Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Referendum on Empire

The upcoming presidential election will be as much a referendum on empire as anything else. If a Democrat becomes president, the U.S. will demolish its chances of becoming a successful empire. If the Republican John McCain becomes president, the U.S. will not only continue occupying Iraq, but will likely expand its military influence in an attempt to dominate the Middle East.

Two excellent books take opposing sides on this issue. Niall Ferguson’s Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire argues that we have long been an empire, without seeing ourselves as one (while the rest of the world is well aware of it). According to Ferguson, it is far more dangerous for us to be unconscious of our imperialism than to expand it knowingly and willingly, helping to make the world a more orderly place. Chalmers Johnson’s Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic agrees that we are an empire; but that we are on the path followed by Rome which was forced to substitute tyranny for democracy (as opposed to Britain, which saved its republic by giving up its empire). We can already see the evidence of Chalmers’ thesis in the subverting of the Constitution by Republicans led by the Bush administration, including the government’s invasion of privacy, use of torture, and restriction of free speech.

John McCain clearly wants to expand our empire, but whether he will come around to publicly calling that is an open question. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton want to withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible, and like the rest of the Democratic Party they are unlikely to invade any other countries unless there is a clear threat to our country; it is unclear, however, whether they will reduce the U.S. military presence in other countries which is the clearest manifestation of empire.

I share the opinion of most Democrats that the U.S. must lead by example rather than by force. This is a consequence of my belief that people are neither good nor evil (good and evil are characteristics of actions, not people), and that given enough knowledge and power all of us will come close to acquiring the most happiness and longevity possible within physical constraints.

Monday, March 17, 2008


The recent outrage over comments by Barack Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright threatens to squelch what could become a healthy and necessary national discussion of the issues raised in those comments: racism, hypocrisy, blowback, and the morality of state sponsored murder.

Wright is part of a generation that experienced first-hand the effects of racism, ranging from indignity to terrorism. Although much has improved in the last forty years, racism is a chronic disease that we all inherit and whose only remedy is cultural. Every child must be trained to accept others as having equal value; so the continued existence of racism must be interpreted as a failure of this training and of the culture that is responsible for providing it. The vehemence of Wrights remarks suggest an overreaction to being victimized by racism that could lead to a form of reverse racism; and fear of this threat may be the main driver of the negative reaction and concern over Obama’s position regarding them.

The most inflammatory of Wright’s comments involve the suggestion that the United States somehow deserved the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. Wright in fact gave a version of the “what goes around, comes around” argument that is similar to the idea of blowback, where our country’s numerous attempts to subvert or totally destroy unfriendly governments (which have yielded many more casualties than 9/11) would eventually lead to reprisals. To know this and then cry “foul” is, according to Wright, the worst kind of hypocrisy. Wright then used the notion that our government’s leaders should have been aware that the Christian deity would likely render the sternest judgment on those who kill or otherwise harm others to complete his argument that 9/11 could have and should have been anticipated.

The blowback concept is arguably correct or at least worthy of serious investigation, but it does not justify the killing of thousands of civilians, any more than any other act that is not purely defensive. The hypocrisy argument should be taken on a case by case basis; I for one was woefully ignorant of the magnitude of our nation’s state-sponsored murder and terrorism until 9/11 forced me to investigate the possible causes of the attacks. I dismiss out of hand the notion that God would or should “damn America” for its behavior, not just because the existence of God is disputable but because it is a cop-out from our responsibility to fix what’s broken in our culture that makes us fearful, arrogant, and intolerant regarding those who aren’t like us.

Finally, I believe that beneath the fiery and emotionally offensive rhetoric of Wright’s comments is a plea for the American public to cease its blind acceptance of the innocence and superiority of our nation and its leaders; and to apply the same standards to ourselves that we so easily apply to others, both domestically and internationally. This plea is one we should answer affirmatively, with honesty and the understanding that what we find so offensive about its delivery is a context of hurt which makes it both human and imperative.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


One of my favorite commentators on current events is Thom Hartmann, who I began listening to on Air America Radio some time last year. For Christmas, my wife bought me a copy of his latest book, Cracking the Code: How to Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America’s Original Vision. After weeks of dedicating most of my time to jump-starting a freelance writing career I finally got around to reading Hartmann’s book, and wish I had done so when I first got it.

The book is primarily a discussion of the basic elements of communication from a psychological perspective, with the practical aim of promoting a fair and honest dialog about politics. For me it added theoretical underpinnings to what I already knew, and added a key insight that I had not properly taken to heart: that of the two types of motivation, avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, seeking pleasure has the best chance of long term success.

A recent discussion with my two best friends brought this lesson home. I was arguing my meticulously derived position that mankind must learn to limit of not reduce its consumption, and was met with total and unequivocal rejection of the premise that it could ever happen. Like a diode that only permits current in one direction, the discussion quickly turned to technological fixes. My friends knew what I refused to admit, that over the long term people will see “reduction” as a limited response to a threat (of running out of resources or destroying the planet), and will only accept a long term solution that allows them to do what they want (seeking the “better” lifestyle that is associated with increased consumption).

This may explain why the best traction in the public discourse about global warming and limited energy supplies tends to accompany the growth of alternative technologies. People will more easily sign on to a different kind of growth, because they associate growth with the improvement of their lives.