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The world needs to understand what is wrong with America

As calls for racial justice reverberate across the country, the field of American Studies requires a radical rethink - namely, the active engagement of people around the globe at the receiving end of US militarism 
A demonstrator raises a fist after clashes with police in the US city of Seattle on 8 June (AFP)

“The majority lives in the perpetual practice of self-applause, and there are certain truths which the Americans can only learn from strangers or from experience.” 

- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

“Americans are the unhappiest they’ve been in 50 years,” according to recent polls. “It’s been a rough year for the American psyche.”   

The deeply troubling presidency of Donald Trump has led to severe consequences of the coronavirus pandemic in the US, where the per-capita mortality rate is among the highest in the world, exacerbated by claustrophobic despair over lockdowns and social distancing, alongside a massive uprising against racism and police brutality.

Americans are at a loss.   

Dysfunctional empire

Calls for racial justice reverberate from one end of the US to the other. Police brutality against African Americans has been caught on tape; statues of racist Confederate generals, and even US presidents, are coming down. The massive uprising in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in May announced Black Lives Matter as a new and unprecedented phase in contemporary US history.  

It is too early to tell where, if anywhere, this uprising will lead, and whether it will result in any enduring changes. “Police reform” and electoral politics are the two immediate lullabies that seek to lull and derail this uprising. Barack and Michelle Obama are leading the way to compromise and stall the momentum of the Black Lives Matter uprising, by repeating the centrist mantra of “protest peacefully and vote in all elections", thus implying the protests are not peaceful, and there are not far more radical prospects of change than just voting for the Democratic party's presidential candidate Joe Biden. 

For more than two centuries of modern history, the world has been at the receiving end of the 'Western gaze'

On their own, many Americans are unable to fathom the depth of the calamity that they face - and which, in turn, they have imposed upon the larger world. As the fragile republican centre of a dysfunctional empire, what happens in the US happens to the rest of the world.

Critical lenses from around the world are therefore essential in understanding what is happening in the US. That necessity creates its own epistemological challenges and opportunities. 

Orientalism and post-Orientalism  

For more than two centuries of modern history, the world has been at the receiving end of the “Western gaze” - being looked at, examined, ethnicised, anthropologised, the circumference of their skulls measured, put into zoos and museums to be studied by the white masters who roamed the globe and conquered and colonised the earth.    

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In his seminal book, Orientalism, Edward Said laser-beamed in on a particular episode in the history of this mode of colonial knowledge production that called itself “Orientalism” - a mode of knowledge at the service of colonial domination. Said’s text inaugurated an entire field of postcolonial studies to reverse that colonial gaze. 

In my Post-Orientalism, I took Said’s insights and moved beyond the structural limitations of one particular episode of colonial knowledge production, examining the relationship between knowledge and power into the later periods of area studies and think tanks. I examined their mode of “disposable knowledge”, as in the preparatory stages of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.        

By and large, Eurocentric modes of knowledge production have remained operative even after Said’s seminal text, and disciplines such as anthropology have continued to extend their deeply racist epistemologies to the farthest corners of the earth.   

Vantage point of white Americans

The field of American Studies is one such area, which has been by and large the domain of Americans themselves, though mostly from the vantage point of white people - until more recently, when Native Americans, African Americans, Latinx Americans and other immigrant communities began to reverse that internalised gaze, altering the way we read America.  

But today, the field requires an even more radical reversal - namely, the active engagement of non-Americans, or more precisely those people around the globe at the receiving end of US militarism.  

Black Lives Matter supporters protest in Los Angeles on 23 June (AFP)
Black Lives Matter supporters protest in Los Angeles on 23 June (AFP)

In his Representations of the Intellectual, Said theorised that the empowering position of exile, the refugee, the expatriate - all whether factual or figurative - were definitive to the critical stance of intellectuals, whether native or foreign to a land.  

The theoretical basis of this crucial text should be the cornerstone of a new generation of American Studies that links the progressive forces among Native, Black and Hispanic American Studies to the larger non-American community of scholars, critical thinkers, artists, filmmakers, etc.  

Predicated on a critical reappraisal of Said’s insights, the field of American Studies must go global, liberated from a country where Betsy DeVos, the sister of the mercenary merchant of death, Erik Prince, is the secretary of education.

'A human problem'

The globalisation of American empire has put the world at the receiving end of American violence. But the world does not have a say in whom US citizens choose as their president. Black and other racialised communities in the US are as much at the mercy of the militarised and racist police as the world is at the mercy of the US military.  

The roots of racism against African Americans in the US extends to the ruling white supremacist attitude towards Africa - “the shithole countries”, as Trump calls them - and by extension to Asia and Latin America. 

One crucial consequence of this move is to put the entire structure of vicious racism, definitive of the US historical experience, on trial beyond its own compromised jurisdiction 

Recently, lawyers representing the Floyd family made an appeal to the United Nations Human Rights Council, as they should. The origin of this goes back to when Malcolm X argued that the case of the ruling racism against Black Americans must be taken to the UN. 

The problem of the Black person in the US, he argued, “is beyond America’s ability to solve. It is a human problem, not an American problem, or a Negro problem, and as a human problem or a world problem, we feel that it should be taken out of the jurisdiction of the United States government and the United States courts and taken into the United Nations.”   

Echoing Malcolm X’s thoughts, today, African nations correctly seek a UN investigation into the manner in which the ruling racism in the US is the principal source of racist violence against its own citizens.  

Electoral seesaw

This is not to ignore that the UN is a morally compromised space, a toothless tiger that could investigate the Jamal Khashoggi murder to identify the main culprit, but had no way of bringing him to justice.  

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But still, one crucial consequence of this move is to put the entire structure of vicious racism, definitive of the US historical experience, on trial beyond its own compromised jurisdiction for the whole world to see.  

Bringing the endemic and enduring structure of US racism to the world’s attention is a crucial framework towards creating both a forum and an entire field of American Studies liberated from the compromising institutions of US-based scholarship and critical thinking by people trapped inside the useless seesaw electoral politics of Republicans versus Democrats - the Pepsi and Coke choices that Americans are free to make, both equally dangerous to their health, every two to four years.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Hamid Dabashi
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York. His latest book is The Emperor is Naked: On the Inevitable Demise of the Nation-State (Zeds, 2020).