Missing Word, Missing World: Graduating the Rest of Us, '09
Or since actual architecture, like the architecture of language, is revealing, consider our most recent embassy-building practices. An embassy is, almost by definition, the face of our country, of us, abroad. For our embassy in embattled Iraq, the Bush administration ponied up almost three-quarters of a billion dollars (including cost overruns). The result, now opened, is the largest embassy compound on the planet.
It's about the size of Vatican City, a self-enclosed world with its own elaborate defenses and amenities inside the citadel of Baghdad's Green Zone. Staffed by approximately 1,000 "diplomats," it's the sort of place cold-war Washington might once have dreamed of building in Moscow (not that the Russians would have let them).
Do the Iraqis want such an establishment in their capital? Would you, if it was a foreign "embassy" in your land? Once again, that old-fashioned word "impunity," which once went so well with words like "freebooter" and "extraterritoriality," seems apt. We still practice a version of freebooting, we still have our own version of extraterritoriality, and we do it all with impunity.
In our era, the imperial mother ship landed in a country the size of California, but with a fraction of its population, that just happens to have a lot of untapped reserves of hydrocarbons. But that, I'm sure you're thinking, was the Bush era. You know, the years of over-the-top unilateralism that crashed and burned along with those dreams of a global Pax Americana and a domestic Pax Republicana.
You might think so, but the news--what's left of it anyway--tells a different story. When it comes to "change you can believe in," a recent piece by Saeed Shah and Warren P. Stroebel of the McClatchy newspapers caught my eye. They wrote: "The White House has asked Congress for--and seems likely to receive--$736 million to build a new US embassy in Islamabad, along with permanent housing for US government civilians and new office space in the Pakistani capital."
In other words, the Obama administration is asking Congress to fork over almost the exact price of our monster embassy in Baghdad (after staggering cost overruns). Figure those always predictable overruns into this project, and you may indeed have the first billion-dollar embassy. To use a term the US military once loved, this will result in a large "footprint" on Pakistani soil. It is, to say the least, not normal practice to build and staff such mega-embassies. So if you have a taste for symbolism, this sort of embassy says a lot about how Washington imagines power relations on this planet. Think of these as our ziggurats, our temples (as well as command centers) in foreign climes.
Far stranger than any of these strange specifics is this: none of them seem particularly strange to us. They are news, yes, but not the sort of news that opens eyes, starts discussion, sets Americans--sets you--wondering.
Two Lost Syllables
Now maybe we shouldn't be surprised by any of this. After all, isn't this just how imperial powers like to operate: as if they owned the planet, or at least had special rights that overruled the locals when it comes to significant hunks of prime real estate?
Which brings us to a word I haven't said yet, the real subject of my speech today: empire. It's the word no one in Washington can say. Its absence from our political discussion is perhaps what makes the United States imperially unique, and yet without it, some crucial part of the real world is missing in action too, some part of what might help us understand ourselves and others.
Words denied mean analyses not offered, things not grasped, surprise not registered, strangeness not taken in, all of which means that terrible mistakes are repeated, wounding ways of acting in the world never seriously reconsidered.
Think of a crucial missing word as a kind of invisible straitjacket. Its absence, oddly enough, chains you to the present, to what's accepted and acceptable. Just two missing syllables, em-pire, making up a word that's proved so serviceable for so many centuries. And yet, without it, our American world is a little like the one in the sci-fi movie The Matrix. You remember, it's the one where human beings imagine themselves moving and acting in a perfectly real land, while their actual bodies are stored somewhere far more grim. One question to ask yourself as you form your processional to leave these grounds that have sheltered you these last years might be: Do you have any idea what world you're walking into? If essential terms for describing it are missing, can you even know? And no less important, do you want to know?
You'll notice--and here's the good news--that I haven't offered you a shred of career advice, or a hint of optimism so far. And on this suitably gloomy day in this gloomy world of ours, I hope not to.
I also know that, whatever your minds may be on as you prepare to head through your school's vast gates into a none-too-welcoming world, they aren't on what I have to say today. That, quite honestly, gives me the freedom to talk about a word you may not have heard in your four years here, not applied to our country anyway.
Think about it. In these last moments of your campus life, don't you find it a little strange that the United States, your country, has military bases, more than 700 of them, scattered across every continent and that your school offers not a single course on the way we garrison this planet? Don't you find it just a tad odd that this seemingly salient fact of our national existence hasn't seemed worth teaching, debating or discussing?
Let me tell you a little story of mine. In what still passes for my real life, despite my work at TomDispatch, I'm a book editor. A few years back, I edited one by Chalmers Johnson, an experience a little like passing through those great gates at the end of this pathway, but in the other direction, and going back to school. The book was called The Sorrows of Empire. It was quite well reviewed in our major papers (in the long-gone days of 2004 when they still had book review sections), and became a bestseller. Oh, I should add that the book focuses, in great detail, chapter after chapter, region after region, on what Johnson called our global "baseworld." And yet not until three years later, when Jonathan Freedland, a British journalist, took up Johnson's work in the New York Review of Books, did a major reviewer, praising it, focus on its central topic, the way we garrison the world. This was, as you might imagine, no small trick and it taught me something about what Americans find it easier not to see, even when it's staring them in the face.