Ethics & Public Policy Center

The New Colonialism

Published in First Things on November 5, 2020


The bank officer in Accra stared at me across the desk. He seemed intrigued, as if he’d just discovered a new kind of insect. It occurred to me that I had done something to amuse him. I handed him my dollars. He handed me the equivalent in local currency at the official exchange rate. He stamped a form memorializing the transaction. Then he passed it to me so that I could prove my compliance with the law to Ghana’s financial police when I left the country. And then he thanked me with a gigantic, if unsettling, toothy grin. The year was 1981, I was a journalist still relatively new to Africa, and Ghana had recently returned to the embrace of Western capitalism and liberal democracy.

I made the mistake of mentioning this episode to the priest hosting me at his local mission. He laughed until he choked. Only an idiot, he said, would (a) exchange dollars at the official rate and (b) think the government gave a hoot about financial records, even if it had the capacity to track them, which it didn’t. Any persons in Ghana with dollars and brains, he said, exchanged their money on the black market. Even better, if they had any connection to the Church, they used the “gray market” instead, run by the missionaries. It was the best exchange rate around, with an honest administration fee. “You made the bank officer’s day,” said the priest. “You proved, yet again, that white people can be incredibly stupid.”

Ghana, it turns out, was a well-oiled kleptocracy at the time. A grasping elite sucked the wealth from the rest of the country while wrapping itself in the language of Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson. The country was one big poverty-wracked tribute to the “civilizing effect” of colonialism. And lest anyone imagine that “socialism” in Africa was anything but a different brand of Western colonialism, I visited the former Portuguese enclave of Guinea-Bissau just two years later. Buried beneath the new nation’s Marxist-Leninist blather, Paulo Freire’s ruinous left-wing education theories that guaranteed everyone an equally crippling experience in the classroom, and layers of murdered political opponents, the same gang of crooks ran the show with the same catastrophic effect. It’s now a major trans-shipment base for the global illegal drug trade.

With few exceptions, one of them being Christianity, Western colonialism created as many problems in Africa as it solved. The task of benefiting and ennobling the “poor natives” (or, as white settlers often described them in private, the wogs) too often masked an immense European arrogance and a greed for wealth and power.

But here’s the really weird thing: I had forgotten, but suddenly remembered, all this as I watched the election results on November 3. The good news about the heralded Blue Wave blowout is that it didn’t happen. On the evening of November 4, Donald Trump seemed set to lose the White House. But the Senate had a chance of staying red, and the Republicans were poised to pick up a few seats in the House.

Those who voted for Joe Biden seemed less enthused about the Democratic agenda and more intent on removing a president whose eccentric style they disliked. Despite four years of congressional guerrilla warfare, Deep State resistance, bogus allegations, and naked media bias, nearly half the electorate voted against the Biden/Harris ticket: not exactly a ringing mandate. And Biden is enough of a pragmatic opportunist that, once crowned as king, he could moderate his party’s swing to the left. It’s at least possible.

But why did I remember Africa?  I’ve been bothered for the past year by the Democratic party’s hostility toward the Electoral College. The case against the Electoral College is pretty simple: It’s possible, given the distribution of votes in the College among the states, to win the Electoral College and thus the White House, but lose the national popular vote. This seems to violate the whole point of a democratic election.

Yet as Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee noted recently on this site, we don’t live, and by deliberate design of the founders have never livedin a pure democracy. We live in a federal republic with democratic participation, but also checks and balances under the law to restrain popular passion and block the accumulation of inordinate power in any one branch of government. That’s the genius of our system. The various states and their electoral authority exist, in part, precisely to resist gigantism in national government and to prevent the concentration of power in any region, party, or administration. This is the stuff of any basic American civics class. It’s revealing that today’s Democratic party would like us to forget it.

So here’s the point: Hostility toward the Electoral College seems like a small thing. Maybe it is. But it hints at a deeper impatience with our political process. And that strikes me as part of a still deeper, and still largely unarticulated, current of social change. As the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has argued, liberal political institutions depend on belief in equality, individual free will, and human agency. But these are increasingly challenged by emerging science and transformative technologies. Over time, Harari claims, the result will be a new kind of social reality that requires new political expressions. The old institutions may survive and have the same appearance, but their content will be empty or vestigial, or change altogether. Think it can’t happen here? Laugh while you can. There’s a reason Big Tech follows Harari with intense interest. 

What may be coming our way is an odd kind of “new colonialism,” with flyover country—that Dark Continent formerly known as places like Kansas, Alabama, and Tennessee, largely inhabited by reactionary troglodytes—reduced in effective power to mission territory for our enlightened coastal elites; who, after all, are much smarter than the rest of us and have the expert skills to run our complex technocracy.

And of course, they’ll do all this unselfishly, heroically really, for the benefit of us natives. I’ve seen how well that works.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior research associate at the University of Notre Dame.

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