Progressive Racists

Settler moves to innocence are those strategies or positionings that attempt to relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving up land or power or privilege, without having to change much at all…Settler moves to innocence are hollow, they only serve the settler

E. Tuck & K.W. Yang

This theft of the body accompanying the theft of land, resources, politics, and histories of the Other has always needed a humanitarian and civilizing narrative to cover up the savagery of its reality. It was always framed and justified as being for ‘the natives’ good, done for their “development” and to save them from themselves.

In colonial rhetoric, the rape and pillage of other people was always a progressive, liberal, benign, and charitable act because it brought development, education, law, government, culture, and technology.

As John Bruce, a British historiographer, once argued.

The pace of civilisation would be quickened beyond all examples. The courts, the knowledge, and the manners of Europe would be brought to their doors and forced by an irresistible moral pressure on their acceptance. The happiness of the human race would thus be prodigiously augmented.” [Quoted in Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, Duke University Press, 2010:124].

The West cannot, of course, be this crass and ill-mannered anymore. It may hold onto the prejudices of White supremacy and cultural superiority, but it has to veil these beliefs behind a more polite, sophisticated, and civilized discourse. US media’s use of the myths of liberalism, humanitarianism, developmentalism, feminism, and even environmentalism gives them a language and a frame of analysis under which they can bury their ideological and near-fanatical commitments to US exceptionalism, i.e., the right to intervene, invade, interfere, and bully other nations into complying with its dictates and desires because it is for the good of the world which does not seem to understand.

As Maximilian C. Fortes once pointed out, “Little of what we encounter in the present is either new or ‘original’: much of the ‘foreign policy’ language of elite geopolitical strategists is derived from much older sources and prior histories of conquest and attempted dominance.” [Maximilian C: Forte, “Land, Labour, and Power in a Colonial Catholic Mission in Trinidad,”, February 4, 2020]. In the (post)colonial era, as overt racism and colonial repression became untenable, new discourses and new methods evolved.

Humanitarianism, developmentalism, and, most recently, feminism are ruses used by the West to help retain political power, military domination, and privileged access to resources and labor. Sara Ahmed calls this a “progressive racism,” one by which “colonization and the theft of land, labor, people, and resources are understood as being for others.” [Sara Ahmed, “Progressive Racism,” feministkilljoys, May 30, 2016 online here: (last accessed January 2021)]. It is racism designed to leave the white colonizer in a position of power and as the only “one who is active/heroic/giving to the others…Progressive racism helps us to understand how white subjectivity is crafted as heroic in the first place.” [Ibid.

Imperialism, otherwise known as colonialism, is a collaborative practice. US media firmly believes in it, insists on it, and recasts it as benign, benevolent, and good. But imperialism isn’t just war or conquest, but veiled behind journalism’s discourses of democracy, free markets, women’s rights, and freedom of speech. These liberal discourses are used extensively by journalists to structure their narratives and hide the darker realities of conquest, extraction, exploitation, and violence that drive US political, military, and intelligence agendas and interests.

However, gone are the days of invasions, possessions, settlements, and repressions of a people and land by a colonial power. Gone are the days of “evil” white colonialists oppressing and exploiting black and brown bodies. Today, imperialism is a joint venture pitting a national elite against its people as it collaborates in projects of “economic development,” free market economy, commodity trade, finance capitalism, resource extraction, “democracy,” and other such liberal signposts.

Post-colonial elites often have more profound, more profitable relationships and investments in imperial metropolises than their nations of origin or birth. It is not just because of a desire for personal gain and profit. It is equally because of a profound failure of the post-colonial political and cultural imaginaries. “Whereas the anti-colonial nationalist struggle questions the colonial hierarchy of Europeans and non-Europeans by according ‘Orientals’ and Africans agency,” Joseph Massad has argued, “it fails to question the colonial epistemology of governance.” [Joseph Massad, Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan, Columbia University Press, 2001:7].

A colonial epistemology leaves the new national elite–economically weak, lacking local roots and political representation–dependent and pleading on former colonial powers. Their ideas of progress, development, nation, nationalism, identity, and self-sufficiency relied on colonial models and ways of being modern, where “the modern is confronted as a tragic condition, a condition in which there are…only tragic alternatives.” [David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment, Duke University Press, 2004:164].

Imperialism operates not simply through war but equally through supra-national regulatory institutions such as the WTO, IMF, The World Bank, and the hundreds of international NGOs that have become powerful actors on the global stage. They play an essential role in setting the priorities of national governments, their economies, trade and budgetary practices, human rights priorities, legal agendas, and even the nature of welfare programs for the citizens. [Akhil Gupta & Aradhana Sharma, “Globalization and Postcolonial States,” Current Anthropology Volume 47, Number 2, April 2006; Inderpal Grewal, Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms, Duke University Press, 2005].

As Achille Mbembe has pointed out, these institutions carry out:

Direct interventions in domestic economic management, credit control, implementing privatizations, laying down consumption requirements, determining import policies, agricultural programs and cutting costs–or even direct control of the treasury. [Achille Mbembe, On The Postcolony, University of California Press, 2001:70–78].

These institutions undo the idea of “national sovereignty” and question our assumptions about what “sovereignty” even means. These international NGOs and institutions are sometimes naked arms of US and Western imperial priorities.

[For a selection of readings on this topic see Didier Fassin, Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present, University of California Press, 2012; Pramod K. Nayar, Colonial Voices: The Discourses of Empire, Wiley & Sons, 2012; Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia, Human Rights in History, Belknap Press, 2012; Giuliano Garavini, After Empires: European Integration, Decolonization, and the Challenge from the Global South 1957-1986, Oxford University Press, 2012; Gilbert Rist, The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith, Zed Books, 2006; Teresa Hayter, Aid As Imperialism, Penguin Books, 1971; Didier Fassin & Mariella Pandolfi (Eds), Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions, Zone Books, 2010; Achille Mbembe, On The Postcolony, University of California Press, 2001.].

It wasn’t an afterthought when, in 2001, General Colin Powell brought together prominent NGO leaders and let them understand the critical role they would be playing in the administration’s war effort. Speaking at the “National Foreign Policy Conference for Leaders of NGOs,” Powell emphasized that it was important for the administration to maintain the “best relationship with the NGOs who are such a force multiplier (emphasis mine) for us, such an important part of our combat team (emphasis mine).” [“Remarks to the National Foreign Policy Conference for Leaders of Nongovernmental Organizations,” Secretary Colin L. Powell, Loy Henderson Conference Room, U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC, October 26, 2001, online here: last accessed November 2023.].

Imperialism’s practices – anti-democratic, covert, illegal, violent–contradict and undermine all the stated and celebrated ideals of liberalism – the rule of law, democracy, freedom of speech, gender equality, justice for all–Western media generally claims to represent and defend. Journalists celebrate democracy, gender and racial equality, freedom of speech, and equality before the law. Yet, they do it by consistently supporting and justifying the anti-democratic, repressive, violent, and illegal actions of US political power. They erase the destructive and debilitating impact of imperial practices or recast them as a” return of the American discovery of their missionary spirit…[which]…manifests in everything from quiet kindness to patronizing advice to armored divisions.” [Bill Keller, “The Return of America’s Missionary Impulse,” New York Times, April 15, 2011].

Journalists are willing megaphones of an empire that “thrives on the stories it tells itself about liberty and democracy, about ‘the end of history or ‘the clash of civilizations.’” [Hamid Dabashi, Brown Skin, White Mask, Pluto Press, 2011:128]. They write from within a Western liberal tradition that sees itself as progressive, tolerant, equal, just, and inevitable.

They write from within a mythical West home of gender equality, the rule of law, democracy, capitalism, free speech, and tolerance. They accept Western liberalism “as a way of being, feeling, thinking and knowing that is as non-optional in the contemporary West as a polytheist worldview was for the ancient Greeks.” [Wendy Brown, “Idealism, materialism, secularism?” The Immanent Frame, October 22, 2007, is here: (last accessed December 2023).].

To achieve all this, the US media expects and demands “robust” and “muscular” actions from the US political leadership and its allies because it believes that the values it defends are worth the violence they project. [Alan Macleod, “‘Muscular’ Foreign Policy: Media Codeword for Violence Abroad,” FAIR Media, August 28, 2020.] It supports or obfuscates violent domination of other nations, particularly those that it feels pose a threat to “US interests.” And it does so regardless of the color of the political administration in power.

For US media, the US empire is a “gift of modernity or even as the invitation to others to become human as well to become modern.” [Sara Ahmed, “Progressive Racism,” feministkilljoys, May 30, 2016 online here: (last accessed January 2021)].

In a typically scathing critique, writer and political commentator Caitlin Johnstone asked why it was that US media had not criticized the brutal and inhumane–or as she called them, ‘depraved’–policies of President Donald Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Her answer:

Mike Pompeo’s depravity is the “normal” kind. The kind we’re all meant to be used to. The psychotic, mass-murdering American exceptionalist imperialism that the billionaire news media exists to protect and facilitate. [Caitlin Johnstone, “Psycho Pompeo Exits With Nary A Scratch Of Media Criticism On Him,” January 19, 2020.]

Johnstone’s point is simple: even an extremely saber-rattling Secretary of State like Mike Pompeo is within what US media considers reasonable and necessary American practices. The media’s “neutrality” and “objectivity” are firmly planted within a commitment to US exceptionalism and their belief in the West’s cultural superiority.

Progressive imperialism–the offshoot of progressive racism– insists that many must die so that a chosen few can work to become Western. Hence, US media can repeatedly press on the US right and expectation to dominate other nations and do so by any means necessary. They are constantly raising the alarm of a US withdrawal as a sign of national and international weakness and or insisting that a President’s top priority should be to “restore America’s relations with its allies, for the sake of our democratic ideals and our vital interests,” a euphemism for a more aggressive confrontation of China, North Korea and more participation in NATO defense planning. [Fred Kaplan, “What Will Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy Look Like?” Slate, November 12, 2020].

Their commitment to US power is a death wish. It matters not that NATO is a war-making machine responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in Afghanistan and Libya. Or that Iran is being economically strangled even at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, further exacerbating suffering and deaths in the country. US political leaders–responsible for the death of millions–are never “blood-soaked,” but people who resist the USA’s right to pillage and rape another nation are.

To perform this magic trick, US media adopts specific tactics when writing about and from US geographies of war.