"Status Manipulation and Spectral Sovereigns"

Michigan Law Authors
Publish Date
Columbia Human Rights Law Review
Publication Type
Journal Article

This Essay examines how empire invisibly perpetuates itself through “status manipulation.” “Status” refers to formal polity-person and polity-place relationships, perceived to be well-defined, preestablished, unchanging, and consequential. Such relationships are envisioned as automatically creating rights and powers, as well as obligations, detriments, and exclusions. The gap between the perceived fixity of status and its actual malleability gapes wide in the case of U.S. empire. The ambiguity is the result of choices by U.S. empire builders. “Manipulation” places the emphasis on this intentionality. It also describes the misdirection by which changes to status and the changeability of status sustain colonialism while hiding it from view. The U.S. empire dangles sovereignty before people in some of its colonies. In others, it strings people along in their beliefs that colonial sovereignty already exists. Doing so divides, frustrates, and seduces anti-colonialists. Like parched and starved Tantalus, whose fruit and water are always just beyond reach, inhabitants of the colonies endure degraded statuses that are tantalizingly close to a redemption that never arrives. Studies of the smallest and largest populated U.S. territories, American Samoa and Puerto Rico, illuminate the mechanics. This Essay concludes with a recommendation: Academic critics of colonialism should not allow the uncertainty that status manipulation produces to induce their silence. They should instead speak carefully, listen hard, recognize their errors and fallibility, and acknowledge and correct their mistakes.