Missing Word, Missing World: Graduating the Rest of Us, '09
Of Graveyards and Empires
Looking out over this crowd today, I find it unbearably strange that, forty-three years later, with new and bloody counterinsurgency wars underway in lands once hardly known to most Americans, with our military bases implanted in countless lands, with the Pentagon budget at almost unimaginable levels, with our operatives abroad still involved in assassinations and renditions, "empire" remains MIA and most Americans have no sense--no conscious sense, at least--that they are living in an imperial garrison state.
Let me amend that, actually. Americans love the word "empire." Just a dip into Google.news.com tells you that. On a given day, you quickly discover that you can play a revamped version of Empire: Total War on your Xbox (it's set in the eighteenth century), will someday be able to catch the comedy Soakers, soon to be filmed in Hawaii by the Empire Film Group, and can attend the Empire Ranch Men's Golf Club Director's Cup Tournament in California, or await the $12 million facelift of the Empire ballroom at New York City's Grand Hyatt Hotel in, by the way, the "Empire state." Meanwhile, Empire Resorts, a struggling gaming company, has just gotten a much needed extension to a line of credit "staving off insolvency"; and the word "empire," it turns out, goes remarkably well with trendiness ("fashion empire"), medicine ("Empire medical training"), food ("BT Bistro the latest in Trigg's restaurant empire"), and even the business of sex ("Reports surfaced this week that Hugh Hefner, longtime publisher of Playboy magazine, is considering relinquishing the reins of his bawdy empire...").
Put "American empire" into the same search engine, on the other hand, and you get Brits, peripheral websites like this one, or maybe Pravda.
Of course, there was one brief Camelot-like moment when the American empire came into its own in Washington. After the Afghan War of 2001 seemed to end in triumph and before the Iraq one headed down the tubes, the neocons of the Bush administration and associated drum-thumping pundits and think-tankers overcame an American aversion to empire (and so, in a sense, to reality) and began proclaiming that we were the biggest, the best, the most dominant power this planet had ever seen, that the Romans and the Brits were but puny precursors.
For me, it was a strange moment when the language of total global domination that, in my childhood, had been the onscreen fare of evil Nazis, imperial Japanese and Russians, suddenly morphed into an essential part of the American dream, or a distinct Washington bragging point anyway. How brief that was. After a heady year or two, the insurgency in Iraq once again erased "empire" from the American lexicon.
It's true that an American president can still say, as Barack Obama recently did at the US Naval Academy: "We will maintain America's military dominance and keep you the finest fighting force the world has ever seen." But global domination? Empire? Banished to the outer realms of some other universe.
In my dictionary, the imperial stands as the polar opposite of both equality and humility. As I see it, either you try to live on a planet with other people, no matter how fractious, difficult and hostile they (or you) may be, or you try to rule over them, and land your billion-dollar, thousand-diplomat, mother-ship embassies on their turf to show "the flag," with everything that's come to mean.
If that's what's going on, then some of you better find a language that describes it better. After all, if reality is denied linguistically, it's that much harder, when blowback occurs, to understand it as such; it's that much harder to grasp the possible links between fighting endless frontier wars, maintaining a global "presence" (or ensuring Obama's "military dominance") and our present insecurity. That you can't get a job may indeed have something to do with how, and at what cost, we maintain ourselves on the planet, but if you can't describe reality, you'll never know that. The connections will escape you.
American officials increasingly talk, ominously or fearfully, about Afghanistan as "the graveyard of empires," but without ever quite acknowledging that, if they are the "graveyard," then we must be the "empire." This is a kind of madness, even if it passes for normalcy in Washington, in the media, and so in our world. And for this madness, sooner or later, a price will be paid.
As I end, let me complicate things just a bit, even as I propose a project for you, something you can do no matter how this world greets you as you exit that gate. Let me first admit this: it's just possible that even "empire" doesn't quite cover whatever we are. After all, where are our colonies? The British could color significant hunks of the global map red and claim the sun never set on their empire. We can say the same only of our garrisons.
It's certainly time to re-attach "American" to "empire," but that's probably not adequate. There may, as yet, be no proper words or phrases for what we are, globally speaking. But perhaps someday you'll come up with them.
You are, I assure you, entering an extreme world at an extreme moment. Don't leave it solely to them to describe it for you. Don't just let yourself be used by the language that our world makes so readily available to you.
Back in 1946, in his stirring essay, "Politics and the English Language," which he would later vividly illustrate in his novel 1984, George Orwell wrote of the problems, but also the satisfactions, of letting them define the limits of what can be spoken. You can, he pointed out, certainly save yourself some trouble "by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you--even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent--and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself."
But he also wrote: "Political language...is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
Maybe what we need is fewer lies, less wind and a new, stripped-down, weeded-out, more honest vocabulary for our political world, words that don't fall so far short of the world as it is. "Empire" is but one MIA word. It's your job to find more of them, and where they don't exist to invent them. If you want to live in this world and not The Matrix version of it, you need a language that works for you, and you may have to create it. You need, in short, to speak up.
As all the collapsing businesses and the millions of out-of-work Americans make clear at this moment, you can be constrained from doing many things, but not from defining the world for yourself, and maybe even for some of the rest of us. Not if you want to.
Don't take my word for it. Take your own... and depart.