Empire of the Locusts

This essay was originally published as the introduction to Kurt Nimmo’s great new book, Another Day in the Empire.

These days I’ve taken to re-reading Suetonius, the droll muckraker of the Roman Empire. Suetonius was a republican in an age of flagitious autocrats and rampaging militarists. He wrote his masterpiece, the Twelve Caesars, around 100 AD, when Imperial Rome was kicking into overdrive.

Suetonius was employed in the position of librarian, a seditious profession even in antiquity. He was apparently in charge of collating and preserving the imperial correspondence. During breaks from catering to the epistolary whims of Trajan, he rummaged through the imperial vaults for material for his writing. Suetonius unearthed a juicy trove of scandal from the lives of the Julian and Claudian emperors. His scathing biographies of demented Caesars and scheming courtiers chart how the expansion of that ancient empire paralleled the rise of a totalitarian regime at home that plundered the provinces to bankroll the invidious habits of a degenerate ruling elite. Today, his Twelve Caesars reads with an unnerving immediacy. It doesn’t feel like history, but a kind of long-distance journalism.

The old stories of corruption and blood lust told by Suetonius strike such a familiar chord because we too find ourselves inmates in an age of empire, an empire careening on a downward and dangerous course. The government is increasingly remote and paternalistic, the people frightened by their own rulers.

The American Empire is in the grip of the idiot prince. But Bush the Younger doesn’t have the heart of Claudius. He is a smirking and vindictive man, running on very bitter juices indeed. A sour little man of limited intellect and unbound ambition, primed with the pious rage of a dry drunk. Pretzel Boy.

Bush was whisked into power in an electoral coup, the way cleared by his more capable brother, a cadre of media handlers and pitbull lawyers, and a corrupted Supreme Court. Bush merely watched things break his way like a dazed automaton.

The American people, by and large, mulled around like somnambulants, as the remnants of their Republic dissolved without so much as a murmur. They were mired in a pathology of submission. Even the baleful Gore didn’t stand up for himself, as if to say that if he had to win the election by fighting for thousands of disenfranchised black voters in Florida it wasn’t worth winning.

This is a dangerous mix in a putative democracy. The nation is ruled by corporate gangsters and the people who might do something about it are too dulled, overworked and panic-stricken to make a move to defend their rights. It’s evidence that an extreme political degeneracy has set in, eating away at the great promise of this wrecked republic. The glory days are gone. Now the nation finds itself enshrouded in a kind of terminal entropy.

Like Caligula or Nero, George W. Bush is hardly competent to rule a global empire. The man proved incapable of being a figurehead for a dreadful baseball team or a minor league oil company, even when backed by his father’s brawny political influence. As a micro-tycoon, everything Bush Jr. touched he bankrupted. It didn’t take him long to A Midas in reverse. Others paid the bills and cleaned up the messes. Just as they did when he was a cheerleader at Andover and a coke-head at Yale.

Of course, all that was just so much warming up in the bullpen compared to what Bush did to the US economy he and Cheney got their grips on the helm. When Bush entered office, he inherited a budget surplus of $650 billion. Two years, three tax cuts for the hyper-rich and two wars against the poorest of the poor later, he saddled the nation with a deficit of more than $350 billion. That’s a trillion dollar swing. Don’t worry, others will pay the price.

As governor, Pretzel Boy ran Texas with the same brand of manic frathouse carelessness that marked his misadventures in capitalism. Of course, he diverted the attention from the mutilation of the Lone Star state’s infrastructure by executing as many people as possible during his tenure. Bush even chuckled about executing Karla Faye Tucker. What kind of a man jokes about ordering the death of a woman? The precedent here is Tiberius, who ordered the condemned pitched from the cliff near his palace on Capri.

“In Capri, they still show the place at the cliff top where Tiberius used to watch his victims being thrown into the sea after prolonged and exquisite tortures,” Suetonius wrote. “A party of marines were stationed below, and when the bodies came hurtling down they whacked at them with oars and boathooks, to make sure that they were completely dead. An ingenious torture of Tiberius’s devising was to trick men into drinking huge draughts of wine, and then suddenly to knot a cord tightly around their genitals, which not only cut into the flesh but prevented them from urinating.”

During his governorship not much bread trickled down to the new ghettos of Houston or the destitute border barrios, but Pretzel Boy sure doled out a regular dose of bloody circuses. Bush supervised 152 executions as governor of Texas and never once used his power to grant clemency. A fine Christian man.

Even Nero proved a more forgiving despot than Bush. Here’s Suetonius on the deranged emperor: “According to my informants, Nero was convinced that nobody could remain chaste or pure in any part of his body, but that most people concealed their secret vices; hence, if anyone confessed to obscene practices, Nero forgave him all his other crimes.”

In contrast, Bush, a former drug dilettante and alcoholic, pursues private and consensual conduct with the rabid spite of an uptight bully. He has attacked the right to die with dignity and zealously pursued the prosecution of those who want to alleviate their suffering by smoking a little pot, even when such federal prosecutions trample state laws, which he once deemed as sacrosanct. His Attorney General, John Ashcroft, a psalm-spouting, prosecutorial puritan. He views the Bill of Rights with the same acidic disdain that J. Edgar Hoover once reserved for the Communist Manifesto. John Ashcroft is our Torquemada, has turned America against itself, seeding the country with snitches, snoops and informants. Diversity was once the calling card of this nation, now it can land you a subpoena or a one-way ticket to an internment camp: address unknown.

These things happen every day in the empire of the locusts.

Economists would call Bush a walking externality, leaving ruin in his in wake, as he prances away from one pile-up after another. His pampered psyche, pumping with narcissism and insecurity, would be all too familiar to both Freud and Suetonius. He fits an old and dangerous profile. The princeling reared by a remote and icy father and a overbearing mother, the grotesque Barbara Bush: our Livia Drusilla, the murderous harridan of the Roman Imperium. Bush can seem like a clown, but you laugh at his antics at your own peril. He is no Dan Quayle, an affable imbecile. This thin-skinned president holds grudges, settles scores. You’re either with me or against me. Welcome to Bush’s bifurcated world. And god help you if you fall on the other side.

Like a white wannabe gansta rapper, Bush doesn’t venture far without his posse of suited thugs-the neo-con Praetorians. His flock of handlers circle the White House like vultures in a thermal, intoxicated by the ripe scent of roadkill. Cheney and Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld can scarcely keep track of all the opportunities for plunder and secret enrichment. The scandals of Tea Pot Dome seem like petty larceny next to epic self-dealing and looting of the federal treasury by this gang of putative fiscal conservatives. Cheney’s former company, Halliburton, reaps billions in no bid contracts to rebuild Iraq from a war that Cheney, the administration’s chief mesmerist, promoted through a shifting skein of lies, threats and deceptions. Looting the dead for private profit.

A similar plunder is going on back in the homeland, where Bush cronies are feasting at the public trough. Take Steven Griles, the number two man at the Department of Interior. He overruled the warnings of his own biologists and awarded oil and gas leases on public lands worth billions to his former clients. The EPA lied to the people of New York by telling them the post-9/11 air was safe to breathe when they knew it was saturated with a foul brew of toxins. By imperial fiat, the filthiest power plants and factories in the nation were given a pass to violate the Clean Air Act, pumping into the air a host of poisons far more lethal than anything in Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of weapons. On and on it goes.

Just another day in the empire.

We’ve entered a new era where corruption is a game of state and the mainstream media tags dutifully along because if they play it right they can make out in the great game, too.

The game is rigged, of course. The house always wins. But the foundation of the house is cracking. Soon it may all come down like Poe’s House of Usher.

Our times call out for a new Poe. Someone to put the everyday horrors in a historical context. Someone to write it all up with a kind of savage grace that cuts through the narcotized fog that enshrouds most Americans. Someone to scare the shit out of us.

Kurt Nimmo writes factual polemics from the dusty outback of America. He lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, hemmed in by the militarized border with Mexico and the looming shadow of the Republic of Texas, which has lately inflicted so much misery on the rest of the planet. You might be surprised to discover that time moves just as quickly in the New Mexican desert as it does in Manhattan.

But perhaps there’s a certain clarity to the vantage. After DH Lawrence visited New Mexico, he wrote his great book on the literature of the continent and summed up our character this way: “The American is a killer.”

Nimmo, I take it, wouldn’t disagree with Lawrence’s sanguineous assessment. At home and abroad, the American imprint is a bloodstain. No DNA testing required.

This is more a characterization of the American state, and the corrupt claque that runs the show, than the American people, per se, who, though cluster bombed by propaganda and spin still harbor a rebellious spirit and engrained skepticism of a distant and bloated government.

Nimmo doesn’t turn away from the tough calls; he savors them. He exposes what has long been considered the fatal third rail of American politics, the insidious ties between official Washington and Israel, the new South Africawith nukes. Israel operates as a fanatically religious state propped up by US money, as it pursues a policy of apartheid, assassination and daily repression that repulses most of the civilized world outside of America, which seems immunized to any Israeli atrocity.

It’s time for America to take a good look at itself, at what’s it’s become over the last 50 years, a brittle and flailing giant, despised abroad and breeding paranoids at home.

Empires demand conformity and obedience. Under the cloak of undeclared war, Ashcroft and his minions prowl the country taking names, harassing dissidents, jailing citizens for their political and religious beliefs. Few have spoken up, because to speak up is to risk becoming a target. But to stand silent is to become a willing victim of the jackboots.

Nimmo has spoken out. His essays flow in a great American tradition of radical dissent, for this was once a nation of radical dissidents: Sam Adams, Frederick Douglass, Ida Tarbell, Mark Twain, C. Wright Mills, James Baldwin and Gore Vidal.

It takes tremendous courage to write truthfully about the rampages of an Empire, especially from within the belly of the beast. See the life and times of Tom Paine. Even Suetonius paid a price. Hadrian took offense at something the historian wrote about the Empress Sabina, stripped him of his position, burned the offensive text and exiled him to Asia Minor.

Like all great polemics, Another Day in the Empire is a dangerous read precisely because it tells the bitter truth. More dangerous still, because this isn’t dusty history or arid political theory, but a vivid and lucid account about what’s going down right now. The stakes are as high as they get. You may want to avert your eyes from these pages. Don’t. Read Nimmo’s book with half as much courage as went into the writing of it. Heed its call. Then spread the word: This empire shall not stand.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is co-editor of CounterPunch and author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature.


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3