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The racism that props up empire

By Lance Selfa | May 21, 2004 | Page 9

ONE OF the most memorable scenes in Peter Davis' 1974 Academy Award-winning documentary Hearts and Minds catches Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, opining that "the Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does the Westerner." Westmoreland's comment comes right after we see a Vietnamese boy mourning at his father's funeral.

So it was with a sense of déjà vu that one could hear the clucking of congressional tongues against "barbarians" "who value death over life" after the Pentagon leaked the video that supposedly showed an al-Qaeda cell beheading an American. "This is why we must win in Iraq," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

The ruling class and its media so quickly dragged out racism in service of occupation because the unfolding prison torture scandal kicked the last ideological prop--that the U.S. is trying to bring "democracy" and human rights to Iraq--from under the U.S. war wagon.

Neither the prison torture nor the racism it represented should be a surprise. The architects of this criminal occupation, from Bush and Rumsfeld to their neo-conservative cheerleaders, share the worldview of the most right-wing elements in Israeli society, whose mantra is "the Arabs only understand force."

While it's incorrect to say that racism against Arabs alone motivates U.S. policy in Iraq, racism definitely is inherently part of the policy. Racism has played this role throughout the rise of the U.S. empire.

The precondition for the rise of the U.S. as a world power was the creation of a continental empire in North America that required the extermination of the Native American population. In order to justify the expulsion and elimination of whole peoples, the head fixers of the 19th century relied on notions that U.S. expansion represented "progress" against Indian backwardness.

After the Civil War, with the U.S. continent largely secured and with U.S. industry moving ahead of its rivals, politicians and pamphleteers began pushing for an expansion of U.S. control outside its borders. In the service of that imperial project came a new version of Manifest Destiny, couched in the "scientific racism" of the time.

As the imperialist ideologue, Minister Josiah Strong, put it in a popular 1885 book: "the divinely commissioned to be, in a peculiar sense, his brother's keeper." This vision of the "white man's burden" provided the ideological smokescreen behind which the real work of racism and imperialism went on.

So Theodore Roosevelt bragged about killing "dagoes" in Cuba and the U.S. slaughtered as many as a million Filipinos in forcing their country to accept U.S. rule. The word "nigger," said Col. George S. Anderson about the Filipinos "was very often used as applied to the natives, probably correctly."

The genocidal attacks U.S. forces carried out in Vietnam and the racist torture and murder of Iraqis today are of a piece with these earlier examples of the racism of imperialism. Because a colonial occupation like that in Iraq involves the assertion of the right of one people to rule over another, racism against the occupied people is inevitable.

The words of Ret. U.S. Army officer Stan Goff in his November 2003 "Hold On to Your Humanity: An Open Letter to GIs in Iraq" have become prophetic: "And to preserve your own humanity, you must recognize the humanity of the people whose nation you now occupy and know that both you and they are victims of the filthy rich bastards who are calling the shots...

"But it is perfectly legal for you to refuse illegal orders, and orders to abuse or attack civilians are illegal. Ordering you to keep silent about these crimes is also illegal...I can tell you, without fear of legal consequence, that you are never under any obligation to hate Iraqis, you are never under any obligation to give yourself over to racism and nihilism...and you are never under any obligation to let them drive out the last vestiges of your capacity to see and tell the truth to yourself and to the world."

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