The Weak Empire

I think we can all agree that something has gone wrong recently. Something in the air isn’t quite right. Locally, everything seems the same. I go out of my house in the mornings, sprint around the corner and miss my bus just as often as before. When I get into town, the people walking around at lunch time are mostly self-controlled and rational looking people. The kind of people you’d trust to take a picture of you with your own camera. They certainly don’t look like they’re only a few psychological knocks away from outright insanity.

But then that’s what we thought about the US until recently. Hooray, we said when Nice Bill Clinton came to visit us here in Ireland and surreally stood in College Green, like an unlikely photomontage come to life. Ooh, we gasped as the laws of economics were suspended for the IT boom and people we went to college with suddenly became richer than the rest of their town put together by working as a clerk in the right dotcom. Cool, we said when we watched the aliens blowing up the Empire State Building in Independence Day, and then being driven back by good old fashioned American Know-How.

But when real aliens flattened the World Trade Centre something fell out of the giant machine. It’s as though a spring shot past our ears. The entire thing looks just as impressive as before. We just can’t quite place where this little piece came from. But since then, I think we’re all agreed that there’s a little clunking noise which wasn’t there before. That we’ve had some funny end products rolling off the conveyer belt. That, as I say, something has gone wrong.

JG Ballard said recently that the unconscious always comes out. Of its nature, the unconscious isn’t really the kind of thing you want to look at in the light of day, even at the best of times. But the unconscious of an empire on the rise is a uniquely disturbing thing. Conquest and occupation are bad for any culture, regardless which role it has taken. As Ireland and Britain knows better than most, the deeper both sides go, the tighter they are pulled together whether they want to or not. Ireland has been an independent state for nearly 80 years now. But at the fair to mark the new countries joining the EU in April, the British stand had on display, apropos of nothing really, a poster of a cartoon English Gent and Irish businessman, bound face to face with one belt around their waist. “UK and Ireland”, it said, “We have more in common than we think.”

Wow. How’s that for the unconscious coming out?

But, though it’s fashionable to compare the US to the British Empire, there are better parallels from history. Where Britain extended its empire through constant conquest over hundreds of years, the US has launched its own in reaction to a single event.

I’ve tried elsewhere to give a sense of the impact on Rome of their wars with Carthage. Even after there was no threat left, they worried away at the effect to their self-image, as unstoppable military titans, that Hannibal’s long Punic campaigns had on them. They’d won, but it had taken their generals years to realize that they could only do so by adopting the strategies of the weak- hit and run, melt away from the other side. The worries became a psychosis.

The Romans despised weakness. At the heart of their civilization, the gladiatorial games, and the accompanying pitting of helpless conquered people against wild animals were the unconscious given full sadistic form. A military democracy, built on the honour of conquest had saved itself by succumbing to its worst, hidden fear. They were forced to admit the limits of their power. Decades later, that fact remained so disquieting that to try to redeem themselves, they eventually attacked a quiet Carthage, slaughtering everyone and sowing their soil with salt so nothing could ever grow there again. That was a burst from the unconscious, pure in its irrationality and in its power.

Tsk. Rome. It always seems to pull me off track. But here, I think we haven’t gone too far. Let’s stop beating around the bush about this, shall we? America seems to have entered a period of irrationality. They’ve listened to Talking Heads and together have decided to Stop Making Sense. Bluntly, I think they’ve gone collectively mad.

I don’t think, although I did for a while, that it was just that I was able to see for myself things that had always been there, but happened well away from my radar. After all, the internet means that conversations that could only be heard in low wattage fraternity houses can now appear in front of my eyes with the click of a mouse. US television news, well, it only became available to us here recently, so who knows? It was probably always so skewed, so… well, wrong. Wrong in tone, in its view of the world as them and us, wrong in its willful blindness to the broader picture.

Probably nothing new here, I said to myself. Just new to you. But, oh dear, if so why are things getting worse before my eyes? Why are people in power allowed to assert day is night to my face now, without being just confronted by the facts we all see that contradict them. Up until recently, I was clinging onto the hope of a quick fix. Ah well, no real harm done, I told myself. Nothing that a quick Bushendectamy couldn’t put right.

But no, I’m afraid I can’t hold on to that any more. Of course, removal of the malignancy is a vital part of the cure, but we’ve gone past that now. Everything has been tainted. People are walking around in the middle of nowhere, in Main st. USA, and their hearts are sick from hating. But distressingly for them, they can’t see who they’re hating. Everyone else seems all right. Where are the monsters?


Monsters are the province of the unconscious, of course. And there is no quicker line to a culture’s unconscious than through the stories it tells itself. One of the things that made me realize how deeply the wounds of the past few years have cut is the disappearance of the Evil Genius as a movie staple Faced with the most personalized assaults on their way of life, with their antagonists so familiar as to be referred to with their first name, Hollywood and its audience have shied away from trying to explore what that might mean. In their place, we’re faced with impersonal, unstoppable forces of nature, or meaningless swarms of baddies- tidal waves, asteroids, orc armies, zombies, ice storms and all the hoards of Hell and the Met Office to menace civilisation.

But in fact it takes an Evil Genius to really threaten a civilization. He needs to understand what makes it tick, better than it does itself. He needs to play on its unconscious- the darkness it won’t even acknowledge- and ensnare it in its own nightmares.

Ireland fought with its own evil genius in the shape of Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA. They played on our secret sickness, our need to prove we were better than the Brits, that they’d only managed to have the upper hand for 800 years through a sequence of bad luck, treachery and freak weather conditions. As the IRA started to blow up mothers and children, as well as fathers and anyone else that moved, a serious bloc in the mainstream of society here cheered them on. That’ll teach them, we said. We’re just as good as them. Or we’re just as bad. I can’t remember which, now.

But, Our Day Will Come!, went the slogan! Then we’ll be strong and they’ll be weak. Lilies, a symbol reaching back into a well of death, a self-described blood sacrifice of other people’s children, sprouted on people’s lapels. As the 1970s crawled in, the Irish psyche teetered on the brink of being dragged back to the universal mud and blood of the First World War.

That was the real threat to our civilization, and we escaped. At the price of walking away from what we thought we believed in, a united Ireland, we kept what we had, a civilized one. But it was, and still is, a close run thing.

Mr. Bin Laden may not be an Evil Genius. Hopefully, he didn’t know how devastatingly effective his plans would be in destabilizing a hugely powerful nation. I hope that he didn’t read about the bouts of hysteria and irrationality that seem to be sewn right into the collective consciousness of the US and decide to provoke one. From the Puritan witch hunts, through the repressed terror of the unpredictable savagery of the Indian in the wilderness of the 1800’s imagination, into the paranoia about Communists lurking in every nook and cranny during the cold war the American psyche has been periodically tormented by invisible, all powerful enemies. They’re all around us, they whisper to each other. They could get us at any time.

I really hope he didn’t know what he was doing.


Empires are all about power- about strength and weakness. They are a sado-masochistic relationship, where each side loves and hates the other. Occupy somewhere, and you’ll find your culture distorts in reaction to theirs. Occupy Ireland or Iraq or India, and you’ll project all the things you aren’t onto them, to reassure yourself that these people aren’t like you- that their weakness is due to their personal failings and character flaws. You’re hardworking and they’re lazy. You’re serious, and they’re fun loving. You’re manly and rational, and they are at the whim of their emotions. Crucially, you are strong and they are weak, and that’s the only way it could have been.

Nazism was the most extreme and codified example of the black attraction of this kind of thinking. It was built on the sense of weakness the defeat of Germany in WW1 created. Like the Roman violence after Hannibal, the extremity of its insistence on power, strength, of natural leaders and chosen races was a mirror image of the depth of the shock to the German mind at changing from an Imperial power, to an occupied one. It is no coincidence that it dressed itself in fetishistic leathers, boots and uniforms. The entire Nazi state was a sadist, meting out pain to cover its own feelings of inadequacies for everything from the weak Weimar Republic to Hitler’s single testicle. And it somehow, perhaps unconsciously, understood that obsessing over the invisible infinite power of people who seem to be helpless would be a prison. So like the Romans with Carthage they decided the only thing to do was to wipe them out altogether and sow the rich soil of Judaism with salt.

They were too mad to see that by taking that kind of action, they doomed their nation to a new and deeper circle of hell.

It’s a two way street, you know. As the British Council helpfully reminded me at the EU fair, we’re both in this thing together. Be occupied and you’ll tell yourself that it isn’t your fault. That you couldn’t have won in the face of such overpowering force. You’ll reject the words of the occupier and all their deeds, while absorbing the spirit of their society and their image of you. The stage Irishman was a joint creation of the Irish and the English, each taking what they needed from it. Faith and begorra, we said when we met them. Good Day To You, Sor!

For the English, Paddy Irishman, who invented the waterproof teabag and the underwater hairdryer, was a figure of reassuring fun. A harmless buffoon, who means well but just doesn’t have the brains to get it together. Inferior, and childlike, he definitely needs us to look after him. We’re doing the right thing here.

For the Irish, Paddy Irishman was a cunning actor, giving the fool English what they wanted to see, while watching for his chance to profit from their naivety. They paid him and he tipped his cap but would curse them as soon as they were out of hearing range. But he also absorbed his agreed role- he despised the English for not having any fun, but envied them their organizational ability.

Both societies lost from this game -the English by frowning on expressing emotions, for fear of appearing too frivolous, and the Irish by avoiding efficiency and responsibility, in case someone accused them of acting English.

Torture is the most extreme form of this kind of power struggle. Send poor, and poorly educated people who have no power at home, to a faraway place where they’re on top. Tell them that these people they see are the invisible enemies made flesh at last. Tell them they’re in charge of them, and that any behaviour is justified by their enemy’s misdeeds. Then just wait for the pictures to come back.

So finally, we come to the pictures and what they tell us about the state of that big American machine we once admired so much. Donald Rumsfeld said he didn’t realize that the torture he’d been told about was that big a deal until he saw the photos of it. Given that concerns of mistreatment had been raised publicly before by the Red Cross and other agencies and they went nowhere, he obviously wasn’t the only one.

They weren’t smuggled out by an undercover reporter- they were emailed out by the people who were conducting the abuse. Just as many of the pictures taken in the Concentration camps were taken by Nazis documenting their activities and we know only of the Carthaginians’ fate because it was proudly recorded by Roman historians.

If history is written by the victors, then this kind of unconscious self-condemnation is revelatory. It shows a national spirit that has reduced the occupied to non-people. They are just the monsters of our fears, and this is the chance to prove to yourself that you’re more powerful than them.

This kind of raw power, the see-saw of domination and humiliation only works if other people see it, and both parties to it- the abuser and the abused- know that is what will happen. These weren’t rough soldiers, following a private perverted impulse of their own. These people were playing out the unconscious fantasies of every occupying power in history.

Prove you’re stronger than them. Stifle the thought that it could be you under the hood in different circumstances.

And instead listen to the voice at the back of your mind telling you to hit them harder, for fear of what they will do to you if they ever get a chance.

This is a prison. You can’t get out, until you’re willing to see the walls.

Switching faces on the Iraq TV news won’t end this problem if the relationship behind it is still based on the exercise of power. The US had a friendly government they propped up in South Vietnam. But as they became the real occupying power in that country and committed themselves more completely to trying to maintain their control of the society they found their imaginations tainted, unable to understand why the Vietnamese were willing to embrace whatever leader seemed most likely to resist them. An entire generation of films, books, political arguments and family stories testifies to the power of that kind of effort to disturb a culture.

Outside the prison of empire, friends and relatives of the captors and the captives can only wait, arguing over which is which.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.