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Empire without Benefits

Some time ago, Jim Henley made an important point about American empire:

The Republican Party is just definitively embracing the moral costs of maintaining global military hegemony. From the 1930s to the 1990s, paleoconservative critics and their counterparts on the left worried that militarism and interventionism were inevitably corrupting of republican (small-r) principles, that there was no nice way to rule the world, that the United States would have to choose between hegemony and liberty. All the Republican Party base and its candidates are doing is finally making a choice that, thanks to the bipartisan orthodoxy, always loomed.

It strikes me as odd, however, how much America absorbs the cost of empire but realizes few of its benefits, “benefits” being code for riches of the sort that were appropriated in the old empires. Take Henry James’ description of the British Museum:

Mr. Crichton, as Mrs. Assingham could easily remember, was the most accomplished and obliging of public functionaries, whom every one knew and who knew every one—who had from the first in particular lent himself freely, and for the love of art and history, to becoming one of the steadier lights of Mrs Verver’s adventurous path. The custodian of one of the richest departments of the great national collection of precious things, he could feel for the sincere private collector and urge him on his way even when condemned to be present at his capture of trophies sacrifiece by the country to parliamentary thrift…. It was at his invitation, Fanny well recalled, that Maggie, one day, long before, and under her own attendance precisely, had, for the glory of the name she bore, paid a visit to one of the ampler shrines of the supreme exhibitionary temple, an alcove of shelves charged with the gold-and-brown, gold-and-ivory, of old Italian bindings and consecrated to the records of the Prince’s race. It had been an impression that penetrated, that remained; yet Maggie had sighed ever so prettily at its having to be so superficial.

This detritus isn’t great in and of itself, though of course some of it is rare and valuable; it is that it represents centuries of imperial domination of others. The British Museum’s collection was symbolic of the empire’s power and of the riches it could gain. But the United States is an empire that denies itself: it has no symbols, only the abstractions of capital.

 

Comments

That America lacks a counterpart to the British museum is partly an accident of history:

1) By the time America came into its own there was a worldwide awareness around the world of archaeology and its value, making it much more difficult to pilfer things at will.
2) America’s early conquests (South and Central America, Pacific islands) had little of interest to offer archaeologically, at least anything that would impress lay-people.

The other part of it is just that Americans generally don’t believe that the past helps determine the present in any meaningful way, and so aren’t very interested in the trappings of it.