How Rick Santorum and America can be 'exceptional': Avoid empire
Rick Santorum suggests national health care sank the British Empire and sees America as the rightful heir to British global domination. But empires are largely based on racism and exploitation. To be 'exceptional' America must resist the idea it knows what’s best for everyone else.
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And when people around the world resisted British imperialism, the famous medical journal The Lancet wrote in 1865, there was only one appropriate response: terror and violence. Colonial subjects had either “to be constantly kept down with a rod of iron,” The Lancet frankly declared, “or slowly exterminated.”Skip to next paragraph
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Eight years earlier in 1857, in the Great Uprising of India, British soldiers had forced Hindu and Muslim insurgents to eat beef or pork, respectively, before hanging them. They even burned Muslims and buried Hindus, deliberately inverting the faiths’ funeral traditions as a warning to other rebels.
In the 1930s, as the Indian freedom movement gained steam, roughly 100,000 Indians would die in British prisons. In the much smaller colony of Kenya, during the Mau Mau rebellions of the 1950s, as many as 130,000 were killed and 320,000 were interned in concentration camps. Thousands of Kenyans also faced torture: In the most gruesome case, a British officer forced captives to eat their own testicles.
To be fair, Santorum didn’t endorse everything the British did. Be he also needs to understand that linking America’s contemporary role to the British empire – or to empire, period – puts it in some very nasty company. Yes, America is now the dominant power in the world. But to exercise that power wisely, it needs to remember its own founding creed, rooted in its own anti-colonial past: All men are created equal, with the right to determine their own fates.
Most of all, Americans must avoid the hubristic idea that we know what’s best for everyone else. But Santorum and most of the other GOP candidates bridle at any such suggestion. Indeed, they routinely flay President Obama for caring too much about foreign opinion, and not enough about “American exceptionalism.” In the same speech where he invoked the British Empire, Santorum claimed that Mr. Obama was unnecessarily reluctant to defend American interests overseas. “We have a president who doesn’t believe in America,” Santorum sniffed.
And that brings me back to the conversation with my colleague in England, who happens to be Irish. As he wryly pointed out, nobody in Ireland – which suffered three centuries of vicious British rule – would ever put in a good word for imperialism.
Neither should we. If we really want to be an “exceptional” world power, we should resist the idea of empire wherever it arises. Despite what you hear from Rick Santorum, health care didn’t bankrupt the British Empire. In all the ways that matter, it was bankrupt from the start.
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