Last week I picked up and read a collection of George Orwell's essays. I love Orwell for many reasons, but one is surely the difficulty one has pinning him down politically. He's been deified or vilified by people all along the political spectrum. He fought in the Spanish Civil War at one point in his life, but as a young man he was a servant of empire, the British one, and that experience led him to write the famous essay "Shooting an Elephant".
Far better minds than mine have killed many trees in the analysis of this piece of work. I personally read it many years ago when I was very young and had yet to obtain a passport, much less purchase a plane ticket. In short, it was wasted on me and the only reaction I had to it then, as I recall, was, "That poor elephant." And what a terrible terrible thing it was to shoot it.
As you can imagine, I read it very differently today. My heart went out to this young man sent out to do the "dirty work of the Empire at close quarters." Yes, he volunteered for it and yes he came to hate it. And the question I asked myself at the end of the essay was this: Could Orwell have been anything other than a servant of the empire in that place, at that time? If he had wanted to be in Burma - just to be there as a resident, an expatriate - on his own terms, could he have done so? Just as Eric Blair - civilian writer, traveller, observer - with no other agenda than to enjoy his time there, learn the language, and perhaps write a book or two. Would it have been possible for him to completely disassociate himself from the empire he hated in that place, even if he had gone off to a small village where none of his compatriots lived, and he publicly disavowed any connection (official or un-official) to that empire?
I think the answer to that is No. Two things would have made that a hopeless project: the empire claims its own and asks for services to be rendered either directly or indirectly; and because the local people put the onus of representing that empire on the individual from it regardless of whether or not he wishes to assume that responsibility.
It's hard to pin down when exactly the United States became an empire. Was it as early as the move westward and the conquering of the indigenous peoples and the creation of "captive nations"? Perhaps but that is a matter for historians to ponder. What we can say is that in the 190 or so countries that exist in the world today, over 150 have some sort of US military presence that we know about. With those numbers, it is highly likely that any country where American civilians arrive to live and work, they will do so alongside the soldiers, advisers and civil servants (the George Orwells) that directly serve the American empire. As civilians we will never be asked to slay an elephant on behalf of empire, but it is not a bit disingenuous to claim that we have no connection to such things whatsoever?
What I am trying to say here is that above and beyond all the discussion about whether civilian Americans abroad are migrants or expatriates, loyal Americans or traitorous tax cheats, there is a very controversial question to be considered: What is our relationship to the American Empire?
Unlike the soldiers and the civil servants we have no official role, but like them our presence is not neutral whether we live in a region where there are "boots on the ground" or simply a place where "America" is alive and well in people's imaginations. As individuals and as communities, we must position ourselves in relation to it which can mean anything from a stubborn refusal to be a part of it and do its work, to proudly claiming the title of "unofficial ambassador". It may even be possible that some of us serve it unintentionally, lulled or lured into it with the promise of privilege, or perhaps deriving a sense of safety from alignment with power.
What we cannot do if we are intellectually honest is to deny that there is any relationship at all.
And is there an argument that we are just as trapped in some ways in 2014 as Orwell was in 1922?
I don't know but I think these are questions worth asking. Lurking behind the scenes in every civilian American abroad autobiography, every article from a "creative" in an exotic locale, every news report filed from overseas, every blog post, interview and even academic papers put out there by America's "domestic abroad" is an elephant named Empire.
Or so it seems to me.