Opinion Original Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence: Our Shared Addiction to Empire

"If the Columbus myth has been thoroughly discounted, what is it that causes us to continue closing the banks, stopping the mail, and marching in parades on a Monday around October 12 each year?"
Christopher Columbus statue in downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota. Tony Webster, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost

Columbus Day: I wasn’t sure America even marked the Italian explorer’s arrival in the New World 530 years ago, given that our republic’s past is a field of battle now. But there it was last Monday: The mail didn’t come, the banks were closed, and my neighbors here in Norfolk didn’t go to work. I ought to pay closer attention to these things.

I took the occasion to look again at a book that has long sat on a shelf opposite my desk. I stare at the spine of Empire as a Way of Life as a matter of daily routine, as if it is a picture on the wall that is always where it is supposed to be. It was William Appleman Williams’ last book, published in the autumn of 1980. It seemed a good moment to think again about what App, as he is known in this household, had to say five years after the rise of Saigon ended our Southeast Asian adventures.

It was not among the books that made the noted historian’s name. That goes to The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, The Roots of the Modern American Empire, and other such volumes App published as a leading figure—the leading figure, I’ll suggest—in the University of Wisconsin’s famously excellent history department. Empire as a Way of Life was more in the way of late-career reflections, like Blowback and the other books Chalmers Johnson published once the rigors of academia were behind him.

I still remember that chill October evening on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, when Williams marked Empire’s publication at a gathering organized by the then-young Radical History Review. We were all there to honor a very great man. We all listened intently as he considered aloud what was next for a nation whose imperial ambitions had recently proven so  dreadfully destructive of so much. The book’s subtitle gives an idea of what App had to say that night: An Essay on the Causes and Character of America’s Present Predicament Along with a Few Thoughts About an Alternative

I took App’s book down from its shelf last Monday for what I thought was a good reason. I wondered, with Empire as a Way of Life opened before me, what it is we celebrate when we mark the day a 15th century Italian made landfall on a Bahamian island inhabitants called Guanahani but which Columbus immediately renamed San Salvador? The explorer wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish king and queen who bankrolled him, as follows a few months later:

I discovered many islands, thickly peopled, of which I took possession without resistance in the name of our most illustrious Monarch, by public proclamation and with unfurled banners.

It seems a clue. It was about possession, proclamation, and the representation of authority by way of heraldry as much as it was about discovery. This seems right, though he could not have known what we know now and could not have thought as we think now.

Descendants of settlers and immigrants across the Atlantic recognize Native Americans as people now, even if this is mostly on paper. Too many still live on desolate reservations, medicating themselves with alcohol—and, as the physician Gabor Maté would say, their resort to it at least serves to assuage the pain of centuries of trauma. These were first people and are no longer called “Indians.” This is our collective acknowledgment. Not nearly enough has otherwise changed.

There was a seaside settlement of Vikings we now call L’Anse aux Meadows along the Newfoundland coast half a millennium before Columbus docked in the Bahamas. Tree rings, one way these things can be reckoned, indicate that these settlers were chopping trees by 1021, 1,001 years ago. We have not known this for long, 60 or so years, but that is enough time to think about who from across the Atlantic “discovered” America on Oct. 12, 1492.

If the Columbus myth has been thoroughly discounted, what is it that causes us to continue closing the banks, stopping the mail, and marching in parades on a Monday around October 12 each year? This seems to me a good question.

App Williams helped me along last Monday. When we celebrate Cristoforo Colombo, Cristóbal Colón to the Spaniards, we unfurl the banners, just as he did, of empire. What else did he do other than bring the European Age of Empire, then in its Spanish and Portuguese phases, across the Atlantic? I cannot think of a single thing that otherwise distinguishes his accomplishment.

We had better come to terms with this, just as Williams urged us: However many of us don’t care to own up to it, empire is our way of life just as it was for the Iberians half a millennium ago. Back then it was about gold, slaves, and dominion. For us it is about oil, numerous other commodities, cheap labor, favorable terms of trade, our projection of neoliberal orthodoxy, and, of course, profit.

I have just offered a very brief précis, I hope not too inadequate, of Williams’ core thesis: It is America’s voracious pursuit of its economic interests that drives what he called, in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, “the liberal policy of informal empire, or free trade imperialism.” Williams was a student of, among others, Charles Beard, who earlier put economics and class conflict at the center of the American story in Some Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy and An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.

Americans do not like to read about themselves in terms such as these. This is why Williams was counted a “revisionist” historian and had many critics. Revisionists are historians who set aside all the exceptionalist nonsense and Wilsonian excuse-making—providential missions, “humanitarian” interventions, selflessly bringing democracy to the uncivilized—in favor of accounts of America’s past and present-day conduct grounded in perfectly discernible motivations, interests, and realities.

“The words empire and imperialism enjoy no easy hospitality in the minds and hearts of most contemporary Americans,” Williams wrote very delicately in the book on my desk this week. “This essay,” he continued as he set out, “is a blunt attempt to help us understand and accept our past as an imperial people who must now ‘order’ ourselves rather than policing and saving the world…. Our future is here and now, a community to be created among ourselves so that we can be citizens—not imperial overlords—of the world.”

In his final book Williams holds to those theses that distinguished him during his most productive academic years: There is a good review of “the imperial logic,” as he titles one chapter; all the selfish economic drives that shaped America’s conduct from its earliest days are reprised in a graceful, conversational prose. But what interests me most about this little book is something else.

Here Williams is also concerned with a consciousness—with an addiction to empire shared by all Americans, even those among us who think they have adequately covered themselves by way of their denunciations of the imperial project. There is no discrimination in this book between conservatives and liberals or either of these and progressives—which was a serious term in Williams’ time, believe it or not. Let us know ourselves as who we truly are, he says. We are all living it: Empire is our “way of life.”

We would do well to think about this the next time we fill the car with gasoline, obsess on this or that gadget, eat bananas, or—sit down, please—hang a blue-and-yellow flag off the front porch. We are dependent on empire in a thousand ways we flinch from. The majority of us also cheer on empire like good Wilsonians pretending it is all about democracy. This is what passes for progressive politics today, and I imagine it has App, a classic Midwestern populist who died in 1990 at 68, spinning.

It is a material addiction, empire, but it is also an addiction to the projection of American power. It is altogether a pathology that engages our psyches and consciences because we must find ways to live with these dependencies and still look in our mirrors and think ourselves good.

There is some heartbreak in thinking back to that October evening long ago, either side of Columbus Day 1980. There were hundreds of us there, and we all saw some good use in looking forward with the prospect of doing things differently in our post–Vietnam circumstances. The heartbreak derives from how very far we are now—atomized, apathetic, acquiescent, still living the long “me decade”—from any such idea of purpose, of acting creatively, of cutting a new path out front for ourselves.

This part of App’s book and presentation stirred us, I vividly recall. He saw “the empire at bay” at that moment. And he titled his concluding chapter “Notes on Freedom Without Empire.” It was with these thoughts he concluded his very informal lecture. As he saw it—an equation I have long stood by—the choice was between empire abroad or democracy at home: We can have one or the other but not both

App the populist loved common people and quoted an Australian rancher deep in the Outback: “You aren’t lost until you don’t know where you’ve been.” Let us begin by knowing how we got here, and then we can go on differently: How very excellent a thought is this?

From there he urged us to consider our limits. “The first thing to note is the imperial confusion between an economically defined standard of living and a culturally defined quality of life.” He meant that we must “provide the cost-accounting to tell us what we pay for our largesse.” And what others pay, I would add.

“And so we return to oil, the classic example of the benefits and terrors of empire as a way of life,” App continued. “It is a slow and painful way to learn, this imperial burning of finger after finger to find out that the stove is hot. Let us save our thumbs to grasp a non-imperial future.”

Columbus Day is no longer celebrated as it used to be. This may be a sign of our progress, but I don’t think it is anything monumentally important. We seem no less addicted to the empire the Italian explorer stood for; we seem simply deeper into denial. The long campaign to bring Russia to its knees, the constant provocation of China: It is in our time that empire seems to be playing its cards in shoot-the-moon fashion. It is a terrible thought, but most of us appear to be so frightened as to prefer empire to democracy.

I simply cannot imagine a large auditorium filled with the kind of people who went to see App Williams 42 years ago this month. To steal the phrase and put it to good purpose for once, to gather again as we did then is how we will have to build back better.


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Patrick Lawrence
Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon siteHis Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.

22 comments

  1. What a wonderful article. I am not American (I am Australian, and farmers are NOT called ranchers!!) but certainly note from observation the imperialism of the USA and our poodle-like behaviour towards the USA. The idea that nobody should approach the USA’s height (!) and even China, 4 times the population, should not advance and seem to rival it in any way, seems embedded in the attitude of the US élite. Russia and now many non-Western nations actually having agreements and decisions based on their own perceived interests causes the USA to act quite irrationally, and its reaction to punish any “disobedient” vassal has echoes of the time of slavery. Being one of a cooperating group of nations, as the UN intended, does not seem to be a consideration. Russia’s reasonable suggestions are cast aside, but are by no means isolated. Over 80% of the nations on earth do not necessarily share the US idea of US domination being good for the world.

    1. Thank you rosemerry. Sadly, here in Canada we too are now the 51st state of the Empire as we have no foreign policy of our own but a puppet government that does the bidding of Washington anywhere in the world whether it be Haiti, Palestine, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, or our own west coast where we steal Indigenous land to run pipelines under pristine rivers. The people of the empire meanwhile are pacified by sportsworld and every conceivable distraction. The crimes of empire continue unabated and the war fever rises to shrill levels, the west is going to pay dearly for this hubris if not all of humanity.

  2. The outback rancher’s words, “You aren’t lost until you don’t know where you’ve been,” succinctly states how oblivious most Americans are to the context of their own history. I just finished Wendell Berry’s latest book, “The Need to be Whole,” in which he aptly puts into context our history of racism and our violent extractive economy. He and Williams are kindred souls for the heart of democracy.

  3. Thank you for your (usual) elegant wisdom.

    I live in an outer branch of this empire, in Australia. We are likewise blinded to the nature of the problem, fearful of dissent, acquiescent in happy subordination, dominant culture shaped by yours. Disquiet exists, dissident voices exist, but it’s hard to make an impression.

    My mentor in Asia oriented globalism is now yourself, my mentor in vehemence is my countryperson Caitlin.

    An epicentre of alternative opinion and information is as managed by the doyen of public policy in Australia, John Menadue. This a recent piece of mine,
    https://johnmenadue.com/we-are-at-war-and-it-may-soon-be-nuclear-war/

  4. Most of our world’s history, is rooted in grandiose falsehoods for perpetuity it would seem. The few lone voices bringing the truth, branded revisionists, go unheard. The so-called masters ruling us all — albeit succeeded throughout the ages — remain the same old, same old greedy interbred idiots.

  5. No holiday is celebrated with the same unquestioning fervor as just a decade ago. Yom Kippur/Rosh Hashanah passed in 2022 with barely a whimper in the media at a time of intense squabbling over Zionism. Recently I heard a right wing ideologue explain why he opposed celebrating Halloween. It has little to do with worshipping demons and practicing magic, as opposed by evangelicals. “Halloween has a history of disrespect for private property and the expectation of rewards (candy) without work,” he emphasized.
    I think that such spooky history is all the more reason to celebrate Halloween with an informed emphasis. Applebaum and Lawrence would probably agree. We could make Halloween anti-empire and pro-democracy just as Columbus Day has become Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

  6. Keeping Columbus Day would be a good thing if we used it to remind ourselves how shitty the people that settled this continent were and pledged to be as much unlike them as possible.

  7. I have to get.to the library to get and read Appleton.Sounds like a good project for an old retired Socialist who.does not like where we are headed.

  8. Thank you for making me think and helping me to put more things into perspective. There seems to be an endless supply of epiphanies; when will I understand them all or at least enough to feel that I am standing on solid ground.

    I am reminded of the Machiavelli quote: “He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation.” Too often we see things as we wish they were. Unfortunately, as you eloquently state, the system is wired for empire not empathy.

    My question is: Can the current system be reformed or must it collapse as is the fate of all over-extended, excessively complex empires? I dedicate myself to thinking that planting the seeds of empathy in the current political system may lead us to change our diet or at worst, may be just enough rations for survival when it all collapses.

    Thanks again for making sure that my eyes are wide open during this adventure.

  9. The holiday was created by politicians to get Italian American votes. That’s it. Y’all make things much more complex than they actually are. 99% of americans either dont notice columbus day, have no idea it’s controversial, dont care its controversial, or are “on columbus’s side”. they have a point. in the end the world is a brutal scramble for resources. how many high minded, intellectual types bemoaning columbus and all that followed would not even exist, or be wallowing in old europe serfdom or some other slavery if the west had not taken and exploited as it continues to do? Hypocrites; natives excluded…

  10. The U.S. still acts out the Greco-Roman model made famous by Alexander, the not so great. Alexander of Macedon, frequently referred to as “Great”, was proficient at colonizing large portions of Eurasia by force. Far too many people just accept that kind of behavior as the definition of “greatness”. The Romans copied Alexander. The U.S. copied the Romans.

    Alexanders empire shrunk back to the Greek islands. Rome’s shrunk back to Italy. And I figure that the U.S. empire will shrink back to Bakersfield, CA.

  11. Interesting commentary on Columbus and the national holiday, Patrick, and interesting comments by the Australian readers on their nation’s vassal subservience to “Uncle Sam.” (same with Canada)

    The William’s books sound quite appropriate to read and relevant, for sure, as Mr. Lawrence stated, and I may add them to my “must read” list.

    Imperialism and Empire are first and second – conquest, then domination – and five books I’ve enjoyed reading, and learn from are Dr. Michael Parenti’s “The Face of Imperialism” and “The Assassination of Julius Caesar” A People’s History of Ancient Rome, the latter, to me, is a masterpiece, as Parenti, who did immense research for this book can make a comparison between the ruling-elite of Rome, and the ruling-elite in modern day society, especially the United States. Also, Stephen Kinzer’s “Overthrow” , America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq. and last,”The Globalization of NATO” by Madhi Darius Nazemroaya.

    The contents in all of these books, including (even though I haven’t read them) the William Appleman Williams books aren’t taught in our schools and without a certain type of curiosity to look elsewhere for information, the majority of people accept what big corporate media puts out, on the tube, in print, and on the radio airwaves.

    And for you Aussies, You have two Great Heroes to be proud of and they are John Pilger and Caitlin Johnstone, and from the past, the late Longshoreman leader, Harry Bridges.

    Beeline, that’s funny! “Back to Bakersfield, Ca.” We need humor in these precarious times.

    Thanks Patrick, and Bob Scheer and the Staff, and everyone else willing to stand up for the Truth and doing our best to inform the uninformed.

  12. Thanks for this great essay. Back in the mid-eighties my younger brother left a copy of “Empire As A Way Of Life” lying around ( it was an assigned book in a History class, I think) and I read it. I’d never considered US politics and History seriously until that moment, and it’s safe to say that book changed my outlook permanently.

  13. Speaking of native Americans the Tehuelche indians of Argentina who used to live in Patagonia were exterminated in a series of campaigns in the 1880’s. Today in Argentina you often hear “we don’t have any Indians”. Guess what? they surrendered, were segregated by sex and not allowed to pro-create. Their last cacique or chief was placed in a museum in Buenos Aires for the viewing pleasure of the public of a “living Indian”. He was attired in the Western clothing of the period but before he died he tore off his given clothing and went back to his native Indian clothes. Sad epitaph for the last Indian chief.

    1. Sounds much like the Pygmy Ota Binga (Otto Bingo) who was bought from slave traders in 1904 for an expedition at the St Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition, then infamously exhibited in the Bronx zoo in the Monkey House in 1906. He was eventually freed and moved to Virginia, but never fully assimilated and committed suicide in 1916.

  14. Patrick:

    The US proxy war in Ukraine is likely to be the final nail in the coffin of the US empire. It’s only because the Dollar is the world’s reserve and main trading currency that the US can print money, running up $30+ trillion in debt: in this respect the US -is- exceptional. Any other nation, like mine in Canada, that would spend this recklessly would see its currency crushed by speculators.

    How could Ukraine accelerate the end of US dominance?
    *The myth of US military dominance is being shattered. The reality on the battlefield, to my best understanding from people like Scott Ritter or Col Douglas Macgregor, is that the Ukrainian army is outmatched and exhausted. The rest of the world is not saturated by US propaganda and can see that Russia is holding its own, given it took time out of an ongoing war to conduct 4 referendums in eastern Ukraine.
    *Russia and China are now competitors with US technology companies. I always found it ironic that NASA, for example, depended on the Russian space agency to ferry its astronauts into orbit, at least until Elon Musk decided to help out.
    *The US is destroying the EU economy by pushing Europe to engage in Russian sanctions. How long will average EU citizens tolerate the massive inflation in food and energy prices? The neoliberal ideology serves a small section of US and European financial elites and no one else.
    *Neoliberalism has hollowed out the West’s industrial base, whether for consumer or military production, and outsourced production elsewhere. How can the US be aggressive towards Russia and China when it’s so dependent on their products and resources?
    *China and Russia have developed alternatives to the SWIFT financial system, and are helping to reduce dependence on the US dollar to conduct international trades. If US treasuries stop being seen as the safest place to park your money, the ability of the US govt to generate so much debt for its military will end.

    If my understanding of future climate chaos is sound, any imperial intentions by any nation will seem ludicrous. The whole world will be faced with fires, famine, storms of the kind described in the Old Testament. Due to accelerating heat and changes in weather patterns, widespread breadbasket failures can occur as early as the 2040s.

    When I listen to the warnings of climate scientists shaping the IPCC reports and even those of the UN Secretary General, it’s still hard to believe because right now I can go to a grocery store in Canada and food is abundant. A good analogy I see used often is our society being like the Titanic, and US efforts to be a world power is a lot like fighting over seating arrangements in the dining room.

  15. A number of authors & books mentioned herein, how about a Scheerpost policy of listing book refs at the end of an article so people could swoop them up in one select/copy/paste for later use?

  16. “*Russia and China are now competitors with US technology companies. ”
    The arrogance of the USA and some of its poodles is not based on facts! Remember the first sputnik in 1957???? Shock and awe in the USA that that had happened from the USSR! Joseph Needham in the UK has written volumes (well hidden in the national libraries!) to show how advanced China was, centuries before the scientific discoveries of the “advanced West”. this information is available if you look.
    The USA seems determined to be in charge of the world, to make any rival an “enemy” to be punished. Observation of the world now shows this is NOT a success for 90% or more of us! If a fair world order can be established, most of us would benefit.

  17. So you say October 1980…that month for a reminiscence of what we then felt, read and thought? I remember that time as an epoch of great hypocrisy: as a high performance middle-distance runner, my leaving the track and filed limelight enraged by the boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games for cause of the “unprovoked, unjustified” invasion of Afghanistan by the evil USSR of Brejnev who had fallen into “attacking” the moudjahidins (Brezinsky’s ghost is still laughing in his grave). But as a young long haired hippie…I was reading The Closing Circle by Barry Commoner and Small is Beautiful by Schumacher or Frances Lappe Moore ‘s Diet for a Small Planet…on some window seat while on my flying way to a bucolic Costa Rica with no highways and wonderful national parks as I was a Canada World Youth Exchange participant… hoping to discover Latin America. Convincing myself that I was not in a cultural shock… during the stopover in El Salvador in view of those slums, as they were terrifying because I came from a comfortable middle-class neighboorhood and we had a pleasant lifestyle meaning a real roof and a real floor not dirt and real walls not cactus or some tin roof. As a teenager I had appreciated Jimmy Carter (after Ford and Nixon, and of course that gloomy LBJ) as your President but Ronald Reagan was, in October 1980, remember it, about to take primacy and Margaret Thatcher’s world leadership was already giving us goosebumps… Once in Costa Rica, where very few people had cars and where in its capital San José, Campecinos would bring their produce to Mercado Central on a horse carriage or some boxes or poneys…I remember what the Ticos said and thought then of the Gringos of the Peace Corps and USAID or those numerous American NGO’s with political ties to power or full clues for proper evolution and “acceptable” change. I also remember Iran was about to watch the release of hostages from the US embassy, and the Shah (Pahlevi) had little time ahead of himself in the turmoil and, if I recall well, sometime in April or May 1981 Mitterand was to finally take power amidst a world-wide recession that lasted 3 full years. Interest rates at 18 per cent, very high inflation and unemployment, a lost (or won) referendum on Quebec independence, we were soon to come to the last years of the final countdown to Glasnost and Perestroika with gullible and charming Gorbatchev after the episodic Tchernenko. Sounds like yesterday really! And the Decline of the American Empire to quote an Oscarized film is already before us in 2022 after The Barbarian Invasion episode (metaphorize that as you wish it to be) which show our western societies in decay, perhaps at the verge of implosion or some extermination of any tattooed rival on Earth not only a fight to the last Ukrainian or Russian but to the last triumphant power over the Va(i)nquished. Are we not all so Vain to believe on the duration of Empires and “Civilization” when time flies like this? And ignorant, so out of touch to the point that we have to catch up for fault of inconscience on what really happened since 1914-1921 (the Fall of The Old World Order) or 1938-1945 (Munich, Postdam and Yalta) or 1975 (Vietnam) or last February 2022 (the faulty German-French negligence of having unseen that the Minsk Agreements be effectively implemented) leading to this next Hubrisfault, by some excessive ultimate final bellicist provocation? So much about Empire. How about Umpires? Thank you Mr Lawrence, as always.

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