Monday, February 11, 2019

The Empire State

Where we are today--whoever "we" are--did not happen as some kind of an accident. The paths can be traced back--the paths from the past that led us to where we are at this time and place.  As the recent blog-post series on Tamil and the United States show, I like to understand these historical paths in a way that I can then relate to my own life. 

Jill Lepore's single-volume history shows that the US being a military, economic, scientific, and cultural powerhouse today did not happen out of sheer luck, nor of any divine plan.  In response, the comment here raises an important question: "What makes America great?" 

While I have provided some thoughts in a rejoinder, the reality is that my decision to live in America was not because I thought it was great or the greatest ever.  I knew enough that the country had its own warts, and the longer I live there, the more I understand the blemishes, which are simply too many.  But, as the imperialist, racist, white supremacist, Rudyard Kipling wrote about his own life:
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground—in a fair ground—
Yea, Sussex by the sea! 
My decision to live in America, and in Oregon--my own Sussex by the sea--does not mean that I will deny the warts and all, or try to mask them either.  As I noted in my response, I have distaste for jingoism.

Of course, I could easily lead a life without ever examining my Brahmin past, or critiquing America.  But, that is an unexamined life.  Which is also why I followed up on this essay in the NYRB, where the author begins with:
It is hard to give up something you claim you never had. That is the difficulty Americans face with respect to their country’s empire. Since the era of Theodore Roosevelt, politicians, journalists, and even some historians have deployed euphemisms—“expansionism,” “the large policy,” “internationalism,” “global leadership”—to disguise America’s imperial ambitions. According to the exceptionalist creed embraced by both political parties and most of the press, imperialism was a European venture that involved seizing territories, extracting their resources, and dominating their (invariably dark-skinned) populations. Americans, we have been told, do things differently: they bestow self-determination on backward peoples who yearn for it. The refusal to acknowledge that Americans have pursued their own version of empire—with the same self-deceiving hubris as Europeans—makes it hard to see that the US empire might (like the others) have a limited lifespan. All empires eventually end, but maybe an exceptional force for global good could last forever—or so its champions seem to believe.
Yep, face it: America has been, and is, an imperialist force.  Unless there is a serious change in American politics--which is highly unlikely--this imperialism will continue into the future too. If only we would stop maintaining this empire!
“Imperial retreat is not the same as national decline, as many other countries can attest. Indeed, imperial retreat can strengthen the nation-state just as imperial expansion can weaken it.”
So, what makes America great?

Your call!

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