Go Not in Search of MonstersPlaying as I am in the fields of empire this season, I occasionally come across golden nuggets laying about. Henry Adams, who is the subject of my disseration, has quite a few things to say on the subject of empire. Perhaps he was informed by his grandpapa, J.Q. Adams, who on Independence Day in 1821 made the following comment:
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been unfurled, there will America's heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause by the countenance of her voice and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that, by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the color and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world; she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.We sometimes choose our historic symbols with circumspection, and wisely no one has been dredging up the spirit of poor ole' J.Q. to rationalize under-the-thumb democracy as our grossest domestic export. No, perhaps it's best to keep John Quincy in the vague and fuzzy pantheon of dead presidents. Let's just keep his political philosophy in the "quaint" box for now. Indeed the argument today seems to be whether there are justifiable wars of expansion, as if what we need is atonement or affirmation. Once again we seek to make the world safe for Democracy, capital "D." One argument against this is that the justification of Democracy, for the United States, has too often been the calling card for empire. Cuba, Hawaii, the Philippines, -- bequeathing Democracy seems to end up, despite our best intentions, an imperial slog-fest. In the Philippines, of course, the anti-American "insurrection" lasted officially for three years, and unofficially for more than a decade; several hundred thousand Filipino civilians died so that their own revolution could be substituted for an American one.
So here we are in the slog-fest and we can't deny that fact. When George Bush spoke the other week and reminded us that we were staying in Iraq until the mission was complete (and who among us did not remember that he had long ago announced the mission accomplished), it was only a rhetorical flourish. We're not staying there until the mission is complete. A presidential babelfish is called for: We're stuck there. What we need now, rather than more justifications for spreading "Democracy," is to question what this imperial project, what all such projects, have done and will do to our own republic. The answer can be pretty scary, for when we go in search of monsters, we may discover the monster is us.