Deciphering American Empire: #1

Statue-Augustus

“Augustus of Prima Porta” by unknown artist, circa 1st century. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

(Ecclesiastes 1:2 Holy Bible NRSV)

To imagine life after empire is to presume the current condition of imperialism, US imperialism.

American empire. What does it mean? Is it true or false? Is it a mark of pride or a sign of shame?

Let’s start from the assumption that the American citizenry is generally inclined to deny the fact of US imperialism or at least to resist the legitimacy of the label. It just doesn’t fit well with the nation’s self image. It sounds like a false indictment in mythic America.

Whereas the idea of imperialism suggests militarism and warfare as a way of life, mythic America promotes peace, not war. It fights defensive wars, not wars of aggression. It is an exceptional nation, a model of virtue, a country devoted to freedom and democratic ideals, a people with a special calling. (more…)

Abraham’s Angels

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Abraham Lincoln, 9 Feb. 1864. (Credit: Library of Congress)

After listening (a painful experience) to the Republican primary debate last week, I fled from its display of vanities, Orwellian language and outdated thinking to the words of Abraham Lincoln:

Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

(First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861)

Who is so small as to claim Ronald Reagan to be their model and exemplar when they have inherited the mantle of Abraham Lincoln? What do you say about people who prefer Reagan’s speeches to the poetry of Lincoln? Reagan was a B-movie Hollywood actor; Lincoln was a student of the King James Bible and a critic of Shakespearean texts. And yet in our unfortunate times, it is Reagan who is called the Great Communicator. (more…)

Restoring the USA

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(Credit: Donald Trump Facebook page)

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is “not exactly” Donald Trump’s life story, as Oscar Giner observes in his most recent post for Hunt the Devil. Not exactly.

Trump’s personal experience does not conform to Springsteen’s lyrics. Trump has not been beaten up by life, drafted and sent off to war, suffered inadequate care in a VA hospital, or walked in the shadow of a penitentiary with nowhere to go. He is instead, as Wikipedia succinctly says, “an American business magnate, billionaire, investor, socialite, author, television personality,” and now a candidate for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. The closest he got to military service was as a high school “cadet captain” at a military academy. Four student deferments during his college years and, after graduation, a medical deferment (he says for heel spurs) kept him out of the military and the Vietnam War.

That’s the irony of Trump playing Springsteen’s song at political rallies. But “Born in the USA” is a metaphor that captures the feeling of Trump supporters, the feeling that they have been uprooted and betrayed by their own country. Trump gives voice to their frustration and anger. He “tells it like it is” for them, not him. (more…)

Born in the USA

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Panorama of Grand Canyon, Arizona, 2010. (Credit: chensiyuan / Wikimedia Commons)

Political discussions in the United States usually degenerate—sooner or later—into arguments about who is and who is not an American. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has pointed out: “the concept of being “un-American” is unique to the political culture and national identity of the United States.” Our tiresome, repeated claims of American exceptionalism are an outward expression of a deep insecurity—the product of a sense displacement created by the Stranger’s anxiety when confronted by a Strange land.

The Republican presidential primary campaigns have been rife with the politics of identity recently. Our fears and our confusion have been much in play. The US Constitution specifies that “No person except a natural born Citizen … shall be eligible to the Office of President” (Art. 2, Sec. 1). Since his election in 2008, the legitimacy of the presidency of Barack Obama has been questioned in conservative circles by accusations that he was born in Kenya, not in Hawaii. (more…)

Witches Then and Now

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This illustration depicts the execution of Ann Hibbins on Boston Common in 1656, by Frank Thayer Merril, published in 1886. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I have not finished reading Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Salem, 1692 (NY: Little, Brown & Co., 2015), but her recent opinion piece in the New York Times, entitled “Anger: An American History,” brought into clear relief the contemporary relevance of 17th century witches.

“Witches” is a chapter in our own Hunt the Devil. We locate it in a genealogy of the demonology of US war culture, followed by Indians, Dictators, and Reds—all of which are implicated in the rhetorical lineage of George W. Bush’s Evildoers.

Fear, as we suggested most recently in the post “Islamophobia,” can overwhelm commonsense and incite us to violence. It is not rhetorically unrelated to anger and hatred. Book II of Aristotle’s treatise on Rhetoric explores the emotional means of persuasion, that is, how emotions such as anger and fear affect our judgment when they are aroused in political discourse. (more…)

Three Kings

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Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy: “The Three Wise Men.” (Credit: Nina Aldin Thune)

I

You’d wake up in the morning wondering if they were still there but you did not want to meet them, afraid of the magic of their passage which still infused the lighted Christmas tree that you could see in the living room down the hall from your vantage point at the doorway of your bedroom.

Xmas toys were small tokens that fulfilled the date peremptorily, almost a duty since you went to an American school in which instruction occurred in English. (Both Cuban and US holidays were celebrated and they had told you about Santa Claus coming to your house with toys on Christmas Eve.) We had no problem accepting gifts from Santa Claus, but the important toys—bicycles, Lone Ranger costumes, Tonto action figures, Zorro’s secret hideout (a miniature, plastic mountain)—were brought by the Kings on January 6. Train sets were also delivered, which you were not old enough to fix, but which delighted you by running round and around on their own power and on a single track.

(more…)

Hunt the Devil on Holiday 2015

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Fireworks in New York, 2002. (Credit: Jon Sullivan / PDPhoto.org)

Hunt the Devil will take a brief break for the holiday season. We will return on January 5, 2016.

Oscar and I are grateful for our readers.   We wish you a happy holiday.

Over the last twenty-two months, we have written nearly 180 posts based on our book, Hunt the Devil (published in 2015 by the University of Alabama Press) and building toward a sequel to Hunt the Devil, the working title of which is After Empire.

So far, three articles for academic journals on the After-Empire project have emerged from the blog. Two already are in print: (more…)

Islamophobia

Davids_Samling

Davids Samling, Copenhagen, Denmark, December 2012. (Credit: Orf3us / Wikimedia Commons)

A phobia is an extreme fear, extreme to the point of irrationality—a fear so large that it exceeds the danger posed. Sometimes it incapacitates us. Other times it incites us to violence.

Risk is inherent to life. That’s commonsense.

Americans crossing a busy London street are endangered by a traffic pattern contrary to their ingrained expectations.  They habitually look left before stepping off the curb. Consequently, they miss seeing the bus coming at them from the immediate right lane. One might be traumatized by the possibility of being run over by a bus—which has happened to some unsuspecting pedestrians—to the point of never walking the delightful streets of London or even visiting the UK. That is being paralyzed by fear of the possible.

Muslims have perpetrated terrorist acts in the US and abroad. In Manhattan, Boston, Paris, San Bernardino, and elsewhere. A Muslim neighbor, no matter how harmless he or she appears, could be planning another terrorist attack. Therefore, Muslims in general should be considered an existential danger? That’s an irrational conclusion provoked by fear of the unlikely. (more…)

The Part About ‘Illegal’ That I Don’t Get (Part 2)

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Immigrant children, Ellis Island, New York, 1908. (Credit: U.S. Government National Archives)

About 45% of the “illegal” immigrant population in the U.S. entered the country through “ports of entry” with legal documents, and then overstayed the terms of their permits. About 55% entered without undergoing immigration inspection.  The Cubans avidly sought—and seek—immigration inspection in order to be declared legal residents of the country.

The “special” status granted to Cuban immigrants has existed since the takeover of Cuba by the Castro Revolution. Cubans have repaid in kind by a steadfast allegiance to US right-wing agendas through the last 50 years. In 1961 they answered the siren call of the CIA to join an expeditionary force that would topple the Castro regime—and then were abandoned by the Kennedy administration on the beaches of the Bay of Pigs. The US barely avoided nuclear war with the Soviet Union over Cuba in 1962. Cubans participated in the US war against North Vietnam and were instrumental in the pursuit and defeat of the guerrilla forces of Ché Guevara in Bolivia in 1967.

Do not forget that several of the Watergate burglars in 1972 were Cuban, and that one of the most fiercely disputed electoral counties (Miami-Dade) in the 2000 Bush vs. Gore presidential election is today (and was also then) largely Hispanic (65%) and Cuban-American (34%).  (more…)

The Part That I Don’t Get About ‘Illegal’ (Part 1)

Women and children among Syrian refugees striking at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015. (Credit: Mstyslav Chernov / Wikimedia Commons)

Women and children among Syrian refugees striking at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015. (Credit: Mstyslav Chernov / Wikimedia Commons)

Down here in Arizona opponents of “illegal” immigration (they are really opponents of all immigration, whether “illegal” or perfectly legal) are fond of putting an end to all discussion about the subject with the following question: “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you get?” That settles the issue in their mind. Period. End of story. I have never had an opportunity to answer because the question has never been put to me directly. Mostly, I suspect, because such people think that my immigration status is shady at best and flagrantly illegal at worst. No one ever likes to mention the rope in the hanged man’s house.

But now our clown dynasty (I use the term coined by H.L. Mencken to refer to US politicians) has voted in the House of Representatives that it does not want to accept Syrian refugees, and several Republican presidential candidates are advocating the surveillance of Mosques and the government registry of Muslims (including American citizens who are Muslims). I take the liberty of answering, and explaining my answer, to this preposterous question for all readers of our blog.

The part that I don’t get about “illegal” is how come I’m not?! (more…)