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The Privilege of Empire   6 comments

I lived in the White Mountains of Arizona throughout my sixteenth year. My mother owned a coffee shop there, in the small town of Pinetop. Visiting one summer, I fell in love with the area and decided to move there and help her run the coffee shop while attending the local high school.

The town we lived in was only a few miles away from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. One night we drove into that reservation to meet up with a friend of my mother’s who taught there, to watch a ceremonial dance performance by members of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. The three of us were white and upon arriving and settling into some bleacher seats in the small open air theater, I found myself face to face with an experience that, so far as I could remember, had never really happened to me before: being a conspicuous minority. Looking around the audience, I saw no one else who was white. The seats were filled with Native Americans.

Of course, no one took particular notice of us, but I still found myself with a very heightened awareness of the color of my skin and it was a new experience. By the time I had become aware of race and ethnicity, I lived in Vancouver, Washington, which is a mighty white town. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, which is a mighty white region. I happily lived my life amongst a super majority of white people and never had to take particular notice of the color of my skin since I was surrounded by other people who took no particular notice of the color of my skin.

That moment among an audience of Apaches, watching a ceremonial performance, briefly punctured my bubble of privilege. For perhaps the first time, I couldn’t simply take advantage of the idea that white was the norm. I briefly lost the privilege of my skin color being the standard. This was a moment of importance because, it has to be said, there is an emotional security—not to mention a literal security—in being part of the majority, whatever that majority is, and in losing that security for a short time, I became better aware of it. The privilege of being in the majority is that your ordinariness protects you. You take advantage of the lack of deviance. You don’t have to constantly question how others will react to you, whether or not you will be the victim of violence, if you will be shunned or condemned, ridiculed, looked down upon or distrusted. It’s a lovely way to live your life, but it’s not a loveliness that’s extended to everyone.

Of course, this claim to the majority can manifest in a multitude of ways: the color of your skin, your religious beliefs, gender, behavior, the ability to recognize and perpetuate cultural markers, material belongings, adherence to cultural worldviews, and so on. Likely all of us belong in some ways and don’t in others. But these forms of majority adherence vary, as does their importance and the protection afforded by them. The color of your skin has a greater impact on how you’re treated in this society than whether or not you’re excited about Super Bowl XLVII, for instance. Yet, while every American varies in their claims to majorities and minorities, there’s one protection, or privilege, afforded to every one of them. That’s the privilege of empire.

All of us Americans live in the world’s current empire, and that simple fact brings a host of benefits, no matter who you are. It provides potential access to a per capita share of the world’s energy and resources far and above any other country. The United States uses about a quarter of the world’s energy and a third of the world’s resources, with only a twentieth of the world’s population. But in addition to that access to energy and resources—which is variable across the population as a whole—our status as the world’s empire provides every American a sense of security that we take advantage of daily. As the currently undisputed leader of the world, we have a certain faith that no other nation would dare try to invade us, that no nation would conduct a bombing campaign against us if we behaved in some manner they didn’t appreciate, that we mostly control the process at NATO and the UN, that organizations such as the WTO, World Bank, and IMF will safeguard our economic and political interests, and that we may act militarily with impunity throughout the world without threat of dire consequences. Granted, there are moments when these assumptions are tested—every empire has it’s moments of weakness, after all—but they by and large are truths that we take for granted.

We don’t live in fear of an imminent land invasion of our country. We don’t worry that if we upset another country with our economic actions, they’ll drum up some reason to invade, bomb, or sanction us. We aren’t forced to hand over our country’s energy and resources on another country’s terms. We aren’t under constant threat of regime change or coups funded and driven by another country’s actions. We’re not, ultimately, at the whim of a world power, with a sense that the wrong move could have drastic and destructive consequences. That is an immense privilege, and it’s something that all Americans are blessed with.

I’m 32 years old. I didn’t live through the Cold War or the Cuban Missile Crisis. I realize there have been times when some of these assumptions weren’t so assumed in this country—when we really did live in fear of another world power. But currently, and for the last few decades, this has been a country that has seemed safe from the rest of the world. We haven’t seemed immune, granted, from the occasional dastardly deed, but no one’s been cowering in a corner over an imminent invasion. Even those who might have been drastically worried about terrorist attacks would be more concerned about isolated incidents, not the total invasion and overthrow of our country. We have had the privilege of feeling safer in our land than perhaps any other country on this planet, and that sense of safety is a direct byproduct of the American empire.

I honestly don’t remember the first time I seriously imagined the idea of the United States being militarily invaded and the government overthrown by another country. I suspect I first considered it in my teens. I do have this sense of having been shocked by the idea, though. It was a moment of allowing myself the full impact of a taboo, of an impossibility. And the shock came not from any surprise that I could imagine such a scenario, but from the idea that it could happen to us. That it could happen to me. That my protective bubble could be burst. That I might be subject to the whims of another nation, to the whims of the rest of the world, rather than controlling my own destiny.

Throughout my remembered life, the dominance of America on the world stage has been a given. I’ve taken it for granted that we are safe from military invasion, from bombings, from the vagaries of other world leaders. I’ve taken it for granted that we are the ones in a position of power, and often times I never even thought about that position. It was just the natural state of being and not even something to be considered beyond that.

I imagine many Americans feel the same way, or have during long stretches of their lives. In fact, I think our national response to the 9/11 attacks confirms that. Eleven years on, I’ve lost most of the sense of raw emotion and near-disbelief that the immediate aftermath of that attack engendered in me, but I remember how stunned I was, how stunned we all were. Someone had attacked us. On our soil. Someone had dared to punch back, to bloody our mouth. No, it wasn’t a full-scale invasion, it wasn’t the overthrow of our government, it wasn’t the downfall of the American empire, though perhaps we’ll eventually look back on it as one of the important steps down that path. But it was an affront to our sense of national security, to our sense of invulnerability. We freaked the fuck out as a country. I remember talking to people who demanded we bomb Afghanistan into nothing. I remember the solemn assertions from a variety of national figures—political and otherwise—that we would hunt down and kill the people who had done this. I remember yet more dramatic and crazed claims. I remember the glazed looks of disbelief. I worked at Fred Meyer at the time, in the electronics department, and I was closing the night of September 11th. All the TVs were on and, of course, they all sported coverage of the attack and its aftermath. Throughout the night, there would at any one time be at least a few shoppers standing in front of the TVs, their eyes a bit glazed, just taking in what had occurred. We talked about it a bit. All of it seemed to come down to this sense of disbelief and, underneath that, a profound anger.

I bet a number of people saw Jon Stewart’s monologue on The Daily Show shortly after the 9/11 attacks. I recommend watching it above, even if you’ve already seen it. I still find it a remarkable speech; it overwhelmed me when it first aired. It’s powerful, raw, restrained and hopeful. There’s an anger in it, yes, but it’s quiet—far more quiet than most people’s anger during that time. It’s hard to watch, too, as Stewart is consistently overcome by emotion. It’s eloquent and heartening. But more than all that, it over and over again is an incantation. Stewart assures us during his speech that the American empire still stands, that we’re still the world’s good. “That’s really what this whole situation is about. It’s the difference between closed and open. It’s the difference between free and . . . burdened,” he says, invoking the freedoms of speech we live with here in America and contrasting it with the attackers and their assumed beliefs. Toward the end of the speech, he assures us, “We’ve already won. They can’t–it’s, it’s light. It’s democracy. We’ve already won. They can’t shut that down.” And he closes on an incantation of imagery, noting that the view from his apartment, once the World Trade Towers, is now the Statue of Liberty. It’s intensely poetic—and it’s a final assurance, as well. America stands. Our safety stands. This too shall pass.

We all needed that at the time, and I think it’s why his speech is so enduring and was so celebrated when it first aired. Plenty of people assured us, but a number of them did it less eloquently, in far more crass terms. Many appealed to claims of power, of the certainty that we would destroy our opponents. But Stewart instead evoked our national myths with an eloquence and certainty. He justified our lost sense of security and promised its return. And at the time, reeling from a sudden sense of vulnerability and the emotional sting of having been proclaimed wrong and evil—even if we denied it vehemently—we needed nothing more than the return of our sense of security and the assurance that we deserved that security.

One of the most rejected ideas in our society is the idea that we’re vulnerable. We reject it as an empire would, certain in our power over the rest of the world. We reject it in the way we live, insisting that we can carry on forever as we do today, that the American way of life is non-negotiable. We reject the idea that we’re vulnerable to the natural systems that sustain us or that we have any need or responsibility to limit the way we impact them. We reject that there are any limits whatsoever for us that can’t be overcome with technology and ingenuity, which is ultimately a rejection of any sense of vulnerability. I can’t help but think that this refusal to accept limitation and vulnerability is rooted in good part in our empire and the sense of security and invulnerability it so often affords us. It’s an unthinking rejection, borne not of coherent thought and consideration but in the inability and unwillingness to imagine a world that we can’t conform to our desires.

And yet, we are vulnerable. We are beholden to limits. We can’t always make the world conform to our desires, despite illusions to the contrary. I believe the American empire is on its way out. I won’t venture to put an exact time line on its final gasps, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it sometime in the next forty years, which will hopefully be within my lifetime. I wonder, though, how we’ll react as a people when it does happen. September 11th provided us with a multitude of inspiring, human moments, but it also provided us with a certain sort of national insanity that continues to echo today. That wasn’t the collapse of the American empire; it was just a flesh wound, a surprisingly bloody lip. What happens when a new nation rises to be the world super power? What happens when our sense of security is gone forever, when the perks of empire dry up and are diverted to the new emperor, when we have to come to terms with a dramatically different and much more impoverished way of living?

I’m not a fan of the American empire, but I can’t deny that I’m a fan of its benefits. I appreciate the access to energy and resources, the sense of security it affords, all the ways it makes my life easier and more comfortable. I would like to think I would give it up tomorrow if offered the opportunity, but I don’t know for sure if that’s true. I do believe, though, that we’ve reached the point at which it makes more sense for us to walk away from our empire rather than try to maintain it. The returns are diminishing and the collapse of our empire is likely to drag us down into a worse future than we might have if we were to turn away from it now and start building a society that can run on more realistic energy and resource flows, at a level of complexity we could better maintain.

But would I give it up? I’m attempting to live a life of voluntary poverty, to reduce my dependence on a system that I believe is destructive and destined to fall apart. I’m attempting to better make my own living, to better engage in my local community, to increase my resiliency by decreasing my needs. But if our empire were to go away tomorrow, it would be a major loss. I’m still not prepared, and I likely won’t ever be. I want to say that I would give it up, that I would turn my back and walk away from a system beneficial to me personally but destructive to so many others, but I don’t know if that’s true or not. The reduction in standard of living worries me, yes, but it might be the loss of security that frightens me the most. John Michael Greer wrote a five-part narrative about one way the American empire might end. It involved military defeat, the United States walking right up to the brink of nuclear annihilation, and the ultimate break up of the Union. It disturbed me, I have to admit, to imagine in such stark terms a complete and utter loss of our security, of our seeming invulnerability on the world stage. What would it be to live in one of the countries at the mercy of our empire? What would it be to have your future so dependent on the whims of an empire and its people?

I can’t imagine.

And that’s the point. That’s the privilege of empire, and it’s a privilege all of us Americans would do well to start reconsidering and deconstructing.

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