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Reading List July 02, 2021

A Very Short History of Freedom and Violence

An anti-imperialism reading list for July 4th.
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People throw around buzzwords such as freedom, equality, and independence gratuitously on the July 4th holiday. But, we ask, freedom, equality, and independence for whom? Indeed, as a trio of essays on the Indian wars, the Western border, and the expropriation of Native American lands makes clear, the destructive premise at the core of U.S. history and identity, more than simple racism or discrimination, is that “freedom itself must be built upon violent elimination.”

Fast-forward to the twentieth century, and promoting “freedom” at home is now used to justify security prerogatives and military presence abroad. As Stuart Schrader noted last year in his review of Vincent Bevins’s The Jakarta Method, the U.S. government fostered “systematic mass murder across the globe—from Southeast Asia to South America—in the name of fighting communism.” Looking at the economic logic that undergirded Cold War militarism, Nikhil Pal Singh corroborates that the Cold War says more about how U.S. elites imagined their “freedom” than it does about enabling other people to be free.

Of course, actions abroad don’t exist in a vacuum, often ricocheting their devastation back toward U.S. soil. We see such violent effects among poor populations who join the armed forces in higher numbers, as well as Black Americans and immigrants against whom support for the military is leveraged to show that they “belong.” Indeed, a horrifying example of U.S. imperialism’s insidious work at home is the Atlanta shooting this March. As Jessie Kindig argued, the connection of Asian women to sex and violence has its origins in U.S. wars—particularly the Korean War—and is fueled by our continued military presence in Asia.

This dual dynamic of racism at home and racism abroad is also evident in the U.S. nuclear program. As Boston Review regular Elaine Scarry observed on the seventy-fifth anniversary of Hiroshima, “the cruelty daily inflicted on people of color in our own city streets acts as a mental rehearsal for carrying out large-scale slayings abroad.” She concludes that “it keeps our capacity for cruelty limber.” In a new essay published this week, Erica X. Eisen continues this line of argument. From white mannequin families to segregated bomb shelters, people of color were not extended even imaginary safety in U.S. nuclear preparedness plans, she notes, with officials opting instead to extend Jim Crow into the post-apocalyptic age.

Other writers in today’s reading list tackle our current moment. With the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks coming up, how might we finally escape the ongoing War on Terror? Contributing editor Adom Getachew offers an overlooked starting point: the Caribbean movement for reparations. And a heart-wrenching essay from Julian Aguon sheds light on the U.S. Department of Defense’s plan to move thousands of marines to Guam. The “latest wave of action in a long and steady diet of dispossession,” this move will destroy 1,000 acres of native limestone forest, 40 acres of coral reef, and more. Alongside pieces from our recent archive, these essays deal with the intersections of imperialism, racism, and capitalism, both internationally and at home.

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Chris Hedges

We condition the poor and the working class to go to war.

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Aziz Rana

Support for the U.S. military has long been seen as a crucial way for black Americans and immigrants to show that they “belong.”

Oscar Howe Wounded Knee feature
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

The violent theft of land and capital is at the core of the U.S. experiment: the U.S. military got its start in the wars against Native Americans.

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Greg Grandin

Donald Trump says there is “a crisis of the soul” at the border. He is right, though not in the way he thinks.

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Nikhil Pal Singh

The Cold War says more about how U.S. elites imagined their “freedom” than it does about enabling other people to be free.

Stuart Schrader

A new book reveals the extent of the "Greater United States," but territory is not as important as it used to be. Instead, imperialism endures today in the logic of capitalism.

rethinking the responsibility to protect
Adom Getachew

In 2001, three frameworks for handling international crises emerged: the War on Terror, an ill-defined "responsibility to protect" struggling countries, and the Caribbean movement for reparations. The first two have failed, but the third may still have something to tell us.

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Nikhil Pal Singh

More than simple racism or discrimination, the destructive premise at the core of the American settler narrative is that freedom is built upon violent elimination.

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Stuart Schrader

A new book reveals how deeply the Washington-backed Indonesian mass killings of 1965 reshaped global politics, securing a decisive victory for U.S. interests against Third World self-determination.

scarry feature
Elaine Scarry

On the seventy-fifth anniversary of Hiroshima, it is increasingly clear that white supremacy sustains the U.S. nuclear arsenal, while the country's approach to nuclear weapons reinforces racism at home. 

Our weekly themed reading lists present the best of Boston Review’s archive and get emailed to members every Sunday, and sometimes make their way to our website too. Become a member to receive them ahead of the crowd.

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