We Do Big Things: Celebrating Obama as Head of Empire, Redux

In March 2009, not even a full three months after President Barack Obama had been sworn into office, I wrote a blog entitled “Celebrating Obama as Head of Empire.”  It flew under the radar for the most part except for my then small blogging audience that read and commented.  It was a notion that I had kept in my mind ever since, but for the most part I had relegated it to the back of my mind.

Don’t get me wrong, I still did and do recognize Obama as the head of the American Empire.

Make no mistake anyone who is at the cockpit of this mothership is certainly running an overseeing an empire–and America is indeed an imperial force.  An empire is defined by their ability to conquer nations and impose their ideals of civilization.  The conquering of civilization is undoubtedly done through the pornography of violence.  That is to directly suggest that the relative peace experienced in the western hemisphere, Pax Americana if you will, that we’ve achieved post World War II and Vietnam War era regards peace not as an absence of war, but the rare situation that existed when all opponents have been beaten down beyond the ability to resist.

This understanding of American imperialism is mainly a direct attack on the free-market, and laissez-faire style of capitalism.  I’m aware of that, but I stand by it.  Imperialism 18th and 19th century style with mother countries in Europe with their colonies in North America, Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean sees itself today with the United Stat

es with their commonwealths and insular areas (protectorates) all the way from the Philippines to Puerto Rico.   These are places where the people are taxed, but don’t have the full rights of citizenship that we enjoy.  The Philippines and Puerto Rico are places that were taken over as spoils of wars stemming from World War II and the Spanish-American War.

The mark of imperialism is also noted when a nation has themselves embroiled in the domestic affairs of another country and we see that exampled with our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.  If we travel anachronistically through time we see the United States’ involvement with Haiti, Nicaragua, with Vietnam, the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico have all left lasting imprints on those nations going all the way well into the early 19th century. The U.S. flexed its power with the Monroe Doctrine declaringtheir imperial powers in the western hemisphere in the 1820s.  Teddy Roosevelt revisited that ideology with the Roosevelt Corollary that made the U.S. a hemispheric policeman that was a de facto arbiter of Latin American wrongdoing.

This is the foundation of this country.

This country was framed by imperialist thought that has been transferred from generation to generation and has truly become part of the ethos of this country.

Generally speaking, I don’t hear these themes of American exceptionalism from our current head of Empire, Barack Obama.

And that’s a good thing.

When Obama delivers a speech, I hear about the stark reality of our nation, but I feel good about it and it’s possibilities and a hope for a better tomorrow.  Obama, while speaking thematically still gives an outline of what he plans on accomplishing while giving a sense of clarity and stability — something that is sorely needed these days from politicians.  After Congress delivering right before Christmas break and having presented to the nation so appropriately with his speech in Tucson, I know that Obama is capable of speaking to my sensibilities.

Tuesday night was not one of them.

For me the speech took an ideological turn when he declared that the troops had “borne the greatest burden in this struggle [for freedom]” which was a dovetail from him discussion the political unrest in Tunisia.  I remember thinking to myself that perhaps enlisting to fight over in Iraq of Afghanistan might provide a more predictable struggle than fighting for the poor and disenfranchised here at home.  The troops received across the board support and recognition from hometowns, from churches, from other local organizations, but the fight for freedom also is being fought with our teachers, our social workers, the local pastors who don’t mind rolling up their sleeves and getting dirty.

Suffice it to say, it was indeed a corner that was turned that Obama never recovered from.  He received a distinctive eye-roll when he spoke about the “American Dream” as it related to the illustrative Allen brothers and certainly when he gave a nod to Speaker of the House John Boehner (and Biden as well).  Perhaps I have been jaded since I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and my basic understanding of success has altered.  I felt the picture of the American success story, you know, the one that speaks of rugged individualism, true grit, a certainly level of stick-to-it-ness mixed with the right amount of innate talent and Voila! a self-made success story is just a bunch of rigmarole.

The icing on the cake was Obama’s twice spoken refrain “We do big things.”

It was as if Obama had pulled it out and dared to measure it in front of everyone.

No, I’m not talking about the penile length of America’s metaphorical dick, but rather the size of Americas influence and imperial power as measured by what we can produce and what we can consume.  This allows everything to be commodified — even our ideology.  To reach empire status, it’s not enough to own the physical features from land, to building, amassing assets untold, even the physical body as an asset, but no, the empire must hold sway to the righteous mind of the individual and the masses both at the same time.

Manifest Destiny

As the head of an empire, Obama re-presented the package of manifest destiny, refashioned into the American dream and delivered to a willful public by putting for the ideals of egalitarianism, individualism and populism presenting America as some “city on a hill” and a shining paragon of what should be in the world.  Even as Obama quoted education statistics, he certainly was invoking tried and true politicking from ideologies past.  The idea that we are a country where “we do big things” runs the risk of promoting this exceptionalist ideology that has it’s roots in favoritism is only shown on America.  It tells Americans it’s okay to say “God bless America–and no one else.”  Not to mention “we do big things” is the mentality that allows us to “super-size” ourselves to death and to measure our success and our blessings with a rubric of materialism and consumerism rather than deeper intrinsic values that speak to more humanistic virtues.

The citizens of ancient Rome certainly thought well of Caesar Augustus.  He had brought this relative stability to a region that had seen wars and more wars and then more than that as their native land grew into an empire subsuming other independent nationalities all under the Roman rule.  From the Greek isles down into the Northeast African continent.  Roman government promised protection of smaller nationalistic subsets from others like the Babylonians or Persians if only they become a part of the Roman empire.  And it worked!  These groups found themselves Roman citizens, using denarii and paying taxes to the Roman government.  It seems like all goes well while being a citizen of the empire, but either outside the reach of the empire or taking a stance opposite to the propaganda disseminated by the empire one will eventually feel the wrath of the empire.

This country has systematically squashed meaningful debates over the years to move toward a more perfect union.  The victories that have been accomplished have been long fought and hard won resulting in many casualties along the way.   This country does not generally think twice about maintaing a conservative and imperialistic foreign policy when dealing with countries where the indigenous people have a darker skin hue.  Not to mention, we don’t treat the poor and black and brown people the same even in our own country.

It was my hope in that March 2009 blogpost that at the dawn of a new administration that Obama have the audacity to pick an anti-empire cabinet and lead not as the head of an empire but as a duly elected official by a populist vote.  I have to say that for the most part I’m pleased with what he’s done.  Being the progressive that I am, I am still concerned with the “least of these” that are living in Haiti (I was disturbed that Obama didn’t mention Haiti which is in our backyard not even one time, but felt the need to discuss Tunisia halfway across the globe), and seriously addressing the education crisis that is facing our public schools from urban to rural districts.

The fact that Obama, the rest of our elected politicians remain so stagnantly status quo on such issues lets me know how much of an empire we really are.  Empires’ existence is heavily dependent on how much can they maintain an equilibrium where the power rests with the aristocrats and the proletariat is never allowed to manifest their own power both physically and ideologically.

To hold off the chorus of “love it or leave it,” there may be a time for that to come (I haven’t quite seen the exit yet), but loving this country doesn’t mean transmogrifying into some jingoistic bot that mindless agrees with everything the Tea Party government says, but actually staying here stateside to change what we see.  However, if one makes the decision to stay, one must not succumb to apathy nor become casualties of cynicism.

When we surrender to cynicism, we become casualties to the struggles of freedom rather than matyrs for the cause of liberation.

For those willing to stay and fight, I leave to the famous Frederick Douglass quote as means of encouragement:

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL


9 thoughts on “We Do Big Things: Celebrating Obama as Head of Empire, Redux

  1. Very thoughtful reflections Mr. Uppity.

    I posed a similar question after Obama’s election related to what we(black folks) were going to do now that the face of contemporary imperialism is a black man. Most folks ignored or brushed off the issue but today the issue is still relevant and your blog clearly articulates why it still is.

    I also agree that Obama has done a descent job trying to promote progressive policies given his political reality. However, I, like some many others, hoped for more presidential courage has it relates to confronting some of America’s long harbored demons. But I guess there is still time.

    1. @ The Critical Cleric

      Yeah, if you click on the link to the original article at the top of this one, you’ll see a text message that should read familiar.

      I think the Machiavellian qualities that Obama possesses certainly may make an appearance again as we saw the days and moments leading into the Christmas holidays. If there was any doubt in my mind, it has since vanished. However, being capable of leading the emperor of the empire versus being the president of the united states are two different things; I’m hoping Obama chooses to stand firmly in the latter.

  2. I applaud your thought provoking and blanced examination of the idea od Obama as head of empire. I believe that there will come a time when he does at least begin to address more directly the plight of the downtrodden however that time wont be until the second term. Keep up the scholarship my friend.

  3. Excellent post, Uppity.

    Just keep on being reflectively proactive. At the same time do the theology that keeps you immunized against becoming a struggle-for-freedom casualty. Do it for yourself and for those around you.

    Keeping it uppity–raising the floor by encouraging the best in each of us.

  4. Amen. & Bravo! In searching the State of the Union Address,I did not find one use of the words “poor” or “poverty.” And I found only one mention of “peace:” “This [policies toward Iran and North Korea]is just a part of how we are shaping a world that favors peace and prosperity.” Empire–indeed! Obama is the best choice we have,or had, and I am very disappointed that he is compromising on the most important liberal values. Such compromises do not resolve conflicts; they keep them alive.

  5. I felt the same unease you did at hearing Obama stroke the “errogenous zone”** of exceptionalism. I find the idea of ANY exceptionalism distasteful, in that it is fertile soil for nationalism, xenophobia and militarism. I’m not saying that believing in exceptionalism DOES lead to those things, but it makes them more likely to take root.

    “I felt the picture of the American success story, you know, the one that speaks of rugged individualism, true grit, a certainly level of stick-to-it-ness mixed with the right amount of innate talent and Voila! a self-made success story is just a bunch of rigmarole.”

    We might differ as to what degrees, so to speak, of exceptionalist rhetoric rub us the wrong way. While no one should kid themselves that their birth geography was anything more meaningful than a cosmic accident, I believe it’s healthy to maintain a reasonable pride in one’s homeland and heritage, and the positive accomplishments of same. Deep institutional problems aside, Obama was quite correct to point out that we are a nation founded on a noble *idea*. The fact that it took years of bloody (and ongoing) struggle to actually implement that idea to its full literal meaning is the problem, of course. And that’s what many do not wish to hear or process. One man’s “reasonable pride” is another man’s “You liberals hate this country.”

    This is the level of puerility we find ourselves up against when attempting to view our homeland through objective eyes:

    There is no debating such a mindset.

    “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

    Which is exactly why, as far as I can make out, there was minimal hope in the left blogosphere that Obama would actually do much to roll back the Bush power grabs. I’m not sure too many people saw it coming that he would amp some of them up, though. (Where’s Cindy Sheehan when you need her? She’s no dewey-eyed, excusing partisan, as she made clear in ’06. So why nary a peep from her? Or many other Bush era protesters?)

    I’m not sure if Obama really means this stuff or not. One of things that got a cynic like me a LITTLE enthusiastic about his candidacy was that he was the rare politician who spoke to us like we were adults. Who actually spoke in English some of the time instead of in Campaignese 100% of the time. A pathetically low bar, I suppose, but there it is. Unfortunately since he’s taken office he’s cut way back on the English. This SOTU speech was almost entirely pretty talk in full, fluent Campaignese. (The only exception, IMO, was when he went the very politically incorrect route of reminding parents that education hinges on THEM. It’s so rare to hear that from anyone in public. Conservatives want to demonize teacher, liberals want to pretend it’s all about funding. So this was refreshing.) So while I would like to believe he’s more levelheaded about how he regards America’s status, who can say. Campaignese is an obtuse, impenetrable language that is carefully constructed to disguise one’s true feelings. And how could it not be? The nation of Campaignia does not place much value on truth or honesty. (It’s a cultural thing!)

    **Thanks, George Will. I’ll never be able to get that analogy outta my head now.

    1. @ Marbles

      HAHAHA!! Wait, is this a quote from George Will on the This Week? HA! I missed the shows this past weekend.

      Admittedly, after reading Gladwell’s book, I’m sorry, I think the image of American success is bollocks. I’m not knocking John Boehner’s ability to stick to it the way he did and ascend to the position he has, but to narrowly paint the picture as “the one that speaks of rugged individualism, true grit, a certainly level of stick-to-it-ness mixed with the right amount of innate talent and Voila! a self-made success story” is completely absurd. This negates the fact that he was a male, that he’s white, that who knows what schools he was able to attend, and the series of fortunate events that took place in his life that he had no control over that provided the atmosphere to do what he did.

      Gladwell gave the example of Bill Gates and how at age 13 his school was able to purchase a personal computer and he was able to learn computer programming skills in 1968 whereas most everyone else was still using keycard series. That the simple fact that the parents of an exclusive prep school found this computer in a rummage sale, purchased it, and Gates had unlimited access to it made a difference. And that he was born in the mid-fifties. Gladwell even showed how simple birthdates make a difference. Based on the system in Canada, little league hockey players born January-March have a higher chance of succeeding or men born in the 1830s had a higher chance of capitalizing on big business (think J.P. Morgan and Carnegie).

      I think all of that goes into possibly breeding grounds for the deep-seated belief in American exceptionalism. We give these magical qualities to the American success story when in actuality, it’s really not quite that simple.

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