is right on one point: thousands of Americans have lost their lives because of the actions of their government. But what about the millions of lives that have been lost elsewhere in the world because of those peaceful interventions? Did they give up their lives freely so that future generations might live with Disney and Die Hard…