Death of Sitting Bull


Sitting Bull. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In these days of primaries and tawdry rhetoric by presidential candidates, it would be good to evoke the memory of the great orator and medicine man of the Lakota Sioux.

This is how Arthur Kopit, in his play Indians, painted the portrait of Sitting Bull:

I am here by the will of the Great Spirits, and by their will I am a chief. My heart is red and sweet, and I know it is sweet, for whatever I pass near tries to touch me with its tongue, as the bear tastes honey and the green leaves seek the sky. If the Great Spirits have chosen anyone to be leader of their country, know that it is not the Great Father, it is myself.

As we have chronicled in our book Hunt the Devil (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015), Sitting Bull’s fiery rhetoric, the Plains Indians victory at Little Big Horn, and the Ghost Dance Movement of the late 19th century turned Sitting Bull into the devil we seek to destroy in every war—the evil leader of whichever people we target as our enemy. The death of Sitting Bull would be repeated, at the dawn of the 21st century, in the termination of an Islamic spiritual leader who had inspired — just like Sitting Bull — heinous crimes against the United States.[i] (more…)

U.S. Trounces Islamic State


Credit: Library of Congress

The headline caught my attention: “Islamic State Getting Trounced in Battle for Arab Hearts and Minds, Survey Finds.”

The news story, written by Joby Warwick, appeared online on April 12, 2016 in The Washington Post. Warwick reports on national security and the Middle East.

In this story, Warwick features a new opinion poll that shows the Islamic State “is seeing a steep slide in the support among young Arab men and women it most wants to attract.”   The “survey suggests” that “overwhelming majorities”—“nearly 80%”—strongly oppose the Islamic State. That’s up from 60% a year ago.

More than half of the young Arabs surveyed ranked the Islamic State as the number one problem in the Middle East, and three-quarters predicted it would ultimately fail to establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria. “The survey found” that even those who do sign up with the Islamic State are motivated by economic hardships and unemployment, not by religious fervor. Religion is a rationalization, not a motive. Respondents also “tended to rank stability over democracy as a coveted virtue for an Arab state.” (more…)

The Ugly American


Donald Trump caricature. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

He is ugly, loud and obnoxious. He makes a fetish of youth and wealth (the American Dream), a Blonde Beast with blow-dried, fake-colored hair. He trades in the base coinage of freedom and democracy; but his freedom is only slavery to his profitable schemes, and democracy means only unswerving affirmations of US imperial policy.

Donald Trump is the Ugly American that US Americans never see. We export him abroad to conduct enterprises that produce our wealth and leisure. But the rest of the world knows him well; for the rest of the world, Donald Trump is the face of America—the vile viceroy of its enterprises and nefarious purposes. (more…)

Curving History


Image UGC 12158 of a galaxy, taken by the Hubble Telescope, 20 December 2010. (Credit: NASA)

The contemporary world is accustomed to the language of progress, a linear sense of ongoing change, a process of betterment that moves upward and onward. It presumes that what went before was primitive, or at least less advanced, than what followed. We advance step by step toward the future and eventual perfection.

Progress—as the commonsense discourse of development (of upward, onward, linear change from ancient primitiveness through advancement to future perfection)—clusters with terms such as making headway, forging ahead, forward-looking, evolution, growth, maturation, expansion, improvement, efficiency, and enrichment. Thus, no lesser light than Benjamin Franklin is widely credited with saying, “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”

The language of progress inevitably extends to politics, economics, and technology. As a function of language, consistent with Kenneth Burke’s theory of symbolic action, “progress” seeks its own terministic perfection to the point of overemphasizing profit, individualism, and power by underemphasizing society, community, and cooperation. (more…)

Language and Empire


Mosaic depicting theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy, 2nd century AD, from Rome Thermae Decianae (?), Palazzo Nuovo, Capitoline Museums. (Credit: Carole Raddato)

Whether one denies, embraces, or laments American imperialism, there is a motive for empire that typically goes unnoticed—the propensity of language for expansion and dominion. I don’t mean simply the globalization of English as the language of enterprise. I mean there is an underlying characteristic of language as a medium of thought and motivation that Kenneth Burke calls the principle of perfection.

The language we use to make sense of the world—to articulate a guiding perspective on reality—has its own dynamic and directionality. It prompts us to track down and round out the implications of its preferred terminology, to actualize its full potential to assign meaning and impose order on the world. (more…)



President Reagan’s last day in office, saluting as he boards the helicopter at the U.S. Capitol. (Credit: White House Photographic Office)

The second set of memories is darker, and more personal. I met José Rodriguez in high school, where he was my first theater teacher and drama coach. He became mentor, guide and friend—Ophelia’s ideal of a gentleman and scholar. He studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London in order to pursue a career as a professional actor. In New York he played the great roles of Spanish drama in René Buch’s Spanish Repertory Theatre, including Don Juan Tenorio in Zorrilla’s play, and Segismundo in Calderón de la Barca’s Life is a Dream.

José left New York to found the bilingual La compañía de teatro de Alburquerque in New Mexico. He invited me to work at his theater, where we performed his adaptation of Cervantes’ Don Quijote (he played Quijote, I played Sancho Panza). It was to be his last performance. Soon after he left his theater company behind to study for the priesthood at a Catholic seminary. After his ordination he served as parish priest in Abiquiu, Northern New Mexico. He was diagnosed with AIDS, left the active priesthood, and spent his last days at his mother’s house in Puerto Rico, offering mass for his neighbors in his garage. He was dead at 50.

José was only one of an entire generation of American artists—friends, colleagues, companions—who succumbed to the AIDS virus in the eighties and nineties. We are a lesser people today because they perished then.

These are my memories of the Reagan era. I never cursed the president who is so often blamed for the government’s lack of action during the plague years. Reagan was only one of many, among the US dynasty of clown politicians, who ignored the demise of so many of their fellow Americans. But I remain unmoved by his legacy, and unaffected by its passing.



Illustration 5 for Miguel de Cervantes’s “Don Quixote“ by Gustave Doré, 1863. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Morning in America


Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan waving from the limousine during the Inaugural Parade in Washington, D.C. on Inauguration Day, 1981. (Credit: White House Photographic Office)

The death of Antonin Scalia and the passing of Nancy Reagan signify the end of the Ronald Reagan era in the political history of the United States. The final days are being heralded by a godless leader (Donald Trump) and his barbarian hordes, who are shattering the Reagan coalition that served the Republican Party well for over three decades.

Mindless devotees of the old president, dedicated to emulating Reagan’s example rather than to cultivating new ideas, do not understand present developments. (Observe, for example, the “puzzlement” on the faces of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio as they contemplate the ineffectiveness of notions that once seemed mighty and invincible.) From the perspective of today, the famous “It’s Morning Again in America” campaign ad seems a quant piece of propaganda released by the Ministry of Truth in an Orwellian republic presided by an aging Big Brother. (more…)

Deciphering American Empire: #3


Nemesis, statue dedicated by Ptollanubis. Marble, found in Egypt, 2nd century AD. (Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons)

“Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris, waits impatiently for her meeting with us.” So ends Chalmers Johnson’s prophetic appraisal of imperial America, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004), p. 312.

Rome is the archetype of America’s imperial hubris, a recycled mythos pursued at the cost of the republic and unending military engagements around the globe.

Language obfuscates America’s imperial project. As Johnson observes, the new Rome represents itself, if at all, as a good, liberal or informal empire instead of “a military juggernaut intent on world domination” (p. 4). The “euphemisms required to justify imperialism” include “lone superpower,” “indispensable nation,” “reluctant sheriff,” “humanitarian intervention,” and “globalization” (pp. 13, 284).

Of course, even a liberal empire is not necessarily a good one, if there is such a thing. (more…)

Conspiracy Theory: You Cannot Live


Jewish refugees from Czechoslovakia being marched away by British police at Croydon airport in March 1939. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I’m a big fan of conspiracy theories. They are based mostly on what Mark Twain calls a set of “corn-pone” opinions: “You tell me whar a man gits his corn-pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.”[i] I find it endlessly fascinating to contemplate why a man or woman would entertain a belief that is patently false (the United States, for example, staged the moon landing in a Hollywood set), and yet reject an occurrence that is demonstrably true (the water in Flint, Michigan is full of lead).

To my increasing horror, I have begun to weave a personal conspiracy theory—probably as a result of losing my mind after listening to too many Republican presidential primary debates. Since my theory—if it ever becomes fact—signals a great danger for many of us, pray bear with me lest we suffer the same fate of Trojans who did not listen to Cassandra.


Deciphering American Empire: #2


A map of the world in 1886, by Walter Crane. Areas under British control are highlighted in red. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Niall Ferguson, born and raised in Scotland, is a conservative British historian and Harvard University professor, who is leaving this year to join the faculty of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace. His writing about war, economics, imperialism, and civilization are provocative, well publicized, and politically engaged.

Ferguson advocates, and wishes to rehabilitate, US imperialism by getting Americans to acknowledge and embrace it. The problem, he argues, is that the US suffers from imperial denial. (more…)