The Handwriting is on the Wall
In the biblical story of Daniel, the Babylonian emperor Balshazzar, engaged in drunken revelry with his courtiers using goblets plundered during the conquest of Jerusalem, drinking toasts to the gods of gold and silver, is startled to see a hand appear on the wall of the banquet hall. (Daniel 5:5-7) The hand writes: Mene, mene, tekel, upharsim.
Some Bible scholars think these were words for coins circulating in the empire, or measures of metal used in commerce. (Tekel is the same as the Hebrew shekel.) So the message was something like, “Dollars, dollars, quarters, half dollars.”
What could it mean, wondered Balshazzar and his courtiers? The emperor’s advisors were mystified. So Daniel, a wise man among the Jews of the Babylonian Exile who enjoyed the favor of the court, was called upon to interpret the meaning of this amazing event.
Daniel explained that God was using clever puns involving money to foretell the empire’s doom. Mene (or mina) can mean “measured” or “numbered” as well as “judged.” Tekel (or shekel) can mean “weighed on the scales.” Upharsin is a coin one-half the size of a mene, but also is a pun for “Persian.” So Daniel told Balshazzar:
This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; UPHARSIN, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians. (Daniel 5:25)
Indeed that very night the emperor was slain and a Mede (Darius) became ruler. Soon the empire was conquered by Cyrus the Persian.
The Book of Daniel was written in the second century BCE. It refers to rulers who lived four centuries earlier and shouldn’t be taken literally. The first half is an exquisitely written novelette in which Daniel “prophesizes” things that had already occurred. The Babylonian Empire had been succeeded by the Median, Persian, and then following the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Greek empire. (And then the Romans gradually build their empire, doomed to decline.)
Earlier in the Book of Daniel (2:31-45), the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar asks Daniel to explain to him the meaning of a dream involving a statue with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs from brass, legs of iron, and feet part iron and clay. Daniel explains that Nebudchadnezzar is himself the head of gold but “after you shall arise another kingdom inferior to yours, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over the whole earth.” These are often interpreted to mean the succession of Median, Persian, and Greek empires. The last was ruling the Middle East at the time this book was written. The author wanted to say that while the Greeks ruling Judea appeared powerful, they were fundamentally weak. (This is what the phrase “feet of clay” has come to mean.)
The whole point is: empires eventually fall. (Their decline and fall is just a particularly dramatic example of what Buddhists call “the law of impermanence.”) One doesn’t have to suppose that a deity oversees human events to acknowledge the historical fact that no empire is forever.
And the handwriting is indeed on the wall. This what the moving finger writes today, on walls in the halls of power all over Washington and on Wall Street:
Mene, mene. Your days are numbered.
Your dollar’s value is falling. Between 2000 and 2009 it fell by 33% in relation to the euro and 23% to the yen. And your share in the global GDP is declining. The EU now leads the U.S., according to IMF figures, at 28% of the total. The U.S. produces 25% and China and Japan together 17%. In 1945 the U.S. figure was around 50% of the total. It was over 30% in 2000. You must accept the inevitability of further decline.
Teke. You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.
Poll after poll show that the world’s people find your government morally lacking—indeed viciously brutal in pursuit of its imperialist goals. There has been no change in policy between the Bush and Obama administrations. Your government slaughters civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, increasingly through the cowardly use of drone-fired missiles. You refuse to punish those responsible for cruel wars based on lies. You say you will pressure Israel to get its settlers out of the West Bank, then you back off, because of the power of the Israel Lobby. Your Congress actually congratulates Israel when it blitzkriegs Gaza or attacks an aid ship in international waters killing nine unarmed people including a U.S. citizen. Everyone knows you lie, and cover up atrocities. You have zero moral credibility in this world.
Upharsim. Your kingdom is divided.
Your society is deeply, bitterly divided. Income inequality has been increasing since the 1970s and is the highest in the industrialized world, resembling the situation as of 1929. The top 1% of households own at least 35% of all privately held wealth and the bottom 80% of households just 15% of the wealth. The poverty level is back to 1960s (pre-“War on Poverty”) level while the number of millionaires—many of them finance capitalists deliberately exploiting investors’ and home-buyers’ gullibility—soars.
Whether your country will retain its current borders, or split up like Balshazzar’s empire, remains to be seen. But the class division is very real, and the struggle of those most hurt in your society may help bring your empire down.
Such is the handwriting on the wall. “The moving finger writes,” wrote the great eleventh century Persian poet Omar Khayyam (who had read Daniel and was alluding to the story of the handwriting on the wall).
Nor all thy piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.
The empire will fade and decline, like the Roman and Spanish and British and Soviet, and all other empires before it. Pious evangelicals and Harvard academicians can’t save it.
* * *
I thought about the Daniel story while reading an article in the most recent issue of the American Conservative. It cites a Chicago Council of Global Affairs survey that reported “a majority of Americans is taking a very sensible view of how activist and interventionist the U.S. should be in the future. There appears to be much more acceptance of relative decline in U.S. preeminence and the rise of more independent powers….”
Specifically, a large majority thinks the U.S. shouldn’t be the “world’s policeman,” shouldn’t try to “solve problems” unilaterally, and welcome the fact that countries like Turkey and Brazil are becoming more independent of the U.S. in the conduct of their foreign policy. They think that rather than trying to limit China’s power the U.S. should engage it and cooperate with it in a friendly way.
I find the report encouraging. Perhaps people are thinking: What is wrong with allowing others to emerge and share center stage? We’re tired of being in charge of the world.
The neoconservative strategy following the Cold War has been to allow no rival, to maintain global “supremacy” or “full spectrum dominance.” But how can you do that when China (a generally peaceful power, that happens to own almost a quarter of the U.S. national debt) threatens to surpass the U.S. in economic clout within 20 years?
Indeed what is wrong with becoming a Britain or a Spain, or a France or a Holland or Japan? Generally speaking, people in these countries don’t lament the decline of their empires. Few Japanese want to revive the empire that once extended from Sakhalin to Samoa. They’re content to live in a normal peaceful country that cooperates with others.
I don’t want to idealize any of these advanced capitalist countries. They remain imperialist in the Leninist sense. Their capitalists export capital in search of the highest possible rate of profit, and they seek to control markets and raw materials. They cooperate with the U.S. in its wars of aggression. They are governed by people whom we can judge seriously “wanting” and are all in need of radical change. But they have experienced “relative decline” and lived through it—as the people of this country can.
Early in this country’s history settlers identified with the ancient Hebrews led out of Egypt into the “Promised Land” of Canaan. They thought that (just as the Hebrews had taken the land of the Canaanites, annihilating them in the process at God’s command) so God had given North America to white Europeans. It was their right to take it from the native “savages.” At the time of the Mexican War, the vast expansion of the republic through military aggression was justified by the “Manifest Destiny” concept. Obviously it was the destiny of Anglo-Saxons to occupy the continent, from sea to shining sea—and it didn’t stop at the beach. Jingoists crowed that it was inevitable that the Stars and Stripes would inevitably be planted across the sea, on the soil of Asia. This of course was soon realized in the Treaty Ports of Japan, after Japan had been bullied into opening them by Admiral Perry’s threatening visits of 1853-4. And the flag was raised on the soil of the Philippines in 1898 when the former Spanish colony was seized by the U.S. There have always been plenty of (white) people of this country who’ve thought they were special and had the right to brutalize inferior peoples. Or at least tell them what to do.
But why not just realize and say: We’re just a country like other countries. Or we would like to be. We reached our peak half a century ago and are now in decline. And that is okay. During the period of peak prosperity U.S. military forces killed millions of Koreans and Vietnamese in order to maintain and expand the empire. This is nothing to be proud of. In our Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union we armed and trained tens of thousands of Islamist warriors to wage jihad against a secularist regime in Afghanistan, creating in the process groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
You can get thrown into the lion’s den for saying this, but the deeds of the U.S. have come back to haunt us. There are drawbacks to being an imperialist, bloodstained superpower.
Why does the U.S., protected by two vast oceans and peaceful borders with friendly nations, with no significant military rivals, need an empire of 700 bases in 130 countries? Why does it need to pretend to be “protecting” people (as in Okinawa) who haven’t asked for their presence and ask who’s protecting them from the U.S. troops? People who are asking them to please leave?
Why does the U.S. need to constantly topple regimes posing no threat to itself, always on the basis of lies? Why does it need to bully its allies (whose people want nothing to do with the Iraq and Afghan wars) to get support, or to maintain an alliance (NATO) that has long outlived its original Cold War purpose? Why must it insist on dominance? In whose interest is all this?
The U.S. ruling elite—including the neocons, the oil barons, the crooked traders, the Pentagon generals in arms with the arms industry, the idiot politicians who always vote the way AIPAC tells them to, the whole rung of top capitalists profiting from the bailout—are like the revelers at Balshazzar’s banquet. They are arrogant plunderers, drinking toasts to the gods of gold and silver in stolen goblets.
But maybe the party’s over. Fortunately, a system that is illogical and indefensible is also unsustainable. The Crash of 2008 suggests this, along with failure in two imperialist wars. I’d come over the years to doubt Marx’s conviction that the overthrow of capitalism was “inevitable,” but it remains my hope. And it will happen when people awaken to the fact that, as Engels once declared (in connection with German occupation of parts of Poland), a nation that oppresses other nations cannot become free. The “greater acceptance of decline” suggests that this truth is dawning on more and more people in this country.
Mene, mene, tekel, upharsim.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.