[Professor Mae Ngai is Lung Professor of Asian American Studies and Professor of History, Columbia University]
I especially appreciate Christina Burnett’s examination of Federico Degetau’s “legal cosmopolitanism” in Gonzales v. Williams. Burnett shows that intellectuals in the colonial periphery made a unique contribution to the legal discourse on empire and citizenship. Degetau’s critique, that the American wish to “nationalize” Puerto Ricans as sovereign subjects but not “naturalize” them as U.S. citizens smacked of Spain’s colonial policy, was a devastating exposure of U.S. imperial character. Degetau’s critique hints, too, at the enduring influence of American exceptionalism, even on contemporary scholarship.
Burnett’s discussion of Degetau prompted me think about the spread of Enlightenment ideas in the non-European world. Burnett is correct, in my view, to resist judging Degetau as “collaborationist.” His views on equal citizenship and political autonomy for Puerto Rico were liberal, arguably cut from the same large bolt of modern cloth as, say, those in Puerto Rico and Cuba who championed national independence. This is not to say that there was no difference in the politics of autonomy and independence but to suggest a larger ideological frame that is worth thinking about.
Men like Degetau who advocated for equality and autonomy pushed back against the social Darwinism of the age, which considered Puerto Ricans “natives” not (yet) fit to be “citizens,” even while accepting social Darwinism’s general hierarchy insofar they wished to relocate themselves to a higher rung on the ladder.
The influence of Enlightenment rationality and modern nationalism on colonized peoples is not easy to evaluate. Scholars of India and China have pointed out that the emphasis given to nationalism in the colonized and semi-colonized world (at least through the mid-twentieth century) has blotted, even stamped out alternate modes of cultural and political expression and resistance (Chakrabarty, Duara). Some have chafed at Benedict Anderson’s view of nationalism’s imaginary as an irresistible force as a kind of colonizing move (Chatterjee). Yet besides these pernicious aspects of liberalism and nationalism, there clearly also is—as Degetau’s writings attest—an emancipatory thrust in the embrace of such concepts as equality, fairness, autonomy, and self-determination. There is, moreover, something wonderfully ironic about the intellectual cosmopolitanism of colonials like Degetau—his experience at a colonial crossroads of multiple empires gave him a broader vision than the American jurists with whom he sought to engage.