Magazine article Tikkun

Re-Membering Decolonization

Magazine article Tikkun

Re-Membering Decolonization

Article excerpt

Re-membering Decolonization

Chellis Gendinning's latest book is Off the Map: An Expedition Deep into Imperialism, the Global Economy, and Other Earthly Whereabouts (Shambhala, 1999), which won the National Federation of Press Women 2000 Book Award.

... they were spoken by men and women whose hearts beat to a brave music.

--Basil Davidson

Africa in Modern History

et il est place pour tous au rendez-vous de la conquete

--Aime Cesaire

"Cahier d'un retour"

Afghanistan never was an official member of the colonized world owned by American and European nation-states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This oversight is not for want of effort. The British surely tried to conquer the tribes of the Hindu Kush Mountains, but Afghanistan's forbidding terrain, its cult of ferocious warriors, and the invention of technologies expediting water transport from the East spared the tribal kingdom from conquest.

Yet, still, the Afghanistan of today fits the profile of a post-World War II decolonized nation. Cold War conflict has decimated its economies and cultures. A fundamentalist dictatorship has rocked its stability. Its once-sustainable farmers and shepherds now grow illicit narcotics for survival, and the harboring of foreign terrorists makes its population vulnerable to further assault. The Afghanistan of today--with its ready opium fields, potential bottom-of-the-barrel labor costs, sites for toxic industry, and passageway for a Turkmenistan-to-Arabian-Sea pipeline--is a worthy target for further exploitation and conquest by transnational corporations, First World militaries, and laws of the World Trade Organization.

This sinister predicament prompts me to think about the decolonization movements that followed World War II and over the course of some fifty years, from 1940 to 1990, offered some renewal to a long-suffering world. To be sure, since the Vietnam War ended in the mid-1970s, few of us, save an impassioned crew of cultural-studies academics, has focused on classical empires and the decolonization movements that challenged them. And yet, truly, everything about our lives today is engraved with the legacy of imperialism. At their apex in 1914, European nations and the United States commandeered 85 percent of the landmass of the planet, and the political, economic, cultural, and psychological paradigms fueling this feat survive around the globe to this day. But something else, perhaps more sinister, also spurs us to remember decolonization: everything about our lives today is becoming engraved by an imperialism of globalization.

Throughout the history of empire, resistance has always existed, but, as Arab-American social critic Edward Said observes, "Stunningly, by and large the entire world was decolonized after World War II." Emboldened by the postwar frailty of the perpetrators of expansionism, educated into the use of modern military weaponry by reluctant participation in two world wars, imprisoned on their own lands for generations, the peoples of Europe and America's colonies rose up. One after another they exploded like firecrackers--the Philippines, India, Ceylon, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cuba, Madagascar, Algeria--going off separately at first and then building into one unprecedented global display. In the process, England, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, and the United States lost the bulk of what had given them a leg-up in the wealth-accumulation game for some five centuries, and over 100 formerly colonized nations burst upon an independence they believed would lead to a liberation and self-determination.

We are now, of course, sadly aware that the polarization of oppressor-oppressed is not so easily ejected and self-determination not so cleanly won. Before his untimely death in 1961, Martinique-born psychiatrist Frantz Fanon documented the internal pitfalls of the attempt to throw off colonial dominance in a spate of landmark books, including The Wretched of the Earth and A Dying Colonialism. …

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