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Cecil Rhodes, liberal imperialist

For those who enjoy a good intellectual skirmish do check out the back and forth between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait. The debate mostly centers around a discussion of what constitutes a “culture of poverty” and whether politicians such as Paul Ryan and Barack Obama conflate black culture and poverty.

As a man of the left I don’t think culture and poverty are really related much at all. The degradations that exist in the poor black community exist in poor communities throughout America and the world. Poverty is not a result of culture but of economic circumstance. The problem with inner city communities facing poverty is simply due to a lack of available well paying legal jobs and access to resources. Poverty is merely the lack of wealth not the presence of a malevolent culture.

The destruction of the manufacturing base via Neoliberalism wrecked the middle class communities everywhere forcing many to engage in a thriving – thanks in part to prohibition laws – underground economy where conflict resolution takes a more vicious form than  it does in  legal disputes. There’s no courts of law just those that survive street battles and those that don’t. Which accounts for much of the violence in the inner cities and cascading ill effects of that violence. Take away prohibition programs like the “War on drugs” and you will see violence in the inner cities drop considerably, especially organized gun violence.

Poverty and violence in the inner cities is really not difficult to understand, at all. The discussion of culture arouses intellectuals because it lends itself to displays of intellectual finesse, but it is mostly irrelevant to the actual problem. People are not that sophisticated or complex, we are, after all, just apes that can talk. Solving poverty can and should be done by the method Martin Luther King eventually settled on himself, pure wealth redistribution. The chief objection to this solution seems to be an offense to traditional values or American cultural norms. Go figure.

But the truly interesting part of the debate between Coates and Chait was not the back and forth on what a “culture of poverty” is. What was most revealing and instructive was Chait’s admission as to how he viewed America and Coates’ apt response.


This is also Barack Obama’s story about America. Unlike the tea party story, it does not imagine a union born of perfection and corrupted over time. It instead it describes a country whose soaring ideals sat uncomfortably aside an often cruel reality, but which — fitfully, slowly, as-yet-imperfectly, but inexorably — has bent the latter into closer conformity with the former.

Coates’ response:

You see this in Chait’s belief that he lives in a country “whose soaring ideals sat uncomfortably aside an often cruel reality.” No. Those soaring ideals don’t sit uncomfortably aside the reality but comfortably on top of it. The “cruel reality” made the “soaring ideals” possible…

If you can not bring yourself to grapple with that which literally built your capitol, then you are not truly grappling with your country. And if you are not truly grappling with your country, then your beliefs in its role in the greater world (exporter of democracy, for instance) are built on sand. Confronting the black experience means confronting the limits of America, and perhaps, humanity itself. That is the confrontation that graduates us out of the ranks of national cheerleading and into the school of hard students.

What an intriguing argument. Could this be the doublethink logic behind liberal imperialism? That instead of being humbled by America’s imperfections and therefore being less than sanguine about making the world America, the liberal hawks compartmentalize the downsides of American action into minor setbacks on the way to progress. Every defeat is a small victory.

This would certainly explain Chait’s support for the Iraq War and the general view among liberal imperialists that America needs to maintain the massive empire it accumulated from World War II and the Cold War which now stands at roughly 800 military bases around the world and a larger annual defense appropriation than the rest of the world combined. A view held even after the Cold War and before 9/11.

Surveillance, drones, a global hit squad named J-SOC, yes there will be mistakes but those mistakes are just tough lessons on the road to progress. What progress ultimately looks like, of course, is a world made in America’s image. Or, rather, a world made in the image of America as seen by liberal imperialists where the soaring ideals optically overtake the cruel reality.

The question now, in 2014, is how many people want to live in that world?

Image by Edward Linley Sambourne in the public domain.