What Is An Imperial Subject To Do?

US is an empire. Yet few Americans know it or will admit to it.

We are unique in history. Previous empires proudly declared their status as empires, sometimes making it a part of their official titles. But I suspect most Americans would be ashamed if they discovered or were forced to face the truth.

When you call the US an empire, most Americans get defensive. We can’t even publicly acknowledge that the US is a corporatist police state.

For our entire history, the American people haven’t been able to decide whether we should be an empire or not. That was a major argument during the country’s founding and in the early decades of national politics. It became an even more central debate following the Civil War when expansionism went into full gear. The Native Americans had no doubts about America being an empire.

I’m not sure any other country has struggled so much with their collective desire for imperialism. It doesn’t just bother us that we are an empire, but the fact that we like being an empire. It comes with great benefits and it just plain feels good to be part of something so powerful.

So, why all the guilt and shame about what we are? Why not just admit it and embrace it? Maybe some public honesty would be a good thing.

It’s a strange thing living in an empire. I didn’t grow up knowing this fact. It never occurred to me until I was an adult. Empires were something one learned about in history class. They were in the past. The US was a democracy or, if you prefer, a republic.

It is hard to come to terms with this. What is an imperial subject to do? No one asked me if I wanted an empire, but here we all are.

I was thinking about it because of an article I read about another empire.

We had our Native American genocide and slavery. The Belgians aren’t as famous for imperialism, but they had their own imperial project in Congo. King Leopold II of Belgium created a slave society where millions were killed. He gets forgotten by Western history because he only killed dark-skinned people. If you want to be a truly great evil leader in the minds of Westerners, you have to kill white people like Hitler did. Only white people count and are counted.

“When we learn about Africa, we learn about a caricatured Egypt, about the HIV epidemic (but never its causes), about the surface level effects of the slave trade, and maybe about South African Apartheid (the effects of which, we are taught, are now long, long over). We also see lots of pictures of starving children on Christian Ministry commercials, we see safaris on animal shows, and we see pictures of deserts in films and movies. But we don’t learn about the Great African War or Leopold’s Reign of Terror during the Congolese Genocide. Nor do we learn about what the United States has done in Iraq and Afghanistan, killing millions of people through bombs, sanctions, disease, and starvation. Body counts are important. And the United States Government doesn’t count Afghan, Iraqi, or Congolese people.”

It was the part thrown in about the US that I wanted to share. I knew our actions were horrific, but I hadn’t realized they were that horrific. If killing millions of innocent foreigners around the world through invasions, occupations, bombings, etc doesn’t an empire make, then what does?

I doubt most people know such basic facts as these. One of the privileges of being an imperial subject is that you can choose to remain ignorant of the consequences. The people of Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t so lucky. It will take generations for them to forget the trauma of being the target of US imperialism.

4 thoughts on “What Is An Imperial Subject To Do?

  1. Once again you and I are thinking about the same things. Just yesterday I was reading one of King Leopold’s letter to his missionaries and it is unlike anything I have ever read before. Like you suggest, Leopold openly admitted his intentions because he had full support from the other empires, including America, because we’re cast from the same stone. Even though his letter openly contains evidence of genocide, Belgium has never had to pay reparations to Africa, but oh they were all about making Germany pay up after WWI. And the thing is Mark Twain was writing about King Leopold, so it’s not like any of this was any secret. There is also the fact, and most importantly, that we are still playing the game only The People Sitting in Darkness are fewer and their light is growing dimmer.

    • I always put these things in perspective.

      The US military directly killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq. That was supposedly justified because a few Saudi Arabians killed a few thousand people in the World Trade Towers. That is imperial ‘logic’. But if we are allowed to arbitrarily kill so many innocent people because some of our own innocent people were killed, then aren’t the people of Afghanistan and Iraq even more justified in attacking us back?

      Anyway, the whole reason Bin Laden planned the attack was because of America’s brutal imperialism in the Middle East. Our attacking Afghanistan and Iraq simply proved that Bin Laden was right. He attacked us because we were killing innocent people. He was wrong for then killing innocent people. But in that case, our killing even more innocent people was a greater evil, a greater crime against humanity than committed by the 9/11 terrorists. The US, along with being the greatest empire the world has seen, is also the greatest terror state the world has seen.

      The demented thinking of American imperialism is breathtaking.

      This isn’t a new phenomenon either. The US has been doing violently horrific acts around the world for a very long time. We worry about other countries using an atomic bomb. But the US is the only country to prove itself evil enough to actually use an atomic bomb. It is the rest of the world that should be scared shitless about what crazy evil shit the US will do next.

      It’s not that we are always the bad guys. It’s just everything we do is out of proportion. Take our bombing of Japan, which included both atomic bombs and a worst firebombing than even happened in Germany. The Japanese killed around 106,000 US soldiers. The US response was to kill 500,000-1,000,000 Japanese civilians.

      What does the US deserve for starting a war of aggressioon in Iraq? That war was illegal, both according to US law and international law. It was started on false pretenses. And it killed more civilian deaths than the US has ever experienced. So, does that mean we US civilians deserve to be atomic bombed and firebombed for our government’s sins? What makes us special? Just because we are an empire we are allowed to do anything, really?

      The blowack for this is going to be bad one day. We Americans will have no one else to blame but ourselves for not standing up against the evil of our own government, no different than the Germans have had to take responsibillity for their complicity with Nazi rule. We are on the wrong side of history. Future generations will not remember us as the good guys.

    • What is the difference between the Roman Empire and Nazi Germany?

      One violently succeeded and oppressively ruled for centuries. The other violently failed and its oppression was short-lasting. That is the only difference. Yet the Western world remembers fondly the Roman Empire because it shaped everything else that followed. As they were the victors, they got to write the history books. Nonetheless, the Romans regularly committed genocides and ethnic cleansing, century after century. They put the Nazis to shame.

      Sadly, most people care a lot less about violence than they pretend. What horrifies us the most about the Nazis is that they failed. If you commit horrific crimes against humanity, you better be victorious because then all your actions become justified.

      Why are the Nazis considered so evil? They killed fewer people than the Belgiums, as the article makes clear. The European genocide of Native Americans is right up there as well. The Nazis failed to kill all Jews, but numerous tribes were entirely annihalated by Europeans. Their traditions, languages, and religions lost from all memory for no one survived to pass them on. It is hard to imagine entire ethnic groups simply disappeared, some destroyed at the moment of first contact, just wiped out and all evidence eliminated.

      The Native American genocide is harder to calculate. Here are some of the numbers. Conservative estimates state there were 50-100 million in all of the Americas with 2-18 million in North America (other estimates speculate there might have been 100 million in North America alone, but no one knows for sure). Around 80-90% died after European contact. Some of those were from disease, but many of the deaths were directly caused by wars, conflicts, and starvation that followed European actions against the Native Americans. It was a regular policy to destroy Native American food supplies and let them starve to death.

      In contrast, 5-6 million Jews were killed by Nazis. That was 67% of the population.

      Why are the greater genocides of indigenous people around the world considered less horrific? Why is killing darker-skinned people supposed to be forgiven or simply forgotten? But why are we supposed to never forget the Holocaust?

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