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.