by Brian Walsh
It is no overstatement to describe the presidency of George W. Bush as imperial in character. You don’t have to be a left wing ideologue to observe that the Pax Americana of the last eight years, the centralization of coercive power legitimated in a post 9/11 America, and the American exceptionalism that has laced the rhetoric of the White House is all the stock in trade of empire.
How else might we understand a war in Iraq justified by fear and deceit? How else might we interpret the unilateralism of an administration that was disdainful of the United Nations and withdrew from almost every important international treaty during its time in office? How else might we understand an ideological commitment to a neo-conservative economic agenda that allowed the market to come to the verge of collapse in a morass of greed and corruption? And how else might we interpret a commitment to an American vision of prosperity and affluence, that has willingly put the planet and the next generations up for sacrifice on the altar of global capitalism?
I know, I know, by the time I got to my fourth “How else might we …?” some readers were thinking, “left wing ideologue!” But if all of this is not an indication of an imperial presidency, then offer me a better interpretation.
But this piece isn’t actually about George W. Bush. He is, thank God, yesterday’s man. He is, thank God, scheduled to leave office on January 20 at 12.01PM. I’ve got the tee-shirt.
No, this piece is about President-elect Barack Obama. Like many of my neighbours to the south, like many of my neighbours in Toronto, especially in the black community, and like many of my neighbours around the world, I had tears in my eyes last night. My heart is also filled with gratitude that the American people rejected the legacy of George W. Bush in such overwhelming numbers. And I am enthused by the hope that Obama brings to America and, indeed, to the world.
So here’s the question. How will an Obama presidency break with the imperial pretense of not just the Bush/Reagan dynasty, but with the imperial pretense of America herself. Can you be a President of the United States of America and not be imperial? Or to put the question in terms of this website, can Obama remix the American empire?
Yes, I know, these are huge questions, and they are likely just a tad pretentious as well. But if the Obama administration does not address the question of American empire, if President-elect Obama does not have the vision and courage (and no one is doubting that he’s got both in spades) to redirect the American imagination from imperial rule to global service, from the arrogance of empire to the humility of stewardship, from an ideology of affluence to a vision of justice, then we are about to embark on one of the deepest disappointments of our lives.
“Yes we can.” Those three words have captured the imagination of a nation. “Yes we can.” Those three words have awakened a hope that promises to bring us out of the nightmare of the Bush administration into the dawning of a new day, a reawakening of what Obama loves to call “the American promise.”
And what is that promise? What is that dream that Obama insists is still alive? What is that truth that was proven last night and that should now silence all doubters?
Those three words, “Yes we can” are rooted in three other words that are at the very foundation of the American experiment, “We, the people.” And as I watched the tears flowing down Jesse Jackson’s face last night, as I watched the tears flowing at Ebenezer Baptist Church last night, as I remembered Martin Luther King Jr. calling America to fulfill her promise, a promise so terribly cut short and belied by slavery and racism, as I saw “the people” vote in record numbers yesterday, I found that I wanted to believe that “Yes we can” and I wanted to believe that “We, the people” is a truly revolutionary sentiment, a radically liberating foundation for a nation.
I want to believe.
But there’s a problem here. It is the problem of empire. Obama stands in the tradition of King by appealing to the founding vision of America and calling America to fulfill that vision. And he is right to believe that there can only be a vision for the future if that vision is rooted in memories that can engender and sustain such a vision. And he was politically wise to argue that we must reject the Bush legacy because it departs from the best of American traditions, the best of American promise. But what is that promise? What, beyond those three foundational words, is the heart of that tradition? If vision is rooted in memory, are some memories better than others? Might there be some memories that need to be re-evaluated if we are to proceed with hope and an alternative vision?
Let’s take the memory of racism. Here Obama and his supporters clearly tap into the memory of the civil rights movement. This election is a momentous vindication, four decades after King’s assassination, of that movement. That history, those memories, those sacrifices come to an important and liberating moment of fulfillment and fruition in the historic election of November 4, 2008. Praise God! An Obama presidency is not a post-racial presidency, but, we hope and pray, a post-racism presidency. The original sin of America was slavery. Today is a day of redemption. Today is a day of Jubilee. Praise God!
But we must remember that slavery and racism have always been part of a larger imperial narrative. If vision for the future is rooted in memory, then just as a post-racist presidency must tap into the roots of the civil rights movement, so also must a post-imperial presidency revisit some of the foundational memories of America.
American exceptionalism is rooted in a narrative of a city set on a hill, a special blessing of God upon the founding of America, and a story of the inherent goodness and moral superiority of the American people. These are imperial narratives and imperial deceits that can serve no redemptive purpose in a post-imperial presidency.
American military and international dominance is rooted in a narrative of Manifest Destiny, a mythology of American innocence, and a secular providential theology. These are blasphemous narratives at best and they can serve no redemptive purpose in a post-imperial presidency.
And finally, the American economy is rooted in an ideology of economic growth as the foundation of civilization and the very engine of history and progress. This is an idolatrous ideology that offers up our children, our planet, the poor, and the very civility of society to be sacrificed on the altar of consumerism And this too can serve no redemptive purpose in a post-imperial presidency. May it never happen again that a President of the United States should offer comfort to his people in a time of threat and crisis with the words, “America is still open for business.”
Can Barack Obama be a post-imperial President? I hope so, and I pray so. But to offer that kind of prophetic and faithful leadership he will have to radically subject the imperial memories of America to the liberating memories of the Scriptures that are at the heart of his Christian faith.
Can we imagine a post-imperial America? Can we remix the empire? No we can’t. But yes, He can. Let us pray that Barack Obama will be blessed with vision rooted in deep biblical memories. Let us pray for a post-imperial presidency.
[Editor’s Note :: In addition to the many comments published below, we received one email from Henk Hart, Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Christian Studies. We have published these reflections as Obama and Cyrus, A Meditation in the Garden.]