Welcome to Imperial America

Posted on November 28, 2001

Welcome to Imperial America
November 28, 2001
by Jerald Cumbus (JCMach1)

“Thus, before our own time, the customs of our ancestors produced excellent men, and eminent men preserved our ancient customs and the institutions of their forefathers. But through the republic, when it came to us, was like a beautiful painting, whose colours, however, were already fading with age, our own time not only has neglected to freshen it by renewing the original colors, but has not even taken the trouble to preserve its configuration and, so to speak, its general outlines. For what is now left of the ‘ancient customs’… They have been, as we see, so completely buried in oblivion that they are not only no longer practiced, but are already unknown. And what shall I say of the men? … For it is through our own faults, not by any accident, that we retain only the form of the commonwealth, but have long since lost its substance.” – Cicero

Since September 11th there have been a number of people (especially on the Left) who have called George W. Bush’s ruthless grab for power Nazi-like. A number of these people (and you know who you are) have put forward many theories about how the current situation we find ourselves involved in is like the rise of the National Socialists in the 1930s. While I think a number of interesting points have been made, I believe the operative historical precedent isn’t the rise of the Nazi. The key to understanding our current situation can be found much farther back in history: the fall of the Roman Republic.

“In the city the landless urban population was now engaged in various kinds of production and services. So long as the consumer market was being increased – by providing for the war machine, by the need for new buildings and engineering works in the city – and by satisfying the growing sophistication of the urban population itself – there was enough work to keep the city dwellers employed and quiet” (Cunliffe 90-91). So it went in the Roman Republic and so it goes in America today.

Much like the growth the Romans faced with the First and Second Punic Wars, America in the 20th Century was forced by circumstances and sometimes necessity to expand its military power across the globe. After the Second World War, that power led to a specific American led hegemony in Europe in the form of NATO. Military hegemony led directly to an American economic hegemony. Eventually becoming the multi-national corporations we have today, the tentacles of American economic Imperialism spread across the globe. Nothing could resist the force of this globalization of American Empire.

Those who did resist became pariah states or worse. Take for example the last 40 years of Cuban history. Or, take the ousting and subsequent murder of Salvador Allende in Chile by CIA operatives. America guarded its empire zealously under Republican and Democratic presidents. In Vietnam, two Democratic administrations and one Republican one fought a war to ensure American dominance of Southeast Asia. Defeated, one might of thought that the Empire had been taught a lesson. Just like the Roman Republic though, we took our defeats and further mastered the art of waging war in pursuit of Empire.

Similar to the Republic, America has formed itself from an ever-increasing expansion of the notion of citizenship. In early Rome, local peoples in Italy found themselves homogenized into the melting-pot of Roman society. Like the American ideal, the Roman ideals of government created a nation and a way of life. In a kind of Imperialist ‘mission creep’ those values eventually morphed into the militarist Imperialism of the present day and of the past. Instead of accepting difference as an important value in a citizen or a political ally, Rome began accepting only blind allegiance to its directives. Is this any different from America today?

Eisenhower’s farewell speech in which he warned of the growing power of the military industrial complex should have much resonance today. By Eisenhower’s time, it had become clear that America’s Imperial goals were being permanently instilled in our society in the name of National Security. Switzerland has almost perfect National Security. In America National Security equals the preservation of the American Empire at any cost. While I could argue who is Marius and who is Sulla, I propose there is something much greater at stake in the loss of our civil liberties and the stolen selection of George W. Bush as President: we risk losing Democracy itself if we follow the path of Imperialism. It doesn’t happen overnight. It moves from Marius to Sulla and to Caesar. And while Augustus is not too bad, it also gives us Caligula and Nero. This is the same anti-Democratic system that has given us George W. Bush.

As Cicero argues, if we do not act it is our own fault. These acts cannot stand in a true Democracy. Getting rid of Bush alone will not do, the mechanisms of Imperialism must be dismantled in our country. If we fail at this, another will rise in his place. We cannot forget that the blades that killed Caesar engendered in the womb of Rome the Imperial state. In these times we indeed find that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.


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What Hobbits Can Teach America

Posted on November 26, 2001
With the impending release of the new film The Fellowship of the Ring, I thought it would be important to explore how this material is relevant to us in America today. There is little doubt that the film will be hugely successful. The large built-in fan base and Hollywood marketing will assure that. But, as good or bad as this film may be I want to launch a strike before America’s film critics get hold of it. I have little doubt that our myopic critics in this country will reduce the story to one of Good vs. Evil. Also, there is little doubt that they will use that simplistic explanation to explain the probable success of the film. However, I believe Hobbits have much they can teach America and it goes far beyond such myopic reductions.

The years Tolkien was writing his trilogy roughly covers the years of World War II and just after. So, it should come as little surprise that the traumatic events of that period had a profound affect on his work. I won’t go so far as to suggest it is an outright allegory as some critics have. Instead, I suggest that Tolkien’s work is colored by the times in which he lived and represents an intentional critique of totalitarianism.

The evil system that Tolkien describes is a world that seeks absolute control over individual thoughts and actions. All that is needed for the perfection of the system is finding the “One Ring:”

One Ring to Rule them All
One Ring to Find Them
One Ring to take them all
And in the Darkness Bind them

That rune is written on the inside of the ring of power – hidden, it only appears when great heat is applied. The ring itself hides a person when exercising its power.

Power hides itself and Sauron himself never physically appears in the book. The most popular reference is to the “lidless eye” which exerts its force from the Dark Tower. Like Bentham’s Panopticon, Sauron’s power and authority is placed in the discipline of surveillance a la Foucault. Constant and unbending – Sauron is always watching his minions.

The power of totalitarianism is also seductive. The Black Riders (Nazgul) were humans seduced by the drive for power. Even those seemingly good characters Elrond and Galadriel, seduced by the power in the Elven rings, have used the power to carve out their own havens from the outside world. This cannot help but remind me of the traditional liberal position of working within a system for positive change. Can this work if the system itself is evil? Tolkien’s answer seems to be no. The elves pass away at the end of the Third Age. They cease to be a force.

Force alone is not the answer. Warfare in the book, merely served as defense, or a cover for Frodo’s quest. The system had to be destroyed from the inside. Through those faults (greed, disloyalty, apathy, incompetence) Frodo is able to make his way into Mordor and to Mount Doom. On the brink of the crack, Frodo finds himself unable to give up the Ring. Seduced by the power, he imagines himself ruler of the world. It is at that moment that Gollum (the former ring owner) bites his finger off and falls into the heart of the volcano. The irony is, of course, that Frodo’s act of pity and kindness for not killing Gollum is rewarded in the end. True heroism also has its shades of gray.

The War Against Totalitarianism did not end with the Third Age of Middle-Earth. It did not end with the war against Hitler and Hirohito. It didn’t end with the collapse of Stalin and his disciples. It exists in a System that coerces people to conform to its power and directives: that is the magic of the Ring. In one of the more telling scenes in the trilogy, Frodo offers to give Galadriel the One Ring. She resists the temptation and points out that instead of a Dark Lord, she would have become a Dark Queen – as beautiful as she was terrible. America, Lady Liberty herself, has much to learn from hobbits.


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