This week, we mourn the death of a literary giant, Chinua Achebe. Born in 1930 in a rural Nigerian village under British imperial control, Achebe wrote perhaps the most famous African novel of all time, Things Fall Apart (1958), which by now has sold over 10 million copies in 45 different languages. He wrote stories, novels, essays, and poetry through Nigeria’s colonization, independence, and civil war. His fourth novel predicted the events of this war so well that the military government accused him of conspiracy, forcing him to flee to Britain and later the United States, where he would live out the rest of his career. He was 82.
Achebe helped found an ideological movement that continues to inform how we understand the world: post-colonialism. He and his countless contemporaries exposed the horrors of colonial rule, the disconnect between “East” and “West,” and the cultural and psychological trauma with which colonizers left their former territories.
For centuries, Western powers exploited foreign lands and peoples, imposing their own ideologies across Africa, Latin America, Central and East Asia, and the Middle East. A major role of post-colonialism has been to show how this exploitation extended past independence. It has informed many nationalist, fervently anti-Western movements, notably socialist ones during the Cold War, now fundamentalist ones during the War on Terror. Post-colonial studies still proves to be much more than stuffy scholarly talk.
Just as colonial legacy did not die with independence, post-colonial theory will not die with Achebe. But in his absence, there are questions we must ask ourselves that will only become more pertinent as time passes. Middle Eastern revolutions, Latin American self-determination, and African democracy are all promising signs that as time goes by, the scars of colonialism will heal, and new nations will finally decide their own fates. One prominent critic even titled his latest book “The Arab Spring: The End of Post-Colonialism.”
But how do we know we’re not deluding ourselves? How can we make sure that even now, Western powers are not still controlling their former colonies, marginalizing their economies, and favoring Western-sympathizing governments at the expense of their national voice, culture, and democratic legitimacy? How do we keep globalization from deepening the East-West social class division?
The motives for ending this global imbalance are abundant. Politically, governments that cater to foreign powers will never be able to fully address the needs of their people, and constant rebellion and strife will impede any chance of real development. Economically, Western corporations often exploit former colonies, hiding their environmental and humanitarian devastation behind huge profit margins. And culturally, when a country imports its language, technology, media, and education from its former colonizer, authentic local culture becomes too tainted to recognize.
With all this at stake, we need to think about how we think about the post-colonial world; many of the assumptions we’ve made and still make about foreign lands have devastating consequences. Most post-colonial scholars agree with an idea elaborated by one of the field’s founding fathers, Edward Said. He argued that the divide between East and West is largely a Western invention. We accept, spread, and live by our simple, often demonizing assumptions about the colonial world. By grouping all colonized people together as an exotic or uncivilized Other, we justify—or ignore—the destructive, hegemonic impact of imposing our doctrines abroad. Just look at manifest destiny, white man’s burden, the Monroe Doctrine, neoliberal economic reform, Islamophobia, border control, sweatshop labor, Apartheid…all are based on a common disregard or hate for colonized peoples, and hate breeds hate.
If you don’t believe me, look at Iranians burning American flags in the streets. Look at Afghan soldiers killing the Americans who trained them. Look at Hugo Chavez calling George W. Bush the devil (well, that one’s more understandable). Look at China’s attempted censorship of all things American. Look at September 11th. We can’t just ask these people to forgive and forget, because colonialism is still happening. If anything, our hold over these places has gotten deeper since they gained independence. America has military bases in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Israel, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Brazil, Cuba, Djibouti, and most recently, a drone base in Niger. And you don’t want to know what the CIA is up to. Colonizing a country and declaring it Western soil is bad; but granting it sovereignty while strengthening your grip on it might be worse. That’s why many people feel more allegiance to groups like Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, and Boko Haram, organizations that recognize how forgotten people feel when their governments cater to the Western powers who drop bombs on their civilians.
So does it ever stop? How do we “end post-colonialism,” if that’s even possible? How can we support democratic revolutions and self-determination when the defining characteristic of post-colonial national identity is antagonism towards the West? Can we ever escape the cycle of hatred and warfare?
No one knows for sure. But at this moment in history, there are a few things that we can hope will come true:
First, we can hope that the Internet and mass media will continue to limit the powers of censorship held by tyrants. Regimes are losing their ability to completely cut their subjects off from the outside world or from each other. If this continues, more citizens will be able to make collective, objective decisions about what they want for their own country, based on the rest of the world’s example.
Second, the effects of globalization—such as immigration, international business, diplomacy, and travel—will make people more tolerant and understanding of each other. We may reach a point of interconnectedness where our societies will stand still unless they can accept and agree with one another.
And third, perhaps this need not come at the expense of diversity. It’s true, there are things on which it’ll take a lot of work and compromise to reach unanimous agreements, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but that document still leaves room for a wide array of cultural customs, political systems, and national eccentricities.
So let the governments fall, let the people vote, let the voices be heard, let the colonized chase out their colonizers, and let the downtrodden, disenfranchised peoples of the world learn to help each other. If they appeal for international aid, the developed world must be ready to do everything it can to help, but the West must not take more responsibility that it is due. By the time the world matures, the global community should have many different strong voices to listen to, homogenized only by its steadfast commitment to the earth and its peoples.
That’s my dream. If it’s your dream too, then do your part, if not for Chinua Achebe, then for your posterity.
Achebe’s tribe, nation, continent, and worldwide readers will be mourning the man for years to come. Credit: Guardian.co.uk