The Empire Strikes

The United States faces collapse if we don't stop our arrogance and corruption.

The yellow ribbons and American flags are already in place at the American Legion. This year marks the second Memorial Day since Sept. 11, and the number of families mourning the death of loved ones continues to grow.

United States' military presence is now a global phenomenon. We spend more on what we deem "defense" than all the other nations of the world combined. What this means is clear: With more of our economy dedicated to military ends, less is available for meeting genuine human needs. States, including Arizona, face severe budget cuts as they struggle to provide basic services. While George the Younger and his cronies boast about the new freedom and prosperity assured in a future Middle East--joined with us in a mutually beneficial free-trade partnership-- kids in Tucson are required to pay for summer school.

It's time to ask: Who dealt this mess?

The answer is painfully obvious: We did. As a nation, we prefer to mimic the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand rather than take an honest look at where we are, how we got here and what we have become.

We have become a shameless, arrogant, decadent and corrupt nation of knaves, fools and followers more intent on satisfying our own selfish desires than serving any higher purpose. As long as we're guaranteed our oil fix and daily dose of reality television, who gives a damn about abstractions such as social or economic justice or even civil liberties? It's much safer--and easier--to believe the clever sound bites mouthed by puissant politicians than face the difficult work ahead of us if we are to have any hope of salvaging the remnants of America's best ideals.

Memorial Day seems a good time to rededicate ourselves to those ideals, tarnished and battered as they have become under the aegis of Bush and company. But considering that last sentence leads one to wonder: Did we ever share a higher purpose, a collective vision for the United States (even if we disagreed on how to reach it)? Are "liberty and justice for all" just empty words mouthed by distracted children in American classrooms?

Perhaps we are experiencing the logical outcome for a nation conceived by a bunch of European white guys nourished on Enlightenment philosophy and 18th-century liberal economic theory. Maybe the fact that we are the most recent nation to don the cloak of empire is no historical accident, and everything that came before was an opening act to the main attraction: America as Empire. The problem is, empire always precedes the final curtain.

We may not be around to witness the death rattle of American hegemony, but unless there is a massive shift in the consciousness of the nation's population (and there is small hope this will occur), the United States will succumb to historical inevitability and as every other empire in history, eventually collapse.

If it is true that you reap what you sow, we are scattering the seeds of our own destruction. Since the '60s (when misguided, middle-class white kids naively thought they could effect a genuine social revolution), we have witnessed an increase in poverty, a decline in education (greater numbers in college mean little if graduates can't think critically), a growing prison population, greater disparity in wealth, more people without healthcare and, with the exception of a short hiatus, a bloated defense budget.

Our public schools are in shambles, our elderly marginally cared for and our civil liberties eroded while tax cuts to benefit the wealthiest are enacted by a Congress woefully short on voices brave enough to challenge the twit from Texas and the Ashcroft-Rumsfeld-Cheney triumvirate--our homegrown "axis of evil."

So is there ANY hope at all that we will be able to recover from the damage done by the madmen currently running this country? The good news is: yes. There still exists a slim possibility that by 2004, enough people will awaken to the fact that they have been shafted by a cabal of corporate evildoers and their lackeys in Washington. And if that happens, perhaps from the Democratic primaries, a candidate will emerge who will have the resolve, intelligence and cojones to speak truth to power and help get this country--arguably the most vibrant and exciting experiment in nationhood--on track as an example of what a nation driven by principles rather than power can accomplish.

But if my friend Frances is right, this is not likely to happen. When an Internet joke about John Ashcroft recently made the rounds, Frances was motivated to respond with a screed on Al Gore, Ashcroft, Dubya, politicians in general and Vietnam. In Frances' words, "All politicians love power, even more than money, which leads them into what is really an unusual occupation--their job is to make up the rules the rest of us have to live by ... in the end the joke's on us."

What is important to remember is the joke's on us only if we allow it to be. Cynicism and pessimism serve those who would use public office to their own ends. Despite Frances' warning about politicians and power, some--even if a minority--still choose public life in order to represent the best interests of the citizenry. Rather than curl up on our couches and bemoan the likelihood of a bad end, far better to carry on. Getting the job done in the face of difficult odds may lead to a future Memorial Day when we celebrate all our soliders home at last.