Being the world’s leading hegemon is mostly thankless. You have to maintain military garrisons all over the world and try to keep the barbarians under control – which is so expensive you are almost guaranteed to go broke. And when a competitor challenges you, you have to meet the challenge. Cartago delenda est (Carthage must be destroyed), as Cato put it.
The only benefit of empire is also a curse: you get to tell others what they should do. Thus did the U.S. president lecture the Mideast yesterday, says today’s paper. Unfortunately, your earnest attempts at world improvement are seen by others as nothing more than hollow vanity. “You want to be a winner,” you say to the wogs and wallywallies, “then be like me.”
Everyone wants a little edge…a little extra grandeur…the feeling of superiority that comes from being among the elite. (There is also the hope of catching a few crumbs as they fall from the grand table.) So, typically, subject peoples try to sidle up to imperial race…and imitate their speech, dress, and manners. During the Roman era, for example, the local people of Londinium wore togas, spoke Latin, gave their children Roman names, worshipped Roman gods and angled for jobs and gratuities from their Roman masters. Later, the British Empire brought out the same fawning sycophancies. Even though the English tried to keep their culture to themselves, it was not uncommon to see a freed slave in Jamaica or an uppity native in far Mandalay speaking English and wearing a waistcoat.
We are reading a book about an English slave trader on the Gold Coast in the 18th century. The man thought he was doing the Africans a favor by selling them into slavery in North America. First, because their prospects on the Dark Continent were so grim…and second because – as he saw it – the benefits of Christianity and Western civilization were so bright. Captain William Snelgrave provided an illustration to prove his first point. He went to visit a local chief (presumably to buy slaves). There, he saw a small child tied to stake, in miserable condition. When he asked what was going on, he was told that the child was to be sacrificed (and eaten) in order to appease the tribes’ gods. The captain promptly told the chief that his God would not permit such a thing. After some tense negotiation, Captain Snelgrave was able to buy the child and restore him to his mother. (The storyteller is not explicit about what happened to them later; we have to use our imagination. They were probably sold both to a cotton planter in Louisiana. Today, their descendants may be spread all over the United States of America, rigging local elections in Baton Rouge, studying marketing in Boston, and struggling to keep up with sub-prime adjustments in Modesto.)
Today, the U.S.A. is in the number one position. Whatever the cost, Americans have bragging rights to the imperial position…and the right to tell others what to do.
The president of all the Americans – George W. Bush – took full advantage of this privilege yesterday. According to the IHT , while making a speech in Egypt, he “presented Arabs with a lengthy to-do list.” Of course, the list came not from any particularly deep or novel reflection on his part. Instead, he merely urged them to be more like George W. Bush.
Democracy is a key to peace, said the U.S. President, offering no evidence. He added that economies couldn’t flourish unless opportunities were offered to women, perhaps forgetting the first hundred years of the Industrial Revolution.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army apologized for using the Koran for target practice.
*** Uh oh…and what’s this?
“Global food supplies at risk,” says a headline in the IHT . “The brown plant hopper, an insect no bigger than a gnat, is multiplying by the billions and chewing through rice paddies of Southeast Asia.”
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