We don’t need to colonize the world anymore
Let people keep their cultures instead.
If people left Mexico for the United States, wouldn’t that lead to the erasure of Mexican culture? And if Mexico drastically depopulated to the point that they decided to sell to the United States, wouldn’t that amount to colonization?
It’s a good question. Another way of putting it might be: If we are becoming one global culture, how come that culture sometimes looks like America?
People call it the “Westernization” of the world and I’ve frequently heard that used as a derogatory term—as though something becoming “Westernized” is the equivalent to something becoming colonized by America. But our “American culture” is already the merging of many different ones. The world isn’t becoming Americanized so much as it is becoming globalized. And we are just the earliest example of what a globalized culture looks like. After all, our “culture” is only a couple hundred years old!
Admittedly, there was a lot of colonization involved in how we got here. After Columbus, England, France, Spain, and Portugal were vying to become global superpowers—they sent a bunch of people to America then colonized a bunch of other places while they were at it. England got a little bit further than everyone else—they took over more of America and colonized more of the world. That’s why more than 60 countries count English as an official language today while only 29 countries speak French, 20 speak Spanish, and 10 speak Portuguese.
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None of this was good, mind you—it’s just the way things happened—and we can’t really help which dominant cultures emerge from the global stage.
“The notion of a cultural ‘level playing field’ is a myth and will never be seen in practice.” Tyler Cowen says in his book Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World’s Cultures. “Never did the Greek city-states compete on an even basis. Christian and Graeco-Roman cultures were entrenched in Europe partly by fiat. British culture has had a significant head start in North America. The benefits of cultural exchange usually have come from dynamic settings in great imbalance, rather than from calm or smoothly working environments.”
Yes, in the past cultural consolidation came about because of conquest and colonization, but I have to admit I’m somewhat apathetic to all of the injustices that have been meted throughout world history just because there’s not much we can do about it now. We used to suck. We used to expand our empires by conquering other ones. We used to turn those conquered peoples into slaves. We used to impose our religions and ways of life on them. That was all of world history and none of us were here for most of that.
This video does a great job of summing that up:
Despite our agro approach to world domination, all of this conquering forced us together. The United States was the first place people moved en masse and there have been benefits to this (democracy) and detriments to this (Indigenous persecution), and there were certainly a lot of growing pains as we figured out how to live together (slavery, colonization, disease). But eventually, we became more tolerant of one another, then more welcoming of one another, then we realized other people can have cultures too and that they aren’t any better or any worse than any others.
We’re still working on that.
Now that everything’s been conquered, the best thing we can do is discontinue the practice, and figure out how to create space for all cultures, within the global one we’re creating.
When Hawaii and Alaska became US states in the 1950s, for example, we didn’t think about what might happen to the local population if we allowed wealthy capitalists to buy up all the land and turn it into second homes, hotels, and vacation destinations. There can be no doubt a loss of Hawaiian and Inuit culture took place and the result is that today there are only 14,000 Inuit in Alaska and 148,000 in the world, and only 298,000 Hawaiians on the islands and 560,000 in the US. We crowded out the local culture with the worst version of ours, and we didn’t leave space for the local culture to thrive.
But maybe we could do things differently with Puerto Rico. Itself comprised of a mingling of the native Taino, Spanish, and African cultures, Puerto Ricans now have a rich and beautiful culture all their own. In December of 2022, the United States passed the Puerto Rico Status Act giving Puerto Ricans the opportunity to decide whether they will become the 51st US state, become an independent sovereign nation, or pursue “sovereignty in free association with the United States.” That it is a choice is already a big improvement over previous methods.
If it passes the Senate, Puerto Rico might very well vote for statehood. There are clear advantages to such a move—access to federal funding and social programs, a seat in congress, and voting rights—and according to a 2020 vote, 52% of the island are for it. But there are also detriments—largely a loss of culture—and this has led to a smaller, but vocal minority advocating for sovereignty. As of 2020, Puerto Rico has already lost 1.83 million people to the United States mainland. And if they become a state, might they lose their culture to the mainland too? Will they meet the same fate as Hawaiian and Inuit cultures?
But the Cook Islands provide a great case study of what could be done with places like Hawaii and Alaska, and what should be done in Puerto Rico if it chooses to become a state. The Cook Islands were colonized by every country in the book—most recently New Zealand—until they were granted “free association” in 2001. Now they are a self-governing sovereign nation. Cook Islanders are still New Zealand citizens and can move to the island if they want to, but it’s one-directional. Only Cook Island citizens can purchase property on the Cook Islands. They have access to the larger culture and the benefits that come with it, even as they maintain their own culture and their own sovereignty.
Why shouldn’t local cultures maintain the same protections going forward? Why can’t we make space for regional cultures even as we become a global one? Take Sen̓áḵw: In 2003, the city of Vancouver returned 10.5 acres to the Squamish Nation where they are building Sen̓áḵw—a solarpunk green city (within a city) with more than 6,000 rental homes and 1,200 affordable housing units. Built on a portion of their former land, it will be the largest zero-carbon residential project in Canada, and it is owned by the Squamish Nation.
The project is a great example of how indigenous nations can cultivate what parts of their culture they want to bring into the future—like environmental stewardship—while being part of a larger community. The website for the project says “Sen̓áḵw demonstrates that reconciliation need not be zero-sum. It will ease Vancouver's housing shortage, will create tens of thousands of square feet of publicly accessible amenities, and will contribute tens of millions of dollars to service improvements in the City of Vancouver. When First Nations utilize their lands for value-creating developments within their jurisdiction, everyone benefits. This project is a legacy for the Squamish Nation, but also for the City of Vancouver - and for all of Canada.”
Why can’t someone be Hawaiian and American, Puerto Rican and American, Squamish and Canadian? “Culture is additive rather than substitutive—there's a place in my head for being an Indian and American and Singaporean, but also for being a globalist cosmopolitan,” Parag Khanna, author of Move and The Future is Asian recently told me. “One doesn't substitute, displace, or undermine the other—at least not for me.”
And we have to recognize that people often want to become part of a larger, more global culture, not because of the culture itself but because of economic or democratic reasons. It is economically and democratically beneficial for Puerto Rico to become a US state, but that doesn’t mean they don’t prefer their Puerto Rican culture. And why can’t they have both?
In his book One Billion Americans,makes the case that we should triple the population of the United States through immigration and childcare support. The book is one of the best I’ve read in a long time and I am very on board with the whole thing, but he points out how many would choose to move to America if they could. “One advantage the United States has over China,” he says, “is that because it is a beacon of freedom to the world rather than an increasingly dystopian oligarchy, there are more than 100 million people who would like to move here.”
And we should let people have access to those benefits if we can. As Rutger Bregman aptly put it in his book Utopia for Realists: “Billions of people are forced to sell their labor at a fraction of the price that they would get for it in the Land of Plenty, all because of borders. Borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history. Inequality gaps between people living in the same country are nothing in comparison to those between separated global citizenries.”
We shouldn’t subjugate people or impose our culture on them going forward but I also don’t think we should exclude people from joining of their accord if they’d prefer it, and maybe that’s how we’ll do things going forward. Not by conquest or colonization, but by choice. Because if people can keep their cultures while gaining access to the benefits of the larger one—like democracy, an economy, a military, etc.—maybe they would.
We shouldn’t do things like take over Ukraine or Taiwan or Hong Kong—that is colonization—and the US certainly isn’t exempt from making moves like that (Nolan points out several from our past). But we can discontinue the practice going forward and I think we’re working on that. If people are allowed to move here of their own accord, and if countries could even become part of ours (or any other) and keep their culture while they were at it, maybe all of our cultures would be much stronger for it. Maybe they’d be more utopian too.
If Mexicans choose to move to the United States or Mexico chooses to become part of the United States; if Americans choose to move to Mexico or America chooses to become part of Mexico, the results are the same: Mexicans might become more American and Americans might become more Mexican, but I also see no reason why Mexico can’t retain their culture in the process. Not because one is colonizing another, but by choice. Because there are whole countries that might want access to our economy or our government and why shouldn’t we let people and countries choose a better life for themselves if they can maintain their culture and their way of life in the process?
But I would love to know your thoughts! Join us in the literary salon for a discussion about the future of culture.👇🏻
Thank you so much for reading,
Postscript: Next week I’ll be diving into another way people can retain their cultures even as we become a more global one, and this is dovetailing back into my capitalism series.
Here are some of my notes from the margins of my research.