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August 03, 2006

Why We Can't Be An Empire

I thought this bit from Jonathan Schell pretty provocative:

All over the world, autocratic-minded rulers, from Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to Russia's President Vladimir Putin, have learned that de facto control of the political content of television is perhaps the most important lever of power in our day. They have learned that it does not matter politically if 15 or even 25 percent of the public is well informed as long the majority remains in the dark. The problem has not been censorship but something very nearly censorship's opposite: the deafening noise of the official megaphone and its echoes--not the suppression of truth, still spoken and heard in a narrow circle, but a profusion of lies and half lies; not too little speech but too much. If you whisper something to your friend in the front row of a rock concert, you have not been censored, but neither will you be heard.

That, I think, is a reality that many of us intuitively grasp, but haven't quite been able to articulate. The problem isn't a lack of information, or the obvious censorship of a police state, but the projection and absorption of misinformation and spin. I always come back to, as example, the polls showing that Americans knew more about Clinton's health care plan directly after his first speech than after nine months of round-the-clock media coverage. By tuning into the press coverage, they felt informed on the plans outlines. They were not. But it's infinitely harder to convince someone that what they "know" is wrong rather than that what they don't know is important.

If you've got some time, the rest of the essay is interesting. Schell goes through the superpower paradox -- the weird repetition in American life that, if only this country possessed the will, we could remake the world in our image. From McCarthy to Nixon to Albright to Krauthammer, there's a desire to do ever more, and a belief that what stands in our way is domestic paralysis and flaccidity. Problem is, Schell argues, America came of age after the empire era had ended:

Of far greater importance was what happened to two kinds of war that had historically been the most important--wars of imperial conquest and general, great-power wars, such as the First and Second World Wars. During the twentieth century the first kind had become hopeless "quagmires," owing to the aroused will of local peoples everywhere who, collectively, had put an end to the age of imperialism. The second were made unfightable and unwinnable by the nuclear revolution. It was these two limitations on the usefulness of military force, one acting at the base of the international system, the other at its apex, that delimited the superiority of the superpower. (The paradox of impotent omnipotence was even more pronounced for the other superpower, the Soviet Union, which actually disappeared.)

Very possibly, the United States, with all its resources, would have been the sort of globe-straddling empire that Joseph McCarthy wanted it to be had it risen to pre-eminence in an earlier age. It was the peculiar trajectory of the United States, born in opposition to empire, to wind up making its own bid for empire only after the age of imperialism was over. Though it's hard to shed a tear, you might say that there was a certain unfairness in America's timing. All the ingredients of past empires were there--the wealth, the weapons, the power, hard and soft. Only the century was wrong. The United States was not, could not be and cannot now be a new Rome, much less greater than Rome, because it cannot do what Rome did. It cannot, in a postimperial age, conquer other countries and lastingly absorb them into a great empire; it cannot, in the nuclear age, not even today, fight and win wars against its chief global rivals, who still, after all, possess nuclear arsenals. Even tiny, piteous, brutalized, famine-ridden North Korea, more a cult than a country, can deter the United States with its puny putative arsenal. The United States, to be sure, is a great power by any measure, surely the world's greatest, yet that power is hemmed in by obstacles peculiar to our era.

That strikes me as largely accurate. It's particularly illuminating to use this lens on the right, where Victor Davis Hanson and his near-pornographic veneration of ancient empires is charged with defining what a great society looked like, where the constant refrain is to avoid Chamberlain's pre-nuclear era mistake of appeasement, where the fury attaches to all of us who would counsel that America keeps the extent of its power uncertain rather than leaping forward to clearly define its limits. The right, certain that we can do what Rome or the British did, cannot blame the ragtag insurgencies of the Middle East for our losses, so they turn on the lack of will and domestic opposition they see all around them. America is not great because Americans are not great. Admitting that the mold and opportunities for greatness have changed would be too wrenching for a movement that places its mythology so firmly in the empires and World Wars of yesteryear.

August 3, 2006 | Permalink


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Hi Ezra,

I think Charles Stross, science fiction author and genuine smart guy, has the key insight.

Sad to say, the political landscape of the early to mid 21st century has already been designed -- by Gary Gygax, inventor of Dungeons and Dragons.

Gary didn't realize it (D&D predates personal computing) but his somewhat addictive game transferred onto computers quite early (see also: Nethack). And then gamers demanded -- and got, as graphics horsepower arrived -- graphical versions of same. And then multi-user graphical versions of same. And then the likes of World of Warcraft, with over a million users, auction houses, the whole spectrum of social interaction, and so on.

Which leads me to the key insight that: our first commercially viable multi-user virtual reality environments have been designed (and implicitly legislated) to emulate pencil-and-paper high fantasy role playing games.

...There's no bloody escaping it. The gamers have given rise to a monster that is ultimately going to embrace and extend the web, to the same extent that TV subsumed and replaced motion pictures. (The web will still be there -- some things are intrinsically easier to do using a two dimensional user interface and a page-based metaphor -- but the VR/AR systems will be more visible.)

...We're already immersed in a neotenous society, where social adolescence is artificially extended and a lot of people never "grow up' -- that is, never accept the designated "adult" roles and social behaviours. Gaming is a pervasive recreational behaviour; the games industry is probably close to surpassing the traditional motion picture industry in turnover. Play -- historically associated more with childhood behaviour than with adultood -- is a behaviour that is increasingly continued into adulthood. And it has long-term psychological implications. Play is learning tool; young mammals play in order to explore their environment and develop strategies for coping.

An environment developed implicitly for gaming/playing, then re-purposed for acting/doing in real life, offers all sorts of interesting possibilities for behavioural traps equivalent to not understanding that location bar at the top of the browser window. The two general failure modes will be: (a) thinking that something is a game, when in actual fact it isn't, and (b) thinking something is real when it's just a simulation. These will also interact with a population who take longer to reach "traditional" adulthood (if they ever do so), and who therefore may engage in game-play or learning oriented behaviour inappropriately.

The Militant Right insists on "playing" their foreign policy as if it were a game of Civilisation or Age of Empires on the "easy" setting and then conducting their wars as if they were playstation shoot-em-up games. When it all falls apart, they indulge in some inappropriate learning oriented behaviour by insisting that if they just hit reset and have yet another war, yet another attempt at creating that American hegemony, everything will come out right this time.

Regards, Cernig @ Newshog

Posted by: Cernig | Aug 3, 2006 11:45:44 AM

The first point may be accurate, but I'm not sure it can be called "provocative" any more. Has Ezra seen Wag the Dog?

The whole ban'em-and-burn'em attitued toward books has long been considered passe.

Posted by: moriarty | Aug 3, 2006 12:02:01 PM

I'm not sure it's "unfair" that America didn't get to be a conventional empire. I'd have thought the experience of France and Britain post 1950 would show that to be a blessing.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Aug 3, 2006 12:32:31 PM

It was the peculiar trajectory of the United States, born in opposition to empire, to wind up making its own bid for empire only after the age of imperialism was over.

Refresh my memory, when did we actually make that bid, fantasies of right-wing commentators notwithstanding?

Posted by: Adrock | Aug 3, 2006 1:09:57 PM

Regarding Schell's first point -- about the Media -- I do not understand why it is so apparently so difficult to grasp the key importance of creating a Media news outlet with a pro-Democratic, pro-liberal, pro-progressive mission.

If Fox News/ABC/CNN/MSNBC/PBS Newshour had to deal with a constant challenge to their credibility from a television news channel with a completely different editorial viewpoint and news reporting philosophy and operational strategy, it would alter the whole ecology.

The Republicans were systematic in advocating Media consolidation, as a means of homogenizing the corporate media -- eliminating the Ted Turners and the chance of a liberal cuckoo appearing in the nest at a family-owned L.A. Times, Washington Post or other media outlet. They used every means available to co-opt PBS and National Public Radio, quite successfully.

After Whitewater, the war against Gore, and the Swift Boat Veterans, it ought to be clear that the Democratic Party cannot survive in power for long, without addressing this problem.

De-homogenization of news media is the only way a liberal pundit like Ezra Klein is going to have a decent career, long-term. Air America and DailyKos are not enough. Think about it.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Aug 3, 2006 1:24:29 PM

I don't disagree that America can't become an empire, but I think that it is do to our goodness, rather than our lack of greatness. I don't particularly want an 'Imperial America'

I have my doubts though about anyone who makes sweeping statements such as 'the age of empires is over.' Human nature being what it is, and not having changed, I find that somewhat unlikely.

I suspect that future empires will arise.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Aug 3, 2006 3:01:50 PM

I remember some wiseacre (in the church of the SubGenius, no less) pointing out that the only reason colonialization worked is that the natives were so eager to sell out the folks over the hill that they never considered the possible impact of all the people from over the sea - or that by the time they did, it was too late.

Judging by current sentiments in the Middle East, the natives now have no trouble uniting against foreigners - even if the plan is to start fighting each other as soon as the foreigners leave.

Posted by: Kylroy | Aug 3, 2006 3:10:01 PM

Define "empire"

Each occurrence is different in appearance. I have given it thought, and it is hard to call America's world position circa 1965 "hegemony". Germany and Japan had nominal independence, but the US also had hundreds of thousands of troops in those countries. Britain and Rome did not completely displace local populations or exercise total local control. Herod was a somebody. And just cause Nk can thumb its nose at us, well Rome had problems with Germany and Britain with Zulus and Afghanis and God knows who.

I would define the "empire" on 3 measures:very strong int'l influence, such as intimidating the Security Council to go along on Iran; economic advantage or gain, as in our disproportionate consumption of world resources; and finally, technically, whether or not we garrison other nations. Whether the military threat is at a distance or imminent.

Finally, America started as an Empire, and never slowed down. A large part of the Revolution involved demands to expand into Ohio in defiance of British/AmerIndian treaties. I don't know who you call the expansion to the Pacific over the bodies of the Natives, but looks like Imperialism to me. We just had a lot of easy room to grow.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 3, 2006 4:19:10 PM

My definition of Empire only concern's Bob's 3rd point, but I can certainly see why some would lump general influence into that. Still, I'm not sure how correct or useful that is. I guess it depends on how that influence is used, the means and the ends. Mutually beneficial influence seems to me to be a good thing, like say, persuading the Security Council to put real pressure Iran. (Constructive pressure, not Dubya "we refuse to negotiate" pressure.)

Posted by: Adrock | Aug 3, 2006 6:11:02 PM

During the twentieth century the first kind had become hopeless "quagmires," owing to the aroused will of local peoples everywhere who, collectively, had put an end to the age of imperialism.

The AK-47 doesn't get enough respect in the West when we start talking about "freedom".

Posted by: Phoenician in a time of Romans | Aug 6, 2006 6:31:42 PM

auto insurace auto insurace

Posted by: auto insurace | Aug 13, 2006 12:32:19 PM

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