Culture and Imperialism
John Rocco Roberto
If one was to look at the impact that imperialism has had on the cultures of the world then one must look at those events objectively, being careful not to fall into the traps I find many historians find themselves in. I believe that it is imperative that people stop the practice of judging the actions of the past by the morals of the present. The history of the world is a long connected tapestry depicting the constant conflict of cultures. Each culture striving to maintain it’s own customs, belief systems, and economic independence. Social concepts such as Nationalism build on natural xenophobic fears causing one culture to mistrust or envy another. This generates the desire to try and out due or surpass the other culture. In plainer words, the history of mankind is one of never ending struggle between peoples.
Yet despite this very simple fact, the notion of imperialism tends to be looked upon as a product of western civilization. It is impossible however, not to notice that the taking and controlling of other people’s land by another is a truly universal theme. For example, while Europe was stuck in the Middle Ages, Genghis Khan, a Mongol warlord led an army of Mongol nomads through the Great Wall to conquer North China. His grandson, Kublai Khan, having conquered all of Mainland China, demanded that Japan surrender too. When Japan refused, Mongol forces invaded Japan (Information taken from Steven Warshaw’sThe World, Past and Present). By the 1800s China itself was once again the victim of new invaders from Manchuria, known as Manchus, who had taken control, and to this day China remains an occupying force in Tibet. Why is it then, that when the notion of imperialism is mentioned, the world’s view automatically turns to the West? Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States, are looked upon as the world’s imperialistic powers, and to an extent rightfully so. But what was it about the cultures of these societies that allowed them, by the early to mid 1800s, to dominate eighty-five present of the world?
In his book Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said examines the interactions between nineteenth and early twentieth century imperialism and the culture that both reflected and reinforced it. Said also examines the literatures of resistance produced within both the colonies and the imperial centers by writers such as Y. B. Yeats, Chinua Achebe, Jane Austen and Mark Twain. Questions however must be asked. Can postcolonial theory be “re-written” from a more genuine eastern perspective? Can a more balanced picture be created, or has the East become too fragmented or too diluted to be used as a platform for such an act? I believe the answers to these questions lye in an understanding of human history as a whole, the viewer looking at the entire picture, not just how east related to West.
I have several problems with Said’s theories, the least of which is his treatment of the “imperial” writers such as Yates, Achebe, Austen and Twain. I do agree with Said when he states that the world is a much closer-knit unit because of imperialism, but I do not agree with his treatment of Jane Austen for example. Said points out that there is a tendency for scholars to lift Austen out of what they call her “social milieu,” allowing her written word to be free and untainted by the “routines of labor that produced them and deaf to the tumult of current events.” (From Third World Traveler, Culture of Imperialism. [www.thirdworldtraveler.com]). Numerous efforts are made to counter the patronizing view that Austen, in her faithfulness to local (or surface) detail, Said argues that Austen is oblivious to large-scale struggles, to wars and mass movements of all kinds. Yet while arguing vigorously for the novel’s active role in producing imperialist plots, Said also in effect replays the story of its author’s inactivity regarding issues in the public sphere. For Said, Austen is unconcerned about colonial holdings in slaves as well as land and takes for granted their necessity to the good life at home. What Said argues, is that European culture, and especially the English novel, unwittingly but systematically helped gain consent for imperialist policies. That it was the novel, Said asserts, that was the primary discourses contributing to a consolidated vision, virtually uncontested, of England’s righteous imperial prerogative.
But can we truly fault 19th century writers for writing in the times in which they lived? Are we not ourselves today, guilty of narrowly viewing the world from our own perspective? While Said’s notions of “the other” rings very true, yes it was rare to read any accounts during the imperialistic age which were not written by non-western writers, and yes, several of the west’s greatest novelist took the notion of imperialism for granted. But can we really condemn these writers for not taking a stronger anti-imperialistic stance? Especially as the imperialistic notion was as natural for them as the Internet is for us. Said should understand the time for which these writers are writing from. Said is judging history using today’s standards.
In a speech given to students at York University on February 10, 1993, Professor Said told his audience, “There was a commitment to imperialism over and above profit, a commitment in constant circulation and recirculation which on the one hand allowed decent men and women from England or France, from London or Paris, to accept the notion that distant territories and their native peoples should be subjugated and, on the other hand, replenished metropolitan energies so that these decent people could think of the empire as a protracted, almost metaphysical obligation to rule subordinate, inferior or less advanced peoples. We mustn’t forget, and this is a very important aspect of my topic, that there was very little domestic resistance inside Britain and France. There was a kind of tremendous unanimity on the question of having an empire.” It was only natural that there was “very little domestic resistance,” the world was a much larger place than it is today. The absent of radio, television and the Internet did not allow for people to know the world as we know it today. The people of 19th century Britain and France truly believed that it was their mission and their right to “civilize” what they naturally saw as the lesser populations, and to a very small extend I can not honestly say that I disagree with them.
Said continues, “For the enterprise of empire depends upon the idea of having an empire, as Joseph Conrad so powerfully seems to have realized in Heart of Darkness. He says that the difference between us in the modern period, the modern imperialists, and the Romans is that the Romans were there just for the loot. They were just stealing. But we go there with an idea. He was thinking, obviously, of the idea, for instance in Africa, of the French and the Belgians that when you go to these continents you’re not just robbing the people of their ivory and slaves and so on. You are improving them in some way. I’m really quite serious. The idea, for example, of the French empire was that France had a ‘mission civilisatrice,’ that it was there to civilize the natives. It was a very powerful idea. Obviously, not so many of the natives believed it, but the French believed that that was what they were doing.” Yet what I think Said fails to point out is that regardless of the reasons for the Roman’s invasions, the fact cannot be disputed that the Romans “were” there. Their reason is of little importance, the Roman’s, like Alexander’s Greece before them, and the Pharos’s Egypt before him, were imperialistic forces. It should also be pointed out that in the case of the Romans they did try and Romanize the people, making citizens of them in most of the conquered territories.
Finally Said looks at the role of the United States, placing current debates about culture in the United States within this larger historical process of extension and resistance to imperialism. For Said, the U.S. intervention in the Third World every year between 1945 and 1967 under the notion of “world responsibility” is just the ideal of American expansionism. “After the British and the French disappeared, and certainly in the period after World War II, when the empires disappeared, America took over.” Though not directly involved in the affairs of other nations, Said points out that by “organizing the peace and defining the law,” the Americans impose their international interests by setting the ground rules for economic development and military development across the planet. As Said sees America, “the U.S., uniquely blessed with surpassing riches and an exceptional history, stands above the international system, not with it. Supreme among nations, she stands ready to be the bearer of the Law.” But I must again question, is this a fair notion of the role of the United States? While it would be foolish to deny America has acted with her own self-interest from time to time, has not the world benefited from American advances in medicine and technologies? And just like our individual societies, could the world truly survive without at least one nation being the “bearer of the Law?”
In the 5000-year history of humankind civilization had only advanced to a point of great architectural advancement, and then no more. The great civilizations of the Middle East, China, Egypt, Greece and Roman are all really mirror images of themselves. Sure the language, architecture and arts were differed, but the basic technological advancements of each culture remained the same. The light bulb, television, the automobile, the computer, all are advances of this imperialistic society. All developed after thousands of years of human civilization in the last 150 years.
As Eqbal Ahmad states in his Culture of Imperialism, “A world system of unparalleled political, economic and cultural dimension, was created and continually reinforced by new technology.” (From Third World Traveler, Culture of Imperialism. [www.thirdworldtraveler.com]). Mankind’s ability to understand the differences between cultures, the exploration of space, the extension of the life span, the decline in the infant mortality rate; all the advances which we as 21st century men take for granted, were developed within the last 150 years. Developed during the time of Imperialistic Empires. Could things have been done differently, should indigenous peoples have been treated with respect? I doubt that there is anyone who would not answer yes to these questions, but as it is impossible to change the events of the past, it is not impossible to learn from them. The shrinking of the world, which imperialism forced upon both the “west” and rest of the world, has reaped unforeseen benefits for mankind.
I do not think it is such a bad thing to look at western civilization as advanced, for I myself look upon our society as advanced. But we must also not fall into the trap of looking down upon cultures we do not understand, nor should we force upon those cultures our “advanced” way of life. What Said said in fact is correct; “no one today is purely one thing.” There is no one people living on this earth today who can truly call himself African, European, or American. Earth is a multi-nation planet, and the only thing we have to fear from the future I believe was best summed up by a quote from Georg Hegel, “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” Maybe the time has come for us to stop blaming or apologizing for the past, and finally learn from it.
Said, Edward; Culture and Imperialism. Borzoi Books, New York: 1993.
Essay © 2002, 2003 John Rocco Roberto.