Sunday, August 18, 2019
The Greenland Conversation We Should Be Having
One of my favorite reads this summer was Daniel Immerwahr's How To Hide An Empire, an episodic history of America's overseas empire. The book continually emphasizes an uncomfortable fact that was recently exposed by Hurricane Maria: there are millions of American citizens living in island territories who lack proper representation, and suffer for it. Beyond those places, like American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam etc there are American military bases around the world that are de facto American colonial possessions.
One of these is Thule Air Base in Greenland. Established during World War II, during the early days Cold War it became essential as a potential launching point for nuclear-armed bombers to strike the Soviet Union. Evidently in the late 1940s the United States had offered to buy the entire island from Denmark. The Danish government refused, and this also came at a time when such blatant imperialism was no longer the norm in world affairs.
Flash forward seventy years, and Donald Trump has evidently been floating the idea of purchasing the island, which is not for sale. It's the kind of ridiculous proposal that fits so well with his infantile mindset. Born into privilege he loves nothing more than buying things, and assumes anything can be bought. His love of size must make him salivate over purchasing the biggest island in the world. His childish nationalism, a throwback to a much older time, still thinks in terms of territorial expansion. (Not a surprise considering that his trade policy is reheated mercantilism.)
There's been a lot of discussion of this in the media, but I have been disappointed at the unwillingness to grapple with the deeper issues of American empire it raises. The response has either been laughter at the surreal nature of the proposal or taking it seriously and seeing if it can be done. So little discussion concerns whether it OUGHT to be done from a human rights, as opposed to strategic, standpoint.
In fact, plenty of Trump supporters have already warmed up to the idea. A friend who hails from Tennessee and has lots of ultra-conservative friends and family posted something on Facebook about how a local radio DJ was touting the colonization of Greenland. My friend was shocked, but a bunch of people chimed in below about how great they thought this idea was. The same people who would take him to task for being pro-gun control and talked about the need for guns to ward off government tyranny were totally in favor of subjecting a group of people to American rule against their will.
If you understand guns as totems of settler colonialism, the contradiction makes perfect sense, of course.
Instead of chasing the shiny ball of Trump's childish fancies, we should be talking about American empire. Particularly, we need to recognize that the mainland's relationship to its territories is entirely inconsistent with democracy. We need to discuss the history behind this, how the Supreme Court's "Insular Cases" used racist reasoning to deny full citizenship. Hurricane Maria showed the price of inaction. We should resolve that something like that never happens again.