The United States in the Territorial Trap : Chomsky and the Great Satan

I face a serious dilemma when it comes to sorting out my feelings about the USA. There is no society in the world that I admire more, in almost all respects, and at times even more than my own. But when it comes to the USA’s role in the world, as the chief actor on the stage of global politics, there is perhaps no state whose choices and actions I find to be more detrimental to global health. This can, obviously, lead to too many problems! How should one handle this?

This dilemma is, actually, a classical case of the territorial trap, a concept first spoken of by, I believe, the political geographer John Agnew. This phenomenon, the territorial trap, is a by-product of the age of the nation state. Not a by-product actually but a willful creation of the nation-state. The logic of the nation-state is, simply, that the state is one for the nation, by the nation and of the nation. The state naturally overlaps, and perfectly, the natural boundaries of the natural nation. Where it doesn’t, those territories are contested and always open to be fought over. So, it is proper, if we follow this logic, to associate the nation with the state and the state with the nation. When we refer to a nation-state, then, by it’s name, we mean the society, that is the nation, which is the state.

Don’t blame me if this seems confusing. It is meant to be – that, and deluding.

The logic of the territorial trap is so pervasive in our age that we don’t even stop to think that there is a fundamental distinction between a state and the society it governs. So, it’s natural in political discourse to say, for example, I hate India. But what do we really hate? Do we hate the Republic of India, the so called nation-state of India, or the people of India? The logic of looking beyond the territorial trap begs of us to stop and think.

Now, because the territorial trap acts to delude us we often collapse these distinctions into an all encompassing hate, or love, or whatever else. In doing so, we ignore the complexity of the world. This ignorance can generate dangerous ideas that don’t deserve to exist.

In my view, understanding this concept, and comprehending its implications is very important for our times. If we, on our view of the world, learn to avoid this collapsing of multi-layered realities, of state, nation, society, etc. and seek to understand their individual interests and motivations the world can, truly, become a better and more sympathetic place. Many of us will be surprised to find some strange alliances that exist beyond the illusory boundaries of today. This is a vision and a hope for a truly cosmopolitan society. Recognizing the artificiality of the nation-state, it’s nature as what Benedict Anderson called an imagined community, is the first step towards this. In truth, though this may sound too utopian there is one community that we belong to beyond which all are imagined, that is humanity.

Coming back to my troubled relationship with the USA. I do not want to dwell on it much beyond the fact that it is the role of the USA in hegemonizing the world in the clutches of the neo-liberal empire that I find so repulsive. In fact, in these past few years as I understand more and more the sins of the neo-liberal empire my feelings of intense disgust have only been amplified. But there is an irony of sorts here. I have been able to understand the true nature of this neo-liberal empire only due to the brilliant and brave scholarship of so many American scholars.

This is just one example of our, I use this word intentionally, fraught relationship with our dear superpower of the world. We hate it for what it is, but love it what it is. The dilemma of the sort I mentioned before also stems from this love-hate relationship when we seek to take it a step further, that is to say, when we try to answer for ourselves – what really is the USA – the Great Satan or Noam Chomsky? Well, the answer I believe, is that it is both. It is both and a million other things. But one thing for sure is that it is no one thing.

The USA is a cruel reminder to me, personally, of the dark last century, of colonialism, imperialism and empire. In an age when the advancements in human technology – human not Western technology – were bringing different, disparate worlds closer and closer the ideologies of difference divided humanity on so many arbitrary axes that I doubt we’ll ever be able to recover from their after-effects.

However, that age was unique in a sort of civilizational consensus, I use this term for the purpose of elucidation only, in the West about the benign nature of its hegemony. The USA is different. Nowhere is the hegemony of its empire challenged and questioned more than in the USA itself. This, finally, might be its redemption. Might be for us all.

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