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Friday, October 10, 2014

Empire: The Elephant in the Room

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.


Ellen Lebelle said...

In essence, I think you are right. We certainly are given no credit for the service to the empire. Our claims that the empire is dis-serving us go unheard on the Hill, with just a few exception, in spite of continued presence of ACA and annual week of meetings by AARO and FAWCO. When all goes well, we can be own voices of optimism towards the US, but my voice has turned negative and I wonder if it'll ever be positive again.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Ellen, when I look at the US political scene, I see a united front for the continuation by any means of the American Empire. It united Dems and Repubs, Left and Right, Liberal and Conservative. They are ALL deeply committed to Empire even though they have very different reasons to support it.

Today there is enormous uncertainty about the viability of that empire. Is it in decline? Maybe. But it's clear that homeland Americans worry about it.

In a situation where the interests of empire and the interests of individual American citizens abroad clash, I don't see the American government, the politicans or the people putting their fellow citizens abroad above shoring up the Empire.

What does that mean for us? Are we simply in the way? And if that empire crumbles or goes into a slow decline, does that not put us in a very dangerous position?

An example: Americans are losing their bank accounts all over the world now. Our countries of residence are fully aware that the US government is not protesting that discrimination. Is that not a signal to these countries that the US government will not protect its citizens when there are broader imperial interests at stake?

Bruce B. said...

I agree that dating the US Empire (or is that empire?) from the slaughter of the indigenous nations or from Madison's Manifest Destiny is one for historians. I would argue that the one real difference is that the slaughter could be seen as "domestic policy", and that Manifest Destiny (which in practice is still current) was "foreign policy". But US as empire is definitely part of the basis of the foundations of the US as a country. So given its primacy, and that Americans are still mostly loath to truly discuss what "empire" means today, I also agree that the mostly unspoken concept isn't going away any time soon. It's not a left/right, Dem/Repub, wealthy/poor thing, although it's possible that rejection of empire, and possibly a desire to change it, would be more likely on the left than the right.

Your thinking made me wonder about what "ex-Americans" represent. If we give up our citizenship, but we're still perceived as "Americans" where does that leave us, especially in relation to the empire?

Inaka Nezumi said...

Admiral Grace Hopper once said, "It is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission." I think that is how the US operates. It just tries to see what it can get away with, and if there is no push-back, it continues on its merry way. In fact, this was explicitly the strategy behind FATCA, according to one of its drafters.

What is shocking to me is just how often it gets away with it. I've seen this in my own work place, when an American counterpart unilaterally changed the terms of an agreement with us. I urged that we should strenuously object, demand they honor the original terms. Professional colleagues I consulted in the US agreed with this approach. And yet I could not get the designated contact person on our side to do this. He didn't want to upset his relationship with his US counterpart, and he even pre-emptively started making excuses for how the US side probably had their hands tied, etc. I said, look, I'm an American, I know how these people think! They won't take it personally, and they'll respect someone who stands up to them. But no, mousy acquiescence was the path chosen, even though it caused us material harm. And it was completely unnecessary.

I look around at what the US is doing in the world, and I see so many examples of the same dynamic being played out.

And no, the Empire certainly will not do anything to help its citizens abroad. We're either useful to them, or irrelevant, but we're not valuable. We don't even enter into the calculations. They're just doing whatever they feel like to see what they can get away with. And we're not powerful enough to make an objection that they are even capable of hearing.

Unknown said...

The "Empire" has morphed to the PC "Homeland Defense"

Homeland Defense is the justification for the Orwellian "Perpetual War"

The moral and financial costs are eroding the very Homeland that is being defended

And I find that I am an expendible foot soldier in that war that I did not choose.

Mutiny is in the air!

People said...

Well, all I know is current president is pushing us faster and closer to an Orwellian State with all the IRS and NSA spying.
All ruling political elites fear their citizens ; look at Arab springs and recent Students protest at Hong Kong.

Anonymous said...

the imperial policy is
never admit to bad policy
accept no responsibility for the fallout, and expect the rest of the world to pay the bill
deregulated mortgage industry and no regulations of derivatives ==>world global crises
support and arming of Bin Laden's
mujihadeen which morphed into al Gueda whose franchise in Iraq ==> ISIS

Bruce B. said...

James, your comment "And I find that I am an expendable foot soldier in that war that I did not choose." made me think of the following:

In 2010, Israel boarded a Gaza-bound aid ship coming from Turkey. Among the 9 (10?) unarmed people who were killed was a young Turkish-American. Hillary Clinton was Sec'y of State at the time. What was her response to a foreign power killing an unarmed American citizen international waters? Did she get angry, or did she call the ambassador and demand a formal explanation or an apology for the illegal killing of the US citizen?

No, her answer was, basically, "he shouldn't have been there". "Expendable" is unfortunately the word. I'm so glad I have a second passport.

Tim said...

I attended a conference earlier today that a mutual friend of ours was speaking(to be unnamed) but Victoria knows who.

One of the more interesting arguments the keynote speaker made at lunch is most what is going on in tax policy including FATCA has more to do with protecting the empire of the EU/Brussels not protecting the American empire. Unlike the US and to a lesser extent Japan and China Europe does not have national currencies that they can print unlimited amounts of. Each European country must actually collect something close to the amount of revenue the state spends whereas in the US and Japan taxes in economic sense are just window dressing. Neither the US or Japan has run a balanced budget in decades and no one is really bothered with both countries simply monetizing government spending. The EU thus has a very large incentive to try to piggyback on what seem to be unilateral American initiatives like FATCA, GATCA, and BEPS. As the speaker put it almost all rich Europeans historically had Swiss bank accounts.
I don't agree with the analysis 100% but I do think there is some element of truth. One of things I find most intriguing is how the future of FATCA plays out in both Japan and China. It is also interesting in my mind to see the relative strength of Democrats Abroad in Europe vs Republicans Abroad in Asia.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Bruce, Yep, "empire" is a dirty word. Or at least Americans in the homeland don't want to discuss it and Americans abroad do and don't identify with it depending on their circumstances. In France I don't meet many Americans who support US military ventures but in Japan I spoke with Americans who were 100% behind the GWOT. I think there is an argument however that all are agents of empire whether they like it or not. (As are the professors, the teachers, the NGO workers, the businessmen and women and so on.)

Good question about those former Americans. Let's ask them. Best to do that over at Brock, I think.

@Nezumi-san, The argument I hear coming from Americans abroad is that they somehow represent the US abroad and help to sell products. I don't think the American homeland buys it. As you say, we are not perceived to be useful. We are, however, expected to be loyal. And I know very few people brave enough to stand up and say otherwise.

@Jim, I've been spoken to about using the word "homelanders". Well, it's THEIR word. Orwell I think would have ripped them to shreds for "homeland security". Mutiny is indeed in the air. And what kind of pushback are we going to get? So far, all the reactions of the US gov have been indirect. Without being paranoid, what's next?

@People and @Anonymous, I read an argument not too long ago that said that Americans could have democracy and their Constitution or they could have empire. They cannot have both.

@Jane, YES!!! I've contributed and I hope that many others do as well.

@Tim, Sounds like that was a very interesting seminar. Good point about the differences among Americans abroad. For a long time, the "voice of Americans abroad" came from Europe (ACA, AARO and FAWCO are all based in Europe). But that's only one region - what about the others? South America, Asia, Canada, Mexico? And you are 100% correct to point out that today we are looking at Dems Abroad Europe versus Republicans Overseas Asia.

Inaka Nezumi said...


The argument I hear coming from Americans abroad is that they somehow represent the US abroad and help to sell products. I don't think the American homeland buys it.

To be honest, I don't buy it either. I never did like the argument that we "represent" the US. I'm not here as a representative of the US, I am here as an immigrant to Japan. In fact, when I'm out in the world on business, I am there as a representative of Japan, not the US.

Now, the fact that I have contacts in the US and familiarity with and respect for what they are capable of does mean that I end up creating and strengthening linkages between our operations in Japan and theirs in the US, but I'm not doing that primarily to benefit the US, I'm doing that for our benefit here in Japan -- though of course it is really mutually beneficial.

So, maybe I could be said to act as some kind of bridge to some extent, but I am definitely not here as any kind of salesman or ambassador for the US.

Inaka Nezumi said...

Also, to clarify my comment about not being valued, I am not asking to be valued by the US. I am asking to be left alone.

Jane M said...

@ Inaka

In the past, oversea Americans represent love,freedom and creativity. Now, Americans represent NSA, IRS tax evaders and many failed foreign policies.

Boaz said...

Interesting question here, Victoria. It has stuck with me for a couple days.

I could relate to Inaka’s comment above about how an American abroad may work to strengthen ties, but do so for their own interests rather than in direct service to the US government and business collective. This seems like a less pernicious activity on behalf of empire than the kind of pointless killing of the elephant in Orwell’s story.

I sometimes think about this question as I try to adjust to life in France. I often see things that are different enough from what I was used to in the US, and I think that the way things are in the US is « better ». It may be as simple as a personal approach to making friends and organizing my time, or structural aspects of French society such as the many associations and their structures. When thinking about whether I will stay in France long term, I often think- well, if I do, I can work to change these aspects here that I don’t like. Even if my effect is miniscule, the fight itself can be meaningful.

On the one hand, perhaps I’m acting on behalf of the US empire here to try to make France more like the US. On the other hand, there are also plenty of ways in which I would try for change even if I were in the US. So, if transplanting my American values into a French context is working for American empire, then perhaps I’m ok with this.

Another way I sometimes think of this is in terms of language. France seems very scared about the French language losing its position. My French still isn’t great, and probably my net effect will be to have English spoken a bit more in France than before. Is this a service to US empire in some way ? Maybe one could construe it that way.

Anyway, its a complicated question, but I agree its an interesting one worth asking.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Boaz, That is exactly the sort of discussion and questioning that I hoped for when I wrote the post. What are our motives when we call ourselves "unofficial ambassadors" and when we try to effect change in the host country or in the home country. When we go abroad we are in the Empire whether we like it or not. I think most of us take the softer easier way out by ignoring the question altogether or by focussing on those things that are not controversial like "building French/German/Japanese - US ties and friendship." Being cultural interpreters, for example. But is that honest? When I first came to France I think my attitude was along the lines of "always give the US the benefit of the doubt". That changed over time and I became much more suspicious of US motives and actions. And today I walk a very fine line when I talk to friends and family in the US who, Left or Right, don't care for what I have to say.

Boaz said...

Well, I guess this development of skepticism towards the US and independence allows one to be oneself and not necesarilly a representative of the US empire.

Still, I'm not totally convinced about this impossibility of being a part of where one lives, rather than a US representative. I suppose I could use the American terminology of multi-culturalism to say that I may become an American French, for example, like someone may be an Asian American.

Anyway, it certainly is confusing, when one loves a lot about the US, but has enough of this skepticism that one doesn't want to be a representative. But living somewhere for most of one's life make that place a part of you, and trying to say you are not a representative is disingenuous.

Boaz said...

Thinking about this a little more, I’d say that the way to avoid being an imperialist is respect for the people and their history and context you find yourself in. So if I try, for example to work towards instilling an American style multi-culturalism in France (within the small ability I have, and whether or not such a thing ends up being coherent), but work within the French system and with respect for those involved, then I’d tend to see this as offering something of value to France, rather than weakening it in the face of America. Also, I’d rather not see it as a zero sum game where gains to one culture or nation must be at the expense of another.

So, perhaps as an “unofficial embassador”, one may be in some way serving the US, one would hope that one is serving the other country at the same time.

Framing one’s interaction with a non-US country in terms of US empire is good to think through, but at the same time, I guess one needs to be precise about what exactly that US empire consists. For example one may say that the internet has spread some elements of US culture around the globe to the extent that that culture doesn’t belong to the US anymore. I do sometimes think, though, that using some of the technology products of the US, such as Google and Facebook, one is in a small way participating in American imperialism. The users of these systems become watchable by the US, and so perhaps in some ways under its dominion.

Inaka Nezumi said...

@Boaz, @Victoria,

If I have to stand back and think about it, yes, I grew up in the US, and therefore inherited certain values that I try to promote as a member of Japanese society. For example, I sit on workplace and professional-society committees devoted to gender equality and fair treatment of immigrants, which are values I imbibed as a child in the US. I also do volunteer work with animal-rights and -rescue groups, which could also arguably be a result of values instilled in me as a child in the US.

But, I am working with raised-in-Japan people who feel the same way on these issues. So I don't think this is an imposition of American values, but rather a meeting of minds of people from different backgrounds, who all are working towards similar aims.

If I were to accept a charge of promoting the Imperium, I would expect to be accused of supporting the US, right or wrong. In fact, that is not even the way I was raised in the US. I was a hippie kid. One of my earliest memories is of listening to "Four Dead in Ohio," and I knew even as a kid what that meant: the government is trying to kill "us." I've only ever trusted any government as far as I could throw it.

In fact, the values I try to promote as a member of Japanese society, are also ones I learned to fight for as an outsider within US society.

So, in the end, saying where each thought's influence came from may be an impossible job, but would insist that in the end, what one is arguing for is not as important as whom one is fighting for. At this point, I fight for a brighter future for Japan. If that happens to incidentally benefit the US as well, great, but that is not my goal. I don't work for them any more.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Boaz, Yes, I don't see it as a zero-sum game either. Another way of looking at it: Are you in the host country to teach, to offer or to learn? Three very different goals that start from different places. The first implies that the host country nationals are your students and you are in a superior position to them. The next is a throwing of your skills and experience into the pot where they might be accepted, or rejected or modified. That's more a relationship of equals. The last is a position of humility where you make yourself the student and accept to be taught. This is definitely unequal (also uncomfortable) but leads to incredible personal growth (or deep depression).