What Gingrich Meant When He Called Obama an Anti-colonialist

by A. Jay Adler on January 6, 2011
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Certainly you recall it. We had some discussion of it here, and here, and here, and here. The curious question at the root of the whole discussion was what it means at this p0int in history and the evolution of world culture to call someone an “anti-colonialist” and mean it as a pejorative? What does it tell us of the world view of the person so using the term? We might call it a kind of ideological revanchism, and as much as the GOP is driven in its policies to reverse a century of progressive social policy, so too is it motivated to reaffirm Western imperialism. Witness:

One of the first acts of the new Republican-controlled House is to take away the floor voting rights of six delegates representing areas such as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa.

Five of those delegates are Democrats, while one, from the Northern Marianas Islands, is an independent.

The GOP decision to rescind the ability of delegates to vote on amendments on the House floor was the predictable outcome of a longtime party divide. Democrats extended the voting rights in 1993 when they controlled the House, Republicans disenfranchised the delegates when they became the majority in 1995 and Democrats restored delegate rights when they regained control of the House in 2007.

I won’t focus on the apparent trench political maneuver of denying six probable opposition votes in the new congress, because that is not really a meaningful consideration.

The partisan battle has always been as much about political symbolism as the actual ability of delegates to influence national policy. Under the Democrats, delegates could vote on the floor on amendments – in what is known as the Committee of the Whole – but not on final passage. And their votes came with the stipulation that they could not change the outcome of a vote.

Well, just what is that symbolism?

Republicans have long argued that the Constitution, which says the House should be made up of representatives chosen by the “several states,” rules out voting by non-state delegates. The office of new House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday said Boehner “continues to believe . that delegates should not vote in the Committee of the Whole because they constitutionally cannot vote on the House floor.”

“It’s very apparent to me that we need to focus on the Constitution and (under the Constitution) states are to be represented in the House of Representatives,” said House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif.

Ah, it’s the Constitution – that’s the thing. But the GOP respects the role of the courts in our democracy, does it not?

Democrats counter that, when Republicans sued to reverse the 1993 extension of voting rights, two federal courts ruled that Congress had acted within constitutional bounds. They also point out that the delegates represent U.S. citizens who serve in the military and are fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Not only citizens serving in the military overseas, but the residents of Washington D.C. are long disenfranchised citizens too. But D.C. is a constitutional anomaly, a mess in our own house long overdue for clean up. Foreign territories, though, governed by the United States and populated by people who are not citizens of the nation – should these not give “the greatest democracy in the world” pause? Yes, they all have complex histories. Puerto Ricans have been long conflicted and divided about how they wish to resolve their history with the U.S., and as a first principle we should be guided by what they want.  In the meantime, does it not behoove us not to rule, but to govern in partnership and respect – not to make a point from the very start of taking what is, to begin, so little away? If the Constitution still rated the descendants of African slaves as three fifths of a person, would Boehner and the GOP argue for day-to-day adherence to that constitutionalism while we sought to overturn it?

There are reasons the Republican Party isn’t called the Democratic party.

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7 comments

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Adam Levick January 9, 2011 at 10:26 am

Two quick points (As much as I would love to debate you on Sad Red Earth all day, a certain large circulation daily in the UK requires monitoring;)

First:

“And I refuse to surrender a meaningful and proper use of these terms to either the excesses of the Left or the rejection of the Right that finds its justification in the Left’s excess.”

I think that’s fair.

Second,

As far as the term “reactionary”, I would argue that the term is sometimes used to stifle debate about the efficacy of liberal social policy. For instance, the Welfare Reform Act – which has been an astounding success (based on what I’ve read from quite credible sources, such as Heather MacDonald, link below) which President Clinton signed into law in 1996, was described by many as “reactionary”.

I don’t think that rolling back, radically reforming, or even eliminating some component of the social safety net is necessarily “reactionary”, either in intent or outcome. Much of the conservative social policy which I favor is based on the premise that such policy is more consistent with human nature, and would have better outcomes.

That is, I support conservative social policy (to the degree that I do) because I think its often more effective, rather than due to some ideologically driven desire. I agree that some on the right would argue for low taxes, for instance, even if such rates had an injurious effect on the economy.

I would term folks like me (neoconservative, in the traditional Irving Kristol sense of the term) as outcome-based conservatives.

Here’s the piece by Heather MacDonald on the positive outcome of conservative social policies of the 90s (such as Welfare Reform), that I mentioned above.

http://www.city-journal.org/2011/eon0106hm.html

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A. Jay Adler January 9, 2011 at 7:26 pm

Adam, we get to end this go around with some agreements. I supported the Welfare Reform Act, in part on the basis of that outcome-based policy consideration you believe in. I welcome into the policy mix truly outcome-based conservatism. Of course, outcomes are sometimes debatable, but that’s another discussion. Now back to watching the Guardianistas.

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Adam Levick January 7, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Thanks for the clarification, Jay.

This is a much longer discussion, but I do disagree with your characterization of the Republican party as “reactionary” merely because they have different notions than you do on what the proper relationship should be between the individual and the state. (I must admit that I haven’t read all of your previous posts, so I’ll comment generally) What Bush tried to do, to the best of my recollection, was merely allow folks to to invest 30% of their social security funds as they saw fit. You can disagree with this, but its hardly an attempt to destroy the New Deal.

While there may be some “Ayn Rand types” within the Republican party, most merely want to roll back (to varying degrees) what they see as an excessively large social safety net – one which, they feel, may have the unintended consequence of inhibiting hard work, personal responsibility , and that entrepreneurial spirit which has created wealth in the U.S. far in excess of what generations of citizens from other nations could even dream of obtaining.

I think reasonable people can disagree on what marginal tax rates should be, or what role the gov’t should have in health care, etc. But, I do strongly disagree that those who are on the side of less gov’t control over the economy should inherently be seen as “reactionary”. Such a term (as I understand it) should only be ascribed to those who want to roll back individual/personal/democratic rights, codified by the Bill of Rights – and I really don’t think you could seriously argue that the Republicans are attempting to roll back these freedoms.

I plead ignorance on the issues relating to voting rights of delegates representing areas such as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa. That is, I’m not well-read on the subject, haven’t really thought through what I think their congressional rights should be, so I’m not going to defend the Republican maneuvers on this issue. (However, I do know that Puerto Rico voted several years back on retaining the status quo, and not becoming a U.S. state).

However, words like “Western imperialism”, in the context of such issues, are so loaded, and are so often (and so crudely) used by those (UNLIKE you and President Obama) who wake up in the morning truly believing that the U.S. is an ogre among nations, that I think more precise, and eloquent, terms should be considered.

As always, Jay, thanks for this discussion.

However,

Reply

A. Jay Adler January 8, 2011 at 1:53 am

Adam,

Moving beyond the particulars of this discussion, I think it worth clarifying my use of certain vocabulary. I do not call the Republican Party reactionary as some vague pejorative, or, as you put it, “merely because they have different notions than you do on what the proper relationship should be between the individual and the state.” I use the term purposefully, in its customary sense, to refer to political tendencies that wish to return the social and political order to some prior state. I think there is abundant evidence that large numbers of conservatives and the GOP wish, indeed, to roll back the New Deal. You have people like Glenn Beck, further, who locate some modern wrong turn farther back in time, with Woodrow Wilson and even Teddy Roosevelt, rejecting much of the twentieth century’s social and cultural developments. If you read conservative blogs, which I do, it is clear that among many writers and commenters – and it is reflected in Congress – there is, with the exception of technology, an overall abhorrence, socially and culturally, of modernity.

I think about the term Western imperialism (or any brand of it) much as I do about postcolonialism. Both terms have spawned extreme Left ideological developments that have stained otherwise legitimately corrective political conceptions. Because the terms have been so abused, and rashly taken up by many with ill consideration, many on the Right – which was little sympathetic to these conceptions to begin – feel burdened and assaulted by their use. Nonetheless, imperialism and colonialism were real and profound civilizational ills. It is right to conceive a world that advances in their aftermath, understanding the historical wrongs they represent, pursuing a more just social and political order, and recognizing their remnants. To the extent that political actors do not acknowledge the destructive and exploitative reality of the colonial and imperial epochs and justify the Western rule that accompanied them, I consider such actors, too, reactionary. And I refuse to surrender a meaningful and proper use of these terms to either the excesses of the Left or the rejection of the Right that finds its justification in the Left’s excess.

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Adam Levick January 6, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Jay, respectfully, this passage is so (uncharacteristically) gratuitous:

“If the Constitution still rated the descendants of African slaves as three fifths of a person, would Boehner and the GOP argue for day-to-day adherence to that constitutionalism while we sought to overturn it?”

You also ponder:

“what it means at this p0int in history and the evolution of world culture to call someone an “anti-colonialist” and mean it as a pejorative”

Just to be clear, here’s the best definition of post-colonialism, by Gerald Steinberg:

“Post-colonialism is based on the empowerment of the victim and the removal of the aggressor as the path to peace and justice…This framework is consistent with Noam Chomsky’s emphasis on power imbalances, which he claims are the root of war and evil, with American power as the central obstacle to world peace. Chomsky extends this analysis to Israel, claiming that its power and relationship with the United States transforms the Jewish state into a post-colonial aggressor. In contrast, “weakness” confers the status of post-colonial victims to Arabs…Chomsky’s ‘empowerment’ of Said’s ‘other’ is the basis for the intense political advocacy in the name of “social justice”. In contrast to the global values embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights , adopted in 1948 after the Holocaust, post-colonialism provides an a-priori distinction between aggressor and oppressor. Adherents seek to empower groups that are defined as disenfranchised and oppressed (and patronizingly viewed as incapable of moral or ethical choices), and to weaken the “strong colonial parties”.

In other words, post-Colonialism posits that certain states or movements are, a-priori, oppressors and other movements, apriori, victims.

While reasonable people can disagree over the GOP’s move to strip floor voting rights from the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa, its so over the top to characterize it as an attempt to:

“reverse a century of progressive social policy”

Motivated by a desire to:

“reaffirm Western imperialism.”

Am I reading you wrong on this? If so, please tell me.

Reply

A. Jay Adler January 6, 2011 at 10:01 pm

Adam, as always, thanks for reading.

You don’t say what it is that is gratuitous about my comparison to the three-fifths provision that was once a part of the constitution. You may believe in the essential decency of the U.S. (as do I) but that doesn’t change the reality that these territories (other than D.C.) are remnants of colonialism. They are foreign territories and populations being ruled by the U.S. While a determination of their futures may be complex matters, in the meantime, they are offered by Democrats a small measure of participation in the democracy that governs them. The Republicans regularly, immediately, upon assuming power in the House, take it away from them. Republicans claim (contrary to federal court decisions) strict adherence to the Constitution in doing so. My question challenges that rationale and the ramifications of it on the humanity of others.

Jumping to the end of your comment for a moment, my observation about attempts to “reverse a century of progressive social policy” was not drawn from this post but meant to refer back to yesterday’s. Republicans seek the end of social security as a government ensured safety net, and would dismantle Medicare and Medicaid as we know it. Under Bush, they waged a full assault on decades of hard earned environmental standards. They seek to undo a century’s worth of labor protections through unionism, and they today reject and demean unemployment insurance, casting those who accept it in the terms once applied to “welfare cheats” and layabouts. I could go on and on. I know you’re very busy with your own work and writing and may not read my every post, but over the past year or so I have written not infrequently that I consider the contemporary GOP a completely reactionary political party. Its advocacy of an extreme American Exceptionalism joined to, internationally, a commitment to maintaining the U.S. as a sole superpower, is, indeed, an imperial ideology.

As for colonialism and reactions to it. First, I have regularly argued, as you know, that one can be meaningfully, coherently “postcolonial” in one’s political vision without being an adherent of the extreme formulations and manifestations of such a vision that have become identified more commonly as postcolonial. Beyond that, while I respect the work that Gerald Steinberg does with NGO Watch, his explanation of postcolonialism is quite slanted, identifying it so exclusively with its extreme manifestations, and so largely with Noam Chomsky, who, self-identified as an “anarcho-syndicalist,” is not particularly a theorist of postcolonialism, though, in fact, people who span the range of the left spectrum, from moderate liberal Democrats to extremists like Chomsky all have some vision of a postcolonial international order. And this actually leads to my last point, which is that Gingrich did not actually use the term “postcolonial.” He and Dinesh D’Souza used the term anticolonial. That is a distinctly different and very telling term.

While I’m sure this doesn’t bridge our differences, I hope it clarifies.

Good work on the new CIFWatch newsletter.

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charlie k January 6, 2011 at 12:23 pm

I nominate Cecil Rhodes as honorary Speaker of the House!

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