There has always been a certain dissonance at play with America’s response to imperialism. While the United States routinely criticized European power land grabs around the world during the 19th and 20th century, as long as Europe stayed out of the Western hemisphere, Americans did not meddle. With the coming of the Cold War, however, America found itself awkwardly confronted by a necessity: while they rejected imperialism they also feared the expansion of communism. Consequently, the liberation of European colonies, while desirable at the level of principle, proved practically difficult as many were ripe for communist intervention. National security and national principles existed in an uneasy tension.
In the aftermath of that dicey and often contradictory time, it remains fashionable among members of the left to excoriate European imperialism and America’s complicity with it. The irony is that left wing attacks upon America’s past actions miss the fact that the left itself propagates a cultural imperialism in the developing world.
The Background: The Old Imperialism and Left Wing Condemnation
During the 19th century European imperialism boomed as the major powers began colonizing Africa. Raw materials and markets for factory goods provided an economic incentive. Christianity provided a spiritual impetus. Even as the Europeans sought to benefit from imperial arrangements they also carried a high view of their culture: they would lift the natives out of intellectual and spiritual darkness. In the back of the West’s mind, though, creeped a reinvigorated Hobbes: Social Darwinism had asserted itself along with a Malthusian belief in the limitation of resources. The world became dog-eat-dog. And so the Europeans charged into Africa with a coalescing concoction of modern science and the older, gospel driven humanitarianism of missionaries.
The left labels this sort of behavior oppressive. Not only did the Europeans obtain tremendous political and economic control over their colonies, but they also imposed their religious beliefs on the natives, destroying in many ways traditional African customs. The hubris of (some) missionaries is especially galling in retrospect. One may oppress someone politically or economically, but to force your religion upon them, that is the height of tyranny. Of course the work of missionaries to uplift the poor, provide education and modern medicine, emphasize the dignity of the individual as a creation of God, and even resist the abuse of political oppression of both local and European powers, gets less notice. The imperial heritage is a mixed bag.
The cynicism of the left runs deep, though. For men like Noam Chomsky, idealism of any sort–whether it be for democracy, rule of law, liberty, or Christianity–is a capitalistic pretense to control and dominate. European missionaries were either consciously complicit in the game, or they were dupes of the system. Controlling Africa with guns and trade and infesting Africa’s culture with a false Christian conscience, the West ruled with an iron fist. A good Marxist, Chomsky sees everything in terms of material, cash reality. He even goes so far as to declare that Western Humanitarianism is a form of control and a rationalization for large military budgets. While I find this sort of Marxism narrow-minded and unimaginative, he isn’t wholly wrong to point out the cash motivation. But that’s his problem: he only points out the cash nexus. Everything else is superstructure.
Chomsky may be an extremist, but he’s preaching to the leftie choir. The irony is that they don’t realize they’ve reappropriated imperialism in the modern age to advance the cause of social liberalism. In this way, it’s not the developing world’s resources that social liberals want, it’s the minds and souls of Africa they want to liberate from prejudice. These new missionaries, like the old, cooperate with (and at times fight) the American government. While their intentions are undoubtedly benign (Chomsky’s cynicism notwithstanding), their project differs little from their Christian predecessors– a cultural imperialism for a new age.
The New Cultural Imperialism
This past summer Obama paid a visit to his ancestral continent. Addressing the sins of the past (imperialism and slavery), Obama nevertheless established in no uncertain terms a new cultural imperialism that he and his leftist comrades wish to impress on the dark continent. Quote: “When you start treating people differently, not because of any harm they are doing to anybody but because they are different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode.” If Obama had been a white man, such moral paternalism may have drawn more ire, but that doesn’t change the fact that the president was telling Kenya what’s what. President Kenyatta responded graciously with a true multicultural spirit: “There are some things that we must admit we don’t share–our culture, our societies don’t accept.” This could have been the end of it: it’s not as if American presidents haven’t made pointless and futile gestures in the past before. But Obama is the president of the United States. And he’s a Kenyan by descent. Merely addressing gay rights lends credence to the idea.
But the Obama administration’s support moves beyond presidential platitudes. In 2014 the US threatened Uganda with sanctions on account of its Anti-Homosexual Act. This brought Uganda to heel, however briefly. Hillary Clinton as head of the State Department made it a point to have embassies report on LGBT abuse in their countries and authorized financial support for said groups. For Clinton, this is a matter of principle: “Gay rights are human rights.” No one should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. John Kerry added an additional component: gay rights are a “strategic necessity” because tolerance leads to stability and prosperity. Kerry might have further added a comment about being on the “right side of history”. It would have been consistent not only with his own thinking, but the progressive mindset. The United States is not alone. Great Britain, however tentatively, has also gotten in on the act. Arguing that homophobia was actually imposed on Africa by European colonial governments, Great Britain feels guilty and wants to fix the thing it broke.
While Washington has discussed cutting aid or making it conditional on the protection of the LGBT community, enough red flags warn against such a heavy-handed cultural assault. For starters, Africans don’t appreciate the meddling.
Conservative African Responses: A Competing Ontology and Anthropology
For Africans under the gun of Boko Haram, threatened by the AIDS epidemic, tortured by the lack of basic necessities for its citizens, LGBT equality doesn’t quite make the list of “top issues facing the nation”. In practical terms, it’s very much a first world problem and the Obama administration’s pronouncements are tone deaf to this reality even if well-intentioned. And yet this is more than just a matter of prioritization as African leaders have not only angrily defended their traditional culture, but have also shot back criticisms at the decadent, patronizing West.
For some Africans, the issue is theological. Of course, this rings hollow in the ears of the cultural secularist, and yet it’s a very real thing to African Christians, who make up a notable portion of the population depending on what country you are talking about. As the much Western-detested Bishop Simon Peter Emiau of Uganda put it, “Dependence on God is not [in the West], wealth is there enough to supply all that you need…I think [it’s] because of that deviation, deterioration, moving away from the essence of creation, the presence of God… I don’t know what they will worship in the end.” Christianity may thrive in the midst of deprivation, an opiate of the masses, but Emiau is correct to identify the fundamental question: what will man worship?
This language of worship may seem irrelevant to the non-religious, but he’s addressing a larger, philosophical issue of ontology (the nature of being) with which we must all struggle. Related to this is the issue of anthropology: how humans (ought to) interact in community. Both are on Emiau’s mind, and while he doesn’t state explicitly what he thinks the West will worship one can anticipate the answer: mana and self. Emiau seems to think this a poor soup to nourish the human soul and community. As he puts it, “Those people who have already ruined their society… let them not become our teachers to tell us where to go.”
The polemic can be easily brushed aside as cranky, ignorant, and bigoted. But Emiau is getting at something more deep-rooted and practical than merely citing Scripture chapter and verse. In developing countries, children and cohesive families are the most important form of social and economic capital you can acquire. In Africa in particular, family connections, loyalties, and capital expands far beyond the nuclear family. There exist webs of interdependence as those who claw their way out of poverty are then responsible for those left behind. An essential component of building capital and lifting families, tribes, and whole countries out of poverty is the creation of more children. Without them, you’re a dead-end parasite; after all, if you don’t have children repaying their debt to you and taking care of you when you get older, you will need to leech off of someone else. The necessity of procreation and cultural-economic interdependence within broad and generationally deep African families makes homosexuality a cultural absurdity. As Emiau puts it: “I have never seen an island where a man and a man have multiplied.” But this is about more than money. Family matters in Africa. Emiau: “If my son marries another man, my family has come to an end.” Americans generally don’t think this way, but Africans do.
The ontological and anthropological individualism of the West doesn’t square with the predominant socio-economic-moral framework of Africa. Further, you don’t unravel those deeply ingrained pathways of meaning, individual identity, and cultural affirmation overnight or without a fight. And the fight will continue. Many Africans see the disagreement manifested between Obama and Kenyatta as not only a moral matter but also as a matter of national pride. The memories of colonialism have yet to fade, and their is a visceral reaction to the white man (or in this case, black man) showing up and patronizingly prodding them into the future. These (backwards) Africans face a challenging enough climb to lift their countries out of poverty without the West throwing stones.
The cultural imperialists will not be dissuaded by such stubborn, backward people, though. Like their missionary forebears, these activists persevere against the darkness (maybe, with enough effort, they will convert the masses like the Christians). Christianity Today reported that this past July, “[i]n Kenya…anti-gay activists, including politicians and Christian leaders, demonstrated on the streets of Nairobi to protest the decision of the Kenyan High Court in April to allow gay activists to register themselves as an NGO – a right that had been repeatedly blocked by parliament.” The NGOs make progress. The shadows dissipate.
But it isn’t all rainbows and butterflies for Westerners attempting to liberate Africa from its prejudice. Activists are beginning to realize that American government brow-beating, threats to cut funding, and foreign-funded NGO activism are really not helping the LGBT cause in Africa. For one, Africans are only too familiar with being told what to do by the West. As the influential Modern Ghana snarled, “The imperialists are at it again.” Bishop Mark Kariuki, Chairman of the Evangelical Alliance in Kenya, attacked NGOs in particular: “One of our concerns is the money that is coming from the West …The pro-gay movement in the West funds the pro-gay movement here in Africa. That’s why they want to register an NGO, so that through that NGO they can gain funds from the West and then they can propagate their beliefs.” Not only is religion at stake for the bishop, but national pride as well. The Modern Ghana picks up the nationalist call: “Let us be dependent on our own resources and be our own masters…We must say no to the damn foreign aids with strings attached, and refuse to be cowed into submission by these unwarranted threats from the Union Jack and Uncle Sam.”
Ironically enough, the West’s activism has antagonized Africa and increased anti-gay sentiment across the continent. It’s odd, then, that while LGBT groups have seemingly learned that direct approaches cause backlash, the President remains oblivious.
The Hypocrisy of Multiculturalism
“Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go.” So goes the left wing’s clarion rejection of white-man, oppressive, cisgender, sexist, racist, classist imperialist monoculture. In its place they seek to raise a temple to tolerance, democracy, human rights, freedom, and multiculturalism. But they cannot escape the past. Their words and ideals betray them as the tow line and the concepts they cling to run deep into the very same white-man-dominated past they reject.
But there resides a deep contradiction in social liberalism’s temple. Tolerance, a central plank in left wing multiculturalism, cannot long endure alongside the idea of human rights for such rights rest upon a positive declaration about ontology and anthropology. Man is of a certain sort and ought to live in a certain way if he wants to be happy. For the social liberal, every individual is a self-creating, autonomous being who ought to pursue his or her passions and develop in anyway he or she chooses. This ontology leads to an anthropology of liberty in all things short of harming another. Those who claim that individuals are not ontological blank slates intimately linked to an anthropological culture are tyrants using the superstructure of culture to oppress. But these competing positions, the social liberal against the Africans who believe in their old ways, cannot coexist. The social liberal may continue to advocate human rights and tolerant multiculturalism, but when the cards are down they must choose one or the other. Based on their views and actions in Africa, it’s clear which one they value more.
It’s of little surprise, then, that tolerance evaporates once disagreements breakout over human nature and human rights. In such a state, there can be no cooperation, indeed no coexistence, for the social liberals have the glorious creed of human rights, and like the good missionaries before them, they must preach the creed and bring light to the darkness. Such a posture ensures that no respectful conversation over differences will emerge: Africa is in the thralls of cultural barbarism! It must be saved! It’s cultural imperialism through and through. Indeed, it’s of little wonder that Kenya’s president responded the way he did to Obama’s scolding–don’t come to my country and talk down to me and my people.
Alain Badious is not a household name. He’s an atheistic French philosopher, but his analysis of social liberalism and multiculturalism is germane and demands a response from the new missionaries:
“Our suspicions are first aroused when we see that the apostles of ethics and the ‘right to difference’ are clearly horrified by any vigorously sustained difference. For them, African customs are barbaric, Muslims are dreadful, the Chinese are totalitarian, and so on. As a matter of fact, this celebrated ‘other’ is acceptable only if he is a good other—which is to say what, exactly, if not the same as us? Respect for differences, of course! But on condition that the different be parliamentary-democratic, pro free-market economics, in favor of freedom of opinion, feminism, the environment…
“…It might well be that ethical ideology, detached from religious teachings which at least conferred upon it the fullness of a ‘revealed’ identity, is simply the final imperative of a conquering civilization: ‘Become like me and I will respect your difference.'”
Alain Badious, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, IV, 24- 5
Badious perfectly hits on the limits of multicultural toleration. In the end, intentionally or not, multiculturalism is a (unintentional?) smoke screen for Western cultural imperialism. This would be sinister if it wasn’t for the fact that advocates of the Western program conceitedly drank their own Kool-Aid. They know where history is going, the perfectly autonomous and free human being is the end of the chain, and with some prodding the Africans will get with the program.
A little muscle goes a long way in this program as Obama’s administration pours money into pro-LGBT NGOs, threatens to cut funding to countries that don’t play ball, and uses the office of president to tell black people in Africa how to live their lives and run their countries. The left has eschewed the harder forms of imperialism in rejecting political and military dominance, but they still very much seek to advance a cultural imperialism backed with financial leverage to get countries to fall into line. How is this not a new form of imperialism? How is it not incredibly paternalistic? Oh you poor people, we infected you with homophobic ideas, let us come back and set you on the road to redemption! In the past Westerners bullied for gold and territory alone (supposedly); now we (liberals and conservatives both for different reasons) do it for culture. The only gain is that grandiose feeling of self-righteous progress–to be on the right side of history–but the result is disgust and disdain from the cultures we seek to transform.
The insanity in all of this is that the liberal establishment loves to sing the praises of multiculturalism– that is, until one disagrees with them on their sexual ethic (among other things). But what these new missionaries don’t seem to realize is that the sexual ethic is intimately linked to culture. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
In the end, though, the “conquering civilization” doesn’t have the muscle to make it work.
Spineless and Hypocritical
The multiculturalism and human rights program of social liberalism is self-contradicting and leads to geopolitical dissonance and hypocrisy. It’s easy to pick on Africans because they depend on our aid and we don’t need them for too much, but Saudi Arabia, which chopped off the head of a woman convicted of sorcery (Hermione Granger beware), gets a pass. Why? Well, the oil, duh. Even social liberals can look the other way for a price. The Obama administration pontificates on LGBT rights in Africa but mum’s the word when it comes to our Arab allies. Maybe Chomsky wasn’t so wrong when he claimed it all comes down to cash even for the humanitarian.
Meanwhile, as America quibbles with Africa about LGBT rights, China swoops in with its billions in investments. From the perspective of Africa, what is better: Dollars with strings attached or yuen with none? In this way Obama’s proclamations flail against concrete realities. One wonders if the representative of cultural imperialism is disingenuous, delusional, or dumb.
If countries in Africa are going to have a sexual revolution, they are going to need to own it themselves. The last thing they need is Western powers pushing the envelope. There is too much abusive history there as it stands without further intrusions by what in many African circles is perceived to be the “decadent West”. The fact that Obama is seemingly oblivious to all of this only underscores the shortsighted, ahistorical, a-strategic, solipsistic thinking that dominates pie-in-the-sky social liberalism.
But perhaps America and the West isn’t the end-all-be-all. Perhaps “progress” will run along unexpected roads and the twists and turns of history will baffle even the most sure.
UPDATE (10.24.2015): Recent news goes to show that neither browbeating nor dominating a country militarily and politically for years can do much to transform culture and help LGBT community. In fact, creating instability, whether that be through inane speaking tours condemning the world, or actually invading a country has arguably made things worse, not better for the LGBT community.
2 thoughts on “The New Cultural Imperialism: America in Africa”
I was going to do an essay on this topic, but research led me to your essay. You have nailed it, and I won’t bother except to applaud.