In today’s Guardian is an article by Naomi Wolf that attempts to link the growth in anti-abortion laws in the US to its imperialist foreign policy. A lot of feminists poo-poo Naomi Wolf as “feminism lite” or politically suspect (I think this having something to do with a prior excursion into the US’s overly-fraught abortion debate), but although I don’t often agree with her I think she’s worth reading, and has some interesting ideas. She also, as in this article, occasionally manages to look beyond the interests of middle class Americans when discussing feminism and politics, and I think that’s rare, so it’s worth reading. In this article she attempts to suggest that the US’s enactment of draconian and oppressive policies overseas is coming back to bite women domestically, as the state begins to enact domestically the same kind of surveillance and control laws that it has been using overseas. In support of her argument she gives this historical example from Imperial Britain:
I had an “Aha” moment recently in Oxford. I was speaking about the British Contagious Diseases Acts – legislation passed in the 1860s that caused thousands of women be arrested and locked up for up to eight months at a time for looking as if they might have had sex. A graduate student asked me, perceptively, if I had looked at this issue in relation to issues of empire at that time, and another student noted in response that imperial British forces had, at around the same time, set up a complex and expansive equivalent of “lock hospitals” to incarcerate and manage prostitutes in colonised regions.
This is an example of policy trialed overseas (“lock hospitals”) and then implemented locally. But I don’t think that her example is a correct interpretation of the Contagious Diseases Act or its purpose, and I think her overall thesis is wrong in its broad strokes and its precise details. Specifically: Imperialism is not a kind of sympathetic magic that corrupts its originating body; and (more relevantly) the US does not have an empire. Let’s tackle each of these points in turn.
Was the Contagious Diseases Act an imperial import?
I would dispute Wolf’s interpretation of the Contagious Diseases Act (CDA), which did not aim to arrest women who “looked like they had sex.” It was aimed at sex workers, and the targets of the law were women who looked like they were soliciting or had been soliciting sex: poor women out alone at unsavoury hours. This law’s victims were Thomas Hardy’s women, not Jane Austen’s. We shouldn’t confuse the act’s main female opponents (high-born women) with its main female victims (sex workers and poorhouse girls). I wrote a post some time back about the CDA and its subsequent reincarnations, and it should be clear that its intended target was poor women and sex workers, and its purpose, though fundamentally nationalist, was not directly related to the imperial project: it was aimed at protecting the moral health of the nation. If we look at other nations of the same era, they were equally obssessed with this nebulous concept, without having any imperial projects under way: Japan at that time was pursuing a policy of isolation for “the health of the nation,” which is precisely as far removed from imperialism as it’s possible to get. We also don’t need to go looking for secret imperialist influences on the CDA: its motivating moral force, and the concerns underlying it, were clearly stated in the public utterances of its supporters, and though they had a lot to do with national power they weren’t necessarily directly linked to imperial projects. It may be that the authors worked out how to run it from the experience of colonial officers, but that’s not proof of anything more than bureaucratic experience. Which brings us to the second problem with Wolf’s thesis: the idea of imperialism as exerting a corrupting influence on the culture of the core.
Imperialism is not sympathetic magic
Although it’s tempting to present a moral argument against institutions like slavery, mass incarceration and imperialism by arguing that they corrupt the body politic through the evil deeds that they demand of society, I don’t think the argument is actually realistic. In the case of imperialism, it’s perfectly easy to see historical examples of empires where the periphery was largely left to itself or managed quite independently of the politics of the centre (Rome springs to mind), or where the periphery could have a lot of political and economic freedom provided it didn’t rebel – I think British India is an example of this. The soviet empire could probably safely be said to have done nothing so bad in the periphery as it had already done to its own people in the centre, so it can’t really be said that the actions at the periphery changed the politics of the core for the worse. Aside from a couple of weeks in 2007, it can’t be said that Britain ever experienced the kinds of harsh policing measures developed so effectively in Northern Ireland between 1967 and the early 1990s; nor would it be fair to say that the only cultural imports from the colonies to Britain were negative racial and political segregation or oppression – much of the cultural flow was positive. Furthermore, British actions towards the Indigenous peoples of Australia and New Zealand, which occurred in roughly the same historical period, were completely different in both policy justification, implementation and outcome. Why, if the repressive policies of the colonies affect the political framework of the colonizer, did Britain not implement the same policies in two neighbouring countries at the same time? Britain’s colonial policies were never so centralized or monolithic – they were determined on the basis of local conditions, available manpower, political support, practical value and the personalities and political conditions of the local administrators. This is why New Zealand never received the punitive treatment meted out to Ireland, or the patchwork genocide planned for Australia. Finally, and most relevantly, if we concede that the USA maintained some kind of empire in the 19th century (in the Phillipines and Central America), it’s hard to see how the people there were treated worse than people in the USA. There was no widespread institution of slavery, and the only genocide I’m aware of the US ever practicing was in the USA itself. It’s not like they got the idea of exterminating the natives from their projects in the Philipines. I would go further and say, imperialism doesn’t corrupt the imperialist: the imperialist must have been already corrupted to think of such a thing, and anyone who thinks that stomping another nation into the dust for your own gain is likely to be willing to overlook a little collateral damage in his own backyard too.
The experience of many colonial powers is that the politics practiced on the periphery never comes back to the core in any meaningful way, and in more recent times it has been essential, in fact, to hide the worst excesses of the colonial branch of government, lest people begin to feel squeamish about the program. From about the mid-19th century onward, people wanted to believe they could have the material benefits of empire without suffering the political and cultural costs that Naomi Wolf wants us to think were inherent in the project, and governments went to great lengths to ensure that this happened. Why should modern America’s “empire” be any different? But then, does modern America have an empire at all?
Does America have an empire?
If you listen to the right people, you’ll soon discover that almost all of America’s foreign policy actions can be explained by its imperialism. But does America have an empire, and is “it’s the imperialism, innit?” a good approach to understanding America’s (generally terrible) foreign policies? I differ from a lot of my bleeding-heart, do-gooding, pro-gay-abortion islamofascist leftist brothers on this issue: I don’t think the USA has an empire and I don’t think “imperialism” explains its actions. Imperialism is a bad habit of old nations, not the new world: we have our own problems, and we’re certainly not immune to the temptations of territorial acquisition (see e.g. Indonesia), wars of choice (America) or wars for political convenience (Australia) – but we don’t generally engage in imperialism. Sometimes America’s foreign policy delivers outcomes (such as in Iraq) that look like imperialism, but that’s just a coincidence. And sure, there are probably some far, far right loons in the USA who don’t see anything morally wrong with establishing an American empire, but they almost certainly would think it’s too much trouble and in any case they don’t represent America or American politicians. If we could characterize America’s motives more realistically, it would be as a nation that wants to establish the right to do whatever it wants whenever and however it wants. So, sometimes this means being able to act like an imperialist (Iraq), an arsehole (Grenada) or an interfering little shit (most of Central America) but this is not the same as imperialism. One could probably talk about American cultural and trade empires, but that’s a different use of the E-word. Basically, America has established a pre-eminent place in the world through good deeds (WW2) and bad (Vietnam, etc.) and through a remarkable 100 years of dynamism and wise decisions (let’s not overlook this!), and in order to protect its position will sometimes do terrible things. But it doesn’t currently have an empire, nor does it have anything even remotely resembling imperial policies in its periphery that could be imported to the core or even influence it much. A few seedy and unpleasant policies enacted in areas beyond the rule of law (Afghanistan and Yemen) do not constitute an institution, either. We’ll
So what is it with all this loony anti-choice stuff?
What this means is that America’s domestic political problems are the result of its domestic political culture. I am no expert on US politics or culture, but my guess would be that the upswing in anti-abortion laws in the US simply reflects a combination of growing religious feeling, the fruits of 20 years of right-wing dominance of political forums in the states, and – probably most importantly – the coalescing of grassroots right-wing activism around a large amount of elite money. In order to get their free market and anti-AGW politics widespread, certain political interests have funded a strong right-wing movement and been more than happy to overlook its religious and racist fringe. This is naturally going to have some consequences in social policy.
An alternative explanation – and the one that I suspect Naomi Wolf is building up an intellectual edifice to protect herself against – is that a lot (or a majority) of Americans are genuinely, deeply committed to an anti-abortion politics, that this is their real heartfelt belief, and they take the issue seriously enough to be willing to pay a political price (in supervision of women’s behavior) to get their way on the issue. Although to me the contrast between the pro-life movement’s stance on abortion and war is hypocritical and sickening, I don’t think there’s any cognitive dissonance or intellectual challenge to holding these beliefs, and I don’t see a need to come up with a complex story of sympathetic cultural magic to explain the apparent contradictions within the right-wing anti-choice movement. In fact, I find the left-wing anti-choice movement much harder to comprehend. So Naomi, rather than looking to your country’s nebulously-defined foreign policy imperialism as an explanation, look somewhere simpler: you need to find a way to change your compatriots’ minds on abortion. You probably won’t, but that’s not the fault of imperialism or George Bush: it’s because a lot of Americans deeply believe something you don’t.
A final note on imperialism and role-playing
Obviously this blog has branched out a little from talking about only RPGs in the last two years. This is partly because I like having a forum to talk about whatever I like, and it’s my blog so I’ll do what I want; it’s partly because I’m not doing so much role-playing now I’m so busy. It’s also partly because my framework for analyzing cultural stuff (both within the fantasy/rpg world and outside of it) is heavily influenced by post-colonialism, which is I think quite a natural perspective for a modern Australian (though I don’t claim it’s the only one). But bear with me: I think imperialism and colonialism are relevant topics in the gaming world, in the sense that a lot of fantasy RPGs and fantasy literature are set in a world where colonialism and imperialism are either good things or accepted, and quite often colonies are a core part of the story. In fact recently I saw an advert for a new computer game with the slogan “Explore, Exploit, Exterminate.” So whether peripherally (through the culture that influences the games) or directly (through game settings) I think imperialism and colonialism are still relevant cultural concepts in the fantasy world. In building our worlds and understanding other people’s game settings and worlds, these concepts can be relevant and interesting.
fn1: Here at the faustusnotes academy of political science, we love to state the obvious in 1000 words or more.
fn2: I would also go back to my previous comment about my disagreement with my islamofascist brothers, and suggest that if “imperialism” is your explanation for a political problem in a new world country, you haven’t thought about the problem enough. It’s probably something else.