Gomer as Claudius
There has been a fair amount written recently about whether America should just get over the inhibitions of its anti-imperial origins and boldly embrace the fact of its having swelled and fattened into a full-fledged empire–a kind of imperial coming out of the closet, if you will. Favoring, as I do, honesty in politics and human affairs, I tend to support this approach.
But before all the drawling, born-again, yahoo-patriots with custom shotgun racks in the rear windows of their Cadillacs and faded little flags fluttering from the antennas break into the chorus of "Onward Christian Soldiers" (actually, an excellent choice for a new Imperial Anthem), a few qualifying reflections are in order.
Rome built magnificent roads, aqueducts, forums, and theaters where its imperial footstep trod. America leaves behind Coca-Cola bottlers, Lay’s potato-chip distributors, piles of trash, cluster-bomb canisters, and landmines. Rome built beautiful temples and embraced all religions. America sends loopy fundamentalist missionaries and people who believe God is an alien life form speaking from tin cans to disparage the ancient beliefs of others.
Rome at least had some great emperors before it fell into decline and experienced such notable events as a group of legionnaires declaring a horse to be emperor. America starts off with the likes of Reagan, Clinton, and Bush–one intelligent, immersed in hormones, sandwiched between two bell hops elevated to the imperial purple. I know, I forgot the whining, snobbish mama’s boy who doesn’t eat broccoli and who kept looking at his watch when others spoke in a debate, but then, so have most Americans.
It has been observed that so often true evil has a banal appearance, and in the case of many of history’s most evil people, this appears often to have been the case. Think of Hitler eating his beloved pastries, the vegetarian, non-smoker and teetotaler, watching Marlene Dietrich movies. Or Himmler, the weak-chinned, former chicken farmer who ran the dread powers of the SS and other state security for the Third Reich. Think of Stalin, generally sitting quietly at meetings or dinners, always praised by outside observers for his modest manner, quietly smoking his pipe and rarely drinking much even while those around him were reduced to comradely stupor.
These are the kind of people who once in power set in motion the machinery that employs the psychopaths and thugs that constitute some natural share of any society’s population in order to turn bad dreams into reality. Generally, their own boots are not splattered with the blood of their victims.
And so we have Emperor Bush, certainly not ranking as one of the great menaces of history, but a man whose banality comes married to a decided taste for the stupid and brutal use of power.
As to his banality, it would be hard to match not just among the world’s leaders, but also among the men briskly walking by on any busy downtown street. His droning, nasally voice suggests a cardigan-sweatered Ozzie Nelson giving Dave and little Ricky a homily after being caught chugging root beers in the kitchen. One senses in Mr. Bush intense earnestness about insignificant matters and uninformed self-righteousness about big ones. One imagines him fitting right in as the manager-trainee going nowhere in the ladies’ garments department at a Wal-Mart or the petty assistant vice-principle at an elementary school whose life swells with purpose when disciplining ten-year olds.
Actually, if it weren’t for his slurred pronunciation, his Archie-Bunker vocabulary, and the odd, deliberate nincompoop-phrase like "Axis of Evil" or "homicide-bombers" cropping up, there would be no reason ever to listen to his speeches. You can learn nothing from them. They are imperial gestures. His words and views are utterly predictable and commonplace in their expression. The empire would be no worse off were his staff to prepare a multi-purpose, all-occasion, error-free DVD and distribute it to the press corps and members of Congress.
But in so many of Mr. Bush’s words and actions one also senses that same conscience-numbed, sniggering tone he used during his campaign in speaking of the scores of prisoners executed in Texas. Whether it’s thousands of innocents killed in Afghanistan, murdered and mistreated Afghan prisoners, or Mr. Sharon’s running a Murder Incorporated, the tone is the same. Just as with the prisoners in Texas, his emphasis is always on, not the plight of those suffering before him, but on the crimes they are presumed to be answering for.
The banal Mr. Bush in a comparatively short period has managed to give the world a nasty whiff of in-your-face Americanism and, while doing so, to create the beginnings of a dark, unholy alliance. While I fully recognize the inconsistency of speaking about foreign policy and morality in the same breath, still America is the world’s first great empire that pretends to adhere to principles of democracy and concern for human rights. There is some reason at least to hope that the mold of history in these matters might one day be broken.
Well, the simple fact is, that with virtually every breath Mr. Bush has worked against these important principles. His idiotic, undefined War against Terror has created needless destruction and privations, threatening itself to become a kind of global terror. That and his cavalier attitude towards international treaties have set a frightening precedent and basis for relationships with the rest of the world.
Israel’s Sharon is free to crush Palestinians’ hopes, crushing a good many of their people along the way. Russia’s Putin, in return for toning down his criticisms of American policy, has been given carte blanche to continue state-terror in Chechnya, the bulldozing of Jenin on a vaster scale. And Turkey, in return for its support of a future attack against Iraq, appears to have received the same carte blanche for its campaign against the Kurds, a people who have suffered under Iraq, Iran, and Turkey and who were treated atrociously by that tireless worker for peace, Henry Kissinger.
Oh, and then there’s the new alliance, complete with an exchange of bounty for information and cooperation, with a military man in Pakistan. And the "we’ll bomb, you fight" pact with cutthroat warlords of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Of course, they are looking for someone to fill the same role in Iraq, but it’s going to be tough with the record of flip-flops and betrayals the U.S. has earned amongst various groups there over the years.
I am reminded of the old joke, "What do you get when you cross a canary with a gorilla?" "I don’t know, but when it sings, you had better listen." Perhaps better than any image I can come up with, this joke describes Mr. Bush as Emperor. A weak, narrow, uninformed man married to a colossal, imperial military machine. And you had better listen.