Our pursuit of Empire may well be the end of us.
It diminishes both our resources and our character. It dehumanizes and corrupts those who enforce it and those upon whom it is enforced in equal measure, if different forms. And in light of the future we face, Empire is glaringly dysfunctional as well. The pursuit of dominance only destroys the mutuality required to reduce humankind’s carbon footprint and reconstruct civilization to fit our new physical circumstance. A world without self determination will not be able to rescue or transform itself.
Extricating ourselves from Empire, however, is no small task. With 800 American military outposts around the world, Empire packs considerable political muscle, not to mention sheer inertia. Empire even functions with its own language. And we have to parse it if we are to stand a chance of deflecting Empire’s momentum:
“We often think of words as though they were numbers, but they are actually quite different,” Julia pointed out. She majored in Linguistics at Cal, now lives down the block, and I often consult her when I have questions about words, usually during my afternoon walk around the neighborhood. “A word may have a dictionary definition but it has no absolute meaning in the way that a 1 or a 2 or a 6 do,” Julia continued. “Instead, historical usage and cultural context determine how words are heard. Words are like links to bigger pictures, focusing and refocusing, swarming with implications and assumptions, effectively meaning far more than they might seem to.”
When I explained what I was trying to do, Julia nodded her head.
“Words are enablers as well. They don’t just describe. Language seems at first glance to be neutral ground but in fact it is far more charged than most of us give it credit for. The pictures words carry are often constructed out of implicit conclusions which also confine the users of the language to the actions the framers seek to advance. Just the use of the vocabulary marks a kind of tacit acceptance that the words mean what their proponents want them to mean. And all those words come with default behaviors attached. A policy becomes language and then that language becomes the policy, sealing the deal. If, for example, you describe racial segregation as a question of culture rather than justice, the outcome of your approach is built into the phraseology and you end up flying the stars and bars. So, if you really want to decipher the operation of Empire, you’ll need to deconstruct its vocabulary word by word. And that,” Julia pointed out, “is no small task.”
It’s a task, however, long overdue.
I’ve started with an initial installment of three words and expressions:
The first is Hegemony [hedge-em-oh-nee]. This is a polite name (i.e. “American hegemony in the Middle East”) for Empire itself, obscure to most, lacking the implications of racism and intolerance that come with Empire, and sounding more like a chemical property or medical condition. Cloaked in the standard dictionary definitions of “leadership” and “influence”, Hegemony allows Empire to act behind a sanitized and seemingly benign veneer. Perhaps a more accurate interpretation of Hegemony in its actual application would be “intimidation.” Bullies have hegemony over schoolyards, alpha males have hegemony over wolf packs, Wyatt Earp and his brothers had hegemony over the OK Corral. Hegemony means others move over when we come through. It means no one is more important than us. It means we insist on getting our way, whatever the locals may feel about it. These are hardly benign procedures. So, when you hear American politicians talking about Hegemony, learn to flinch, duck, and look out for flying shell fragments.
National Interest is second on my list. This phrase is commonly used as though Interest has a singular and constant meaning that equates with narrow self aggrandizement. In fact National Interest is a hollow vessel that could include anything in which the nation chooses to have interest. The language of Empire uses the phrase to signify “financial advantage” or “enablement of hegemony” —either of which could serve as a functional definition of so-called National Interest in action. Generations of Empire builders have used this concept to justify all forms of narrow selfishness, indeed has made such constricted vision a pillar of diplomacy. All nations must pursue their interests, Empire tells us, and that narrow linguistic construction by definition separates our nation from all the others. This is usually reinforced by characterizing the pursuit of National Interest as the bailiwick of “pragmatic” statesmen, thus giving it the status of a practical behavior rather than the simple ideology that it truly is. When National Interest comes up in the discussion, remember that it might easily mean expansive rather than narrow, mutual engagement rather than isolated preemption, welcoming rather than insular. The choice of what National Interest means is ours, depending on who we want to be.
Necessity, my third vocabulary word, follows a similar dynamic. This word has recently come back into fashion as the Obama administration has insisted that escalating our armed occupation of Afghanistan is a war of Necessity rather than Choice, elevating it from a potentially misguided policy to an unavoidable, mandatory response. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. We have far more options than just assault and occupation and always have had. Necessity is also a word with no inherent manifestation and is defined by whatever concept is upstream from it. In this case, Obama’s Necessity is a function of his administration’s insistence on a military response to terrorism—featuring invasion, devastation, and suppression—rather than a police response featuring intelligence, world law, apprehension, and criminal punishment. That ten year old policy the President now calls Necessity has already proven a failed approach that saps our strength even as it bolsters our enemies. In any case, citing Necessity should never be the end of the discussion. Necessity is as Necessity does—no more, no less.
And so it goes with Empire as well.