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All That We Can Be
January 7, 2004
By The Plaid Adder

I'd like to begin the new year by thanking Dick Cheney for his wonderful Christmas card. It was so thoughtful of him, especially since I never got around to sending mine this year.

It's true that I didn't actually receive a card from Cheney, but I'm sure that must have been an oversight. Anyway, why do I need the actual card cluttering up my mantel when I can find lengthy descriptions and dissections of it here, here, and here. What bothered people was not the nice cosy domestic image on the front, but the message inside:

"And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?"

What's startling about this, as all the articles I pointed out mention, is the use of "the E-word." After all, Bush has spent a fair amount of time explicitly denying that his doctrine of "preventive war" is an attempt at "empire-building." It could be that this card simply represents a little "message confusion" in the upper echelons, much the way we spent a couple weeks not too long ago scratching our heads as Bush went blithely on repeating the lie about Iraq being linked to 9/11 after his handlers had decided to drop it.

Perhaps Cheney didn't get the memo about pretending that the Iraq war has nothing to do with imperialism. Or perhaps he is just so used to thinking of the United States as an empire that he forgot it might surprise people to see him calling it that in his Christmas card. Or perhaps he was assuming that the people he sent his Christmas card to wouldn't leak its contents to the press, and he was hoping to enjoy a little private chortling with him and a few hundred thousand of his closest friends. Maybe he signed them all with a little personal message along those lines, something like, "Shhhh! Don't tell anyone till we're ready to reveal ourselves to the Jedi! Moohoohahaha! Love, Dick."

Or perhaps Cheney is neither insane nor stupid, and he chose that text as a way to get Americans ready to acknowledge, embrace, and accept America as an empire. Because once that happens, doing it Dick's way will no longer have to involve a costly and time-consuming PR machine kept up and running 24 hours a day trying to dress naked imperialism up as something Americans are more comfortable with. They've been doing pretty well with media manipulation so far, but lately some cracks have begun to appear in the facade, and in the end it will probably be pretty obvious to everyone what's really going on. The smart move would not be to count on achieving and maintaining Stalin-style total media control; what with the Internet, that's a lot less easy than it used to be. The smart move would be to use American broadcast journalism, the mainstream print media, and whatever else they have at hand to prepare Americans for the inevitable day when it is no longer possible to pretend that we are anything other than an empire.

After all, Cheney's Christmas card doesn't say, "Happy holidays! For Christmas this year I built you all this really neat empire. Hope you like it!" The text is lifted from a speech Benjamin Franklin gave at the Constitutional Convention moving that "henceforth, prayers imploring the assistance of heaven, and its blessing on our deliberations, be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business." The card points out that the idea of America as an empire is not something Cheney made up; it was bestowed on us by one of our most revered Founding Fathers at the moment of our democracy's birth. So how can we argue with that? It's easy enough to cast Cheney as a bloodsucking rapacious imperial profiteer - in fact, he looks exactly like what Central Casting would send you if you called up and ordered a bloodsucking rapacious imperial profiteer - but Benjamin Franklin? Surely he represents all that is good and true about the American tradition. If he was all right with the idea of America as an empire... if an empire was what the founders really thought they were building... then an empire is what we oughta be!

I have seen some columnists scrambling to account for Franklin's use of the E-word, which appears to be so violently opposed to the way we are used to thinking of the Founding Fathers' conception of what the United States would be. It is true that words change their meaning over time and we should not anachronistically assume that Franklin meant it the same way that Cheney did. Nevertheless, it is also true that the idea of empire substantially predates the formation of this country, and that we also cannot assume that Franklin did not have some of those earlier empires in mind when he made that speech. In my humble opinion, this quotation simply makes evident a tension that has always been built into American history between democratic ideals and the ugly realities that constantly threaten them.

Let us remember that the drafting of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution involved negotiations between those who saw slavery as an evil related to the tyranny they were resisting, and those who insisted on preserving the institution of slavery as part of the new republic. For a while, the minds of most Americans remained sufficiently elastic to encompass the idea of a republic established on the principle of liberty and justice for all systematically depriving a significant number of its inhabitants of liberty, justice, life, the pursuit of happiness, and just about everything else. But before the Constitution was a hundred years old, the strain had started to become too great; and when it came time to decide whether we were going to be a nation of masters and slaves or a nation of equals, we had to fight a civil war to work it out. But the tension visible in that Franklin quotation goes back farther than the introduction of slavery to America.

When I was in fourth grade, we learned a horrible song called "Fifty Nifty United States" thanks to which I can still name all fifty states in alphabetical order. (Don't test me on this. By the time I get to Oregon you'll be begging me to stop.) The opening line goes, "Fifty nifty united states from thirteen original co-lo-niiiiies..." I sang it, of course, without an idea in my head of what a "colony" really was, just as we learned about the "colonial" period in American history without too much exploration of what that term meant, and I wandered past "colonial" style houses every day on my way back and forth to school without wondering how they came to be called that.

If we have largely forgotten or ignored the fact that our democracy began as a colonial enterprise, it's not because the evidence has disappeared. Rather, we have incorporated it into our national mythology, retelling the story to make it better for us. Current popular knowledge of the histories of the Plymouth and Jamestown colonies is basically limited in each case to stories in which the English colonists collaborate, cooperate, and bond with the Native Americans - Thanksgiving in Plymouth, the Pocahontas/ John Smith romance for Jamestown - instead of obliterating them, which is what ultimately happened. We have buried the story of what happened to the indigneous inhabitants of the land on which this country was built as deep as it will go; but it isn't really dead. Consequently we find ourselves driven back to the grave to pile new layers of mythology on top of it, from Dances With Wolves to Pocahontas. But no matter how fast we tell these stories, the fact remains that the United States of America emerged out of a scramble for territory in which the major European powers - at the time, England, France, and Spain - competed to see whose empire would grow the fastest and last the longest.

Now of course we have been used to getting around all this by thinking of the American revolution as the point at which those thirteen colonies stopped being part of an empire and became the kernel of a new democracy. But the reality is that nothing that happened at the Constitutional Convention changed the basic relationship that imperialism had established between the English colonists and the indigenous peoples they were displacing. Everyone in the assembly Franklin was addressing when he gave that speech would have realized - if the question ever arose - that they could not afford to do so. They would already have known that the survival of their new country would depend on the ability to expand into new territories, displacing new indigenous peoples as they appropriated the land and resources they had formerly been using. The "empire" that Franklin foresaw arising - with God's help - was the one that eventually stretched westward across the continent.

If we don't think of the continental united states as an "empire," that's only because our forefathers were so successful at displacing the other European colonial powers (France and Spain) and exterminating or containing the Native American peoples who stood in our way that nobody has the power to remind us of it. The imperial strain of American history shows a little more clearly in our history of offshore expansion; the history of how Hawaii became one of those "fifty nifty United States" is painful to read, as is the story of the Spanish-American War, a turn-of-the-century exercise in cynical empire-building that produced, among other things, Mark Twain's masterpiece of disillusionment, The War Prayer.

So. Looking back at American history from this angle, it appears that Cheney's Christmas card was only stating the obvious. We started out as an empire, we have always been an empire, and in 2004 we can look forward to becoming an even bigger empire. How can we argue with that?

Well, I'll argue with anything. Yes, we raised the structure of our democracy on the foundations of an empire; and yes, at certain times in American history, the mismatch between these two structures becomes so obvious and severe that the whole thing looks like it's about to crumble. But an empire is not all we've ever been. There are also times in American history when those democratic ideals written into the Constitution become something more than a fig leaf; when a real commitment to the idea of equality and justice for all has been allowed to threaten the basic presumption of entitlement on which America was founded. Because those ideals have never been perfectly embodied in our actual government, that doesn't mean that they're not real, or that they don't matter. But if we want them to be real, if we want them to matter, we cannot indulge our imperial strain to the point where it wipes out everything else. Empire has always been part of what we are. But it does not have to be all that we can be.

And this brings me back to 2004 and Cheney's Christmas card. If his use of the E-word shocks and appalls today in a way that it didn't shock and appall when Franklin used it in 1787, it's because our own government is displaying the greed, brutality, and sheer self-destructive powerhunger that characterize imperialism more clearly than it ever has in our lifetimes. They are gorging the empire to the point where it will eventually absorb and annihilate the democracy. And although Cheney and his gang must take responsibility for that, it must also in part be attributed to the fact that there is currently no other legitimate world power capable of stopping us, or even encouraging prudent restraint. We are not just an empire right now; we are the empire. That wasn't good for the British; it wasn't good for the Romans; and it's not going to be good for us.

Left to themselves - especially under the kind of ruthless, imprudent leadership we are enjoying right now - empires expand until they are no longer sustainable. It's not encouraging to reflect that for a long time Afghanistan has been where empires go to die. The British empire found its limits there; so did the Soviets'. We may not have found our limits yet; but if we let Cheney and his friends keep doing what they're doing, we'll find them eventually. And after the rise, comes the fall.

Cheney isn't thinking about the fall, of course. Every empire believes that it will be the one to break the trend and last forever, just as every empire's citizens find ways of believing that their empire isn't really an empire at all. For the British, the lie of choice was the one Kipling set to verse in The White Man's Burden: that they didn't want all these colonial possessions, it was simply their duty to conquer the world in order to civilize it. Our lie, for a long time, has been the idea that we are bringing democracy to the places we conquer; now, we are supplementing it with a new lie, which is that the more we invade, the safer we will become. Well, we're still at orange alert even with Saddam in the can; and I'll tell you what, as long as we're The Empire, we're never going back to green. Nobody has ever loved The Empire. And if we want to be safe, we're going to have to work out a way to be something else.

The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at the Adder's Lair. Happy new year, everyone.

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