empire

Trump’s Prophetic Trope

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Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Death, Famine, War, and Conquest, an 1887 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

We have used the symbol of apocalypse at Hunt the Devil to frame the political ascendency of Donald Trump in mythic terms. It is a rich and resonant symbol, a metaphor with multiple entailments, both religious and secular, each entangled with the others. Its mythos is relevant to interpreting the crisis of US empire that is reflected in Trump’s rise to the presidency.

The imperial presidency itself is a metaphorical precursor of the Trump phenomenon, a term for excessive executive power, which gained popularity in the 1960s and found voice in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s 1973 book by that title. The power of the presidency exceeded its constitutional limits consistent with the transformation of the republic into an empire. With empire came war culture and the normalization of continuous warfare. (more…)

Failed Empire

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(Credit: Veterans for Peace)

Is the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency the sign of a failed empire?

“Make America Great Again” is a campaign slogan that seems to acknowledge the country’s fall from grace. Tom Engelhardt certainly thinks that’s the case, as we noted in a previous Hunt the Devil post. In Engelhardt’s words, Trump is “our first declinist candidate for president.”

Trump’s victory is a convoluted concession that world dominion has been a ruinous pursuit. Of course, he promises to recover the country’s greatness by reinvesting in its military might, as if the US military is not already rich and mighty. But, for now, the premise stands: The US is no longer great.

What happened to bring down the empire, or at least the country’s collective faith in it? (more…)

Myths and the Empire

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“Lincoln Speaks to Freedmen on the Steps of the Capital at Richmond,” oil on canvas, by Gus Nall, 1963. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Traditionally myths are considered stories about the gods. But more accurately, myths are stories from the gods. Perhaps it is more comfortable to consider them, according to the less beautiful terminology of our times, stories from the unconscious. In Jungian terms, myths are archetypal manifestations that take the form of narratives.

Ritual is the enactment of a myth (this is Joseph Campbell’s definition). Ritual performance brings myths into our reality, and according to Black Elk, spread their sacred power among the tribe, thus making the world “greener and happier.”

An angel can turn into a devil before our eyes: Lucifer becomes Satan. The reverse can also be true: Joan of Arc, burned as a witch, becomes saint. A myth can be perceived as containing a hero (George Armstrong Custer) engaged in mortal struggle with an antagonist (Sitting Bull), and a moral that legitimizes Custer as representing the forces of good and Sitting Bull as an evil avatar. But then times change, our hopes and fears transform, and reason—ever a servant to our formulations—re-casts Sitting Bull as a patriot warrior and Custer as a fool. (more…)

Language and Empire

Mosaic_depicting_theatrical_masks_of_Tragedy_and_Comedy,_2nd_century_AD,_from_Rome_Thermae_Decianae_(-),_Palazzo_Nuovo,_Capitoline_Museums_(12830396085)

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…)

Deciphering American Empire: #3

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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…)

Deciphering American Empire: #2

Imperial_Federation,_Map_of_the_World_Showing_the_Extent_of_the_British_Empire_in_1886_(levelled)

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…)

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…)

Empire or Democracy

1899 political cartoon by Winsor McCay. Uncle Sam (representing the United States), gets entangled with rope around a tree labeled "Imperialism" while trying to subdue a bucking colt or mule labeled "Philippines" while a figure representing Spain walks off over the horizon. Reference to the United States taking control of the Philippines from Spain at end of the Spanish American War and the subsequent Philippine-American War. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

1899 political cartoon by Winsor McCay. Uncle Sam (representing the United States), gets entangled with rope around a tree labeled “Imperialism” while trying to subdue a bucking colt or mule labeled “Philippines” while a figure representing Spain walks off over the horizon. Reference to the United States taking control of the Philippines from Spain at end of the Spanish American War and the subsequent Philippine-American War. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In 2008, seven years into an unending war on terrorism, historian Howard Zinn raised the question of whether the time had come not only to acknowledge America’s imperial past and present, but also to break the habit of militarism.

Have not the justifications for empire, embedded in our culture, assaulting our good sense — that war is necessary for security, that expansion is fundamental to civilization — begun to lose their hold on our minds? Have we reached a point in history where we are ready to embrace a new way of living in the world, expanding not our military power, but our humanity?

Zinn’s question signals a moment of transition or, at least the possibility thereof, which implies an alternative vision of how to live in the world. (more…)

Words of Empire

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: View of the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty. (Credit: National Park Service)

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: View of the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty. (Credit: National Park Service)

Blunt Words

Conquest, Control, Supremacy, Rule, Domination, Power, Hegemony

Definition: an extensive, often multinational territory under the economic, cultural, and/or military rule of a central authority.

The United States is an “empire in denial,” Nial Ferguson, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (New York: Penguin Books, 2004).

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “We don’t seek empires. We’re not imperialistic. We never have been” (April 28, 2003). (more…)