“I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.” ~Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World and Me
My country is spiraling into toxic oblivion, and for most of the year I’ve had little to say. While my contemporaries have busied themselves with bitter rants, memes and re-tweets, I’ve watched quietly. Not because I didn’t have anything to say, mind you. No, it has more to do with the nature of the dialogue itself, a dialogue that purports to challenge the status quo in Washington, but in doing so entirely misses the mark.
It’s important to understand that America is an empire, one of the most sprawling empires this world has seen. Beyond the matters of size and reach, however, it is not exceptional in the history of empires. The seed of American empire can be found in the ones that preceded it. Empire operates by its own impenetrable logic. It measures the well-being of the world by how much of it already has a place in its financial ledgers. “Security”, in imperial-speak, is a euphemism for ownership, just as “liberate” is one for conquest.
There is nothing regarding the experience of people in Libya or Iraq that can be described as liberated, just as it’s a cruel joke to suggest that this nation’s inner cities enjoy anything resembling security. These spaces, however, are secured, meaning that they serve an economic purpose. The elite network of political, corporate, and financial interests underpinning Washington are invested in poverty, crime and war, and quite transparently so. It is the right, we must remember, of any empire to pursue Profit above all else.
This inalienable right to greed long ago gave way to the rites of global power, which even the Law is powerless to prevent or put in check.
When you look at American history, it is the story of an incipient machine being slowly weaponized for maximum profit. The exploitation of African and indigenous peoples for the system of slavery (even well after 1865) and the necessary subsuming of their humanity; the gradual privatization of government from the inside, like a thief sneaking into a city and plundering its goods; the erection of the National Security State, better known as Eisenhower’s ‘military-industrial complex’, a secret apparatus unaccountable to any democratic bodies of law; the granting of personhood to corporations, as if we were Kabalistic priests breathing life into our Golems; and the grotesque spectacle of our prison system, whose GDP exceeds that of some small nations.
Is this story unfamiliar to you?
That’s not surprising, because it’s never the story we’ve told ourselves about America; not in the realm of public discourse, anyway. We’ve created a matrix in which only the secondary concerns of this monstrosity are dealt with, the implicit agreement being that, yes, such an affront to humanity as the one we’ve created is legitimate. Criticisms of the system itself are given short shrift, ridiculed for being too “anachronistic”, as though Virtue somehow has a time limit on its implementation. We the people are lightly prodded to stick with the story…you know– democracy, George Washington, “This Land is Our Land”, freedom, heroic baseball, apple pie, Christian benevolence. All the trappings of our great nation that tell us we’re the good guy–even if our drones blow up weddings and hospitals, even if our fighter jets shower poison that disfigures generations of human beings on the opposite side of the planet.
Coates identifies this story that America constantly tells herself as the Dream, and suggests that we look at our journalism, news coverage and entertainment as a series of “sleeping pills”. As he puts it,
This is the foundation of the Dream—its adherents must not believe in it but believe it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works. There is some passing acknowledgement of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present…To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown.
We live in a maze of headlines, sensationalism and largely useless trivia. We know all the ins-and-outs of the Kardashian family tree, but have scant awareness of the U.S.-backed atrocities committed against Palestinians. We carefully draw a line between ‘good’ drugs and ‘bad’ drugs in our daily debates, but are unaware that the worldwide heroin trade has skyrocketed since U.S. military forces started occupying Afghani opium fields in 2001. We honor civil rights leaders like Dr. King and Malcolm X—shouting their praise and building them monuments—without acknowledging who gunned them down. And God forbid we ever talk about the child trafficking scandals that have implicated politicians in office on multiple occasions, because we all know that doesn’t jive with the Dream.
The silence on these topics in our discourse has always bothered me. I watched people instead become passionate about divisive issues whose solutions did little to threaten the dynamics of power, as if to convince themselves that their freedom of speech really could make a difference. Meanwhile, corporations were being given the power to sue governments. The Obama administration was brokering arms deals at an unprecedented rate. Oil companies continued to bungle their way through our oceans, seemingly in defiance of every ecological code we’d ever set forth. Did any of it matter? Was anyone really watching?
When Donald Trump appeared on the scene, however, there was an explosion of righteous indignation, and suddenly everyone became an expert on the Constitution, on the executive branch’s encroachment of checks and balances, on the number of daily casualties in Yemen and Syria. Now a president’s conflict of interests did matter, though barely anything was ever said about how the Oval Office had become an annex of Goldman Sachs and other Wall St. megaliths dating back to the Nixon administration. We all shudder at Trump’s oafish exceptionalism, his complete lack of any sort of discretion you’d expect of a man in his position. The question remains, though: are we really under the impression that any of this is new? Where has this vigilance in defending our democracy been over the last 50 years?
For me, the knockout punch wasn’t delivered on Election Night, but several months before when the two nominees were officially announced. That’s where everything was lost. Once again, America was being presented with a false dichotomy in Clinton vs. Trump, with no shortage of talking points and debates to highlight the vile mediocrity which they both held in common. Outside of public image, in arguing for one you may as well have been arguing for the other. The American Empire would march on undeterred, its private defense contracts and billion-dollar military budget preserved like glittering family heirlooms.
A subversive spirit among the body-politic is healthy, but it’s important not to confuse the symbol for the problem itself, because a symbol is all Trump really is. Fascinatingly, he’s almost like an amalgam of everything most undesirable about U.S. politicians, aimed directly at our own political conscience. He triggers us for the simple reason that seeing such an open representation of what our nation has become has always been our biggest fear. We’d much prefer a charismatic Obama, a cheerful Jack Kennedy to wave the pendulum in front of our eyes. Trump is merely a symbol, not the problem itself. The most flagrant, offensive aspects and assumptions of the Empire existed long before Trump ever owed anyone money, and even if he’s impeached they’ll continue unabated—no matter the pretty face who is his successor.
As long as we narrow our criticism to a fleeting individual and not the Machine he stands in front of, as long as we inveigh against Darkwing Donald and his inner circle of schmoozing sophists and thick-headed oil pirates, we rob ourselves the opportunity to spend our currency of consciousness on the larger parasitic forces that shape policy to the whims of their neocolonial greed and then “manufacture consent” from us in order to ensure their success. Our patriotism need not look like despotism; our national pride shouldn’t resemble a drunken binge. For our democracy the worst has already occurred, and it has nothing to do with Russia or any other boogeyman from the Outside. The problem is internal, and if we are to avoid our own collective Kristallnacht, we’d do well to shift our attention from the symptoms of this festering cancer to the actual cause itself.
“But part of what I know is that there is the burden of living among Dreamers, and there is an extra burden of your country telling you the Dream is just, noble, and real, and you are crazy for seeing the corruption and smelling the sulfur.”