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The Question of Empire
by Paul Cella
February 8, 2003

If America must adopt an imperial posture to protect its citizens from incineration at the hands of lunatics, then imperial we will be.

Imperialism. The word is the air these days. Some seem to think, though they do not often indulge in speaking of it publicly, that only through a resolute advance to Empire can the United States successfully protect itself. I myself thought precisely that in the months right after September 11, particularly when contemplating the incessant braying of the anti-Americans. I can remember well the ferocity of those debates, some of which quite notably strained friendships. Since those dark and tense days I have retreated from that initial belligerence, though moments of fury at our multifarious displays of spinelessness occasionally overtake me.

There are others, across the political spectrum, for whom the very word: imperialism is a curse word; for them the advance to Empire is rather a severe step backward, an immense and hateful dishonor. Even the most, as it were, civilizationally-confident among us must recognize that the history of Empire is marked by shameful service not to God and country but to Mammon; and that the colonial enterprise, as a whole, was at best a mixed success, at worst, exploitative, corrupt, and disastrous. I would contend that de-colonialism was equally shameful and disastrous, and even more —- and even more rapidly —- destructive of lives, liberty and property. I would further contend that the modern study of imperialism by Western academics and intellectuals has been, in the main, misguided, brassbound, partisan, and thoroughly debased by the corrupting influence of Communism, the unspeakably brutal imperial legacy of which has been assiduously ignored and downplayed. All these qualifiers acknowledged, it is still for solid reasons that the charge of imperialism is freighted with such moral baggage.
The ever-thoughtful James Bowman made a penetrating contribution to this question recently. Judging imperialism to be merely a portentous label attached to the way things are (he asks “who has ever seen a world in which small and weak nations are the equals of large and powerful ones?”), Mr. Bowman argues that by thus assigning an opprobrious designation to the status quo, the utopian malcontents can claim the rhetorical high ground in their strident recommendations that we overturn the status quo, violently if necessary. A similar dynamic is at work in another great modern debate; to wit, “capitalism” stands for the way things are and “socialism” stands merely for something better once capitalism is overthrown. This is a keen insight into the sort of preening sanctimony of the modern world’s motley malcontents; and I think Mr. Bowman is right to identify this mechanism at work in the question of Empire.
I do not believe, however, that America is an imperial nation; still less that Americans are an imperial people. Even those cacophonous years around the turn of the twentieth century when it is generally acknowledged that the colonial impulse took hold of our national psyche most forcefully are, when subjected to discerning scrutiny, more complicated than usually imagined. Let me also say this; that it would be stark raving madness for men to oppose any moves toward Empire simply on account of an almost aesthetic distaste for it. To put that another way —- to put in the bleak terms I once used in correspondence shortly after September 11 —- if America must adopt an imperial posture to protect its citizens from incineration at the hands of lunatics, then imperial we will be.

The nub of the problem is that modern Western civilization, and that peculiar and indispensable variant of it here in North America, simply have not the mettle for imperialism. This seems abundantly clear to anyone willing to look at the world the as it is, not as they would have it be. Anecdotal evidence proliferates: Two third-rate, addle-brained snipers paralyzed our capital city for three weeks. Any suggestion of a willingness on the part of elected officials and bureaucrats to enforce immigration law, even against lawbreakers from countries specifically designated as terrorism-sponsors, elicits great thunderous storms of fulmination and self-flagellation. All around the world where Islamic fanatics dominate Christians are persecuted savagely, and this ostensibly Christian nation can hardly issue a word of protest; indeed, grand and influential national newspapers imply rather unsubtly that it may be the Christians themselves who are at fault —- they have committed the unforgivable sin of trying to heed that lonely exhortation to be “fishers of men.” Ugly, violent anti-Semitism rumbles in that quarter where it frequently gains traction: the university —- and school officials demur. All around us civilization is besieged; its enemies emboldened, its friends shouted down; its agony grows in exact proportion with our apathy.

The British Imperialists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were made of stouter stuff than this. They were more convinced of the goodness of their faith and their civilization. They were more prepared to bear burdens of peril and loss for these things. They had yet to absorb the entitlement ethic; nor the therapeutic sedative of artificial realities constructed by a gargantuan entertainment industry. Yet their enterprise ultimately failed, and led to a recoiling into a stupor of disillusionment and despair that even Winston Churchill had difficulty overcoming. And the failure left a seething intractable muddle in that part of the world whence come our implacable fantasist enemies.

It’s all a very interesting and at once uncomfortable and invigorating story —- one that we might well keep in mind when the vague and portentous word imperialism appears. It is a story too important to be left to mere professors secure in their archaic Marxist redoubts. It too important a story to be forgotten and swallowed up by a collection of cant and catchphrases; as when the charge, “imperialist!” is hurled to dampen an argument. Chesterton —- who was, by the way, a stern opponent of imperialism: he loved England, but hated that artificial thing Great Britain —- once advised his readers never to let a quarrel get in the way of a good argument. Imperialism has become a quarrel; but it is unquestionably a good argument. Let us have it.

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