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When you ask “why are we such poor imperialists?”  you’re hitting on a very interesting question, inside of which lies a whole host of contemporary debates– covering everything from foreign policy, to culture, to economics.   But it’s a question that might be easily brushed aside as a matter of good taste.  After all, we aren’t imperialists, nor do we want to be.  Right?

Maybe not.  There are some who argue that 21st century globalization is just the latest instantiation of the West’s imperial legacy.  And, in all honesty, that argument doesn’t seem too far afield:

“Political globalisation is a fancy word for imperialism, imposing your values and institutions on others. However you may dress it up, whatever rhetoric you may use, it is not very different in practice to what Great Britain did in the 18th and 19th centuries.”

If globalization is part and parcel to imperialism, aren’t we succeeding, rather than failing?  We are good– perhaps a little too good– at exporting our culture.  After all, it’s the almighty bottom line that brings Western businesses to every corner of the globe (all the while, mind you, catering to the local culture, giving us such gems as the McFelafel).  We clearly aren’t lacking the imperial will in the economic arena.

What you’re driving at, I think,  relates more to our foreign policy goals, primarily in the Middle East.  As we all know at this point, our efforts to rebuild Iraq are ranging from “mess” to “bungled mess.”  And why is this?  As you point out, we don’t have a vast contingent of dedicated civil servants, lining up to “do their share” for democracy.  The British Empire was what it was not only by virtue of its military might, but also by virtue of its core of hardworking young doctors,  economists, farmers, and the like who were willing to go to any corner of the globe in the name of the Empire. 

As was noted in a recent news story on the rebuilding efforts: “[In Iraq] the U.S. government has contracted the job of promoting democracy to a Pakistani citizen who has never lived or worked in a democracy.”

For many in our generation, our cultural and economic presence abroad is distasteful.  For a variety of reasons, some meritorious and others not, America’s international reputation is not sterling.  Small wonder we are not lining up to rebuild hospitals in Iraq. 

So I take your last question (whether postmodernism has made the idea of exporting our way of life), and I send it back to you in a slightly different form.  We know that globalization at some level is inevitable.  But we also know that globalization is not beholden to the same laws as imperialism.  The world today is far more cosmopolitan that it was duringthe height of the British Empire, and with that cosmopolitanism comes a necessary respect for other ways of living.  (Need I invoke the McFelafel once more?)  So the question is this:

Are the rules of empire different in a postmodern world?  Corporations can web their way into every country on the map, but when they do so, they must adapt at some level.  Is this what our political structures must also do?  But even if we recognize that we have to be more tolerant and flexible in implementing political institutions, how do we go about meeting basic human needs when globalization has cowed our would-be civil servants into apathy? 

Daniel Corbett


Excellent point, Erin.  I think your working assumption– that a woman is going to have sex at some point (and possibly at a relatively young age)– sets up a nice analogy to Texas’ larger problems surrounding sex ed.  Texas, I believe we can safely argue, does not do the greatest job in educating its young people about safe sex.  This very likely reflects the fact that many parents in Texas think it improper for the state to educate their children on sex, to pass out condums, etc.  This resembles the debate surrounding the HPV vaccines, except that in the case of sex ed, Texas is giving even greater deference to parents.  I’ll add another working assumption, which you hint at in your comment: whether we like it or not, kids are going to disobey their parents.  Now, the logic should pretty clearly apply when we put these assumptions together.  Given our biological impulses (to have sex) and our social impulses (to flout the rules of Mom and Dad), we seem to have a fairly strong argument that we need tools in place that promote health and safety when teenagers are less than perfect.

All of which begs the question: “who puts these tools in place?”  I think we can argue pretty effectively that this is the state’s charge.   We require certain safety features in automobiles because we know, no matter how hard we try to deter them through law, people will drive dangerously.  The HPV vaccines in this case seem to be basically the same thing: a measure taken in order to establish a baseline level of safety.  (It’s also worth mentioning, especially to the libertarians among us that the Texas program is, from what I gather, relatively cost-efficient.  Families will be required to pay for the vaccines themselves unless they qualify for an official waiver.)

But what abouth morality issue?  Is Texas stepping on the toes of its parents?  I would argue that they’re not.  There is nothing about the vaccine that inherently undermines a parent’s moral authority.  Even under a mandatory system, with no conscience clause, parents will still have every right to raise their children as they see fit.  This is not a law whose design is to somehow corrupt children.  Rather, it is a law that bears vitally on an area of public health, and these concerns should outweigh any minimal concerns parents might have about what the law is “implicitly” sanctioning. 

Morgan, I am left with no choice but to walk steadily toward the altar of outcomes.  It really just seems to make more sense here.

Daniel Corbett


To be honest, Texas would have been near the bottom of my list.

For those who have not already heard the news, Texas has become the first state to implement a statewide HPV vaccine. The vaccine will be given to girls starting at age 11 and is being sought as a means to reducing the spread of cervical cancer. (The vaccine is reported to eliminate the two forms of the virus that cause 70% of clinical cases.)

This is quite a progressive step for a state that commonly provides abstinence-only education in its public schools. A number of other states, including California, are considering following Texas’s lead.

Texas Governor Rick Perry has addressed the moral concerns of his citizens, pointing out that the vaccine is not meant to condone “promiscuity.” Parents will be able to object to the vaccinations by signing an affadavit objecting to the procedure.

Should parents be able to opt out so easily? The National Cancer Institute lists HPV as “the major risk factor” for the development of cervical cancer. If the vaccination program has been put in place first and foremost in the interest of eradicating a painful and tragic disease, why should we let people opt out? After all, Texans, despite all their moral posturing, are having unprotected sex. The state’s teen pregnancy rate doesn’t lie.

I usually echo fairly libertarian sentiments on this blog, but here, I feel moved to put them aside.

Sure, there’s the argument that the idea of a “forced vaccination” is in itself Orwellian and undesirable. And while that may resonate with us on a basic level, I don’t think that argument does anything beyond setting up a slippery slope.

So maybe the better tack is more pragmatic. After all, if Texans are paying for this program, shouldn’t it be executed to its fullest?

There is, I think, an analogy to similar “conscience clauses” that allow pharmacists in certain states to refuse to sell birth control. The idea is a seductive one: Jane retains the right to exercise her reproductive rights and John, at the same time, retains his right to exercise his moral beliefs. But this might not always be a desirable scenario. It’s likely John is working as a pharmacist in a poorer, rural area. It’s also likely that Jane lives nearby. It’s also likely that John’s pharmacy is the only one nearby, or perhaps the only one who accepts Jane’s insurance, if she is lucky enough to have any.

Our nation’s legal system has long recognized a strong right to moral and religious freedom. The problem is that this tradition sometimes brings to bear significant costs on certain individuals or on society as a whole. When do we part ways with this tradition, or at least limit it in the name of the public good? Morality is well and good, but how long will we let it get in the way of achieving justice and policy results?

Or, are we better off going back to a libertarian view? Can the state’s right to protect me from disease live side-by-side with the individual’s right to refuse to participate in the program?


Daniel Corbett

February 2007
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