A Return to Normalcy?
Anxiety and hope, these days, seem to be the closest of friends. Last week, after being quickly shuffled from station to station, I found myself seated in a quiet waiting area so that I could be observed for fifteen minutes after receiving the first dose of my COVID-19 vaccination. Luckily, I didn’t experience any serious adverse reactions and I was free to go shortly after. As I walked out, it felt good to get the process started, but the wait for the second dose has since become tedious. In many areas of my life, I feel as though I have now come up to a corner, an exit from the forced hibernation of 2020. It is so close, and yet I cannot turn that corner. It is still several weeks away. Even worse, while I do sincerely want to turn that corner, a large part of me is also sincerely scared and worried about what is on the other side. This, from talking to friends and family, seems to be a common sentiment. This mix of hope and fear seems to be a significant part of our nation’s current zeitgeist. With the political defeat of Donald Trump and the development of COVID-19 vaccines, we start to see the much longed for return to normalcy which has been promised by our leaders, but many are hounded by the sneaking suspicion that there may be no normalcy to return to. Worse still, as we start this race back to “normalcy”, it seems that some of the worst aspects of American life are the first out of the gate.
Domestically, this means the return of mass gun violence and killings carried out by lone actors on a weekly basis. It is, honestly, hard to keep count of how often these mass shootings now occur. These killings happen in parallel with a seemingly never ending stream of footage showing new extrajudicial executions of American citizens at the hands of the police. A societal ill which, like most, disproportionately affects our black and brown brothers and sisters. It seems one of the few things that could not be put on hiatus during the pandemic was the racism and bias baked into our society and its political economy.
This racism is not just baked into our domestic practices, but also historically has influenced our forgine policy. We live in a global society where the history of colonization of the world by, typically, Western European powers still carries weight. In America, we still benefit immensely from the wealth and power concentration that European military domination created over the course of hundreds of years. In many ways, we in America are the true torch carriers of that legacy of empire and western hegemony. It is for that reason that Christian peacemakers like myself find talk of America’s “return to the world stage”, another marker of our return to normalcy, more troubling than hopeful. In this essay, I hope to explore the implications of this return through a brief look at the history of America’s interventions in Asia leading up to the current geopolitical situation. It is my hope that, through this essay and subsequent dialog, a substantive and Jesus centered movement for peace, which challenges hegemony and imperialism can start to be built within the Church. Projects like these are of dire importance to an American Church wrestling with its increasing irrelevance in the minds of the country’s younger generations.
Asian Hate and America: A brief history of America’s Actions in Eastern Asia.
If we want to talk about the history of American military intervention, it would be impossible to do so without considering its role in Asia in the last century. In fact, it is not an accident that I plan to publish this essay this week. This Friday, April 30th, marks the 46th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. A conflict started through manipulation and distortion, which claimed millions of lives. Behind the numbers, the trauma and pain caused by this conflict alone is incalculable. At our last Circle of Peacemakers meeting, we shared this video interview of a woman who survived America’s bombing campaign. Such testimony can start to provide a glimpse of the true magnitude of what happened in Vietnam.
Our involvement, of course, did not start in Vietnam.Just a decade earlier, the USA had helped, along with the USSR, to instigate another brutal civil war through the partition of the Korean Peninsula. The policy of partition was immensely unpopular among the Korean population and required the brutal suppression of the population across the country to pull off. This partition, as predicted, led to a civil war which entered into a ceasefire in 1953. At the start of the ceasefire, the civil war is still unresolved to this day, nearly 5 million were dead, over half of that number were civilians. Both the north and south lived under military dictatorship until, in the 80’s, popular movements for democracy were finally successful within the south of the peninsula. A look at the history of the struggle for South Korean democracy through the music of the pro democracy movement can be found here.
Unfortunately, it would be impossible to be exhaustive in covering the atrocities carried out by the USA in Asia over history. Between accounting for the direct invasions like those that took place in the Philippines, and the material support for bad actors like the Khmer Rouge, and actions like the strategically unnecessary nuclear bombing of Japan, there is just too much to cover. Of course, America’s interventions are also not just limited to Asia, but I wanted to highlight this region specifically for two main reasons: America’s increasing number of anti-asian hate crimes, and its increasing preoccupation with the containment of China, which it sees as a threat to its global influence. I believe these two trends cannot be fully understood separate from each other or the history which is briefly highlighted above.
Given that generation after generation of American men have been drafted and subsequently trained to dehumanize and kill Asian populations overseas, can it be any surprise that, at home, this country has a problem with violence against those of Asian descent? Rather than being an anomaly, the subjugation of those of Asian descent has been a key feature of our country’s development since at least the early 20th century. Our current domestic problems with violence against groups of Asians is a reflection of that. It is a societal demon that was all too easy to stir in the paranoid climate created by COVID-19 and decades of propaganda which has essentialized many Asian Countries as bad. Unfortunately, this barrage of propaganda continues to this day.
America, China, and the Paradox of the Jealous Husband
In fact, propaganda designed to essentialize and spread fear of the other has never been more widespread and sophisticated, and in a manner consistent with the history highlighted above, another formerly colonized country of Asia is the target. On any given day, one can open any major media publication and find at least one article highlighting the authoritarianism and social ills of China under the CCP. Despite our countries close economic ties, there is a vested interest in China’s demonization that transcends political administrations and the liberal conservative cultural divide in our country. These articles usually seek to highlight elements of Xi Jinping’s leadership, such as the lack of term limits lack of term limits for his position, shady business dealings on the part of Chinese companies, and more recently, their history of human rights violations, especially relating to the Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province. These tactics, especially the tendency to focus narratives on powerful forgine leaders and human rights abuses have become commonplace in the west since the end of the Cold War. It has been noted by scholars such Jean Brickmont in his book, “Humanitarian Imperialism”. To quote Brickmont:
“The ideology of our times, at least when it comes to legitimizing war, is no longer Christianity, nor Kipling’s “white man’s burden” or the “civilizing mission” of the French Republic, but is a certain discourse on human rights and democracy, mixed in with a particular representation of the second World War.”
Brickmont goes on to explain how leaders and regimes around the world are portrayed as “little Hitlers” in order to draw connections to the popularly perceived glory and moral legitimacy of our interventions to liberate Europe from the Nazi’s. As a propaganda tactic, it works to silence pacifists by portraying non-interventionism as immoral and cowardly. To negotiate and peacefully work out problems with these leaders, would be like trying to negotiate with Hitler, which most moral individuals of the west would see as ridiculous. Nevermind our own vast and ever growing history of human rights abuses both domestically and abroad.
Of course, in its attempts to characterize other nations in this way, the USA has a history of playing fast and loose with the truth. We have already mentioned how the Vietnam War was partly justified based on a distortion of true events. Unverified testimony from bad faith actors was used in the run up to both the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom because it was convenient at the time. More recently, unverified claims and eventually contradicted claims were levied against Venezuela when tensions between them and the USA was at its highest. Unverified or exaggerated claims play a role in justifying all these conflicts, but when these conflicts were happening, these testimonies were uncritically put forth as the truth.
In the present, with the current accusations against the CCP, there are certainly some issues with the sources which we use to justify our government’s claims of genocide. Especially in the work of Adrien Zenz who, based on my own reading, bases his claims on cherry picked quotes from CCP websites and “anonymous testimony”. Conservative think tanks that publish his work, such as the Jamestown Foundation were founded by members of US intelligence agencies and are still staffed by former National Security Advisors, Deputy Assistant Secretaries of Defense, and one individual who “acted as an architect of US-China strategy while serving in the Trump administration’s National Security Council”. That being said, getting a lot of information about Xinjiang province is hard. I have been studying the topic for over a month now and still cannot penetrate the surface. Both US and CCP sources are rife with conflicts of interest because no neutral, authoritative arbiter exists. Given the CCP’s known history with human rights, it is highly possible there is political repression happening in Xinjiang even if it does not reach the level of genocide like the USA and its hegemonic allies claim. At any rate, focusing conversation on the ills of Chinese society under the CCP, true or not, is exactly the aim of the program of humanitarian imperialism. The problem of humanitarian imperialism does not stem from whether the claims made in its name are true or not, rather its true insidiousness lies in how it creates a smoke screen, a pleasant humanitarian mask, for policies that are ultimately driven by hegemonic self interest.
In many ways, the situation with the USA and its claims resembles a thought experiment called the Problem of the Jealous Husband which was originally put forth by psychoanalyst Jecques Lacan. This paradox is explained well by philosopher Slavoj Zizek in his essay, “Jaque Lacan’s Four Discourses”.
“Recall, again, Lacan’s outrageous statements that, even if what a jealous husband claims about his wife (that she sleeps around with other men) is all true, his jealousy is still pathological. Along the same lines, one could say that, even if most of the Nazi claims about the Jews were true (they exploit Germans, they seduce German girls), their anti-Semitism would still be (and was) pathological – because it represses the true reason the Nazis needed anti-Semitism in order to sustain their ideological position.”
Much like the jealous husband of Lacan, or the Nazi in Zizek’s explaination, the United States’s constant accusations of crimes and abuses by its enemies are not what they appear to be at the surface level. The accusations, even if true, are not about the human rights abuses that they call out. The accusations are ends in themselves, a necessary part of how the United States Government and its hegemonic allies justify their role as chief power brokers in the global society they have created. The accusations “sustain their ideological position”. This is a position that they, perhaps rightfully, fear is being increasingly challenged by the influence of China under the CCP.
A recent meeting between officials of the two superpowers took place in Anchorage Alaska. The situation quickly became heated as the officials exchanged accusations with their opening remarks. A Chinese delegate, Yang Jiechi, said of the current ‘rules-based’ global order “the problem is that the United States has exercised long-arm jurisdiction and suppression and overstretched the national security through the use of force or financial hegemony.”. Beyond these statements, China has been forming large, region changing, deals with other powers in opposition to US Global policy and is moving full steam ahead with its Belt and Road international infrastructure initiative which has the potential to “usher in a new era of trade and growth for economies in Asia and beyond.”. The message is clear, China no longer sees itself as a second rate world power. As China continues to make moves to solidify what it understands to be its new role, we should expect an increased number of accusations of increasing intensity from the USA and its allies.
The Role of US Peacemakers: Choosing the Good over the Exceptional
In short, we find ourselves entering into a new geopolitical climate. As the old unipolar power structure begins to slip, new poles and centers of power emerge. The rise and fall of empires seems to be as natural and unstoppable as the rotation of the globe itself. While it is unlikely that the United States as a world power will be going anywhere soon, it is becoming increasingly important that we in the United States begin to consider what a redefinition of our role in the world might look like. In this new climate, it is no longer enough to make vague claims like “we need peacemakers at decision making tables”. We need to formulate what, as peacemakers, we exactly intend to say if and when we can secure that seat. Helping to facilitate the needed redefinition may be an avenue through which we can have great impact. The potential costs for failure and the potential rewards for success are both astronomically high.
As just the snippet of history presented earlier in this essay demonstrates, the history of the 20th century and the Cold War in which the USA emerged overall victorious, was a story of brutality and bloodshed. Where this bloodshed was concentrated, whose bodies were used as the foundation of the power centers which emerged, was largely determined by what came before: the racist Eurocentric legacy of colonization. As we struggle to dispel that racist legacy, a co-occuring commitment to maintenance of the old hegemony will inevitably become a roadblock to that process. The recent rise in tensions against China along with the steady increase of attacks on those of Asian descent in America hints at this connection. The connection between imperialist expansion and the material and spiritual rot of the imperial center has been observed by many.
Beyond its intersectional effects on social problems in the USA, the unquestioned maintenance of imperialism could result in catastrophe and the destruction of our civilization. During the last Cold War of the 20th century, there were many times where the use of nuclear weapons were just barely avoided. With the additional strain of climate change looming ever closer in the 21st century, can we afford to live in a world with superpowers diametrically opposed to one another? As this is being written, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a long standing group of experts who have been acting as watch dogs to ‘reduce man-made threats to our existence’, has placed their doomsday clock at 100 seconds to midnight. This insight should give us pause. Every act of calculated brinkmanship engaged in by our military around the world could lead to untold disaster.
Anxiety and hope, these days, seem to be the closest of friends. On an individual, societal, and global scale, we seem poised to turn a corner into a new, and potentially frightening, tomorrow. While our troubles are great and the sins of our history we still carry are heavy, as a Christian committed to the prophetic peacemaking tradition of my faith, I believe that every corner we turn provides an opportunity for our redemption. Not only is it a promise of the God I serve, but it is evident in the world I see around me. Perhaps more than any other time in my lifetime, the introspective work of redefinition that America needs seems possible.
Concern about racism, inequality, and environmental degradation are all on the rise. COVID-19 was a wake up call to many. We are now uniquely positioned to make an important choice, and that choice does not actually have much at all to do with China or any other potential world power. As peacemakers, we should lay out, in the barest terms possible, the choice that is on the horizon: will America be a prosperous country, or a poor empire? The resources and the will for the good exist in America and its people, but this good cannot materialize alongside the exceptionalism of hegemony and empire. It is my belief that a struggle with this question could provide the basis for unity that so many in America desperately want. The answer to this question and our role in contributing to that answer will be our legacy to future generations.