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“The Hugest Lies Are About The Smallest Islands”: Anti-Imperialist Wisdom Shaping “The System Stinks”

[Protesters set fire to a mock model of the USS Guardian during a rally near the U.S. Embassy in Manila to demand U.S. troops pull out from the country, Jan. 21, 2013.  The USS Guardian is a U.S. Navy minesweeper that ran aground off Tubbataha Reef in southwestern Philippines. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)]

When Dawn and I emailed some trusted editor-friends with a draft of the Introduction to Volume 1 of The System Stinks study guide, on the Lies That Build Empire, we were grateful for all the help and feedback.  And we were especially thankful — in that sweet-stinging, slow-your-roll, critical-feedback-from-someone-you-admire kind of way — for the gracious and thorough reflections of scholar, artist, and dhamma practitioner Kimberly Alidio.  Which is why we want to share her email with you.  

The writing will be most meaningful to participants of The System Stinks who’ve read the final Intro to Volume 1, but is more than worthwhile even without that context.  You’ll see what we mean.

Much gratitude to Kimberly for helping us pass on her part of the correspondence, slightly edited for publication, and chock-full of historical knowledge and links to powerful anti-imperialist resources.  Palms together, it’s a privilege and a deep delight to be with you on the path!

— Katie and Dawn

Dear Katie and Dawn,

Thank you again for asking for my feedback. It’s an honor.

The topic is quite ambitious and I enjoy how open it is, as I can tell from it how open you are both to learning.

As a reader, I’d like the concept to be introduced before the rules. The rules up front made me impatient for why I’d go through the trouble of learning how to speak with people, and the “why” would be the concept, “Lies That Build Empire.”

As a scholar of U.S. imperialism and an historian, I need to make a correction. While the document states that “historians mark the end of the Age of Imperialism” at mid-20c, scholars I’m familiar with agree that the era of High Imperialism is 1877-1914. But settler colonialism goes back to the 15c, of course. (I feel silly writing this because you probably know all of this and maybe made some choices to state things in ways I wouldn’t.)

I don’t know whether historians are to blame for the lie that formal colonization stopped after WWII with widespread political decolonization. I do know that this issue should be taken out of parentheses. Formal colonization by state forces still continues today, to varying degrees, in Guahan/ Guam, Hawai`i, Okinawa, Puerto Rico, too — while neoliberal global capital and militarization compound the denial of political sovereignty in those places. Kehaulani Kauanui says some smart things about the connections between theft of Hawaiian land, tourism, militarism and homelessness in the really smart documentary “Noho Hewa.” (Kehaulani’s amazing radio show is such a good on-the-ground resource that connects a variety of important things.)

We need to consider the places that the U.S. still holds as colonial territories. We need to consider them even through the “lies” that these nations are too small to matter. I’ve got bibliographies for you on U.S. bases on U.S. colonial territories (past and present) but a quick reference is Michael Lujan Bevacqua. I’ve taught part of this blog post in my course on Filipinos and Globalization. A nice complement is Desiree Taimanglo, for her iconoclasm of decolonization.

So I worry about this: If there’s too much framing of the discussion, there is the possibility of lecturing to someone who is presently colonized or postcolonial about what empire means. Where I’m coming from is from teaching and thinking about this topic formally for a couple of decades and informally for all of my life; and realizing there’s no one right way to do it but there are so many ways it’s been done that feel wrong to me, as a post/colonial person. For one, Americans usually talk about “empire” as the unresolved Vietnam Syndrome (bad or good). The U.S. left usually runs the gamut of issues that your document lists but is always interested in how big a material resource is being stolen to warrant fitting into a pattern. The hugest lies are about small islands, I believe.

For me, “empire” is, first, about the concrete things that Americans as individuals and as structures did to transform the way Filipinos understand their human value and worth in global modernity. Not that all Filipinos think about empire in the same way — my friend Dylan Rodriguez would emphasize death and genocide while I focus on education and the infinite colonized future. Other folks would talk about trauma, while others would focus on global queer care labor, etc.

Given this, the question, “Why is imperialism so yummy?” is stomach-turning to me, pun intended. I definitely feel that such a question is not directed at someone with my history and present.

Surely empire has historically disenfranchised non-elite colonizers but not to the same degree as those in colonized territories. In a conversation about empire, why not assume that some people in the group might be colonizers or descendants of colonizers and some people might be colonized people or descendants of colonized people? Why displace specific peoples who have borne the brunt of empire from this discussion? Especially if so many other axes of power are identified? And power dynamics emphasized over and again?

The most “traditional” place one version of this conversation comes from is late-20c Third World Feminism: This Bridge, Chandra Mohanty. What does it mean for Americans to talk about empire? Since 1998 (maybe until 9/11), scholars and artists in the U.S. questioned what was foreign and what was domestic in terms of various sorts of imperialisms — perhaps folks would want to start with discussing their location, if located in the U.S., in relation to imperial relations with “other places.” Again, I would say please take your statement about U.S. empire out of parentheses!

I’m getting long in the tooth, so one last thought (sorry it’s so weighty): empire is built on truths as well as lies. Not the Four Noble Truths (ha) but truths nonetheless.

Like how some places are too small to show up on maps — the very maps that orient us to one another. Craig Santos Perez writes new poetic maps of the Pacific to make Guam visible. The Philippines shows up in maps more often than the Marianas do — but still there is a sense that no one notices when a U.S. warship ran aground of a coral reef there.  Or that, once it did so, it went into battle position against Philippine park rangers that approached it. The “lie” here is this incident was accidental and yet somehow normal: not an ongoing manifestation of colonialism, and not connected to Guam, Okinawa, South Korea etc.

But who exactly believes such lies?  As Arundhati Roy writes, “Power knows the truth just as well, if not better, than the powerless know the truth. Enron knows what it’s doing. … There are other kinds of truth.”

The lies that started colonization in the Philippines or in Guam in the 1600s are now truths intertwined with our survival. It was a lie that participating in colonialism was the only way we could survive but it was also a truth because we live with mass death, still to this day. Andrea Smith has a lot of great things to say about the decolonized future — I say it’s queerly built on empire’s lies.

OK, this cranky school teacher had a hard week, a stomach bug, and probably sounded a lot harsher than she meant. But I write with passion and love. And I write better correspondence than I do blog posts. If you are interested in my turning this into a blog post that’s in conversation with your curriculum, let me know. (As if I have time and energy :))

metta! Kimberly

Kimberly Alidio lives in Austin, teaches history, and dramaturges for the Generic Ensemble Company. Her essays and poetry have appeared in several places, including American Quarterly, ESQUE, Everyday Genius, Drunken Boat, Fact­-Simile, Lantern Review, Make/shift, and Social Text, and will be in the forthcoming anthologies: Philippine Palimpsests: Essays for the 21st Century (New York University Press) and Dismantle: A VONA Anthology (Thread Makes Blanket Press). She’s working on a historical monograph, Colonial Cosmopolitanism. A poetry chapbook, Solitude Being Alien, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Her website is kimberlyalidio.tumblr.com

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