From Nation State to Empire State: A Radical History of How We Got to Trump

We air the speech given by Nikhil Pal Singh at an event sponsored by the Lannan Foundation on September 26, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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Most analysis of Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency in 2016 focuses on immediate causes and, of course, its effects. In a recent speech, NYU history professor Nikhil Pal Singh took a longer historical view, sketching three arcs of U.S. history that have yielded the durable commitments to racism, militarism, and unequal class power that have sharpened over the past two decades. Considering the historical development of the United States as an empire-state, rather than as a nation-state, he argues, is essential to understanding what it has meant, and what it might mean going forward, to bend the future toward greater equality and justice – both in the United States and in its relationship to the wider world. He argues that the election of Trump and the failure of Hillary Clinton may be the clearest signals yet, of the decline of U.S. empire. Rather than a cause for pessimism, he says, this moment is an opportunity to enliven a new politics and begin a new story — but only if we are honest about our past. Singh is the author of “Black is a Country” and “Race and America’s Long War.” He is also the founding co-director of NYU’s Prison Education Project. This speech was delivered on September 26 at the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The event was sponsored by the Lannan Foundation, which granted Intercepted permission to share it with our audience.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Jeremy Scahill: I’m Jeremy Scahill coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City, and this is a special bonus episode of Intercepted.

[Music Interlude.]

JS: Most analysis of Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency in 2016 focuses on immediate causes and of course now, the effects. Well, last week I had a chance to do an event with someone who has been on the show a couple of times: NYU Professor Nikhil Pal Singh. He’s the author of the books “Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy” and “Race and America’s Long War.” He’s also the founding director of NYU’s Prison Education Program.

This was an event in Santa Fe, New Mexico, sponsored by the Lannan Foundation, and it was held at the historic Lensic Theater. As I sat in the audience listening to Nikhil’s incredible historical speech, I thought I have to share this with our Intercepted audience. Taking a longer historical view, Nikhil stretches three arcs of U.S. history that have yielded the durable commitments to racism, militarism, and unequal class power that have sharpened over the past two decades in this country. Considering the historical development of the United States as an empire state rather than as a nation state, he argues that it’s essential to understanding what it has meant and what it might mean going forward to bend the future towards greater equality and justice both in the United States and in its relationship to the wider world. The election of Donald Trump and the failure of Hillary Clinton may be, Nikhil argues, the clearest signals yet of the decline of U.S. empire. Rather than a cause for pessimism, Nikhil argues that this moment is an opportunity to enliven a new politics and begin a new story, but only if we’re honest about our past.

Here is professor Nikhil Pal Singh.

Nikhil Pal Singh: We are the products of our past. And not knowing that past condemns us to repeat it. It’s been said by a very famous theorist of the nation-state, that nations live and survive by forgetting. And that’s Ernest Renan who wrote this in the late 19th century. But what Renan didn’t say, was that forgetting is usually about covering over a crime. It’s usually a prerogative of power and privilege. And some are compelled to remember, usually those who are the victims of those societies that go on in their continued forgetting and covering over and laundering of the crimes they have committed.

And obviously, I say this to you tonight at a very powerful moment in which that is exactly what is at stake in the confirmation hearings that are going on for the U.S. Supreme Court. Will we be allowed to remember? Will those who have been traumatized be allowed to be heard? Will their stories get told? Or will they once again be covered over, silenced, forgotten? This is what’s at stake right now. And I think we have an incredible opportunity because we know so much more now than we did before.

Now when I talk about forgetting, I’m not just talking about what’s in the past, but about ignoring what has been hidden in plain sight. What has been hidden in plain sight? This is a country that has been involved in a forever war. Most of my students at NYU do not know a time when the country has not been at war. And yet nobody talks about it. It’s as if sometimes it’s not even happening. We live in a country that has built the largest penal complex in human history. And yet do we see the prisons? Do we see the damage that’s done to the communities from which people in prison are taken? And we live in an ecology that is under siege. I was reading about the rivers flowing out of North Carolina into the sea. And it’s visible from outer space, from NASA cameras: the effluvia of hog feces, and chicken parts, and coal ash that’s flowing into the Atlantic Ocean as we speak. And yet, it is all hidden in plain sight and it is all part of the accumulated wreckage of what we have not been allowed to see, and know, and remember. And last, of course, we face the cultures of corruption and impunity extending from elite dorm rooms to newsrooms, to corporate boardrooms, to judicial chambers that are now being exposed. If we are willing to see what has happened and draw the right conclusions from it.

Now clearly, we have a president who embodies all of this and more. But at the outset at least I don’t want to dwell on Trump. I want to think longer and harder about how we got here. What are the arcs of history that define our present state of forgetting?

The first arc is the arc that begins with the founding of the United States and it’s an arc that also begins with slavery, with land theft, and with colonization. In the early republic, 20-25% of the population were African slaves. In many ways, the American revolution is less about the vaunted freedom from taxation without representation than about the freedom to accumulate more slaves, and the freedom to dispossess more of the indigenous land than was allowed under the British crown. And what we see at the origins of the American republic is the accelerated development of the institution of slavery, both the overseas slave trade, which is going to be in its waning decades, and the beginning of an internal slave trade, which is going to last through the civil war, and the relentless land hunger that is going to drive westward expansion and indigenous dispossession.

Ten out of the first 12 American presidents owned slaves. And these really are the things that we didn’t learn or, at least, I didn’t learn in my history books. And I know there are a lot of high school students here tonight and I hope you’re learning some of this because this is an important part of what we need to know. Not to simply condemn or even to litigate the past, but to understand how the past is palpably present in so many ways — how these errors and crimes continue to shape and inform the society that we live in. This country was founded on two great crimes that, in turn, engendered a long inner war. And that inner war is at the foundation of the violent history of American policing and the violent history of American militarism that we still are bedeviled with today.

Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Great Charter of American Freedom, had this to say about slaveholding and slaves, “We can neither hold on … nor safely let go.” Slavery, he said, is like a wolf that we have by the ear. “We can neither hold onto him nor safely let him go. Justice [is in] one scale, [and] self-preservation [in] the other.” And American slaveholders and American politicians ever since Jefferson had been choosing self-preservation over justice. They continue to hold the wolf by the ear. And they continue to make the wrong choice.

Oftentimes when people talk about the past, they say, “Well that’s just how it was then, these were the standards of the time,” and so on and so forth, “and we can’t judge these men and sometimes women by the standards of the present.” But the thing is, if you read the archives of the past, if you read the words of these men, mostly men, mostly white men, they knew they were committing crimes. In a letter to Jefferson, John Jay wrote that the Indians are being killed “by our people in cold blood and no satisfaction given, nor are they pleased with the avidity with which we [seek to] acquire their lands.” They knew that crimes were being committed in their name and yet they chose to hold the wolf for fear of losing themselves.

We are sometimes told that the United States has never been an empire. I don’t know if you remember this, but right after the launching of the Iraq War in 2003, Donald Rumsfeld was asked by a reporter, “is this an imperial action?” He said, “Empire? We have never been an empire. I don’t know why you would even ask the question.” And it’s one of those great formulations because essentially what Rumsfeld does, is not only say that we have never been an empire but to rule out the validity of even asking the question. This is what I mean by the layers upon layers of forgetting, sanctioned forgetting, sanctioned ignorance, about who we are. But if we think about this arc, this first arc that goes through slavery and settlement and colonization, what we see is that at the end of the closing of the territorial frontier, at the end of the 19th century, the United States embarks on a new history of expansionism into the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Almost immediately following the last Indian wars, the U.S. goes on to fight one of the first major colonial counterinsurgencies of the 20th century in the Philippines, which leaves [according to some estimates] as many as 1 million Filipinos dead over the course of a decade, and introduces things into the lexicon of military tactics such as torture. And what was the torture that was favored in the U.S. Philippine War? I wonder if anyone knows: The water cure. The water cure, which is essentially waterboarding. It engenders huge public outcry — hearings are held about atrocities and war crimes. This is what I mean about being condemned to repeat. I never learned about the Philippine War until I went to graduate school.

Expansion into the Caribbean and the Pacific created a whole new map making craze. And the maps, if you look at geography textbooks from the early 20th century, show something called the Greater America or the Greater United States.

In Greater America, what you see is the Philippines, parts of the Caribbean, the hemisphere over which the United States reigned as a kind of informal imperial power. And even in 1940 when the population of the United States was 132 million people, it held almost 20 million people outside the United States in these overseas territories in a state of subjection. Combined that with the 12 million African Americans held in [a state of] second-class citizenship and the millions of Mexicans and indigenous people and Asians who were ineligible to become citizens or in various states of alienage. And you’re still looking at a situation in which 20-25 percent of the country, much like at the founding, is held in a state of subjection, governed without their consent. That in my view, is the definition of what it means to be an empire. So 1940 is not that long ago. And, if we begin by talking about something in the distant past, we’re seeing how it carries forward.

So that brings me to my second historical arc. And this will be somewhat more familiar to all of us. And that’s the historical arc that begins with what we call the post-war period. Postwar — it’s a funny kind of euphemism. We all know what we’re talking about, right? World War II. The post-war. It’s an interesting formulation because we think we live in the post-war, but we actually live in the permanent war and yet we narrate it back always to this moment of World War II. And why do we do that? Because World War II is thought of as a good war. But one of the reasons World War II is thought of as a good war is because it was a war that was fought against a monstrous evil, namely Nazi Germany. And it was a war that was fought in the name of democracy. And it was a war that was fought with the promise that we were entering a period in which there would be new norms of world behavior.

Some of the documents that come out of WWII are some of the greatest documents of the 20th century. The Atlantic Charter, which promises self-determination to all peoples. The New Deal Bill of Rights, in which the Roosevelt administration promises to build on The New Deal with a promise of guaranteed health care, housing, and employment for all Americans. A Universal Declaration of human rights as a charter for all the world’s people, a document that’s meant to stand against the evils of racism. There’s even what the Roosevelt administration called in the run-up to World War II, a “good neighbor policy” towards Latin America — where there’s the recognition that the history of military intervention and gunboat diplomacy is now illegitimate. Sumner Welles, who is the undersecretary of state in World War II, uses almost this exact phrase in 1942. He says we are witnessing “the death of white supremacy on the planet.” That is 1942. That’s a U.S. State Department official making a pronouncement that reflects upon the collapse of the French Empire in Southeast Asia, the collapse of the Dutch empire, the impending collapse of the British empire, and saying there’s a new world a-coming.

“New World A-Coming” was a book written by Roi Ottley, who was an African American journalist in Harlem [working for the Amsterdam News]. The new world a-coming was going to be the world that saw the end of fascism, the end of colonialism, and the end of racism. These were the promises that came out of World War II. And even imperial statesman like Henry Stimson, who was the secretary of war during World War II, and who wrote a very interesting essay right at the end of the war entitled The Challenge to Americans, where he emphasized that the American people were entering a period, one in which the United States would need to develop a new relationship with the world and a new relationship to itself and to its own history.

But not so fast. So what happens [to the promise of a new world]? Well, of course before the ink was even dry on the Atlantic Charter, (and you can go to the archives and see these notations that Winston Churchill, the cosignatory with Franklin Roosevelt made in the margins): It was clear that it was not meant to apply to the dominions of the British empire.

And then if you read the Charter, one of the interesting things about it is we all know it as the document that promises self-determination, of course, these exceptions are going to be smuggled in, but you don’t know, probably, that the fourth point of the Atlantic Charter, and maybe you’ll fact check me on that and it’s not exactly four, maybe it’s five: Is the access of all nations to all the raw materials of the world that are needed for their economic prosperity. So what is that about? That’s about how we [the world’s dominant powers] are going to be able to continue in spite of the prospects of national sovereignty and self-determination to be able to get what we need for our capitalist machine.

Now within the U.S., there’s further debate about the nature of postwar power. Henry Stimson — who is getting quite old, witness to the dropping of the atomic bomb on the Japanese, and is filled with remorse and regret about it — enters a cabinet meeting with Harry Truman soon after Roosevelt’s death. And he says to Truman that we must share information about nuclear weapons with the Soviet Union. If we don’t do so, we will encourage an arms race of “a feverish and desperate character.” Stimpson goes on to observe in a famous line: “The only way to make someone trustworthy is to trust them.” It’s a remarkable moment. Henry Wallace — who was at that time the secretary of commerce and who had been the vice president before he was ousted in the Roosevelt administration — called it the most dramatic cabinet meeting in all his years in Washington.

Wallace argued for Stimson’s position, as did Dean Acheson. Although Acheson would later recant his position. The person that opposed them though was then Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal [soon to be the first U.S. Secretary of Defense and architect of the Pentagon.] And this is essentially what Forrestal said and this was the argument that won the day: ‘The Russians are like the Japanese. They are oriental in their thinking and they are only attuned to the language of force. The bomb and the knowledge that produced it are the property of the American people.’

Forrestal went on to make another similar kind of argument about the Japanese mandated islands that the United States had won during the war, arguing that the islands needed to be held in perpetuity for they were ‘won with our blood.’  And so here you have the moment, where you’ve promised the end of colonialism and the end of white supremacy and what are you doing? You are seizing new colonies, which are then going to be links in the chain of a new empire of bases, and the staging ground for American nuclear testing for the next decade at the expense of all the Pacific Islanders living across that region.

It’s Forrestal’s protege George Kennan, who would author the single most influential policy leading to almost half a century of Cold War. And the policy, of course, is known under the term containment. But underneath the containment of the Soviet Union, Kennan offered a more brutal and frank rationale. And he outlined this in a policy memo that he authored in 1948, “We have 50% of the world’s wealth and 6.3% of its population. Our task and the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our security.” Now, does that sound like self-determination? Does that sound like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Does that even sound like a New Deal Bill of Rights? No, it doesn’t sound like any of those things. The aspirational dreams of a society centered on the demands of the demos, which actually both the United States and the Soviet Union promised in different ways is going to be truncated and traduced in this new great power rivalry.

Of course, these forms of power engendered resistance, much as slavery engendered abolition, and [expansion and] settlement engendered the continued “fight for the line” as the struggle for Native sovereignty was often described, and just as colonialism engendered on-going anti-colonial insurgencies. After World War II, social movements lifted by new aspirations for freedom accelerated and won important victories. The long civil rights movement that began with the struggle to integrate war industries in the United States in 1941 [is an example]. It’ll take 20 years, but it will win significant victories. The decolonization struggles which are going to start even before World War II are another example. You might remember that important moment where Ho Chi Minh sends telegrams to the Truman administration saying [in effect], “we expect that in light of the Atlantic Charter that the United States will be on our side in our struggle against the French.” Of course, that didn’t turn out to be the case. The United States was already ferrying French combat troops, many of whom had collaborated with the Nazis, back to Southeast Asia in 1946. And American sailors who want to come home are saying, “why are we doing this?” But the Vietnamese would mount 20 years of resistance in another long war that in which they eventually prevailed, winning their sovereignty.

This is a period in which social democratic experiments to expand the boundaries of the welfare state, to make it responsive to the needs of people to their health, to their ability to find gainful employment, to their longevity after they can no longer work. These promises are also being expanded and won in part through the labor movement and the civil rights movement. And of course, most of all, in many ways, coming out of all of these movements, especially in the United States, is the struggle for gender equality and sexual equality, which is going to reach a kind of a new intensity in the 1960s, but which we are clearly still struggling to live out and realize the promise of in our period.

In fact, we might note — and this is something I tell my students and something that I think again puts into context where we are in the present — that the United States only actually became a liberal democracy in 1965 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. That’s only a little more than 50 years ago. So when we think of this country in American exceptionalist terms, as the greatest democracy in the history of humanity, what are we really talking about?

In light of what I’ve said already about the previous arcs of history that doesn’t really get born out. In 1965, maybe the claim begins to have some plausibility. You finally ended a century and a half of commitment to black subjugation. You finally ended a century and a half commitment to whites only immigration policy. This is a pivotal moment obviously for the country. It’s the moment in which I was born, not in the United States, but in India. And my parents emigrated here three years later under a more favorable immigration law. But when we think of the brevity of America’s experiment with liberal democracy, then maybe it puts into a better light, into a clearer light, some of the challenges we are facing now.

For the counter-revolution that men like Forrestal and Kennan envisioned at the end of World War II was only just gathering steam. What had led the U.S. into the war in Vietnam had obviously engendered a tremendous resistance as well. But in the war in Vietnam, many of the hopes and dreams of the Civil Rights Movement, of welfare state expansion, of changing the course of the history of the United States also ran aground. This was the moment I think where we got one of the most profound diagnoses of what ails us. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the end of his life argued that the United States had been on the wrong side of world revolution. And he said that the promises of the great society, which was [Lyndon] Johnson’s experiment to expand the welfare state and particularly to bring southern blacks who had been excluded from the first New Deal into a broader conception of the social welfare project.

But the Vietnam war in many ways put an end to all of that. And when King came out against the war in 1967 — one year to the day before he was shot down — he pronounced on what he called the interrelated evils in American society: Racism, materialism, and militarism. Racism. Materialism. Militarism. The first, the direct descendant of the slave past. The second, perhaps, we could say the product of a country driven by a dispossessive land hunger. And the third, an integral part of the legacy of America’s overseas colonization. King was saying that we are still living out this arc of history now in a new form, in a new moment. And he left a challenge that, I think, still constellates the present that we still have not met. But at that very moment, the counter-revolutionary project of the right was also in its ascendancy. And the wars that had been fought abroad would now come home with a vengeance.

One of the things we begin to see at the end of the 60s and in the early 70s is the coalescence of a series of arguments about what was wrong with American society. And that series of arguments is going to shape in many ways the world that we now live in. Samuel Huntington — who was a political scientist, policy intellectual and a very important contributor to the Vietnam War’s rationale — made a report to the trilateral commission in the early 1970s, where he described what he called an “excess of democracy.” “The people,” Huntington wrote, “no longer felt the same obligation to obey those they previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise, character, and talents.” Huntington lamented the days it was possible to “govern the country with the cooperation of a relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers.” He wrote this all down. I’m not making it up. And it was a high-level report. So Huntington even at this early date had a diametrically opposite reading of the significance of the 1960s. Not that the United States had finally, at last, become a liberal democracy, but the becoming a liberal democracy was itself going to be a problem for ruling the empire going forward.

Too many people were starting to have too many expectations about their entitlements, to be heard, to be fed, to be listened to, to be recognized in the public square. This was a problem for Huntington. Lewis Powell, soon to be named by Richard Nixon to the U.S. Supreme Court had much the same idea. And in a memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1973, Powell called for a “business counter-offensive” against the challenges to authority that had emerged throughout the decade, but particularly the unrest and unruliness that had been shown by organized labor and by an emerging environmental movement.

If you go back and read Powell’s memo, he is particularly alarmed by one book. A book by Charles Reich called the “Greening of America.” And he’s really made crazy by it. He says essentially, “you know, we’ve got to stamp this out. This kind of thing will be a huge problem for us.” It’s a very sober and thoughtful memo otherwise, and it’s really plotting a strategy. In 1968, there were 100 corporate lobbying offices in Washington D.C. By the middle of the 1980s, there were 1,200. Powell’s message was heeded. And we now also know that Exxon and other big energy corporations had already understood the climate science of global warming in the 1970s and much like big tobacco covered up the evidence of the carcinogenic impact of smoking cigarettes, the big petroleum companies covered up the fact of the human contribution through burning fossil fuels to irreversible and damaging climate change. And that’s in the 1970s. And that is something that comes out of the work of someone like Powell, who, of course, then goes on to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

The third piece of the counter offensive was not articulated by an avowed national security intellectual or conservative. This was a champion — a liberal champion in many ways — of the labor movement, even the Civil Rights Movement to some degree in his early years. And that was Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And Moynihan made two great contributions to the counter-revolutionary, counter offensive to the 1960s. The policy which he named benign neglect, [which suggested that we had] spent too much time talking about the negro problem, too much time, he says in 1965, when you’ve just granted the civil rights legislation after a century and a half of black subjugation. And Moynihan basically says, you know what? White racism is not so much of the problem anymore. The real problem is “the tangle of pathology” in the black family that is perpetuating itself without any assistance from the white world. This is Moynihan’s thesis in 1965. And not only does he talk of a tangle of pathology, he argues that [black family life] is creating forms of antisocial behavior and an irrational lashing out at legitimate authority that is going to need to be dealt with more harshly in the coming period. So already, just at the moment when you have civil rights victories, you have a subset of liberal opinion making the argument for a sharply punitive turn in social policy.

Moynihan has a second act because, in 1975, he is the ambassador to the United Nations where he authors a piece called “The United States and Opposition.” And here he makes a very similar argument to the argument he had made about benign neglect towards African Americans struggling for freedom and equality in the U.S., to the nations of what was then called the third world. He says in effect, “we’ve been criticized too much in this forum [the U.N. General Assembly]. It’s time for us to take the gloves off and to show these underdeveloped and developing countries just who’s the boss.” We think of unilateralism in American policy as beginning with Trump, or maybe we think back to George W. Bush, but in fact, we need to go back to this earlier moment, because this is the moment in which you have a trajectory towards the kind of unilateralism that we’re seeing now.

And of course, one of the great figures who played many sides in this game, Henry Kissinger, in the period leading up to Moynihan declaring the United States in opposition, is helping to engineer a coup in Chile. And this is what Kissinger said about the coup in Chile, which overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende, a socialist, and led to the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. In some ways, this quote from Kissinger for me, brings together all of these strands: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voter to be left to decide for themselves.”

These sharp right turns come together in the Reagan administration — and the Reagan administration marks a ratcheting up of the Cold War again. What some commentators have described as a second Cold War. It marks a new period of covert action and hemispheric intervention. No more good neighbor policy. And of course, it marks the beginning of the dirty wars that the U.S. is still fighting in the Middle East and South Asia.

Does anybody remember the peace dividend for a half-century of cold war? Me neither. Instead, on top of a bloated military-industrial-complex [that Eisenhower had already warned of in 1960], we set about building a new prison-industrial-complex. And that started with the launching of the Wars on Crime and the Wars on Drugs. And the fact that the language of war was now going to be applied to America’s own internal populations, in many ways, tells you everything you need to know. We were still fighting the inner war. The inner wars that were at the founding of this country were being renewed. And it wasn’t just Nixon and Reagan. Even Lyndon Johnson in the late 1960s, in response to conservative pressure and the spike in street crime, said the U.S. was now facing “a war within our own boundaries.” This is all part of a punitive turn. And it takes over, it takes over from the more progressive and inclusive trajectories that are coming out of WWII and reaching their apogee in the 1960s, and it begins to solidify a new common sense. And these are the years in which someone named Donald J. Trump first burst on the scene talking about a world that cheated Americans and demanding an even harsher version of law and order politics.

You might remember one of Trump’s first very first political acts was taking out a full-page ad in The Daily News calling for the execution of five African American boys who were wrongly accused, it turns out, of raping a white woman in Central Park. And Trump called for their death. He still, even in the revelations that have come since, has never admitted that he was wrong. Trump is all of it, really. He’s the reactionary business ethic. He’s unilateral militarism. He’s hostility to a diverse demos, and he’s the extractive mania of environmental deregulation. He represents, in some ways, all the worst aspects of our [past-present] history. And they have all, in many ways, coalesced to the horror of many of us.

But I don’t necessarily want to end on this note. We live at the end, I think, of this third arc. Trump is not the beginning of something new. He’s the end of something. Okay? He’s the end of something.


What we live at the end of is undeniably a world in distress and to some extent in ruin. $4 trillion spent on a futile, forever-war since 2001. A national debt fueled by tax cuts whose interest payments will soon exceed the already bloated military budget. An ecology whose fragility increases even as it these facts are denied. And of course, the mass incarceration regime that has ground up and spit out tens of millions of people over the last three decades, decimating entire communities.

Even just looking at the United States alone, there’s a tremendous amount of salvage work to be done, and I used the word salvage because I think that we have to recognize that we live in a ruined world. Nor do I believe that there is any techno-optimist quick fix, that something’s going to come along and magically save us. But we are at the end of an arc. We are at the end of an arc. It is easy to fall prey to pessimism and despair, but it is not where I want to leave you.

Frederick Douglass, the great escaped slave, and freedom orator, and abolitionist used a very famous slogan which you’ve probably heard before, “without struggle, there is no progress.” “Without struggle, there is no progress.” And we’ve seen it throughout our history. We have a system that generates enormous wealth and technological advance without commensurate improvements in our ethical and spiritual faculties. This is why another great freedom fighter, Martin Luther King, at the end of his life called for a radical revolution in values. And we’re still waiting for that radical revolution in values.

But even in these dark years of permanent war and mass incarceration and mass deportation, we have seen great movements on our horizon. I don’t know, probably many of you in this room have been marching for 20 years. We marched in the millions against the Iraq War. We didn’t stop that war from happening, but the marching we did mattered. It created the context for the discrediting of that war and the entire project it represents. Millions three years later marched for immigrant rights and the rights of the undocumented. Millions, perhaps the biggest labor march in the history of the United States. That legacy is still with us, even though so many have been forced back into the shadows by the deportation and detention mania.

We live amidst a new and profound upsurge of demands for economic fairness and health security [against the depredations of the 1%]. And of course, there’s the movement for black lives. And the movement for black lives taps into the whole long history that I’ve been describing today. We are ready to begin a new historical arc and the forces arrayed against us should not be overestimated. Bring on “the excess of democracy.” The future demands it. And maybe then we might finally become a decent country among the peoples of the world.

Thank you.


Jeremy Scahill: Nikhil Pal Singh is an NYU professor. He is the author of “Black as a Country” and “Race and America’s Long War.” He’s also the founding co-director of NYU’s Prison Education Project. Special thanks to the Lannan Foundation for hosting this event in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Thank you also to the Lensic Theater and to Jonathan Lo for the audio recording.

[Musical Interlude.]

JS: And that does it for this bonus episode. If you are not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, we are now in our membership drive. Become a sustaining member of the program by logging onto Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’isdoro and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Thanks so much for listening. I’m Jeremy Scahill.


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