The Arrogance of Empire
All empires commit the same crimes. These include torturing and murdering groups or individuals that resist domination, and theft of other people’s resources to enrich the emperor and upper classes. They also have in common overweening arrogance. In this post I’ll consider the empire of which I am a disaffected citizen and compare it with some of its predecessors. At the end, I’d like to start thinking about alternatives.
The Latest from America
This is about gall. Unmitigated gall.
Just days ago the U.S. warned 14 nations, most of them in Africa, not to buy grain that the Russians had stolen from Ukraine. Because of the war, those nations are facing shortages of both food and fuel. According to the New York Times, “Russia and Ukraine normally supply about 40 percent of wheat needs in Africa, where prices for the grain have risen 23 percent in the past year…” At the same time, a devastating drought there has left 17 million people hungry in the region.
So huge numbers of people in these African countries are facing malnutrition and starvation, but we’re telling them not to buy the only food that might be available, because of a war they had nothing to do with—our war with Russia, being fought by proxy in Ukraine. Which we will fight down to the last drop of Ukrainian blood.
The Africans didn’t create the drought, either. It was caused by climate change. And that brings us to oil. Around a third of the world’s total carbon emissions are caused by burning oil. The U.S. consumes more petroleum than any other country, around 20% of the world supply, using it mainly for transportation, industry, and power generation. In other words, American consumption of fossil fuels is one of the leading contributors to climate change, the drought, and therefore, starvation in those African nations.
Our Most Recent Robberies
But then how can we decent Americans condone the Russians stealing Ukrainian grain?
And what do we call it when Biden seized $7 billion of Afghanistan’s banking reserves? When the Afghan people face malnutrition and hunger after 20 years of war? It was so humiliating for the United States to lose that war, to make a hasty and inglorious exit, that we had to snatch the bread from their children’s mouths.
The pretext for the theft of Afghanistan’s banking reserves is that the money is going to compensate families of 9/11 victims. Keep in mind that no Afghan had anything to do with 9/11—and that those who will benefit most from the theft will be a flock of vulturine lawyers.
Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals, and there is some evidence that the monarchy financed them. Our government has shied away from investigating these allegations, no doubt because we’re so dependent on Saudi Arabian oil. Every United States president, from Nixon on, has visited Saudi Arabia and kowtowed to its rulers. Biden just announced that he is going in July, hoping to get the oil flowing in sufficient quantities that the price might come down at the pump, which will translate into votes for his party at midterm. And meanwhile, we continue to sell the Saudis weapons for their genocidal war in Yemen.
We invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and in 2003 went on to invade Iraq. This time, as I’m sure you remember, the pretext was weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), which anyone not completely taken in by the propaganda knew were nonexistent. That was most of us: some 36 million people around the globe protested prior to the invasion, and it turned out that we were right.
Many supporters of the war also knew that there were no WMDs, but they had their reasons for beating the drums. During the march I attended, a man stepped out of the crowd watching us and shouted, “Do you want to pay $20 a gallon?” Clearly, in his mind it was fine to kill any number of Iraqis to ensure that he could fill his tank on the cheap. As Madeleine Albright said about the half million Iraqi children who died as a result of United States sanctions, “the price is worth it.”
Blood for oil. We’re carrying out that same program now in Venezuela, which has the world’s largest proven oil reserves. United States sanctions are starving people because the democratically-elected government won’t let our corporations have the oil at bargain rates. We did the same in Iran, starting in 1979, and in Cuba, starting in 1962.
Modern Warfare: Sanctions and Drones
Sanctions are the modern version of siege warfare. In previous centuries, empires might establish themselves by invading other countries, surrounding their fortified cities, shooting at them, and trying to starve the inhabitants out. The residents would shoot back, of course, killing as many of the invaders as they could.
With sanctions we don’t risk any of our troops. Starvation of children at no cost to us. It’s the same with sending drones instead of archers with flaming arrows or infantrymen with assault rifles. That way the folks back home don’t have to grieve the loss of their loved ones. They don’t see photos of children burned by napalm because none of our people get close enough for photos. Instead of marching on the Pentagon, as we did during the Vietnam War, our citizens are complaining about the price of gas. And by demanding cheap gas and cheap goods produced by super-exploited labor, we have become complicit in the empire’s crimes.
Pretexts and Pretentiousness
People also become complicit by buying into the official rationales for their empire’s cruelty. These vary from nation to nation, and from time to time. Ancient Israel: We’re doing the will of God, who promised this land to us. Spain, colonizing the Americas: We’re doing God’s work, spreading Christianity and saving souls. British and French colonialism: We’re spreading civilization to these backward peoples. United States, grabbing land from the Native Americans: Taking this land is Manifest Destiny, which is the will of God. Also, we told ourselves, the Africans we brought here as slaves are better off than they would be as ignorant pagans back home, because we’ve civilized them and converted them to Christianity. In more recent times, we lie to ourselves that our country, when attacking other nations, is spreading democracy.
The rulers of empires, even decaying ones, are actually beyond arrogant. They tend to develop egos the size of one of the giant gas planets, such as Uranus. The Egyptian pharaohs were considered gods. Louis XIV said, “L’etat, c’est moi,” conflating himself with all of France. Our former president seems to think he’s the Second Coming.
Putin’s delusions are less celestial. He just thinks he’s the next Peter the Great. Biden fancies he can be the next FDR, which I find just sad. In 1936, while running for re-election, FDR denounced “the old enemies of peace: business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, [and] war profiteering.” He said, “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.” During his campaign in 2019, Biden practically groveled before his rich donors. “I need you very badly,” he said. “[If I’m elected] nothing would fundamentally change.”
A Few Dishonorable Predecessors
This next section is tough reading, but don’t get discouraged. There’s hope for the future.
Belgium: King Leopold II promised to bring civilization to central Africa. In return, European leaders, gathered at the Berlin Conference, granted him 770,000 square miles as his own personal colony. He called it Congo Free State, and “civilized” it by killing around 10 million Congolese, including cutting off the hands of anyone, adult or child, who could not meet their quota of rubber, ivory, and minerals.
England: It used to be said that the sun never set on the British Empire. Its colonies and the atrocities committed in those lands are too numerous to list here, but some include starving the people of Ireland, pushing opium in China, putting Boers in concentration camps in South Africa, and torturing and murdering independence seekers in Kenya. With regard to India, Dr. Shashi Tharoor writes, “Britain financed its Industrial Revolution and its prosperity from the depredations of empire, the fact that Britain came to be one of the richest countries in the world in the 18th century and reduced it [India], after two centuries of plunder, to one of the poorest.” Between 12 and 29 million Indians died of starvation while it was under British control. Four million starved during World War II when Churchill diverted Indian wheat to feed British soldiers. But as that great hero said, “The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”
France: In 1960, when 14 African States—Benin, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Togo, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Congo-Brazaville, and Gabon—declared independence from France, the French government put these former colonies in a group they called ‘compulsory solidarities.’ This meant that the newly independent states would have to pay 65% of their foreign currency reserves to the French treasury and 20% to repay “debts.” Each colony, then, had only 15% of their own money left to use.
Spain and France: From 1494-1544 Spanish colonists forced the natives of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) to work in gold mines and plantations, forbidding them to grow their own crops. Many starved. Most of the rest died of smallpox. When the French took over Haiti, they turned it into a slave colony. Ninety percent of its inhabitants were people brought as slaves from Africa and were worked to death before they could even produce a new generation. They were simply replaced with other captives. In 1804, these enslaved people rebelled and formed an independent nation. The French sent battleships and forced the Haitians at gunpoint to agree to pay 150 million francs for the loss of the slave owners’ “property.” The amount demanded was far more than Haiti had in its treasury, so they had no choice but to take out a loan from French banks. Year after year, the Haitians paid the debt to the slavers and a second debt, plus interest, to the banks. Both debts were finally paid off in the late 1950s. This left Haiti the poorest country in North America. In 2003, the new Haitian president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, demanded that France pay reparations. Instead, France and the United States had him removed from office.
These are just a few examples from the last couple of centuries. We could add the Dutch and Portuguese exploitation of Indonesia, reducing it from wealth to poverty and starving millions, and the Soviet Union starving millions of Ukrainians during Stalin’s reign. I would go much further back, to the Assyrian and Roman empires, as I’m somewhat familiar with their history. I’m sure readers can think of others.
Some Thoughts for the Future
Despite the grim history of our species, I remain hopeful. In 1820, only 12% of the world’s people were literate. Today that number is 86%. We have access to much more information than our ancestors did—including the information I have presented in this post.
We can refuse to buy the empire’s lies. We can communicate with people all over the world, instantly. Remember that 36 million people did demonstrate against the United States planned invasion of Iraq. We didn’t succeed in stopping that war, but that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to perpetual failure.
What are our options? The American empire reached its peak in the last century, and now is in decay. We can become cynical, surrender, and kiss the feet of our rulers, hoping they’ll let us keep our few comforts. We can grab what we can before it all falls apart, and let the next generation fight over the remaining crumbs while the billionaires take off for Mars. (In my opinion, the sooner they leave the better).
Or we can think, learn, plan, and organize. We can dedicate our lives to repairing this broken world. During the Vietnam War area, many of us talked about a struggle that would go on for generations. Now, with global warming, it’s clear that we don’t have that much time. Each of us must assess our strengths, individually and in groups with others, figure out what tactics might be most effective, and start work—now.