34: Kaplan and Pease’s Cultures of United States Imperialism

Cultures of United States Imperialism helped usher in the international turn in American Studies, and got AMS folks thinking about America’s place in the world many years before 9/11 forced pop culture to come to terms with America as an empire, and not a particularly nice one, either.

In her introduction, Kaplan is straightforward: she argues that we cannot understand American culture without looking at the interconnections between internal and external colonization, because in America, empire-building and nation-building go hand-in-hand.  If Deloria argues that Indians are at the heart of American national identity, Kaplan takes that argument a step further and says that empire is at the heart of America; and unlike Deloria, who focuses on cultural play, Kaplan anchors her argument in the very real world of foreign relations, economics, and cultures of subjugating and subjugated peoples.  In other words, taking over other countries and colonizing them is part and parcel of what it means to be America, and it has been that way since the colonial era.

Further, both Kaplan and Pease argue that America’s long history as an imperial power is interconnected with how social divisions like race, class, ethnicity, and gender operate within the United States.  In the 1990s, most American Studies scholars agreed that the US was a heterogeneous, multicultural place; what Kaplan and Pease added to the mix was the idea that colonization happens at home, too.  The same logic that makes it seem perfectly natural for American businesses to set up shop in developing nations where labor is cheaper and labor laws are less strict, for example, keeps immigrants and people of color in poverty in the United States – and vice versa.

While the relationship between internal and external colonization has shifted over time, Pease, Kaplan, and the many interdisciplinary scholars who contributed to Cultures of United States Imperialism make a compelling case for broadening the borders of “America” and looking for the ways in which oppression abroad and oppression at home inform one another.  And their framework was freakishly confirmed after 9/11, when, as Amy Kaplan pointed out in 2003, the realization that America was actually an oppressive imperial power abroad led to increased policing of people of color at home.

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