In 2005, shortly after he started blogging, Glenn Greenwald wrote an infamous and incendiary anti-immigrant post defending reactionary bigot Tom Tancredo. “Current illegal immigration—whereby unmanageably endless hordes of people pour over the border in numbers far too large to assimilate, and who consequently have no need, motivation or ability to assimilate—renders impossible the preservation of any national identity,” Greenwald insisted. He mocked anyone who might suggest that sentiment was racist.
Greenwald rose to prominence as an opponent of the Iraq war, and for years he was seen as a prominent antiwar and anti-colonial voice on the left. His opposition to imperial overreach, and his support for Palestinians, seems hard to reconcile with this openly xenophobic screed, or with his more recent effort to apologize for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. How can you oppose colonialism and push racist stereotypes of Latin American people? How can you oppose militarism and countenance Putin’s war of aggression?
Many people argue that Greenwald and others on the left who have taken anti-anti-Putin stands are hypocrites, or are reflexively contrarian, or are blinded by their hatred of America. I’d suggest instead that the problem is a vision of colonialism and anticolonial politics which infects not just the left, but the culture as a whole.
Specifically, in the West, anticolonial commitments are often divorced from actual colonial experiences. Specific colonial oppressions become metaphors for a diffuse, nebulous unfreedom. Without material grounding, anti-imperialism can easily be twisted into a reactionary force driven by conspiracy theories, self-pity, and empowerment fantasies.
Turning colonial situations into abstractions is an imaginative project of long standing. It’s been a central feature of science-fiction stories for over a hundred years, dating back at least to H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. In that book, Martians invade England, murdering and enslaving the population, just as those in England had murdered and enslaved others around the globe. (Wells mentions Tasmania in particular.) The narrative asks, what if they did to us what we have done to them?
These stories arguably could be seen as anticolonial exercises. The War of the Worlds and its heirs like the movies Red Dawn and Independence Day put viewers in the place of colonial victims. You’re meant to sympathize with people targeted for colonial violence so that you understand their suffering and the evils of imperialism.
There are less cheerful interpretations, though, as John Rieder points out in his book Colonialism and the Emergence of Science-Fiction. War of the Worlds could be a call to see the world from the view of the colonized. But it could also be an effort to naturalize colonialism. If everybody does it, even out in space, then we’d better get them before they get us.
When we convince ourselves we’re in danger of being conquered, then we can justify any excess of violence against those defined as our enemies. This is a good thumbnail description of Hitler’s reasoning in Mein Kampf. “If, with the help of his Marxist creed, the Jew is victorious over the other peoples of the world, his crown will be the funeral wreath of humanity and this planet will, as it did thousands of years ago, move through the ether devoid of men.”
That’s a vision of colonial conquest and genocide, couched (“this planet”) in science-fictional form. The Jews, Hitler believed, were, like Wells’s Martians, bent on exterminating humanity. So Hitler, as supposed representative of the human race, needed to conquer and exterminate Jewish people first. Which is what he went about doing.
Contemporary conservatives embrace similar reactionary narratives, as David Higgins explains in Reverse Colonization: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy, and Alt-Victimhood. Higgins points especially to contemporary pop culture narratives like The Matrix, which imagines the world as a totalizing cognitive imperial hellscape.
In The Matrix, machines have taken over the earth and humans are kept unconscious—fed dreams of a boring contemporary life while the machines feed on them. The movie creates a nightmare adapted from real-life experiences of resource extraction, exploitation, and imprisonment generally inflicted on people of color. But in the world of The Matrix, mass incarceration and colonial violence between peoples on earth is an illusion. The only real oppression is shared by everyone under the machines’ dominion. Which is to say, everyone.
Detaching colonial exploitation from colonial experience makes it easy for people to imagine themselves into the position of the oppressed. This doesn’t necessarily make them sympathetic to the colonized, though. Instead, it makes them spin stories of themselves as colonized.
The Matrix, in particular, has been a favorite film of antifeminists and reactionary misogynists. These subcultures see The Matrix as a metaphor for feminism’s ominous dominance, trapping man “in an overbearing technological womb designed to keep him in an infantile and dependent state,” according to Higgins. Thus, an experience of colonial oppression at the hands of (mostly) white men is transformed into a metaphor for the (supposed) oppression of (mostly) white men. For Hitler and for incels, the message of reverse colonization is not that they have hurt others. It is that they should have ever more freedom and power, lest those they harmed should harm them in return.
Which brings us back to Greenwald’s 2005 blog post. Again, at the time he presented immigration as a dire threat “whereby unmanageably endless hordes of people pour over the border in numbers far too large to assimilate.”
We can now see this as a textbook example of a reverse colonial narrative. Latin Americans and Mexicans have been the target of U.S. imperialism for hundreds of years—including most obviously the U.S. invasion of Mexico in the Mexican-American War and the annexation of large portions of Mexican territory. But in Greenwald’s vision, it is Mexicans who are invading the United States, destroying U.S. culture, and assimilating U.S. people.
After initially supporting the Iraq War, Greenwald reverse himself and vehemently opposed it. He has also spoken out eloquently on behalf of Palestinians in Israel-occupied territory. His anti-imperialism sometimes aligns with actual anti-colonial struggles. But the fact that he started writing by embracing a fanciful, racist, reverse colonization narrative which appropriated the experiences of others so he could imagine himself as a colonized subject—this raises some concerns. Is he committed to ending colonial injustice? Or does he see emotional and rhetorical advantages in positioning himself as one of the colonized? Can he tell the difference?
Observing Greenwald’s conduct over the last few years, one is forced to conclude that he can’t. As one example, he resigned from his longtime publication The Intercept after claiming that the publication had violated his “editorial freedom.” Based on the email exchanges with his editors, he appears to define this freedom as his right to publish whatever he wants without being edited (a right he now exercises on his Substack).
Greenwald’s commentary on his departure is expressed with hyperbolic righteous indignation and couched in the language of freedom. This is the same indignation and rhetoric that he applies to his anticolonial writing, but here divorced from colonial experience and applied to the struggle of a wealthy reporter with his (less wealthy) editor.
Similarly in his discussions of Ukraine Greenwald has disturbingly joined with Fox’s far-right commentator Tucker Carlson. The two have alleged that the United States has been funding bioweapons labs in Ukraine, which supposedly sparked the Russian invasion. The story, pushed by Russian propaganda networks, is baseless and without evidence. It’s also a reverse colonization narrative. Russia invaded Ukraine, but Greenwald and Carlson insist that really Ukraine, and the U.S., were planning to invade Russia first.
The anti-anti-Putin left is not especially large. Even the anti-anti-Putin right is a minority of the GOP. Reverse colonization narratives, though, are everywhere: in books, in movies, in political language about Democrats seizing American guns. White America’s rhetoric about freedom and empowerment all feeds on, and is lifted from, anticolonial struggle and paranoid fears that the people who have been oppressed will somehow turn the tables, fly their ships down from Mars, and oppress us in turn.
Those of us who want to end colonial violence understandably find anticolonial narratives and metaphors appealing. We want to embrace representations of successful struggle and freedom. But especially for white people from colonizer nations, it’s important to take a moment to think about who’s at the center of those narratives, metaphors, and representations. When you position yourself as the protagonist of someone else’s struggle, are you really helping them break free of their chains? Or are you just sitting on their neck?
Feature Image is ‘Alien Invasion,’ by Ishrona