Right-thinking and progressive people have looked ruefully at the sordid history of western imperialism, grateful for the enlightened attitudes of contemporary societies and governments. The former colonies are treated respectfully; indigenous people receive apologies, sometimes even financial compensation. The relation is between equals, not conqueror and victim.
Tourists now visit exotic places that were once considered unsafe; treating the natives with respect has quenched their resentment, quenched the danger. Relativism has made us all into brothers.
But that’s the ultimate form of imperialism. Relativism has become
“…a perspective congenial in an imperial civilization convinced of its power. Every primitive or archaic culture is conceived as a human possibility that can be ‘tasted’; it is, after all, harmless. We, at our leisure, convert the experience of other cultures into a kind of sport… Relativism is the bad faith of the conqueror, who has become secure enough to become a tourist“
Earlier forms of imperialism such as military conquest stole people’s land, their resources, their independence; even their lives. It didn’t however take away who they were by taming them, erasing their cultural identity. The latter is the task of the modern imperialist. In the novel Quantum Cannibals, cultural relativity is a matter of life and death.
Sometimes individual tourists pay the price of their society’s arrogance. Sometimes the danger is from social unrest. But often the social unrest is the result of false assumptions, that people are going to behave according to western social standards. Journalists don’t always understand the dangers they face. Press credentials are not always holy amulets, protecting the bearer. Even aide workers (another form of tourism) are not immune. (Right thinking, progressive victims won’t even hold their attackers responsible. How condescending is that?)
Treat people nicely, we think, and they will be nice in return. There must be a million different versions of this meme all over Facebook and other social media, accompanied by cute pictures or poetic homilies.
It’s a nice ideal, but it’s not true even in advanced societies such as the United States. It’s less true on the international front. One of President Obama’s earliest foreign relations goals was to be friends with Islam; he made a grand speech to the Muslim world in Cairo. It may have caused some smiles, but today Egyptians consider him a donkey.
Or his “reset” of relations with Russia? It practically brought us back to the cold war, and gave Russia confidence that it could safely invade the Ukraine. How about his palling around with the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez? It didn’t seem to make an impression on Chavez’ successor, who accuses the American government, i.e. Obama, of sabotaging his country.
There are others: Iran, Afghanistan, the Palestinian Authority… The President of the United States of America is trying to make up for past American arrogance, for past American claims to moral leadership. And in each one of these, America is being mocked, or treated as irrelevant. America is now a foreign policy tourist, and it’s getting raped. American imperialists refuse to acknowledge that other countries, other peoples have their own interests and beliefs. Not everyone has been pacified. Not everyone reciprocates friendly gestures, or wants to sit around the international campfire, singing happy songs. Much of the world is not secure for tourists.