“But until 1950, when our ramshackle world empire was institutionalized as the national security state, we were improving ourselves, and the generality took part in government while Opinion was not so cynically and totally manipulated as now. Since we cannot pay for the empire any longer, we shall soon be coming home–but to what?” -Gore Vidal, 1992
“The ‘just war’ liberal Left made plain that it did not want to hear from ‘excuseniks.’ This coinage, rehabilitating the Cold War rhetoric about Soviet Russia, suggests that those who seek to understand how the global map arrived at this juncture through asking how, in part, the United States has contributed to the making of this map, are themselves, through the style of their inquiry, and the shape of their questions, complicitous with an assumed enemy.” -Judith Butler, 2004
Francis Fukuyama wrote that the end of the Cold War signaled the “end of history” in his book The End of History and the Last Man. His argument was not that history would stop after the Cold War, but was instead an effort to draw a universal historical narrative, a “directional history” that, for Fukuyama, was driven by a “logic of a progressive modern natural science” which “predisposes human societies toward capitalism only to the extent that men can see their own economic self-interest clearly” (108). This logic, according to Fukuyama, creates a historical narrative of “progress” toward liberal democracy in which everyone can easily participate in capitalism. The rest of history, in this master narrative, would involve the “transformation” of all Second and Third World nations into Western-style liberal democracies. Note that Fukuyama seems to think that the experiences of those countries’ transformations do not count as history.
The same year, the polemicist Gore Vidal published a speech he delivered to the National Press Club in The Nation, titled “Time for a People’s Convention.” Vidal’s argument–that the empire is coming home–is effectively the opposite of Fukuyama’s. Both men watched the collapse of the USSR from their homes in the US and arrived at different conclusions. But they both agreed that the event was momentous, that it said more about America than Soviet Russia, that it was ultimately part of a longer historical process. The end of history, or the end of the empire. Meanwhile, America ran victory laps through Iraq and Bosnia.
A third American historian, Howard Zinn, wrote on the aftermath of the Cold War three years later in a new edition of A People’s History of the United States. In the afterward, titled “On the Clinton Presidency,” Zinn critiques the way Clinton sought to resolve the aftermath of the Cold War, arguing that a “concern for ‘stability’ over morality seemed to motivate the Clinton administration in its relations with Russia. It insisted on on firm support for the regime of Boris Yeltsin” despite the new Russian leader’s invasion and occupation of neighboring territories such as Chechnya (631).
For Zinn, an attention to ‘morality’ would amount to supporting “the rights of working people, here and abroad” (631), which Clinton neglected in favor of corporate interests. The Clinton/Yeltsin consensus brought to fruition Fukuyama’s prediction that liberal democracy (configured as more participation in capitalism) would spread, but as Zinn and Vidal both recognized, this “spread” was a result of Clinton’s opportunism with Yeltsin rather than the natural alignment of the Eastern Bloc with the US. Zinn saw the end of the Cold War as a lost opportunity, a predictable turn back toward Cold War priorities.
One of my most distinct memories from childhood in the twenty-first century was all the propaganda, though this word was not available to me then. In my seventh grade social studies class, our teacher had us learn about the Middle East by “playing Arabia.” He had us divide into small groups to represent “Bedouin caravans,” and then to learn about the culture, we “started fatwas” against each other’s groups.
The narrative we received in seventh grade social studies reflects Edward Said’s assessment that in the twentieth century West, “Islam, if it is ‘Islam’ that is being studied, is not an interlocutor but in a sense a commodity” (150). In this way we were made to believe that the Middle East was an abstract object and that Islam indefinably encompassed everything between Europe and China, between Russia and central Africa. I didn’t understand the war, but I was taught to be afraid of the places we sent the troops, and by extension to worship the troops as an abstraction, an object even. And then yellow “Support the Troops” stickers appeared everywhere. And then the TV shows all made at least one preachy 9/11 episode, from The West Wing to The Sopranos. And then the military started paying the NFL to do stunts at games. And then we started arguing about flag pins.
Judith Butler begins her collection of post-9/11 essays, Precarious Life, with a critique of liberals who wholeheartedly supported military action in Afghanistan, even if they critiqued the later invasion of Iraq. This critique provides a historically-minded framework for what I grew up with: A reiteration of the Cold War consensus that pitted the US against a distant but fast-encroaching enemy, with calls for unquestioning unity.
The 1960 debate between Nixon and Kennedy exemplifies that consensus. At one point, someone asked Kennedy “just how serious a threat to our national security are these Communist subversive activities in the United States today?” to which Kennedy responded, “I think if the United States is maintaining a strong society here in the United States, I think that we can meet any internal threat. The major threat is external and will continue.” When asked to comment on his opponent’s response, Nixon began by saying, “I agree with Senator Kennedy’s appraisal generally in this respect.” Both men agreed that the threat was mostly external and that a strong internal state would help defeat that threat. This rhetorical move portrayed the threat as unified and the US as in need of unification, such that a protagonistic US is vulnerable while an antagonistic enemy, the Eastern Bloc, takes advantage of that vulnerability. But Kennedy and Nixon could not admit to such vulnerability. It was necessary to be the victim of a crime, of insidious espionage and conspiracy.
Likewise, the consensus in the 2000s was that the US had been the victim of a grave injustice, a terrorist attack, thus giving us permission to defend ourselves and our interests. The looming feature of my childhood and my generation is what Butler calls “our wounding,” which has shaped policy, culture, and literature. She observes that Americans “have to shore up the first-person point of view, and preclude from the telling accounts that might involve a decentering of the narrative ‘I’ within the international political domain. . . This decentering is precisely what we seek to rectify through a recentering. A narrative form emerges to compensate for the enormous narcissistic wound opened up by the public display of our physical vulnerability” (Butler 6-7).
Butler’s analysis here can be applied to the Nixon/Kennedy consensus that exemplified Cold War politics. To compensate for the vulnerability used as an excuse to interfere with world politics, the US must narrate itself into the center of the story. This comes down to how US history is told. By cutting out backstory, by cutting out context, the US becomes a justified vigilante on the world stage. By beginning with injustice rather than the years and decades before, historical narrative becomes a tool of empire.
Zinn also reaches for this use of history inadvertently when he writes that his “point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims” (10). Imagine, in other words, the implications of telling the story of the Civil War by starting with Sherman’s March. Imagine starting the story of Texas with the battle of the Alamo. Imagine explaining the Vietnam War by starting with the Gulf of Tonkin, or the American Revolution by starting with the Boston Massacre, or the Taliban without the CIA’s Operation Cyclone.
The narrative form that US history too often takes is a detective novel: The story begins with a crime, and will only end when the bad guys are arrested, but before the trial proceeds. The investigation, not the law, is what matters, and with investigation comes weaponry, expenditures, interrogations, false alarms.
Gore Vidal reproduced this same narrative form in his writing. What sets his 1992 speech apart was its attention to what would finally happen after the long crime drama of the Cold War finally came to an end. Unlike Fukuyama, Vidal expected an end to the Kennedy/Nixon consensus and the “ramshackle empire” they helped create. His question is pertinent: What exactly will come after?
Vidal and Zinn both predicted massive protests against the system, but Vidal was more specific, writing “that we shall begin to see an organized resistance to so tyrannical a state” (Vidal 348), and proposed in 1992, as he had before the election of 1980, that “Article Five of the Constitution describes two methods whereby it may be amended or otherwise altered. . . The second procedure is very interesting indeed–in fact, one might almost call it democratic.” In his speech before the Press Club, Vidal called for a constitutional convention, writing that “Unlike us, the founders did not worship their handiwork. . . Thomas Jefferson wanted to hold a constitutional convention at least once a generation because, as he said, you cannot expect a man to wear a boy’s jacket” (348-349).
This method of changing the Constitution never came up in my high school AP Government and Economics class, which I took the same year that men dressed in colonial outfits and stood in the snow holding signs reading “Tea Party” and “Taxed Enough Already.” Instead, the classroom quickly became a space to openly fight the culture wars of the time. Unlike earlier classrooms, we were told to use the historical narrative we received. This narrative of America had internal mechanisms, and here we had a chance to tinker with them, as Vidal had done in his writing.
But we didn’t. We never talked seriously about economics or justice. Instead, we argued about things like whether or not America is a Christian nation. In fact, I began this post series with that very debate, when President John Adams declared that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion” while numerous state legislatures simultaneously passed laws discriminating against Jews, atheists, and sometimes Catholics. In high school, we never talked about exceptions to the rule because we spent so much time trying to agree upon what the rules themselves were. By then, the Cold War had thoroughly been replaced with a War on Terror. The empire was not coming home after all. The Obama/McCain consensus had determined as much.
I admire Vidal’s continued call for a constitutional convention during his career, but it surprises me that he seems to have put so much confidence in the potential impact of such a convention. Here, Charles Beard continues to be useful for his observation, along with so many others, that “The Constitution was essentially an economic document based upon the concept that the fundamental private rights of property are anterior to the government and morally beyond the reach of the popular majorities” (Beard 13). Vidal would have been wise to remember this fact. I’m often surprised by its absence in his constitutional diagnosis.
Vidal favored, or perhaps feared, “the fury of those who have been deprived for too long of decent lives. It takes no unusual power of prophecy to remark they will not be apathetic forever” (Vidal 350). It is worrying to consider a constitutional convention as a means of appeasement rather than something close to Howard Zinn’s conceptualization of morality, as a collective movement made up of those “who have been deprived for too long of decent lives” in dialogue with similar movements across history.
A long memory, a historical consciousness, means recognizing that the propaganda that dominated my childhood is not unique. It is an evolved sequel to the propaganda my parents grew up with during the Cold War, which can be tied to the wartime propaganda of the First World War. While Zinn had his limits, what I admire most in him and his work is the longevity of the connective threads he seeks to narrate, which begins to decenter America and instead highlight the different communities that are part of the empire, by choice or by force. He (perhaps incidentally) encourages Americans to think long-term, to actively remember that we, our conflicts, do not come from a vacuum. If the empire is not coming home anytime soon, the least we can do, to use Butler’s analysis, is more actively decenter the narrative ‘I’ and begin working on a history of the empire that stretches before, around, and beyond its ever-narrowing scope.
Butler, Judith. Precarious Life. Verso, 2006.
Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. Free Press books, 1992
Said, Edward. Covering Islam. Vintage Books, 1997.
Vidal, Gore. The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000. Vintage International, 2002.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. Harper Perennial, 1995.