Empires wax and wane, and what we are seeing today is the slow and gradual waning of U.S. empire in the new century. I call this phase of U.S. empire the “security state,” a phase in which the U.S. turns to war as the only means of maintaining its status as the superpower. This book examines, through research in American popular culture, media and law, how Americans, based on race and gender, are dealing with this change as they try to both protest and shore up the power of their country.
The American empire is waning because it refuses to support those in need, citizens and non-citizens. The government is challenged by those who see that it will not come to their aid in times of danger. In particular, this failure is most striking when it comes to citizens of color, and it was clearly visible, for example, in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when the Bush Administration failed to help its citizens. It was not just people in the U.S., but many around the world who saw that failure, adding to the global change in attitudes towards the United States.
I argue that this waning of empire is a consequence of decades of neoliberal policies enacted by U.S. administrations since that of Ronald Reagan. Many scholars have found that neoliberal policies have led to reduction in social safety nets, increases in military and the use of military methods to repress insurgencies and protests internationally and domestically. In addition, privatization of public goods and reduction of taxes have increased inequalities. I argue that this neoliberalism is now at a different stage: governments are now repressing restive and protesting groups by means of authoritarian policies. This moment, which I call “advanced neoliberalism,” is then about both protest and repression, as inequality leads to uprisings among people.
At the same time, individuals in the U.S. believe that as individual Americans they can uphold and maintain U.S. power and their global stature. They do this in several ways that I describe in the chapters of the book.
First, they become humanitarians, voluntourists, and missionaries, hoping to show that Americans are still “good” and want to help others even as the U.S. is waging destructive and dubious wars around the world. The U.S. government supports some of these projects and uses humanitarianism to further its military goals.
Second, individual Americans take on the task of surveillance of their fellow citizens in order to maintain state security. Technology plays a role here. Digital media technologies enable us to surveil our friends, family and neighbors, and even parenting is now more focused on surveillance. Women find empowerment through participation in surveillance and participate in government anti-terrorism projects to protect the security state. Women in the CIA, FBI and police are now staples of television and cinema as empowered agents of the government.
Third, white men are given a special sort of power, that is, the sovereign power to kill that is normally one that only the state can exercise in liberal countries. By virtue of gender and race, white, mainly Christian males are able to possess and use guns in ways that others cannot while Muslims and men of color are targeted by police if they possess guns. White males are protected by police, politicians, laws and can use guns to kill strangers, intimate partners and even themselves.
Despite all these efforts to protect the U.S. and its power, I argue that citizens often end up becoming more insecure, and that U.S. power continues to decline. War seems to be ongoing, gun violence is pervasive, and women and people of color are often rendered more vulnerable by their participation in the security projects of the state. Security is an ongoing and endless project with no end in sight yet it remains powerful because it is an engine of capitalism and state power.
Security is often thought of as a topic for international relations or law and limited to topics such as policing, militarism or terrorism. Over the last decade, there has been a shift in the way many of us outside of the academic discipline of international relations have become engaged in questions of security. We focus on how it affects people in their everyday lives, how it changes the behavior of people in communities and families towards one another, and the costs of the focus on protection. While international relations as an academic discipline does not, with some exceptions, address questions of gender, race or class, I find those are key questions with regard to security.
There is an extended examination of policing and violence in African American communities (though never in so-called “security studies”), but this is of interest also in relation to the wars on terrorism. How do projects of state security against terrorism, a pervasive logic of recent wars, come to shape our lives and change our relationships to each other as citizens and as inhabitants of a region, a country and a planet? Many of us think that we need to be much more critical of this concept of terrorism and security and take the study of security out of the hands of the so-called “security experts.”
Security is an emotion, a feeling of fear and a desire for safety that we as humanists examine as crucial to political life. It changes families, communities, relationships. It sells products and weapons for protection. It maintains the power of masculinity, patriarchy and in a related way, of oligarchy. Feminism has long questioned how the rationale of protection has constrained and controlled women by positioning powerful men as both perpetrator and protector. Security creates fear that can allow authoritarian regimes and many corporations to profit from us. It is also a concept that is so open, because we can never have enough security, so it remains a powerful form of ideological control. It works through surveillance and suspicion of others around us or even of those far away from us. In the U.S., fear of immigrants, Blacks, Muslims, feminists, LGBTQ persons are seen as threats to the heteronormative “American” family and the nation.
Security is also a way to define the contemporary U.S. state and a kind of government that focuses more on state security, and one that uses policing rather than a safety net as a rationale for governing. Instead, the security state uses fear and policing to repress protests and it wages unrelenting war on those inside and outside the country. We see this authoritarianism not just in the U.S., but also in many other regions of the world, though the U.S. case is somewhat different in that it is a superpower and the ways that Americans participate in the security project comes from a particular history of imperialism. As scholars and researchers, we need to think about what this security state is doing to us, and to examine its effects on ordinary people. How is it that we live in a country where little children have to practice lockdown drills in their schools because the government is unable to stop the proliferation of weapons on our streets? We are once again living with the kinds of fears that were engendered during the Cold war, though now what we see are endless wars.
This book comes from almost four decades of studying the effect of empires on ordinary people. I began my research career studying how British colonialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century affected both British and Indian women and created what could be called “imperial culture.” I then turned to studying U.S. imperialism, examining how it alters and shaped immigrants and citizens. My 2005 book, Transnational America, examined how the idea of America circulated around the world through concepts such as human rights, trade in American goods and the attraction of the American dream. In that book, I ended with looking at racism against South Asian Sikhs and Muslims after 9/11. This new book tracks how that context has now changed in the new century, especially as the notion of wars on terror have expanded to more regions around the world. Terrorism is now a concept that so many governments are using to repress their populations even as we don’t know clearly how to define it in non-racist ways. We now have draconian laws and military ventures based on a concept that few can describe clearly.
Readers encountering my book might first turn to the chapter on Hurricane Katrina, which captures the context of the book, both with regard to the problems of a retreating welfare state that treats its citizens as aliens and celebrity and heroic humanitarianism. Other chapters follow this first case study, and build on it by showing how the U.S. security state separates out those it favors and those it discards, and how it treats people of color, African Americans, and Muslims. It also shows how U.S. power is viewed around the world via transnational media corporations, such as CNN, and how the images of New Orleans after the Hurricane also impacted the global stature of the United States. Each chapter addresses a different group impacted by security concerns, and readers might turn to these according to their interests with regards to race, religion or gender. Some might also turn to the chapter on humanitarianism, especially the critique of Greg Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea. Many have read this book in schools and colleges so this section of my book will certainly be of interest to those readers.
I would like people to rethink our concern for security within our families and communities, in the country and internationally. We have spent so much money on militaries and the war on terror and yet we still have serious problems with inequality and violence in this country. Weapons manufacturers, digital media and entertainment corporations obsessively focus on weapons, guns, killing and wars. Violence has long been central to entertainment and the connection between the U.S. military and entertainment industry is a long history. Now digital media has expanded this use of violence, still aligned with the military, but also “securitizing” and militarizing communities and families via new technologies. They use violence to profit from us or to control us. Perhaps we need to be less afraid, less paranoid, especially with regard to the diversity of humans among whom we dwell. We have come to believe that every nation-state should be a territorially bounded entity with a racial and linguistic monoculture inside it. That is an incorrect reading of history and a desire that nurtures racism and violence—even fascism. Being less afraid should be a mantra for us. Being less afraid would stop us from surveilling each other and make us less suspicious. Understanding the histories of race, class, religion, ethnicity, gender and sexuality are steps towards this goal. My goal is to have us consider how to make societies less militaristic and less violent.
My other goal is writing this book is to understand that humanitarianism is not a solution to the world’s problems. So much research has now made clear that humanitarianism is at most a band-aid to problems which are complex and large-scale. What we see today around the world are the effects of histories of colonialism on regions of the world that were used mainly for extraction of humans and resources and left in terrible condition. This extraction of people and resources continues—mining corporations are still literally impoverishing indigenous communities globally—and it benefits the wealthy. Humanitarianism cannot correct this. Humanitarianism is about the power of the humanitarian and it shows the inequality, often racial, between the giver and receiver. It simply gives wealthy people, and mostly white Westerners, more power to choose whom, when and where they give help, rather than ending the predatory practices of extraction that creates violence and danger for impoverished communities. This is not to indict advocacy or volunteer work since these are essential to a democracy, but I am concerned that what was the work of the state (providing care and a safety net for all) is now being replaced by volunteer work that is often sporadic, and with little oversight or accountability. Volunteer work should not be a resume builder or something that people do while on vacation or when they retire or if they feel generous or guilty. Advocacy and resistance is work that we should do continually in our everyday lives to force governments to do what is necessary, not just as citizens but as inhabitants of any place on this planet.
Inderpal Grewal is Chair and Professor in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, Faculty in the South Asia Council, Ethnicity, Race and Migration Studies Program, and Affiliate Faculty in American Studies and Anthropology at Yale University. She is author of Home and Harem: Nation, Gender, Empire and Cultures of Travel (Duke, 1996), Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms (Duke, 2005), and Saving the Security State: Exceptional Citizens in Twenty-first century America (Duke, 2017). She is co-editor (with Caren Kaplan) of Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices (University of Minnesota Press, 1995), Introduction to Women’s Studies: Gender in a Transnational World (Mc-Graw Hill, 2001, 2005) and (with Victoria Bernal) of Theorizing NGO’s: Feminism, Neoliberalism and the State (Duke, 2014). Her areas of research include feminist theory, cultural studies of South Asia and its diasporas, British and U.S. imperialism, and global feminist movements.