Colonialism is a subject that has become almost impossible to discuss. In the vernacular of Sellar and Yeatman, authors of 1066 and All That, colonialism was a Bad Thing. To suggest otherwise is to teeter on the brink of racism.
If you grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, colonialism was principally an outmoded thing. It was not entirely a Bad Thing, nor entirely a Good Thing. Just a Thing for which there was no future requirement. My reluctance to repent from this view is inextricably connected to my dislike of judging the standards of other ages by the standards of one’s own.
I doubt there is anyone alive, colonised or coloniser, whose ancestors have not done things that we would consider unspeakable. So, unless one happens to believe that the human race has recently acquired a status close to perfection, it seems preferable not to pass adamantine moral judgments on people who lived in other ages.
Besides which, it is pointless to complain when people who possess power use it. People always have and they always will, individuals as much as nations. This is not to say that how power is used, how it can be diffused, how it can be made more accountable, is irrelevant. Far from it. But our generation has not made a conspicuous success of that project either. There has always been exploitation, and always will be, whoever’s names are on the label.
Still, the subject of colonialism seems best avoided in its generality. In its specifics, though, there is one aspect of it that is worthy of debate: partly because it seldom excites any, and partly for the light that it sheds on our capacity for self-delusion. And that is the question of early American colonialism.
When America built its political and economic power in the world in the early 20th century, it did so on the back of asserting its moral power. And it did that by contrasting its own free, republican form of government with the undemocratic governments of the old colonial nations of Europe.
Over the decades, America has lost its moral lustre. It has been accused of territorial imperialism (in Vietnam and elsewhere) and of economic imperialism everywhere. Yet the image of the young America as a pristine nation, untainted by colonialism, has surprisingly endured. It has endured most of all in the minds of Americans themselves, anxious at this moment, as at most elections, to recapture their lost elixir of moral certainty and authority. But it has also endured in the minds of the world at large.
It is a fiction. Not that long ago, European migrants to North America had little more than a tenuous foothold on the continent. The journey from there to establishing the whole of what is now the USA as a unified state is difficult to conceive of in terms other than colonialism. It is true that the areas annexed were sparsely populated, which made the enterprise feasible in the first place. But the principles were the same: the military defeat and subjection of indigenous peoples and the seizure of natural resources. And that is to say nothing of the appropriation of Mexican lands, policies towards Cuba and Central America and the covetous eyes on Canada.
At the same time as the European powers were grabbing what they could of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and of their resources, the people and government of America were doing exactly the same thing on their own continent. This fact may now be accepted, but for some reason the taint of colonialism has never attached itself to America in the way it has to other countries, and to Britain especially. Why not?
I suggest two reasons, for starters. The first may seem trivial, but is possibly the most significant. No ocean needed to be crossed. This was mission creep, not unmistakeable invasion. The boundaries of Britain did not naturally encompass India. Who could say where the natural boundaries of America lay?
Then, for some although not all Americans, there was a divine purpose to the mission: the ‘manifest destiny’ of the nation to stretch from shore to shore. For many in Britain at that time, the Empire also had a moral purpose: the enlightment and civilization of the poor benighted heathen. But Britain never shook off the tag of imperial aggrandisment, whereas America did. And perhaps it did so because it was, then, undeniably more democratic and more free than other countries (if one discounts slavery and its aftermath, and most people have discounted it). There seemed to be a greater substance to its claim of having a moral purpose and extending a moral power.
Whatever the reasons, I still find it astonishing that America should have built its status in the modern world through claiming to be the antithesis of what it really was. (Some would say the same of it today.) I still find it astonishing that few Americans, past and present, have understood and acknowledged this fact.
Whenever I write pieces like this, I worry that they will sound rabidly anti-American. I am not anti-American. But then I made Feliks Zhukovski say those words in my novel The Breaking of Eggs. Readers were not intended to believe him, so why should they believe me?
My point is not that America is a worse country than anywhere else: it is much better than most. And I certainly feel grateful for America’s leadership and support of the Western world since 1945. Most of all, I feel that America is the one place in the world where every human characteristic – good and bad – is written publicly in vast capital letters.
That is what I love about the country. What I don’t love is its infinite capacity to see only the GOOD in itself and in its history, and to deny that there is, or ever has been, any