EMPIRE COURSE JUNE 19:
WILLIAMS, GRANDIN AND PARENTI

In the following recording by the LA soundposse, Dr. John Marciano continues his public seminar series with “Empire as a Way of Life”, a monthly lecture and discussion, presented until June of 2007. Dr. Marciano says about Empire as a Way of Life,

“A fundamental purpose of our meetings is to understand the systemic nature of the US empire and the economic and military imperialism that is its lifeblood. The historian, William Appleman Williams, argues that empire became a way of life in the US. A combination of patterns of thought and action that, as it becomes habitual and institutionalized, defines the thrust and character of a culture and society. This way of life has convinced many US Americans they have a right or manifest destiny to impose their political and economic policies upon others.”

The lectures are given at the Ken Edwards center in Santa Monica, California. Dr. John Marciano is professor emeritus at the State University of New York, where he taught courses on social and historical foundations of education, and class, gender, and race. Paper and email copies of the lectures are available. Contact Dr. Marciano at johnmarciano@mac.com.

I will close this course tonight with a brief summary from the last chapters in Williams, Grandin and Parenti, and reflections from other scholars – reviewing some again given the nature of their arguments and this being our last session.

In Williams’s last chapter, “Notes on freedom without empire,” he asserts that

“… [A critical approach to history] begins with an honest reading of what we find in the mirror of our history, and proceeds as a continuous dialogue about how to be leaders (and to promote the common welfare) without being imperialist.”

A fundamental issue facing us is whether we can transcend the decades of propaganda to which we have been subjected and come up with an honest and objective reading of US history that is not overwhelmed by our subjective conditioning and beliefs.

Williams believed that citizens here lacked

“any idea of community beyond a system presided over by the US as a benevolent policeman.”

A minimal understanding of actual US history, however, reveals it has never been a benevolent policeman but always violent to the point of genocide. The evidence supporting this thesis is easily found in the historical record.

According to Williams,

“empire is expensive. It costs a very great deal of money. It kills a great number of human beings. It confines and progressively throttles spontaneity and imagination. It substitutes paranoid togetherness for community.”

The human, economic and ecological costs are clearly linked rather than being separate entities; they have been staggering, especially for the victims of US actions in the Third World but also for those in this nation.

The dilemma we face, Williams argues, is that this empire will continue to destroy this and other nations

“until we Americans confront the truth of our imperial way of life.”

If the past is any indication of the coming future, our long history as a nation state clearly suggests we will not confront the truth: the ideologies of god and country are simply too powerful.

Williams pleads that we need to

“turn away from empire and begin to create a community. At the very least we must break free of the paranoia that defined all our problems as caused by external evil.”

The key to understanding empire is that it begins at home and is inherent to capitalism: it is not to be found in the nature of the old “Evil Empire,” terrorism or revolutionary movements abroad.

In his final chapter, “Iraq Is Not Arabic for Latin America,” Greg Grandin connects the current US-Iraq War with US wars in Central America in the 1980s, beginning with his comments about US officials and pundits who have been involved in and defended both imperialist assaults. He mentions

“Elliott Abrams – the man who in the 1980s so twisted the concept of human rights that it could justify the homicidal activities of the Contras and the Salvadoran military – being appointed by Bush [II] to lead a global crusade for democracy.”

Grandin also discusses

“accusations that John Negroponte’s involvement in the cover-up of hundreds of executions while he was ambassador to Honduras [in the 1980s] made him unfit to serve as intelligence czar….”

The accusations against Negroponte are all true, and if justice prevailed he would be in prison having been convicted as an accessory to murder.

Grandin points out that our violent history

“does nothing to douse the maddened zeal with which these new imperialists embrace the idea that the US has not only the right but the ability to order the world.”

This self-righteous zeal goes back to the “City on the Hill” and the English colonist invaders who came here in the 17th century; its form has changed but the essential worldview remains.

For example, Senator Trent Lott reflected this worldview when he defended the 1998 “Iraqi Liberation Act” that became official policy after being “passed unanimously by the Senate.” This is another fact of history that Democrats and liberals wish to drop down the memory hole. Lott reminded colleagues

“of the success of the Reagan Doctrine and US patronage of the … Contras”

by stating that

“we supported freedom fighters in … Latin America willing to fight and die for a democratic future.”

The imperialist links between the policies in Central America and Iraq are quite powerful; therefore, those challenging such policies had better understand these connections, lest amnesia force us into understanding one war at a time that is totally separate from any other imperialist venture.

The militarist and murderous political officials and intellectuals who urge violence against the poor around the world – then in Central America and now in Iraq and Afghanistan – are the core agents of a neo-fascist imperialism. They have brought death and devastation to millions abroad, but not one has had to face a 21st century Nuremberg Tribunal.

The possibility that their policies will lead us to an actual fascist state has been raised by Naomi Wolf’a provocative article: “Fascist America, in 10 easy steps,” the Guardian of London, April 24, 2007. She argues,

“If you look at history, you can see that there is essentially a blueprint for turning an open society into a dictatorship. That blueprint has been used again and again in more and less bloody, more and less terrifying ways. But it is always effective. It is very difficult and arduous to create and sustain a democracy – but history shows that closing one down is much simpler. You simply have to be willing to take [certain] steps.”

She goes on to argue,

“if you are willing to look, that each of these … steps has already been initiated today in the US by the Bush administration which has used time-tested tactics to close down an open society. It is time for us to be willing to think the unthinkable – … that it can happen here. And … we are further along than we realize.”

These steps include

invoking “a terrifying and external enemy,”
creating “a gulag,”
setting up “an internal surveillance system,”
harassing “citizens’ groups” that dissent from official policy,
engaging “in arbitrary detention and release,”
targeting “key individuals,”
controlling “the press,”
equating “dissent [with] treason,” and
suspending “the rule of law.”

She concludes on a very sober note:

“As Americans turn away quite leisurely, keeping tuned to Internet shopping and American Idol, the foundations of democracy are being fatally corroded…. in a context in which we are ‘at war’ in a ‘long war’ – a war without end.”

Let’s return to Grandin, who asks us to recall recent history from the 1980s, arguing that

“all of … Bush’s abuses of power [today] … have their most immediate antecedents in Reagan’s Central America policy, which in retrospect has to be understood as the first battle in the New Right’s crusade to roll back restrictions placed on the imperial presidency in wake of Vietnam, Watergate, COINTELPRO, and other scandals of the 1970s.”

We must also not forget that these regressive efforts could not have succeeded without the active and/or silent support of Democrats and liberals.

Grandin also reminds us of a fact that influences Parenti’s work.

“[The US’s] privileged position within the world’s global financial system … demands an aggressive foreign policy. On this fact, neither political party disagrees.”

This is an absolutely vital point that cannot be overstated: leading Democrats have no qualms about exploiting the poor in Latin America or engaging in aggression there or the Middle East.

Concluding on a powerful point, Grandin states:

“Like any empire before it, the US will not tilt too far in favor of democracy at the expense of stability…. The precarious misery generated by free-market absolutism will predictably lead to challenges to [US] interests and authority – and, just as predictably, they will have to be dealt with, as they were in Latin America, with an increasingly heavy hand. Talk of the ‘Salvador option’ [i.e., death squad regimes], in other words, is not an indication of the failure of Washington’s imperial policy but an admission of its essence.”

Therefore, what Hans shared with us last time bears repeating: progressive struggles underway in Latin America clearly challenge US imperial interests. As citizens we will have to decide whether to support these struggles – or the empire. In this epic conflict, there is no middle ground, no neutral and safe place.

Michael Parenti concludes his book by agreeing with the Progressive magazine’s blunt assessment of post-WW II US foreign policy:

“The legacy for the US is tragic: a permanently militarized conception of national security; agencies of covert action and undemocratic secrecy, prone to violation of individual rights and police-state tactics incompatible with democracy; a huge inefficient bureaucracy; militarization of foreign policy; redirection of resources away from humanitarian ends” (quoted in Robin Andersen, A Century of Media, A Century of War).

It is not a pretty picture, merely a truthful one, and the starting point for anyone who is serious about understanding this nation’s foreign policy.

To close my comments this evening, I wish to revisit and add the views of some scholars who complement the insights of Grandin, Parenti and Williams. But first we need to be reminded that these scholars all challenge the dominant elite view of US international policy found in our schools and mass media, captured by the present George II, who has proclaimed

“our nation [as] the greatest force for good in history.”

He has praised the glories of the US and the need to share these with the world: Despite

“its flaws, … our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be the model to the world of justice and inclusion and diversity without division.”

This arrogant, triumphant and uncritical view of the US mission in the world was contested by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, who bluntly linked

“the founding of the US … to [a white supremacist] … settler-colonialist and imperialist-aggressor state.”

Dunbar-Ortiz named

“white supremacy [as] the working rationalization and ideology of English theft of Native American lands, and especially the justification for slavery.”

She also unsettled us with her claim that this white supremacist US origin myth

“is itself closely tied to the parallel Afrikaner origin myth in South Africa and Apartheid.”

White supremacy is not only the core premise of US domestic and international policy “from the origins to the present,” it and imperialism are also

“inseparable from the content of this origin story and the definition of patriotism today. It began before the official founding of the nation, and was not an accident or aberration in the progression of democracy.”

Dunbar-Ortiz’s thesis is that

“the US [has been] fundamentally imperialist and racist from the beginning, and imperialism was not a divergence from a well-intentioned path.”

We didn’t just stray from the wonderful “City on the Hill”: that City was fundamentally and profoundly rotten from the beginning.

In the “unlearning” process against empire that we must go through as citizens, we might well consider the insights of social theorist and writer Harry Magdoff, who was quoted at the end of Dunbar-Ortiz’s article:

“… citizens of an imperialist country who wish to understand imperialism must first emancipate themselves from the seemingly endless web of threads that bind them emotionally and intellectually to the imperialist condition.”

I also shared the views of scholar and filmmaker Felix Greene, who wrote that the need for violence grows out of the basic aim of imperialism:

“… to make the maximum profits, to exploit, to dominate…. Imperialism of necessity involves the defense of the social order out of which it developed.”

This is a key point often missed by critics of the means and results of imperialism that do not examine its essence or inherent qualities. Such insights are absolutely essential if we are to understand the links between the nature of the capitalist system internally, and empire and exploitation abroad.

Noam Chomsky, our leading intellectual dissident, asserted in his book World Orders Old and New that US imperialism has sought to maintain the worldwide class division between North and South, which is far more important than the East-West, Cold War conflict. A much

“more realistic understanding of the Cold War [can be obtained] by adopting a longer-range perspective, viewing it as a particular phase in the five-hundred-year European conquest of the world – the history of aggression, subversion, terror, and domination now termed the ‘North-South confrontation.’”

In The Culture of Terrorism, Chomsky discusses US-supported genocidal and imperial violence against Central America that must be placed within the larger context of overall US foreign policy:

“The central – and not very surprising – conclusion that emerges from the documentary and historical record is that US international and security policy, rooted in the structure of power in the domestic society, has as its primary goal the preservation of what we might call ‘the Fifth Freedom,’ understood crudely but with a fair degree of accuracy as the freedom to rob, to exploit and to dominate, to undertake any course of action to ensure that existing privilege is protected and advanced.”

The “self-image of American elites,” Chomsky writes, reveals the US as

“a lawless and violent state and must remain so, independently of such nonsense as international law, the World Court, the UN, or other international institutions…. US international terrorism is ‘scandalous’ only if it infringes upon the prerogatives of the powerful or carries a potential cost to elite interests.”

Therefore, “the successful use of terrorism is not considered a scandal. On the contrary, it is welcomed and applauded.”

The activist and writer Arundhati Roy provided us with a brief summary of our actual imperialist aggression throughout the world.

“Since the Second World War, the US has been at war with or attacked, among other countries, Korea, Guatemala, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Libya, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan. This list should also include the US government’s covert operations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the coups it has engineered, and the dictators it has armed and supported.”

This is why we are hated throughout the Third World.

In a provocative article that addresses the issues we have examined in this course, Phyllis Bennis and Robert Jensen ask: “What Comes After Withdrawal? Moving Beyond Anti-War Politics.”

They contend that as citizens we

“must challenge the US Empire. The US troop withdrawal and reparations [in Iraq] should be accompanied by a declaration of a major change in US foreign policy, especially in Iraq and the Middle East. We need a new foreign policy based on justice, relying on international law and the UN, rather than the assertion of might-makes-right.”

They also remind us – uncomfortably for those who still harbor illusions about the more liberal wing of our one-party corporate system – that such a vision must move

“beyond the mendacity of the Bush administration, to recognize that similar dreams of conquest and domination have animated every administration, albeit in different forms. From the darling of the anti-communist liberal elite (John F. Kennedy) and the champion of so-called ‘assertive multilateralism’ (Bill Clinton), to the crude Republican realist (Richard Nixon) and the patron saint of the conservative right (Ronald Reagan), US empire in the post-World War II era has been a distinctly bi-partisan effort.”

They urge us

“to transcend this ugly history … through an honest dialogue and promise of a sea change in US policy…. Such empires are typically brought down from outside with great violence. But we have another option, as citizens of that empire who understand how this pathology of power damages our country as well as the world. Imagine what would be possible if we – ordinary citizens of this latest empire – could build a movement that gave politicians no choice but to do the right thing.”

This is a utopian vision that should guide our thoughts and actions.

Bennis and Jensen have written a passionate and fine article. However, at the same time we must heed the lessons of the past: a powerful anti-imperialist movement able to stop and destroy the empire has not arisen in our 218-year history, not even during the Vietnam War. We cannot afford to be naïve about such prospects now. While we can’t predict the future, we do know what has happened in the past: no such movement has pushed government officials to oppose individual wars let alone the empire that creates and sustains them.

Therefore, we need to be clear about the nature of this empire and the task we face if we wish to dismantle it. The historian Arnold Toynbee addressed this issue in the 1970s:

“America today is the leader of a world-wide anti-revolutionary movement in defense of vested interests. She now stands for what Rome stood for. Rome consistently supported the rich against the poor in all foreign communities that fell under her sway; and, since the poor … have always and everywhere been far more numerous than the rich, Rome’s policy made for inequality, for injustice, and for the least happiness for the greatest number.”

If we are to challenge the premises and practices of this empire, we must first have a clear understanding of its utterly brutal and historic role. For those on the liberal-left end of the political spectrum, that means ultimately confronting the imperialist actions of the Democratic Party. In the post-WW II era alone, the staggering record of violence against the Third World by Democratic presidents (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton) ought to teach us that “savage wars of peace” are not a Republican monopoly. US imperial interventions against sovereign countries have tied Democrats and Republicans in a “brotherhood” of empire. It is a “blood brotherhood” that will not be changed by remaining in a state of denial about our government’s true history.

Lest we think that these assertions are too harsh, we can ponder the words of Ralph Peters, former US Army Intelligence Officer (2003):

“We are entering a new American century, in which we will become wealthier, culturally more lethal, and increasingly powerful. We will excite hatreds without precedent…. The de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy [that means safe for the ruling elites who control it] and open to our cultural assaults. To these ends we will do a fair amount of killing.”

This is the ruthless system we face, the same one that prompted the words of historian Gabriel Kolko after the US invasion of Vietnam. Reflecting upon the truths found in The Pentagon Papers about that war, he wrote the following: the Papers were a

“singularly overwhelming indictment of how devious, incorrigible, and beyond the pale of human values America’s rulers were throughout this epic event in U.S. history.”

The Republican neo-cons who now run the empire are no different than their Democratic brothers were during that genocidal Vietnam conflict; today, as then, they are “beyond the pale of human values.” To forget this truth is to consign the world’s poor to a future of unrelenting terror and tragedy, and to play our role as “good Americans” in that tragedy.

In order to challenge the passive roles we are asked to play as “good Americans” to continue the US Empire, we need a long range view of history, perhaps that provided by the English historian Eric Hobsbawm. In his Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (2002), he stated:

“Living for over 80 years of the 20th century has been a natural lesson in the mutability of political power, empires and institutions. I have seen the total disappearance of the European empires, not least the greatest of all, the British Empire, never larger and more powerful than in my childhood, when it pioneered the strategy of keeping order in places like Kurdistan and Afghanistan by aerial bombardment. I have seen great world powers relegated to minor divisions, the end of a German Empire that expected to last a thousand years, and of a revolutionary power that expected to last forever. I am unlikely to see the end of the ‘American century,’ but it is a safe bet that some readers of this book will.”

It is our power to help bring about the end of that century.