American ideology reduces enemies of the US to the worst, decontextualized moments in their history. The way to counter this is talk about countries like China, North Korea, Cuba etc, with the same historical context offered to Canada or western Europe.
The other day I was talking to someone. They were talking about tweeted statements by conservative American politicians, where they referred to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan coronavirus” and the “China coronavirus”. He responded like “That’s so racist, I can’t believe it. I want to cry.”
Then, I started talking about how China had a very good response to coronavirus, and praised them for stopping it there so early.
He got very defensive about that and responded by saying xenophobic shit like “well at least in the US you won’t be kidnapped if you’re in public,” as if Latinos don’t get kidnapped by ICE, and black people get kidnapped by police for existing in public. We call it being “detained” or “arrested”, but when China does it, it’s kidnapping.
This is about as clear of an example that American liberals clearly pave the way to right-wing xenophobia. Liberals think they criticize the enemy countries of the US on civic and social issues. They think they’re being humanitarians. But the terms American liberals criticize the US’s enemies makes the explicitly xenophobic terms used by conservatives more present and palatable.
In the enemies of American empire, the worst parts of the country happen to everyone, at every time. It’s an undifferentiated mass. The Holodomor happened every single day of the Soviet Union, and it was worst than the Holocaust too, of course.
Also, you know the North Korean drought from the 90s? When North Korea struggled to feed everyone due to crippling sanctions, mixed with a lack of support from the recently-collapsed Soviet Union? That actually happened at every point in Korean history, and is still happening today..
Also, if you acknowledge Palestinians exist – like talking about them as actual people, with a culture and society – that alone is seen as undermining Israel, because the Israeli national projects involves dehumanizing Palestinians. You’re only allowed to talk about Palestinians as savage suicide bombers who use children as human shields.
If you’re an enemy of American aggression, you are always as bad as the worst thing that ever happened in that country, and indeed, that worst thing will always be exaggerated to the point of caricature.
Think about this: let’s say you make a tweet. It doesn’t have to be a tweet, it can be a video, a post, etc. Imagine that in this post, you make fun of or criticize someone. You don’t think much of it, because the post is just for your friends and followers.
However, imagine that post then blows up and goes viral. Now, your tweet criticizing someone is escalated from a semi-private to a public context. Once its a public piece of discourse it morphs: it becomes the main thing strangers associate with you, your online identity becomes informed by the post, people will criticize you as the representative of your opinion.
When things get amplified, they get decontextualized, and consequently, can and will be recontextualized in any number of ways.
The point is: once eyes are drawn to an event or thing, it inevitably warps what that thing means. Something that everyone is paying attention to means something else than something no one is paying attention to, because of the attention itself.
American propaganda exploits this dynamic, by drawing attention to, and constantly decontextualizing, then recontextualizing events. For example, the North Korea famine wasn’t a consequence of the Soviet Union’s collapse, it was a consequence of North Korea being terrible and evil, and always having been.
The reason liberals pave the way for conservatives to use xenophobia to demonize America’s imperialist enemies, is liberals already demonize those enemies. For liberals, North Korea is an authoritarian, racist cult. Not even a conventional country that should be recognized as such, but a cult.
Conservatives then take this diction to its logical conclusion: they make it about race. Then the liberals clutch their pearls. But liberals are the ones who orientalize and essentialize these societies to begin with. And once you start essentializing societies, it becomes much easier to both:
A) reduce societies down to singular moments and
B) treats those societies as being fundamentally and essentially different than ours.
If you buy into those faulty conclusions to begin with, it logically follows that someone would begin racializing these dynamics. In fact, the liberal position has already done the theoretical brick-laying that paves the way to racism. The racists don’t need to provide premises for their racist conclusions, society does that for them.
So what’s the best way to counter this, and why should we counter this to begin with?
The way to counter this might seem like becoming a cheerleader for those countries. I have nothing against people who are active fans of America’s imperialist enemies, especially people who are heavily oppressed like Palestinians.
But that’s not actually the opposite of the dynamic I’m talking about. The dynamic isn’t between “like” or “dislike”, it’s between “treat a country like any other normal country allied with the US” or “treat them like a fundamentally and essentially evil country”.
The key to undermining this type of rhetoric doesn’t involve telling people how great these countries are, that entrenches people in their beliefs. For example, if someone was to tell me why Cuba is great, I’d be on board. I know all of the great things Cuban society has created, and how the Cuban revolution raised the standard of living of the working people of Cuba.
But if you tell a capitalist how great Cuba is, they will reply “nuh-uh, no you’re wrong, they suck!”. They retreat into the trench of reductionist, essentialized thinking that our society teaches us.
The way to bypass this rhetorical trap, the trap of “they’re good”, “no, they’re bad”, is to talk about those countries the same way you would talk about any other country. Imagine if we talked about China or Russia the same way we talk about India or Brazil. Like we just talked about them in a value-neutral way, devoid of smears and innuendo.
You might say “Russia and China do more worse stuff than India or Brazil!”. Maybe that’s true, although I don’t think so. It’s not only that we hear more bad stuff about Russia and China, we hear that because they’re the long-term enemies to the United States and their global economic domination. And it’s not only that we hear the bad stuff, it’s that their entire society is reduced to just the bad stuff.
We get a few, specific and targeted details about the enemies of American imperialism. This information is magnified, decontextualized, recontextualized, and essentialized. And the way to counter this is not to dig into the trenches and defend the enemies of American imperialism to their critics – because they will also trench in and attack them. The way to counter it is to contextualize elements of their society amongst others, and talk about them with the same neutrality you would any nation.
And just to emphasize once more to conclude this post: there’s nothing wrong with actively liking countries like China or Cuba. I actively like both myself! But, expressing that feeling doesn’t really counter the imperialist messaging against them. Treating those countries with the same charity as any other ordinary country, does counter the imperialist messaging.