Sunday, October 02, 2011

Don Mitchell: You Who are the Bureaucrats of Empire, Remember Who We Are

[Geographer Don Mitchell giving an address at The Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University]

"You Who are the Bureaucrats of Empire, Remember Who We Are"
by Don Mitchell
History is a Weapon

A couple of months ago I was asked to participate in this forum. I was asked to spend a few minutes giving practical advice to you NSS students on issues related to U.S. involvement in "post-conflict societies." I am a professor of geography. My main areas of research focus on the ways that capital, labor and the state fight it out in the golden landscapes of California; by extension I am deeply interested in the geography of capitalism globally: that is, the geography of exploitation and oppression that, as much as freedom and a certain kind of liberty, is not incidental, but essential to capitalism. Another area of research is into contemporary cultural theory, working especially in the western Marxist tradition. A third area of research focuses on urban public space, particularly in the US but to some extent in Europe. In this third area I do research on homelessness, on protest in public space, and particularly on how the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights, one of the most amazing documents ever to be written out of the ashes of a "post-conflict society," are practiced and policed on the streets of American cities.

So I am not sure why I was asked to talk to you - or what practical advice I can give you. Unless it is precisely this: I can be an example to you, something - or someone - you will confront in your efforts to occupy the world and make it do your bidding. I have no doubt you are a kind and loving person. Like me, you no doubt love your families. Like me, you might have any number of perfectly normal problems, perfectly normal interests, perfectly normal phobias, and perfectly normal perversions. Like me, you might care deeply about making the communities that you live in better, your lives more secure, your pursuit of happiness itself a deep well of happiness. Music might transport you, like me, to new worlds of understanding that exist somewhere beyond language, somewhere beyond ordinary emotion. Like me, in other words, you are human.

But I am probably also different than you. I find the construction of the American Empire to be utterly reprehensible. I find our diplomatic and military hypocrisy not only on the world stage but at home too to be abhorrent. I find our - that is my and your state's - role in the world, a role defined by the raw exercise of power, a startling ignorance of what other peoples are like and what they want, to be a sheer exercise not only in arrogance, but in violent bloody-mindedness. I find our reliance on force, on arms, on the technology of death, coupled with our disregard for others' lives - the thousands of Afghani civilians directly killed by our bombs as they missed Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden; the at least ten thousands Iraqis so far killed; the fifty to hundred thousand killed in Dresden; the more than a hundred thousand incinerated or condemned to a cancerous death in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the two million Vietnamese - I find this disregard for other peoples' lives to be appallingly anti-human, appallingly anti- you-and-me. Bin Laden's tactics are the tactics of Hell. How, tell me how, ours are any different. He bombs cathedrals of commerce; we bomb Mosques, pharmaceutical factories, weddings, embassies, and whole villages that must be destroyed in order to be saved. But we profess to be the beacon and lovers of "freedom" - so on top of it all we are hypocrites

So I am probably different from you, because I doubt you see the world in these terms, for you are the bureaucrats of Empire: it is you, who, in whatever way large or small, are essential in creating a world I despise. I have no doubt that your motives are good. I have no doubt that your beliefs are true. You undoubtedly see security and patriotism and freedom and duty, where I see death and arrogance and the near-constant illegitimate use of power. So maybe I am different from you. But I am not different from the rest of the world. In fact, I am likely right in line with the majority. And that is my practical message to you: there are a lot of us out there.

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