America as an empire. This has long been a contentious issue, going back to the colonial era, first as a debate over whether Americans wanted to remain a part of the British Empire and later as a debate over whether Americans wanted to create a new empire. We initially chose against empire with the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation. But then we chose for empire with the Constitution that allowed (pseudo-)Federalists to gain power and reshape the new government.
Some key Federalists openly talked about an American Empire. For the most part, though, American leaders have kept their imperial aspirations hidden behind rhetoric, even as our actions were obviously imperialistic. Heck, an Anti-Federalist like Thomas Jefferson took the imperialistic action of the Louisiana Purchase, a deal between one empire and another. Imperial expansionism continued through the 19th century and into the 20th century with numerous military interventions, from the Indian Wars to the Banana Wars. Not a year has gone by in American history when we weren’t involved in a war of aggression.
Yet it still is hard for Americans to admit that we are an empire. I’ve had numerous discussions with my conservative father on this topic. At times, he has surprisingly admitted we are an empire, but usually he is resistant. In our most recent debate, it occurred to me that the resistance is motivated by shame. We don’t want to admit we are an empire because we are ashamed of our government’s brutal use of power on our behalf. And shame is a powerful force. People will do and allow the most horrific actions out of shame.
Empires of the past tended to be projects built on pride and honor, of brazen rule through force. We Americans, instead, feel the need to hide our imperialism behind an image of benign and reluctant power. The difference is Americans, ever since we were colonists, have had an inferiority complex. It makes us both yearn for greatness and fear mockery. Our country is the young teenager that must prove himself, while not yet having the confidence to really believe in himself. So, we act slyly as an empire with implicit threats and backroom manipulations, proxy wars and covert operations, puppet governments and corporatist front groups. Then, when these morally depraved actions come to light, we rationalize why they were exceptions or why we were being forced to do so because of circumstances. It’s not our fault. We don’t want to hurt others, but we had no other choice. Besides, we were defending freedom and free markets, that is why we constantly intervene in other countries and endlessly kill innocents. It is for the greater good. We are willing to make this self-sacrifice on the behalf of others. We are the real victims.
I regularly come across quotes from American leaders who publicly or privately complained about our government, who spoke of failure and betrayal. This has included presidents and other political officials going back to the beginning of the country. Think of Jefferson and Adams in their later years worrying about the fate of the American experiment, that maybe we Americans didn’t have what it takes, that maybe we aren’t destined to be great. The sense of inferiority has haunted our collective imagination for so long that it is practically a defining feature. Despite our being the largest empire in world history, we don’t have the self-certain righteousness to declare ourselves an empire. That is why we get the false and weak bravado of someone like Donald Trump — sadly, he represents our country all too well. Then again, so did Hillary Clinton represent our country in her suppressing wages in Haiti so that U.S. companies would have cheap foreign labor (i.e., corporate wage slavery), the kind of actions the U.S. does all the time in secret in order to maintain control. We have talent for committing evil with a smiling face… or nervous laughter.
Rather than clear power asserted with pride and honor, the United States government acts like a bully on the world stage. We are constantly trying to prove ourselves. And our denial of imperialism is gaslighting, to make anyone feel crazy if they dare voice the truth of what we are. We tell others that we are the good guys. What we really are trying to do is to convince ourselves of our own bullshit. This causes a nervousness in the public mind, a fear that we might be found out. We are paralyzed by our shame and it gets tiring in our trying to keep up the pretense. The facade is crumbling. Our inner shame has become public such that now we are the shame of the world. That probably means our leaders will soon start a war to divert attention, and both main parties will be glad for the diversion.
There is a compelling argument made by James Gilligan in Preventing Violence. Among other things, he sees as a key cause to interpersonal violence is shame. And that there is something particularly shame-inducing about our society, especially for those on the bottom of society. He is attempting to explain violent crime. But what occurs to me is that our leaders are just as violent, if not more violent. It’s simply that those who make the laws determine which violence is legal and which violence illegal, their own violence being in the former category as it is implemented through the state or with the support of the state. Maybe it is shame that causes our government to be so violent toward foreign populations and toward the American population. And maybe shame is what causes American citizens to remain silent in their complicity, as the violent is done in their name.