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Commentary Last Updated: Jan 25th, 2008 - 00:55:18

Empire versus democracy
By Jerry Mazza
Online Journal Associate Editor

Jan 25, 2008, 00:53

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This nugget did not fall from my pen, but that of the Berkley-educated, UC San Diego Professor Emeritus Chalmers Johnson, writing in his book Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. The full thought was �A country can be democratic or it can be imperialistic, but it cannot be both.�

That struck a nerve with me, as I contemplated waltzing on the Titanic, sailing on the world�s biggest ship of state at dangerously top speed into reality�s iceberg with poorly soldered rivets -- now melting, too, from our wars and a Global Warming our Imperial President less than half-heartedly acknowledges.

Chalmers� Nemesis itself was generated from an earlier book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. Yes you thought it was the CIA that invented the term, but no Chalmers used it to describe the �costs and consequences� of an Empire�s cumulative interferences with the political activities of the rest of the countries on the planet. But more pointedly, interference underlined by �illegal operations . . . kept totally secret from the American public.�

As Chalmers put it in his editorial, Empire V. Democracy: Why Nemesis Is at Our Door, �As a CIA term of tradecraft, �blowback� does not just mean retaliation for things our government has done to, and in, foreign countries. It refers specifically to retaliation for illegal operations carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public. These operations have included the clandestine overthrow of governments various administrations did not like, the training of foreign militaries in the techniques of state terrorism, the rigging of elections in foreign countries, interference with the economic viability of countries that seemed to threaten the interests of influential American corporations, as well as the torture or assassination of selected foreigners.� In short, �blowback� is the echo of our post WW II foreign policy, perhaps pre as well.

The middle child of Chalmers trilogy is The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. Obviously, the titles and their subject matter intertwine to give an eerily clear picture of our politics. In his earlier-mentioned editorial, under the subhead �A World of Bases,� Chalmers writes, �I then began doing research on the network of 737 American military bases we maintained around the world (according to the Pentagon's own 2005 official inventory). Not including the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, we now station over half a million U.S. troops, spies, contractors, dependents, and others on military bases located in more than 130 countries, many of them presided over by dictatorial regimes that have given their citizens no say in the decision to let us in.� Thus, as we got bigger, we excluded the masses from democracy�s policy and became imperial, elitist.

Chalmers adds, �As but one striking example of imperial basing policy: For the past sixty-one years, the U.S. military has garrisoned the small Japanese island of Okinawa with 37 bases. Smaller than Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands, Okinawa is home to 1.3 million people who live cheek-by-jowl with 17,000 Marines of the 3rd Marine Division and the largest U.S. installation in East Asia -- Kadena Air Force Base. There have been many Okinawan protests against the rapes, crimes, accidents, and pollution caused by this sort of concentration of American troops and weaponry, but so far the U. S. military -- in collusion with the Japanese government -- has ignored them. My research into our base world resulted in The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, written during the run-up to the Iraq invasion.

Is it catastrophe and correction?

The net take-away of Chalmers thinking is indeed the bigger we became in the past 60 years and earlier, the badder we became, run by a secretive military-industrial complex and its shadow government. Yet as the isolationist democracy of WW I floated again under the financial profligacy of Wall Street & Company, then as now hell-bent on creating a free-market, two tier society, rich and poor, it hit the iceberg of the Depression; a total financial collapse. And what saved us as a nation from drowning?

Could it have been the New Deal, Social Security, social reform, a progressive income tax, and the industrial renaissance provided by World War II. But in and of themselves, all these corrections represented an enormous collaborative enterprise, of workers and management, government and industry, politics and patriotism. Thus, rather than going to the bottom and splitting in half like the Titanic, the US rose like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of the war, rose high enough to lift a decimated Europe, even its enemies on its wings, and even gave Russia an incentive to go nuclear, i.e., Hiroshima and Nagasaki, perhaps a tragically wrong signal.

But, obviously as we grew bigger so fast and with so much more power, we forgot, repressed in fact, the former lessons of catastrophe, of poverty, of caring for the weaker, the put-upon, and the oppressed. The fetid odor of fascism smoldered like embers in the ashes of the war. And for the next 60 years, we seem to have reversed whatever goodwill we gathered from protecting democracy from fascism and oppression. In fact, we became our enemy, oppressing the Muslim and Arab world, frightening even allies in our oil-lust and blood-flow.

In this process, we have squandered our treasury and are deep in debt. We have alienated our lenders and are facing another catastrophe: the crashing of overvalued markets and the subprime mortgage conspiracy brought about, once again, through naked greed. Greed, which is not good as Gordon Gecko, the hero of Oliver Stone�s Wall Street, said, but self-destructive. The nation, having eaten its neighbors to the south, north, west, and east, now is eating its own people. And who is left to consume, let alone to partner with, to control the environment, population, hunger, disease, the ever-present force of death and dissimulation?

Thus, in sheer terms of self-interest, self-preservation, we are all connected and should recognize a priori the family of man. Someone said, united we stand, divided we fall. Can we realize that canon as a comment on the species, not just a portion of it? If an inflated Empire is headed for inevitable destruction, as Chalmers points out, is not an inflated people, who see its brothers as its potential slaves or lunch, headed for destruction? Isn�t the common good about building enough lifeboats for everyone to get off the sinking ship? And if we don�t learn to think big, expansively, in terms of others, what do we end up with? A greedy few oppressing the others, and the sound of another revolution ringing through the '50s hedonistic streets of Havana? Or the Contras and Sandinistas going at each other�s throats? And so on, Corrections or catastrophes?

Sports enthusiasts all note that the great athletes, the great competitors, are those able to make corrections to the circumstances of the game to avoid the catastrophe of losing; to be able to modify performance, to rise to the situation, not just step over the bodies of their teammates. Or am I preaching Utopianism in the face of society�s ills, the echo of social Darwinism, one more form of �nature in tooth and claw?� And where does consciousness enter into all of this, merely as a means of self-preservation or the means of vision for the survival of many? Catastrophe and correction, correction or catastrophe. Democracy v. Empire. Empire v. Democracy. The wheel is turning. Where do you put your chips?

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer living in New York. Reach him at

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