One issue that has nagged with special persistence, however, is the idea of imperialism. In many ways imperialism is a fiction (and what isn't?): the images associated with it are as varied and numerous as the beholders themselves. Yet, like all fictions, the idea of imperialism can have deadly effect. What benignly resides in the mind can at times incite deadly action and, just as dangerously, deadly indifference.
This may call for some explanation. A "believer" in the goodness of imperialism may pursue or at the least condone the colonization and, consequently, exploitation of people whom are not part of their own society. These believers' faith in the supremacy of imperialism, whether it is seen as a harbinger of democracy, intellectual progress, or economic prosperity, is often entirely sincere.
However, even when sincere, the practical consequences of their colonial games are still destructive, as they have the result of superimposing a self-serving set of relations on another group of people, oftentimes at the end of a gun. In short, whether the intentions of the "believing" imperialist are honorable or not, the result is the same worn-out end.
The question then arises as to how devout imperialists can champion as system that enslaves people while honestly believing they are helping them. Since their ideal of imperialism is at heart a powerful, even mesmerizing fiction, it relies on their ignorance. Its grandeur depends completely on their obliviousness to the practical effects of the colonial institution itself.
To put it another way, the devout imperialist with benevolent motives relies totally on their inability to experience the other side of imperialism: the racial slurs, poverty, and lingering feeling of impotence under the shadow of a colonial master. It is only through this unfeeling, unseeing ignorance that they can credibly maintain the pristine quality of this self-serving fiction.
A subtle and generally unperceived way that imperialists reflect and reinforce this ignorance is by assessing the colonial enterprise based on their own set of criteria. The values and aspirations of the colonized are overlooked, their "advancement," "assimilation," or "enlightenment" measured entirely in the terms of the colonizer as if these were the natural yardsticks of happiness or success.
Axiomatic to the colonizer's criteria is the assumption of "progress," or the notion that societies are in varying stages of "development" (ever heard of a "developing country"?), most often qualified in terms of economic or political criteria. It is too often overlooked that the very notion of "progress" and the measures used to assess it are virtually, if not all, from the imperialist's society -- the colonizer's own goals and dreams.
What does this all have to do with the present-day?
Many, perhaps most politicians, academics, and citizens continue to subscribe to imperialist policies both past and present because they kneel to a colonial fiction that is benevolent and constructed with their own notions of progress. Most of all, none of these people have to experience the darker effects of imperialism. Unless they scour the issue with uncanny determination they are unlikely to even consider its potential ill-effects. They have the luxury to remain naive or indifferent.
The gap between the expectations of the powerful and weak remains as wide as ever. Popular writers like David Brooks and Niall Ferguson may sermonize about the supposedly beneficent role of the U.S. in the world while advocating American drone strikes in far-off lands, but neither of them will ever be on the receiving end of the missiles, mines, and other assorted instruments of death.
Unabashed imperialists may applaud the incorporation of "developing countries" (remember "progress") into the global capitalist economy, but neither of them will find themselves functioning as sweated labor or struggling to find food because producers have shifted to more lucrative industrial crops for the world market.
They may also speak about dispelling racism and "creating" democracy in the same breathe, and without a hint of irony. The quiet and unsensed implication is that those farther down the chain of "progress" do not know what is best for them. 'Those people are either too stupid or weak to know they are equal to us and help themselves. Don't worry, we'll teach them.'
When gazing longingly into the past, many present-day imperialists claim that because of colonialism non-Western countries have faired much better than they otherwise would have. Somehow they manage to look past the legacies of corrupt government institutions (Egypt), deepened of ethnic tensions (Rwanda), and the stratification of wealth and power (the Philippines) that have been its indelible mark of the colonial era for many if not most countries.
It is also important to note that by saying the colonized fared "better" because of imperialism their claim is framed as if there were two options, each of which can be compared to the other. Of course, this is not the case. As appealing (and self-serving) as such counterfactual claims may be there were not two such "options" to choose from. It is further necessary to remember that the people who selected the "option," if we are to take up this misleading language, were not even the colonized but, in fact, the colonizers.
And, rather predictably, the criteria that are used to assess the "benefits" of colonial rule are always those selected by the imperialists: a capitalist economy, "modern" political institutions (remember "progress"), and other paraphernalia of the powerful. The thoughts of the colonized are not consulted because they allegedly do not know what is best for themselves.
Attention to the language and assumptions of imperialism continues to be as relevant and necessary an activity as ever.
It means raising one's eyebrows when newspapers assault Iran for being a "theocracy" while commending Israel's "cosmopolitanism," neglecting to mention the fact that only Jews enjoy full political rights in Israel.
It means questioning the motives of the U.S. government when it gnashes its teeth at Cuba for holding political prisoners when the U.S. maintains an illegal concentration camp for political prisoners at, you got it, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Above all, it means questioning the positions of elites everywhere, especially when they profess to know what is best for those who supposedly do not know how to help themselves.