Imperial Privilege

by Berry Friesen (May 12, 2017)

“Privilege” as used in Western social discourse is an unearned advantage awarded informally via social norms and practices.

Some are remedial, such as the perks given the elderly or the disabled.  Some are courtesies, like the considerations given a guest.  Some are meant to encourage, such as the kindnesses accorded children and youth.  Some reflect simple familiarity, like the effortless communication between people of the same language and culture.  Some are pernicious, such as the comforts and advantages enjoyed by those who have light colored skin.

Recently, an October, 2016 essay by Rashna Batliwala Singh and Peter Matthews Wright, two professors at Colorado College, introduced me to another pernicious example: imperial privilege.  Citing the work of Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe, Singh and Wright ask:

“What place is given to life, death, and the human body (in particular the wounded or slain body)? How are they inscribed in the order of power? When it comes to presidential elections in the United States, the answer is ‘not much’—especially when those bodies are in faraway lands and wounded or slain not by ‘terrorists’ but by state actors. 

“The ability of the American electorate to shrug off the plight of those who suffer as the direct result of US foreign policy is so pervasive that it deserves a name. We call it ‘imperial privilege.’

“Indeed, so pervasive is this particular form of privilege that it is not limited to the ‘usual suspects,’ e.g., militarists or right-wing politicians. Imperial privilege makes it possible for even the liberally-inclined to turn a blind eye to the toxic footprint of US militarism at home and abroad; to fall silent at any mention of the homicidal decisions of an American President; to exclude such matters from public political discussion and to prevent them from influencing their voting patterns in any way.

"Whether by turning off the TV and heading to the mall, the movies, or for a hike in the great outdoors, Americans may turn off war with a click. People in countries such as Yemen where US armament sales fuel the devastation of war do not enjoy that option."

I’m not a fan of “privilege” discourse.  Too often, it is a form of emotional manipulation, designed to make people feel guilty about positive living conditions. But in some situations the positive conditions I enjoy come at your expense.  Then it is only right that I be made aware of the potential injustice.

Of course, when the subject is US foreign policy, the distance between my good life and someone else’s suffering is vast.  The casual links are diffuse.  As a result, it is easy to ignore connections between US imperialism and our way of life here in the USA.

As if anticipating our nonchalant shrugs, Singh and Wright bore in by setting “imperial privilege” alongside “white privilege”:

“Despite the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement has made the nation aware of the militarization of our police, the use of tanks and teargas on the streets of American cities shocks the conscience only of a vocal minority. The connections that exist between police violence at home and US militarism abroad has little salience as an election issue. . . . 

“We are told that refusing to vote for Clinton constitutes a particular type of privilege, because communities of colour will suffer most under a Trump presidency. But imperial privilege allows Americans (black, brown, and white) to focus only on the ‘homeland’ and ignore the consequences of their political choices for any other country. There is a disturbing moral disconnect here. Voters who support a candidate that recognizes black lives matter nevertheless avert their gaze in good conscience from the thousands who are killed as a direct result of that same candidate’s interventionist policies.”

Human rights activist and 2016 Green Party vice-presidential candidate Ajamu Baraka * applies the concept of imperial privilege in his work to launch and organize a Black Alliance for Peace (BAP).  In “War, Militarism and No Mainstream Opposition: Different Administration, Same Story,” published May 9 by the Black Agenda Report, Baraka rues the lack of response to recent aggressions by the US:

“The absence of any real opposition to the reckless use of US military force—the attack on Syria, the macho demonstration bombing in Afghanistan, the provocations toward North Korea— exposed once again the unanimity among the US ruling class and the state on the use of military force as the main strategy to enforce its global interests.
. . . . 

"Imperial privilege is this strange ability on the part of the US public to ‘shrug off’ the consequences experienced by people impacted by the direct and indirect result of US militarism. That is precisely why pro-imperialist politicians like Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren can be designated as ‘progressives’ and vast numbers of voters can rally around a warmonger like Hillary Clinton without suffering much moral distress.”

In an earlier essay recalling the anti-war stance of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “50 Years Later, We Must Again Confront and Reject U.S. Warmongering,” Baraka said this:

“After almost three decades of pro-war conditioning by both corporate parties and the corporate media coupled with cultural desensitization from almost two decades of unrelenting war, opposition to militarism and war is negligible among the general population. The black public has not been immune to these cultural and political changes. And with the ascendancy of the corporatist President Barack Obama, during whose tenure the US continued its militaristic bent unabated and in fact ratcheted up its aggressive posturing in some parts of the globe, particularly in the Middle East, there was a decidedly rightward shift in the consciousness of the black public and a significantly dampened anti-war sentiment among black people.

“Politically the result has been disastrous for the society and for the US anti-war movement. The bi-partisan warmongering over the last two decades has met very little opposition, and the traditional anti-war stance of the black population has almost disappeared.”

Living as we do in the belly of the beast, we are well-insulated from the massive violence done in our name abroad.  Yet at times—the ‘60s (Vietnam), the ‘80s (Central America), ’02-’03 (Iraq)—Americans have been stirred to openly oppose that violence. What will move us to do so again?  Talk about “imperial privilege”? Awareness of how imperial propaganda has shaped our values and worldview?  The growing presence of military-style weaponry, tactics and violence in the US?  A Republican in the White House?  I don’t know.

What I am sure of is that cushioned by our privilege, we have settled deeply into siloed groups constructed around favorite causes and our respective gender, race or sexuality-related identities. Important though that work may be, we have a serious problem when it leaves us divided and silent vis-a-vis imperialism and endless war.  The two essays by Baraka and the one by Singh and Wright can help us overcome this problem. Please take the time to read all three.
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*  Ajamu Baraka will be the featured speaker at a one-hour seminar facilitated by John K. Stoner on July 6, 2017 at the annual convention of Mennonite Church USA in Orlando, Florida.