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'From the Ruins of Empire': Interview with Pankaj Mishra

The following is an excerpt from my interview with award-winning author and essayist Pankaj Mishra on his new book From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia. The interview was published at Al Jazeera.

Belen Fernandez: You explain at the start of From the Ruins of Empire:

The form of this book – part historical essay and part intellectual biography – is primarily motivated by the conviction that the lines of history converge in individual lives, even though the latter have their own shape and momentum. The early men of modern Asia it describes travelled and wrote prolifically, restlessly assessing their own and other societies, pondering the corruption of power, the decay of community, the loss of political legitimacy and the temptations of the West. Their passionate enquiries appear in retrospect as a single thread, weaving seemingly disparate events and regions into a single web of meaning.”

You’ve discussed your own intellectual formation and travels in previous writings, such as your book Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond. What convergence of events and experiences compelled you to embark on From the Ruins of Empire?

Pankaj Mishra: Many things over the last decade. I’ll speak only about two here. The first was surely my visit to the Muslim-majority valley of Kashmir in 2000, where I witnessed a military occupation by a nation-state, India, that claimed the moral prestige of secularism but was actually oppressively Hindu majoritarian in all significant ways – that’s how it was perceived by Kashmiris who had long belonged to a cosmopolitan and syncretic culture.

That’s when I began to wonder why many Asian nation-states had turned out to be often more violent than the European empires in Asia they had replaced. And that was when I began to wonder – and this is a major theme in the book – if the political and economic models Asians had adopted from the West in their struggle for self-determination and dignity were disastrously unsuitable.

I realised too that the post-colonial version of history I had grown up with – one that celebrated the nation-state’s emergence from foreign rule – was deeply defective and left out a lot of things.

The other thing that influenced me was the post-9/11 political climate in the West. How such a wide range of politicians, policymakers, journalists and columnists could re-embrace the delusions of empire – those you thought had been effectively shattered by decolonisation 50-60 years ago; how they could bring themselves to believe that the Afghans and the Iraqis were just longing to suck on the big sticks proffered to them by American soldiers, as [decorated New York Times foreign affairs columnist] Thomas Friedman inimitably recommended

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A Counterplea for Retracted U.S. Military Engagement

This is an excerpt from my recent piece for The Diplomat.

Former Defense Department officials Michèle Flournoy and Janine Davidson’s new article, “A Plea for Smart, Forward U.S. Military Engagement,” may contain some surprises for followers of contemporary history. The piece begins:

The recent global economic downturn has generated doubts about American resilience and our ability to lead in the world. Far from being a nation in decline, however, the United States’ global standing remains unmatched and the imperative for it to lead in today’s tumultuous environment is clear. Those who assume that in order to recover economically the United States must close its overseas bases and bring its military forces home misunderstand the role the U.S. military plays in promoting global prosperity.”

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Cocaine, Death Squads, and the War on Terror

This is my review for Jacobin Magazine of Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle’s new book Cocaine, death squads, and the war on terror: U.S. imperialism and class struggle in Colombia, published by Monthly Review Press.

In March of 2009, my friend Amelia Opalinska and I hitchhiked around Colombia. Despite our parents’ conviction that such behavior was conducive to immediate kidnapping by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the greatest challenge we ultimately faced was the reluctance of motorists to pick us up.

After being informed by a compassionate passerby that this reluctance was probably a result of recent robbery schemes involving female hitchhikers, we attempted to render our appearance as innocuous as possible by designing colorful placards to indicate our intended destination and decorating them with rainbows and flowers. When this did not work, we drew stop signs in red marker and positioned ourselves in the middle of the road, which only caused vehicles to swerve around us.

Appeals to police at anti-narcotics checkpoints for assistance in procuring rides meanwhile proved even less effective, as citizens appeared unconvinced that the representatives of the state had their well-being at heart.

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Guernica Magazine: Introduction to The Imperial Messenger

(Photo via Flickr by Charles Haynes)

Guernica Magazine has just featured the introduction to The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work. The intro begins:

In the first chapter of his bestseller on globalization, The World Is Flat, three-time Pulitzer Prize–winning foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times Thomas Friedman suggests that his repertoire of achievements also includes being heir to Christopher Columbus. According to Friedman, he has followed in the footsteps of the fifteenth-century icon by making an unexpected discovery regarding the shape of the world during an encounter with “people called Indians.”

Friedman’s Indians reside in India proper, of course, not in the Caribbean, and include among their ranks CEO Nandan Nilekani of Infosys Technologies Limited in Bangalore, where Friedman has come in the early twenty-first century to investigate phenomena such as outsourcing and to exult over the globalization-era instructions he receives at the KGA Golf Club downtown: “Aim at either Microsoft orIBM.” Nilekani unwittingly plants the flat-world seed in Friedman’s mind by commenting, in reference to technological advancements enabling other countries to challenge presumed American hegemony in certain business sectors: “Tom, the playing field is being leveled.”

The Columbus-like discovery process culminates with Friedman’s conversion of one of the components of Nilekani’s idiomatic expression into a more convenient synonym: “What Nandan is saying, I thought to myself, is that the playing field is being flattened… Flattened? Flattened? I rolled that word around in my head for a while and then, in the chemical way that these things happen, it just popped out: My God, he’s telling me the world is flat!”

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Thomas Friedman plots a return to US glory

(Photo: EPA)

The following is my review for Al Jazeera of Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s new book That Used to Be Us.

In a January 2011 Fox Business interview, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman – famed begetter of the notion that the US military should make Iraqis “Suck. On. This“- described his forthcoming book That Used to Be Us as “the first book I’ve really written about America”.

Published last month with the subtitle How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented – And How We Can Come Back, the treatise is co-authored by Friedman’s proclaimed “intellectual soul mate” Michael Mandelbaum, a Johns Hopkins professor who appears on an excessive basis in Friedman’s columns and who is credited with coining the mantra that “people do not change when you tell them they should; they change when they tell themselves they must”. Said mantra does not stop either character from cheerleading the US war on Iraq, which Friedman additionally manages to cast as “the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the US has ever launched” despite simultaneously defining himself as “a liberal on every issue other than this war”.

As for Friedman’s assertion that the current book is the first one he has really written about America, this is not entirely reconcilable with his announcement during a 2010 presentation at Istanbul’s Ozyegin University that his then – latest bestseller Hot, Flat, and Crowded “is really about America”. He adds that The World Is Flat, as well as Hot, Flat, and Crowded, marketed as groundbreaking texts about globalisation and the environment, respectively, “have nothing to do with technology or environment at heart” and are instead “basically cries of the heart to get my country focused on fixing itself”.
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Financial Times betrays Thomas Friedman

Today marks the release of yet another book by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’ prolific foreign affairs columnist whose articles over the years have exposed such trends as the “collective madness” of Palestinians and the progress in Mexican baby names to more NAFTA-friendly alternatives than Juan, such as Alexander and Kevin.

Friedman’s latest book, endearingly titled That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, is coauthored by Friedman’s “intellectual soulmate”, the foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum—a longtime staple of Friedman columns and a purveyor of such predictable notions as that “The real threat to world stability is not too much American power. It is too little American power”.

Despite having admitted to an audience in Istanbul that his two previous bestsellers—The World Is Flat and Hot, Flat, and Crowded, marketed as wakeup calls concerning globalization and clean energy, respectively—really “have nothing to do with technology or environment at heart” and are instead “basically cries of the heart to get my country focused on fixing itself”, Friedman managed to advertise That Used to Be Us as “the first book I’ve really written about America” during an interview with Fox’s Don Imus earlier this year.

Slightly more surprising than Friedman’s continuing habit of self-contradiction is a recent less-than-favorable review of the new book on the website of the Financial Times, the institution that in 2005 partnered with Goldman Sachs to bestow upon Friedman the first annual £30,000 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award for The World Is Flat. Friedman responded to the honor by referring to the pair as “two such classy organizations”, before finally conceding two years after the 2008 financial crisis that Goldman Sachs is perhaps in fact “utterly selfish”.

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WSJ’s Mary O’Grady Rewrites WikiLeaks

Prior to being obsessed with WikiLeaks, Hillary Clinton was obsessed with Honduras

In preparing for her article “WikiLeaks, Honduras and the U.S.”, published today by The Wall Street Journal, WSJ editorial board member and patron saint of the Latin American far right Mary Anastasia O’Grady presumably had a number of approaches to choose him.

One option was to announce that Julian Assange is an agent of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and that confirmation has been obtained from the laptops impounded during the 2008 Colombian raid on a FARC camp in Ecuador, which coincidentally appear to contain incriminating evidence about all of O’Grady’s regional enemies.

Another option was to use the cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa following last year’s coup against President Mel Zelaya, which states that “there is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup against the Executive Branch”, to further her argument that U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens is a communist sympathizer who deserves relocation to a diplomatic post in Cuba. This may be the gist of a forthcoming article.

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