U.S. Marine Corps Marines, from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, International Security Assistance Force, operate at Garmsir, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, April 29, 2008, during Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alex C. Guerra) (Released)
The myth of American innocence and virtue forecloses any question about US imperialism or, at least, makes it hard to imagine that we are perpetrating harm on others for our own purposes and to our own advantage. We may be flawed, but the responsibility has fallen to us to fend off the barbarians and advance the cause of civilization. So the myth insists.
At a relatively abstract level, empire may not seem an obviously appropriate label for US engagement in world affairs. The idea of dominating extensive territories and peoples is unpalatable to most Americans and inconsistent with the nation’s self-image, as I’ve discussed in a previous post. So the myth persists.
Seen in more concrete terms, US imperialism is harder to ignore, to explain away, but also harder to confront. One response when confronted with the record of US imperialism and militarism is reflection-acknowledgement-correction. Another option is denial-repression-projection. So the myth resists. (more…)
United States Republican presidential ticket, 1864. Print shows a campaign banner for 1864 Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln and running mate Andrew Johnson. (Credit: Currier and Ives)
I don’t understand the modern Republican Party. Why conjure the ghost of Ronald Reagan rather than the living presence of Abraham Lincoln? Unless you have moved so far away from the spirit of Lincoln that his biblical language is no longer an inspiration, but rather an embarrassment.
In the mid-1850s, the appearance of the Know-Nothings in the US political scene threatened the integrity of the two-party electoral system. The Know-Nothings, according to James McPherson, “generally favored temperance and always opposed tax support for parochial schools. Their main goal was to reduce the power of foreign-born voters in politics.” In a letter to his friend Joshua Speed, Lincoln countered the threat of the Know-Nothings:
Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.[i]
“Stump Speaking,” oil on canvas, by George Caleb Bingham, 1853-54. (Credit: St. Louis Art Museum)
“. . . faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Hebrews 11.1 (Holy Bible NRSV)
Surely, faith in democracy is a steadfast hope for a condition of self-rule that so far remains unrealized—a belief in the unseen. What passes for democracy these days is more akin to oligarchy than self-rule, with democracy reduced to the conceit of ritualized voting.
The political imagination, as Sheldon Wolin holds, is a function of vision, of “seeing” a phenomenon in political space from a particular angle or perspective. Such vision can be descriptive or, more to the point, imaginative. As an act of imagination, it expresses fundamental values and seeks to transcend history. It is a multidimensional image that projects “the political order into a time that is yet to be”—an aesthetic vision of “political society in its corrected fullness, not as it is but as it might be.”[i]
An image of the people engaged in self-rule is the essence of the democratic faith. Two of its three dimensions, as I indicated in “Democracy with Property,” are the twin populist principles of increased political decentralization and adequate distribution of personal wealth, enough to keep elites from dominating the citizenry. (more…)
USS Iowa (BB-61) fires a full broadside of her nine 16″/50 and six 5″/38 guns during a target exercise near Vieques Island, Puerto Rico. (Credit: U.S. Dept. of Defense)
The “gimmick,” Juan Manuel García Passalacqua (aide to two Puerto Rican governors during the 1960s) wrote in a newspaper column over a decade ago, was as follows:
To produce jobs here so that our population could be kept domesticated to prevent social disorder to protect law and order in the archipelago that was essentially and only a very important naval and military base for the United States. We all ended that in Vieques.[i]
Passalacqua was warning of economic disaster given the impending end of Section 936 of the Internal Revenue Code, which gave “mainland United States companies an exemption from Federal taxes on income earned in Puerto Rico, whether it comes from operations or interest on local bank deposits.” In the aftermath of the closing of the naval artillery range in the small contiguous island of Vieques, and of the closing of the impressive Roosevelt Roads naval base, Passalacqua relayed the conclusion of several economic reports from the US mainland: “Tax exemptions to multinational corporations are not needed anymore” (The San Juan Star, July 9, 2006). (more…)
“Keying Up” – The Court Jester, oil on canvas, by William Merritt Chase, 1875. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Tom Engelhardt is an uncommonly keen observer of the imperial globe. His blog, TomDispatch.com, points critically at what mainstream media ignore or condone. The blog functions as an “antidote” to how the news typically is reported. He’s been at it since the beginning of the global war on terror. Before that, he wrote insightfully on US war culture in The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (Basic Books, 1995). Now he sees signs of the beginning of the end of US empire.
Engelhardt sees the decline of American imperial power reflected in the words of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign theme: “Make America Great Again!” The word “again” is revealing. Rhetoric makes and reflects political culture.
In the 1950s, US wealth and power were “too self-evident for presidents to cite, hail, or praise.” Their political vocabulary was devoid of superlatives such as “greatest,” “exceptional,” and “indispensible.” After Vietnam, though, things went the way of Rambo. (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)
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…)
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…)
“The Taking of Jericho” by Jean Fouquet, oil on canvas, c. 1452-1460. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
And it came to pass at the seventh time, when the priests blew with the trumpets, Joshua said unto the people, Shout; for the Lord hath given you the city….
And it came to pass, when the people … shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat.
Joshua 6: 16-20
A recent article in USA Today commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall characterizes the event with this headline: “Presidential words helped bring down Berlin Wall.” The sub-headline of the article declares that speeches at or near the wall by JFK and Ronald Reagan “proved the power—and the limits—of rhetoric in putting Cold War on ice.”
The article reflects the conventional narrative that has been adopted by U.S. political culture: Kennedy acquiesced to the building of the Berlin wall with words that seem quite sane: “A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” (more…)