Fear, Security, Escape, and the Pursuit of Empire

(This post originally appeared on Huffington Post, on February 20, 2013)

When Adam Smith wrote “the prosperity, …the splendour, and … the duration of the empire,” in 1754 (the source of my song title, “The Splendor of Empire“), the British Empire he referred to had yet to engage in, among other things, the first of its two Opium Wars with the Chinese, thus solidifying its ascendance as the world’s preeminent power; nor had it had its ass handed to it in Hindu Kush mountains, by virtue of the massacre of Elphinstone’s army at Gandomak by Ghilzai Pashtun warriors — Ghilzai are my father’s tribal confederacy.


By the time I was born an American in 1960, the British Empire was, for the most part, no more, and the country of my birth had ascended to its place at the top of the heap. That I grew up in an empire would seem to be an incontrovertible fact, yet I don’t recall the American empire being discussed much, if at all. There was a “Soviet menace” or later an “evil empire,” and there was us — the good guys.


I grew up lower-middle class, in what I was certain was the greatest country on earth, and a country in which I was also certain I would be able to achieve anything I set out to accomplish, regardless of the economic circumstances of my family.


Despite the rosy outlook, I was a boy full of fear. As early as I can remember, I was particularly tormented by tornadoes. When even a hint of darkness clouded the horizon, I would approach my mother tremulously and ask her, “Is it weather for a T?,” imagining somehow that actually saying the word “tornado” would encourage one to descend.


Fear, and the accompanying impulses for security and/or escape, pulsed just beneath my consciousness at all times, despite my affable demeanor. I remember precisely the moment I understood clearly that I was an addict, though I didn’t use that word. This was years before sipping a drink, smoking a joint or enduring repeated bad trips. I was about 16, looking at my face in the bathroom mirror. I believed that if there was something that I could take that would change how I felt and how I looked at the world, I might never be able to stop taking it.


As I grew older, I began to notice that my fear, my desire for security and my predilection for escape were far from unique. In fact, it seemed to me that these were the primary motors driving consumer culture, for which addiction — to money, sex, drugs, anything really — continues to be a helpful, if not necessary, affliction in order to qualify for inclusion in the madness.


The narcissism and narrowly focused self-interest that accompanies addiction as it occupies one’s attention encourages others to proceed in kind. For instance, I woke with a grouchy hangover one morning to discover I was getting a divorce. When these attributes occupy the attention of a population, ample opportunity is provided for those who actually do have their hands on the levers of political power to steer the empire according to the dictates of the very few, and to do so without substantial criticism from the distracted many.


Case in point: In the early 1990s, when I learned that there was to be a “peace dividend” following the collapse of the Soviet Union, I was exceedingly relieved. It struck me as possible if not inevitable that such a thing would transpire, that there might be something like peace that could exist at a macro-level that would benefit all. As it happened, George Kennan called it way back in 1967: “Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial establishment would have to go on, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy.”


Clearly, the peace dividend never came to be; Islam was quickly inserted into the void left by Communism, and military spending continued apace. Then, when The Project For A New American Century’s “New Pearl Harbor” came to pass, the War on Terror (actually Islam), the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and now the remote control wars on Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia all transpired, driven by the insatiable quest for security.


What I discovered regarding my own addiction was that it was a spiritual malady, an inability to inhabit any given moment without strategizing an outcome from it. Happiness was something that I believed to be my birthright, and I proceeded as if the rest of the range of human experience was optional. No doubt something of “the pursuit of happiness” was lurking behind this notion, and it is instructive to realize that the pursuit was of “property” before it fixed itself on “happiness.” The habit of mind I battle in myself is the same habit I see coursing through the consciousness of my fellow Americans, and the general trajectory of the national destiny — a fleeing forward into whatever delusional allurance appears to be happiness at the moment.


As early as 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s articulation of his “Frontier Thesis“, which purported to explain the American empire to that point, referred to the advance of the frontier as a “gate of escape from the bondage of the past.” Perhaps a more accurate description might be “a gate of escape from the bondage of reality.” I will grant you that it’s awfully entertaining to imagine that every thing I have ever done has been well-intentioned and virtuous, or even righteously justified, but the facts simply don’t support that story.


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