A Cloud of Imperial Hubris


Illustration for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,“ engraving by Gustave Doré, 1866. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Tirelessly, Tom Englehardt works to raise our consciousness and tweak our conscience as citizens of an imperial war state. At TomDispatch.com, he offers a regular antidotal drip of posts by thoughtful and insightful critics of militarism. His newest book, A Nation Unmade by War, was released on May 22, warning that an empire made by war is also unmade by it.

A mere gesture to Englehardt’s observation is enough to underscore the country’s ominous trajectory.

We Americans do not like to think of ourselves as an empire. Nevertheless, Englehardt observes, America’s empire of chaos exists in a “cloud of hubris.” Hubris, you say? Yes, hubris—that condition of extreme pride and self-confidence, of outsized ambition that offends the gods, of overreach that leads to downfall. 

Never has a great power at its imperial prime proven so unsuccessful in deploying its might to advance its professed aims. The United States, especially since the implosion of the Soviet Union and the start of the Global War on Terror, has been “overmatched by underwhelming enemy forces” and has proven “incapable of producing any results other than destruction and further fragmentation across staggeringly large parts of the planet.”

This is true Greek tragedy. The overreach of US empire has offended the gods like never before:  “for the first time in the history of empires, the very well-being of the planet itself is at stake.”

Imperial Washington has become a permanent war capital. The automatic funding of the military-industrial complex is a bipartisan ritual. Donald Trump’s critics cannot blame the chaos all on him; this president is “less making history . . . than channeling it,” Englehardt insists. Trump is a sign of our plight; he is chaos personified.

We ought to consider Englehardt’s prophetic vision of imperial demise a call to recover our democratic character. Empire follows the path of oligarchy and authoritarianism in its devotion to militarism and constant warfare. It distorts the values of the country and warps its character.

We are living in a fantasy world, observes David Brooks, which monopolizes our attention and shrinks our imagination. In this moment of “vast historical transition,” we need to think more about the world we should be building and less about the “Trumpian soap opera.”

Brooks points to a warped national character, to the loss of our democratic ethos. Think of a country’s democratic character in terms of placing an adequate stress on the values of equality, social justice, and community.

Brooks speaks to the loss of these democratic qualities in our imperial age, to “The Strange Failure of the Educated Elite.” The grave irony is that the highly educated baby boomer generation—“the most educated generation in history”—has led ultimately to Donald Trump. This “new meritocratic autocracy has come to look like every other autocracy.” The educated class looks out only for themselves and their own.

The very “ideology of meritocracy” is built on a premise of individual talent that encourages “ruinous beliefs” for a democratic republic. It substitutes high IQ for civic leadership. It treats life as a journey of individualism, which spawns “a society high on narcissism and low on social connection.” It defines a self that is based on achievement, not character.

Brooks’ essential point is that “we meritocrats [lack] a civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, that we owe a debt to community and nation and that the essence of the admirable life is community before self.”

This says to me that losing touch with our democratic soul is the source of hubris and overreach. Therein lies the problem of empire and its solution.


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