Thursday, November 19, 2015

Empires Without Borders

As a kind of sidebar to the previous post, I have to point out that the dissolution of our borders does not signify the end of our empire -- of our long reach (military, economic, political) around the globe.  Just the opposite, in fact.  What it represents is a certain stage in the rise and fall of empires.  They begin with a secure and stable home base -- a city, region, country, whatever… and a surplus of resources, which makes “expeditions” possible.  Poor countries don’t go empire-building, in other words.  You have to have more than you need of something -- manpower, weaponry, natural resources, technology… but also less than you think you need of something else -- land, other natural resources, power and glory, and so on.  And, your neighbors have to be in, for whatever reason, a somewhat weakened position.  So the pressure mounts, and before you know it Germany is invading Poland, or England is colonizing India, or the U.S. is striding onto the world stage in World War I.  But regardless of the many varieties of empire-building (which includes old-fashioned “colonialism”, now dreadfully out of fashion), you can be assured that, at the early or expansionist state, there will be a stable home base -- a base of operations and a stable political situation with an enthusiastic, or at least mollified, citizenry, that doesn’t object to the horrendous waste of resources that military campaigns typically represent.  If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, it is the first refuge of politicians who seek their own power and glory at the expense of the country and its citizenry.

But this is just an early stage of the process, albeit a stage that can last for a considerable time.  But eventually there is a turning of the tide -- empire building and the maintaining of empires seem to get more expensive over time, probably because resistance grows among subject peoples, but also because corruption grows within the empire, sapping resources at an ever greater rate.  At the same time, the price to be paid on the domestic side grows as well, until we find out we’re spending more on “foreign policy”, AKA the military, than we are on domestic needs.  Once this tipping point is reached, the process accelerates until you wind up with, basically, an empire with a hollow center -- that is, an apparently powerful span of influence and control “on which the Sun never sets” but a homeland in political disarray, economic distress, and social and moral chaos.  This is the point at which we find ourselves at this time, and as the demands of empire continue to increase -- as they inevitably do -- the hollowing-out effect will become more severe and more obvious -- and more of a political issue.  (Please note that, so far, there has been no serious questioning of the magnitude of our military expenditures -- probably because both major parties are completely committed to empire, as are the media.) 

Another symptom of this particular stage of things is that, as I discussed previously, borders start to dissolve and we become ever more helpless in the face of invasions (however characterized) -- often, but not necessarily, originating in the same places we colonized and thought we had control of.  So you have this paradoxical situation where we continue to exert ourselves world-wide -- with our most advanced technology going into war-making… er, I mean “defense”… and yet, on the domestic front, all we see, hear, and read about is a rising tide of social chaos, economic distress, welfare-ism, entitlements, anarchy in urban areas, moral dissolution, and a general feeling of unease and existential angst among the citizenry. 

And yet, this may not be so much a paradox as an inevitability -- a natural stage of development, which in the broadest sense represents a decision, or innumerable decisions over many years, to prefer war and empire over domestic prosperity and well-being.  The fact that we are, and have always been, an ideational society (as opposed to one firmly rooted in race, ethnicity, faith, and a sense of place) only serves to aggravate the situation; there is, basically, nothing stopping us from carrying our Utopian quest to the four corners of the globe (yes, that’s technically nonsense), because what’s good for us is good for everyone else on earth, or at least ought to be, if only they would see things our way, and if they don’t, well, we have cruise missiles and drones and so on -- the great pacifiers.

But again, why should an empire increase but the place of its origin suffer?  Why should we be invading other countries while, at the very same time, ours is being invaded (albeit by different means)?  I think it’s because once our ideas -- our idealism -- becomes outward-directed, there is no turning back.  Whenever the subject is brought up, whoever brought it up is accused of “isolationism” and thus kicked out of the marketplace of ideas.  It becomes “empire or bust”, just as so many covered wagons in pioneer days were inscribed “California or bust”.  To quote JFK, we “shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” in the interest of empire (although he didn’t put it quite that way).  Well, that marvelous bit of rhetoric gave us Vietnam, and all the follies since then have followed the same pattern.  The common element is that as empire increases, domestic standard of living decreases -- or at least fails to live up to its potential, defined as “what would things be like if we weren’t always fighting a war somewhere?”  And don’t talk to me about some trickle-down economic effects of war -- war may be the health of the state, but it’s the death of the economy in the long run, as we are seeing in our time.  Only the elite who are masterminding the whole business come out ahead. 

For what is a border, after all?  It’s a statement, basically -- a way of saying “we live here, we built this, we have our traditions, we’re doing things our way, and if you want to join us kindly get in line, we’ll accept as many newcomers as we can short of over-burdening our economy, disrupting our society, and watering down our traditions and legal system.”  Yes, it represents an “us” vs. “them”, and this is considered very poor form these days.  Because, after all, we believe in “fairness”, don’t we?  And “social justice”?  And there’s that poem on the Statue of Liberty, etc.  So we have to suspend judgment as to how many newcomers we can take, and absorb -- “all are welcome”, not because we are such principled and compassionate people, but that we have forgotten our principles and forgotten that charity begins as home. 

It’s a hard saying, I know, that open borders represent political and social decadence rather than humanity and compassion, but I believe it to be the case.  Yes, we have always accepted immigrants, but standards were in place, the bar was set high, and the gate was narrow.  If we take anyone in for any reason -- or for no reason at all except that they showed up -- we are saying, basically, that we’re no different, we’re no better, and we have nothing worth defending.  (But at the same time, we have unlimited resources, which seems a bit contradictory.)  And this is just groovy for the people who want to get in, few of whom, I’m guessing, give a tinker’s damn about our history, traditions, laws, or culture.  They’re just looking for sustenance and shelter -- perfectly natural human needs -- or, perhaps, for what is called “opportunity”, even though we’ve pretty much fallen into despair on that count of late.  Or, yes, they may be infiltrators seeking to bring the whole system down -- but who can tell?  Is there a DNA test for “terror”?  So we are being undermined by people who only want a chance, but also by people with malicious intent.  We have the huddled masses and the destroyers.  And the question becomes, with all of this going on how much longer can we sustain the American Empire?  Is it really possible that, one of these days, “America” will consist entirely of military bases overseas with nothing but an economic and social desert at home?  Because if you project current trends outward that’s what you get.  I don’t think it’s ever gotten to that point historically -- something has to intervene first.  The question is, what will that something be? 

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