Living in the age of empires

While our local media has been saturated with farce of Labor leadership disputes and the horror story of the actual policy debates, the world outside is in an extraordinary phase. There are massive (when I say massive, I mean millions of people) protests in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt. It’s hard to keep up with what’s happening in any of them, as things move fast.

Slightly smaller, and slightly slower moving, but of equal importance to those interest in human rights and freedom are a few things happening much closer to our normal media centre, in the USA.

For one, and it’s an issue regular readers of this blog will be familiar with, former army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning is currently facing trial in a military court in Fort Meade, Maryland. Bradley confessed to out of conscience leaking thousands of documents depicting US war atrocities and diplomatic relations in an extraordinary court statement. He is still facing life in prison for charges including aiding the enemy (despite stating it was so everyday people could know the truth – guess it depends who you consider “the enemy” to be), espionage, even larceny. The case is slow moving and full of technicalities, but the prosecution has shown no sign of letting up, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.

At the same time as Bradley’s trial, another young computer nerd took a remarkably similar action – National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden leaked documents showing the mindblowing width and depth of American spy tactics. The leaks show all kinds of amazing things (like putting up foreign governments in a fancy hotel then planting bugs all over the place), but the biggest of all must be the US government’s collaboration with internet companies to have the ability to spy on all the world’s internet activity, private emails and all.

Snowden had it all a bit more planned out than Bradley Manning did in 2010, so the last few weeks have seen a very interesting little pursuit across the world. The Chinese government, somewhat offended by the revelations of US intelligence spying on Chinese universities, allowed Snowden to leave Hong Kong, and he is now apparently stuck in an airport terminal in Russia, from where he is attempting to seek asylum in a number of countries.

It must be one of the all-time great ironies that in the wake of all these revelations, the US is attempting to extradite Snowden and charge him with espionage. I’m not sure whether they see the humour. But Snowden is becoming something of a hero as he continues to elude capture. Ecuador has indicated that despite American threats, it will probably grant Snowden political asylum if he can get there. Not all countries have politicians whose election promises involve using their military to turn away asylum seekers.

Bleakest of all, but still inspiring in a way, is the situation off the coast of Florida, where detainees at Guantanamo Bay have been on hunger strike for an extraordinary 148 days. If that seems like a long time, consider that many of them have been imprisoned for 11 years without ever being charged. Over 80 detainees there have been cleared for release but are still there watching their life dwindle away like a never-ending horror movie.

Of course, the reality of Guantanamo Bay puts any Hollywood horror to shame. This is the place set up offshore to avoid having to comply with US law, condemned by the United Nations and Amnesty International for its conditions and actions, where people arrested with no evidence were detained indefinitely and often tortured into confessing things they never did.

And now, just in case anybody thought there could be a remotely happy ending, people who have never been charged with any crime are being tied down and surgically force fed, their human dignity chewed up and spat out in the most horrific perversion of what it means to eat.

The incredible act of strength and unity from people who have taken far more than anyone should ever have to though is a great testament to the power of the human spirit, even as the US refuses to treat them as one. And whatever the results of these three situations, all of them should be remembered forever as courageous and selfless acts of resisting injustice, people who took a stand for what they believe is right, knowing the magnitude of the price they would pay. In an age where the word is used far too often, these guys have taken stands that remind us all what heroism means.

And they’re all happening at once. It’s no coincidence that these things are happening simultaneously, that’s for sure, but what it points to is harder to know.

Certainly it has been an incredibly eventful last couple of years in terms of social movements and resistance actions, and like a chain of dominoes one action sets off another – mass movements in the Arab world inspire similar things in Europe, they become Occupations in cities around the world, and the cycle goes on. Now we see the Middle East again on the edge of revolution. Individual actions unlock doors that these movements push open, from American intelligence analysts to Tunisian street vendors to Russian punk bands.

But these actions regarding the US show something different. It’s nothing new for America to rule by brute force, that’s long been its foreign and domestic policy. What’s interesting is that dissent and opposition seem to be getting a bit harder to crack down on. We could be witnessing the first fractures in the walls of the US empire.

It is a nation built on the dispossession of native American people, an economy built on the backs of African slaves. The US fought and gained its independence from one empire, but it wasn’t long until familiar patterns were emerging. Mexico was invaded, and those rich once-Mexican south-western states became the cornerstone of American prosperity.

In the 2nd half of the 20th century the US empire really got going as some of the old colonial empires faded away. Atomic bombs in Japan became an occupation there and war in Korea. I was told in high school history that the Cold War was “the war that never was”. It was a complete lie. In the name of fighting communism there were failed invasions and economic blockades on Cuba, witch-hunts of American sympathisers led by Joseph McCarthy, invasion of Vietnam, bloodthirsty US-backed military coups overthrowing democratically elected governments in Latin America.

Free trade agreements that concentrated wealth in the hands of US corporations were forced on the poorest countries in the world through the debt slavery of the world bank and IMF. As the US-developed dogma of free trade was chained to the hands and feet of the world’s poorest, America didn’t (and still don’t) even keep to it themselves.

Undettered by a lost war and horrific human cost in Vietnam, America led war in Kuwait for a share in the oil of the middle east, and had its hand in conflicts from Afghanistan to South East Asia to Africa and South America, making sure US allies held power, whatever it took. Manifest destiny.

The “war on drugs” was an excuse to arm right wing gangsters in South America, continually justified by inflated arrest numbers that cemented cycles of poverty in poor US neighbourhoods.

The “war on terror” justified extraordinary measures restricting civil liberties and human rights, not to mention illegal invasions of Afghanistan ad Iraq. In the spirit of fabricated “weapons of mass destruction”, FBI agent provocateurs infiltrated domestic environmental and religious groups, creating crimes where there were none, just to keep everyone in fear. The response to the terrorist attacks on the world trade centre on September 11, 2001 was never to ask why, only to use it as an excuse to ramp up the tactics the empire was already using.

But now we are maybe starting to see the decline of the American empire. The economy still hasn’t recovered from the 2007 global financial crisis and still battles recession, held up precariously by a huge national debt. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq turned out to be expensive and dragged on forever. While both have ended with US-backed governments in power, the situations are far from stable. History may well depict the US losing the Afghanistan war, given that after nearly 12 years and trillions of dollars, the Taliban control large chunks of rural Afghanistan. Bombings and insurgent attacks happen there on a weekly basis, as America prepare to quietly withdraw their troops.

In South America a group of populist governments have ridden to election victory on anti-US platforms. And the small acts of resistance that it once could have crushed are now beyond its control thanks partly to the rapid development of new technologies. You can’t send a CIA agent to assassinate the internet.

What the response will be to all this we will have to wait and see, but at this point it doesn’t seem like we’ll see radical changes in approach any time soon. The people of Syria are now caught in the crossfire between US backed rebels and Russian/Iranian backed government forces. As Wikileaks emerged the US tried to smother it out of existence by using Visa and Paypal to freeze their bank account. While Wikileaks defines itself as a journalism organisation, America continues to paint it as some kind of enemy force, hence the charges of espionage and aiding the enemy, linking it at any opportunity to that panic button word “terrorism”. There is no truth, only us and them.

Amazingly, as all this is going on, this month thousands of US troops will arrive in Australia. Only for training, although given there are up to 40 US military facilities stationed around Australia, sometimes the line between ally and occupied territory is a blurry one. The biennial Talisman Sabre war games are a symbol of the continual support the Australian government pledges to the US, as is the total lack of support for Australian citizens who get on the wrong side of US “justice”, like Wikileaks activist Julian Assange or Guantanamo Bay detainees David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib.

In its first days as a nation, Australia began a long tradition of following other countries into wars that have nothing to do with us in the Boer War. At some point though our allegiance transferred from Great Britain to the United States. Despite a brief unauthorised moment when Australian and US troops fought on the streets of Brisbane, we have mostly stuck with the American empire as loyally as a dog following around its owner. Going to war, giving vast chunks of land to be US army bases, joining the war on civil liberties that came as part of the “war on terror”.

In 2001 Australia alone stood with the US against the threat of climate justice, opposing the Kyoto protocol on the basis that developing nations should have to make the same concessions as the developed countries who caused climate change. In 2007 when Kevin Rudd finally signed the protocol, we became the 175th nation to do so. A 2007 treaty seeking investigation into the health effects of depleted uranium weapons was supported by 136 of the 191 UN member states, opposed by 5. Guess who led the opposition, and who, despite assurances that the Australian army doesn’t use DU, abstained rather than vote against our big brothers.

I wonder what Australia’s response will be if the US empire begins to lose its grip on the world’s superpower status. While it’s hard to imagine Australia going against America, empires are built on power not loyalty, and I don’t think Australia is above defecting as other powers rise.

It’s a historically proven fact that all empires eventually fall. While it’s nice to think that the demise of an emperor will bring true democracy, it unfortunately seems more likely that it will be someone else taking America’s spot at the top of the food chain.

So a more interesting and pressing question than our nation’s actions is to ask ourselves what we as individuals and communities can do to extricate ourselves and resist empire, whether that be American or any other. Which is where we come back to the events going on in the world today. History is being written as we speak, but what is our role in it?

ps. This article mostly isn’t footnoted. It took long enough to write as it is. I will stand by everything written though, if you would like to dispute or want more info on anything I presented as a fact, contact me and I’d be happy to send you more detailed information.

Also, this is written about the American empire. I don’t want to be accused of taking the side of any other government, many of whose actions are as bad or worse. You can be against one tyrant without being for another. It’s worth remembering though for those who compare the US to more overtly violent regimes, that some of the most brutal governments of recent times have been supported and armed by America. That’s all. Thanks for making it to the end.


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2 responses to “Living in the age of empires

  1. Hi Andy! A brilliant article and I agree with your opinion totally! You commented on the act that if the American Empire loses its power then Australia will fined someone else to latch on to. Whilst this is so very true, as there is never any true loyalty in politics/foreign relations, if people believe there is they need to revamp their knowledge of political history/foreign policy & relations; do Australians also realise that if Australia had war declared upon her, that if it was in America’s best interests not to remain loyal it would pull all its troops out of our country in a flash, leaving us to fend for ourselves? Or alternatively are American troops really here for training purposes only?! Or is there possibly alternative motives? Call me a cynic, conspirator or whatever, but give it so many years and America might grab Australia and sweet-talk the government of the day into geopolitically join forces and thus become the newest state on that star-spangled flag of theirs, leaving us under their autonomy and god help us their crazy out dated constitution. Are we Australians destined to become an outpost for all the wacky desperadoes, government policy and officials that ever decided to grace America’s shores? Will these desperadoes find safe haven here, and in true Australian fashion we house them granting them political sanctions and asylum, whilst simultaneously politically interrogate those Australians whose only crime it is bringing the truth to its citizens and then ultimately to the world, in a non-aggressive peaceful manner? And as for growing her Empire on the backs of Afro-American slavery, and robbing the Native Americans of their land rights… It wreaks of tyranny, & autocracy like you have so rightly stated and to a large degree possible militaristic rule could be coming here too. We already have large areas of camera surveillance, and we are none the safer for it. Australia has obviously become the laboratorial rat that the American presidency have purred and rubbed their shoulders with against our various governments, using their military as a convenient excuse for training purposes on Australian soil, under the guise of ‘training under our own militaristic personnel within Australia’ Instead of the motto: ” God Bless America”, maybe it should read God help Australia if we ever become geopolitically aligned with them with the stroke of a pen?

  2. ajitator

    * …’Russian’ sympathisers…

    Great article!

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