In which the rationale for this newsletter is explained
Welcome. Thank you for joining me at the start of a new venture ….
Seven years ago I developed a new course, which I’ve run a few times now at two different schools, that I’ve dubbed “Empire as a Way of Life.” The class takes me outside my area of core expertise in U.S. history into a series of case studies: Periclean Greece, Augustan Rome, and the Mongol, Ottoman, and British empires at their respective peaks. In the course we trace a series of parallel experiences—versions of slavery; notions of citizenship; the relative status of women; militaries as reflections of cultural values; and the like.
The underlying premise of the class is that the United States of America is an empire, too. This isn’t a heavy lift as far as my students are concerned. Indeed, it has become a kind of implicit common sense in American society at large, however much there may be divergence in terms of what that means.
In a way, this is odd. Although Thomas Jefferson famously called the United States “an empire for liberty” at the moment of its creation, this has not been the customary way Americans have thought about their homeland for most of the last 250 years: liberty yes; empire no. That’s because we’ve always been taught that “empire” is not a nice word. After all, the United States was born breaking from one. We regarded empires as unhappy places where people were forced to live in ways not of their own choosing (which is why many of them immigrated here). We understood that there were those who made imperial claims about U.S. behavior abroad, even at home. But insofar as most of us thought that such people had a point, we typically regarded such situations as temporary, exceptional, or regrettable. The real essence of the United States is generally thought to be democratic, more accurately that of a democratic republic: any nation where the people pick their leaders is not really an empire. When reminded that imperial Athens was a democracy, and Roman territorial acquisitions were substantial even when it was a republic, some Americans would cede the point. But that is the point: they ceded it.
No more. We seem more honest—or maybe just more cynical—now. For the last few decades, the standard history curriculum at American schools has forthrightly portrayed the establishment of the place that became the United States as a matter of biological catastrophe, environmental despoliation, and military conquest. English North America, like the rest of the hemisphere, came about via the displacement of indigenous peoples, a process that continued after the American Revolution, as the United States won a series of wars against Native American tribes and Mexico in the nineteenth century to gain control of a vast continental domain, one supplemented by a string overseas territories and military bases in the twentieth. Our children have also been taught that military conquest is only one—and perhaps less important—dimension of the nation’s global domination. Economics, politics, and culture have all been instruments of imperial power. It’s not that there haven’t been decent people and noble ideals. The problem is that the nation has failed to live up to its own established principles, especially in the realm of race relations. On the other hand, those principles were not necessarily high-minded: very often they reflected the interests and convenience of those in power, who orchestrated the definitions and applications of standards that were supposed to be more than mere (covert) expressions of self-interest. For much of their history, Americans thought of themselves as exceptionalists: their nation was unique in the world—unique in the history of the world. Gloriously so. Now we know better. So the story goes.
I don’t really challenge the outline of this now standard version of American history. After all, it’s an embodiment of what history is: a form of narrative built on kaleidoscopic rearrangements of fact in which the past keeps changing. But like all narratives, there are strains in its internal logic. For example, it seems to me that a rejection of American exceptionalism should go both ways: if you’re going to insist the United States is not uniquely good, then it seems that you shouldn’t insist that it’s uniquely bad, either. (One reason I teach “Empire as a Way of Life” is to show students that slavery wasn’t invented in 1492.) In fact, all civilizations have ideals, and all civilizations are marked by hypocrisy. The issue is less the existence or violation of ideals but more what they are, how conflicts are finessed, and the underlying assumptions they reveal about the way the world actually works at a given time and place. That’s what my little course is designed to do: to help students get a better sense of who they are—both in terms of how weird their assumptions are in the grand sweep of things, and, simultaneously, how typical. Grappling with the interplay between similarity and difference is the great engine of comprehension, empathy, and creativity in any given society. That’s what schooling is supposed to foster. It’s a big job. My course is one small cog in that machine.
There’s one other premise to my course that I believe my students also understand intuitively: not simply that the United States is an empire, but also that it’s a dying one. Though their sense of collective memory is necessarily foreshortened—they are literally children of this century—they come to my class knowing that their country isn’t what it used to be on the global stage. There are of course empirical reasons to think otherwise—the United States is still generally regarded as the pre-eminent military power on the planet; the dollar remains the world’s reserve currency; American popular culture (coin of the realm for adolescents) continues to have global appeal. But there is nevertheless a steady stream of indicators pointing to national decline, whether in terms of decaying infrastructure (especially compared with what they may have seen elsewhere), political gridlock, and declining international prestige. These are not matters typically at the front of my students’ minds, except perhaps when they imagine their economic prospects after college.
The point in any case is not that the end of the American empire is demonstrably true, immediately at hand, or can be accurately forecasted. Rather, it’s that the perception of decline is so strong and so widespread as to be a historical artifact in its own right, something future observers seem certain to note when they look back on these times. It should be acknowledged that such perceptions are not unique to this moment—devoted patriots in any society are always discerning seeds (or fully sprouted weeds) of decay, and Americans have been saying as much since the second generation of Puritan elders lamented they were not the men their fathers were. But a mood of enervation, a vein of underlying dread, suffuses American society now with a breadth and depth that may be unprecedented in what has long been regarded, by participant and observer alike, as an optimistic, future-oriented society.
For the most part, though, that sense of unease is more like background noise, a haze in the distance, as we go about our daily lives. There are wars being waged, but they’re thousands of miles away; there are deficits that are accumulating, but they’re largely invisible at the supermarket checkout line. There is stress and suffering, but they are of a kind that afflicts civil societies at all times and places. In any case, the trajectory and outcome of individual lives do not neatly accord with national fates. Students are much more focused—anxious and hopeful—about their own lives, not that of society as a whole. They understand that are always winners and losers at any given moment, adapting to or stumbling through prevailing environmental conditions, literal and figurative.
This, then, is the backdrop for Americana: Dispatches on Culture and Everyday Life from the Heart of the American Empire. In days to come, I will be writing about topics that range from Country Music to Taco Bell, from the books that I’m reading to the conversations I’m having. My hope is that you will be able to relate to what I write about—that you’ll find at least some of these posts of interest to you as a matter of edification or entertainment, and that you may find yourself inclined to offer your own perspective in what I hope will be an ongoing conversation, whether as a matter of a comment thread, some kind of exchange we have, or perhaps a discourse you have with someone else. I greatly appreciate the privilege of your attention. I hope I will prove worthy of it, at least some of the time.