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CR: The New Centennial Review 2.1 (2002) 213-258

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"[A]ll the World was America":
The Transatlantic (Post)Coloniality of John Locke, William Bartram, and the Declaration of Independence

Pramod K. Mishra
Duke University

"Thus in the beginning all the World was America."

—John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (1690).1

"How is it, though, that we all rise and fall with the tide of countries we may never have seen?"

—Gish Jen, The New York Times, September 15, 2000.2

Longing for Belonging

In the September 15, 2000, Op-Ed page of The New York Times, the Asian American writer Gish Jen asks a question, "How is it, though, that we all rise and fall with the tide of countries we may never have seen?" The immediate "we all" in Jen's question comprises the Asian Americans—Chinese [End Page 213] Americans, but also Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Japanese Americans, and so forth—and the immediate context from which the question comes is the nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee's release a day or so earlier from a federal prison in New Mexico after nine months of incarceration for charges of nuclear espionage at the U.S. nuclear laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, a case in which 58 out of 59 charges of espionage done for China were dropped by the federal prosecutors. The one count for which Lee plea-bargained was about the mishandling of classified data in the lab; in all likelihood, the plea bargain was proposed by the prosecutors as a face-saving way out. In the release statement, Judge James Parker apologized to Lee and severely took to task both the U.S. government and its prosecutors for trumping up so many groundless charges and successfully dissuading him earlier from granting Lee bail for reasons of threat to U.S. national security. A host of apologies and regrets followed in the aftermath of Lee's release, including the Times's editorial regrets about not following proper journalistic procedures in reporting Lee's case to the U.S. public when it first broke about a year ago. 3 In the Op-Ed, Jen expresses her outrage that Lee was put in solitary confinement for nine months just because he was an Asian American, even though born in Taiwan, "an island not known for its adoration of Beijing."

A couple of points are in order here. One, Gish Jen has come to be known now both in public and in the newly emerging disciplinary studies at U.S. universities as an Asian American writer. In such works of fiction as Typical American (1991), Mona in the Promised Land (1996), and Who is Irish? (1999), Jen has charted the traumas and tribulations, pleasures and pains of migration, living and adjusting of various ethnic groups, especially Asian Americans, in the United States. Thus, in the excerpt above, the melting pot ideal of assimilation that privileges both a magnetized nationalistic core and its discourse appears dear and desirable to her. Two, the injustice of which Jen writes in the Times could have happened to any so-called ethnic group in the United States. A look at the history of the U.S. nation-state formation makes it amply clear that marginalization and discrimination have constituted the ideology of assimilation of the U.S. nation-state despite the noble sentiments of the founding document of the union, the Declaration of [End Page 214] Independence. At one time or another Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, and so on have been treated not very differently from what Jen speaks about Asian Americans—mistreatment of the minority by the majoritarian structure and ideology within the political, economic, and cultural framework of the U.S. national imaginary. The case of the African Americans, who have borne the major brunt of the oppression and discrimination of this kind, is a classic example in the history of the United States. Perhaps Jen's outrage stems from the fact that...


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