A couple days ago I pointed out that Chas Freeman’s much-circulated Tufts speech, when parsed carefully, still endorsed an embrace of empire. An embrace of empire means killing brown people. I concluded that a policy that inexorably leads to the murder of brown people is racist. But Gabriel Ash of Jews Sans Frontieres very helpfully pointed out that the terms need clarification. Chas Freeman does not run around spitting at Arabs, supporting anti-miscegenation laws, or garbed in a white-hooded cloak. He is of American Indian ancestry. He probably is very lightly, if at all, prejudiced in his personal life. I’m sure he considers African-Americans worthy of full citizenship in America, doesn’t like the Minute Men carrying out vigilante border-keeping on the US-Mexico frontier, and supports affirmative action.
He is not, as Gabriel pointed out, afflicted with “racism, the theory and conscious belief of racial superiority, exclusivity and primacy, and the practices that follow intentionally from applying these beliefs.” Instead, he accepts “racism, a system of assumptions, habits of mind, knowledge, etc., that supports unequal relations of power between racially constructed groups and that helps to both naturalize and invisibilize the domination of one group over another.”
That is absolutely clear in his call for a toned-down liberal imperialism, one that should refrain from spectacular violence both on the grounds of the damage that it does to us as well as the damage it does to the victims, occluding a third option: that we have no right to interfere in other people’s societies.
When “we” are white and “they” are brown, this is racism, type two. These types are connected: when Freeman unconsciously, thoughtlessly, automatically, erases the genocide the American Indians and a myriad of colonial slaughters and replaces them with that saccharine abstraction, “our American traditions,” this erasure is somewhere on the spectrum between racism, type one, and racism, type two: to erase colonial massacre is to erase the humanity of the victims. When that occurs over racial lines, that is racist, and it’s not an unmerited attack to point that out.
More generally, a mixing of types can occur within a society rather than an individual. America is saturated in a mix of racism type one and type two: rabid Islamophobia and anti-Hispanic sentiment exists in many sectors. In other liberal sectors, we simply retain the right to interfere in their societies, not out of a conscious, articulated, coherent belief in the justice of racial domination but through a series of ideological maneuvers that work out to the same thing.
Israel is past saturated in racism, the overflow running wild. Still, some on the liberal-left may even think Arabs in Israel deserve full civil and political rights and that the occupation should end—but they will refuse to acknowledge the original sin of 1948, that is, the fundamental illegitimacy of a settler-colonial enterprise (Odd, since almost no one argues that Jews would leave cis-Jordan in a final settlement). Gabriel added that in societies as sodden with racism as the United States or Israel—settler-colonial states—racism type two (or type one a la Thomas Friedman) will be manifest in nearly anyone with general access to the public sphere, fair enough, although that still represents a choice, that of boring away from the interior rather than working from the outside to destabilize the system.
Freeman’s recognition that when we kill Palestinians, Iraqis, and Afghanis it is wrong because they are human, too, is laudable. But it’s laudable within limits. Those limits are set by him, not us. And he sets them when he (1) asserts the continued right to interfere in the societies of the global South; (2) for the most part, insists that violent intervention be restrained on the basis of its potential to blow-back upon us; (3) repeats this bit about “American traditions” of non-interference and all the rest, and thereby indoctrinates his audience with dangerous, damaging, insulting propaganda about the blood-soaked American past.
This utterance represents a violence to the memory of those who suffered genocides or from the slave trade, and it’s wrong, and that needs to be said, not out of a juvenile, holier-than-thou radicalism but because calling people out on rhetorically erasing imperialism is always the correct thing to do because it is only by recognizing the imperial enemy that we can adequately challenge it. Freeman is absolutely, as Gabriel pointed out, an ally to break the siege of Gaza. He’s an ally too in the fight for justice in Palestine (although if truly violent resistance again erupts, perhaps not). That matters.
That matters a lot. But there are limits as to how far he will go, and those limits are reflected in a rhetoric that calls for a redeployment of a subdued liberal imperialism. It matters to acknowledge that his rhetoric is the symptom of a diseased culture, and the only way to heal a sick culture is by being brutally frank about the nature of the illness.
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