We don’t see the madness of our the descent in to Empire. The rest of the world does, however, and marvels at our madness. This isolation of our leaders by ever-increasing pomp and grandeur can only have ill effects on their minds and spirits. We all know this, yet the trend continues nevertheless.
- “Hi-Ho, the Derry-O“, Dana Milbank, columnist for the Washington Post, 18 September 2009 — It’s a major operation when the Empress goes out to buy vegetables.
- “Potemkin World… or the President in the Zone“, Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch, 27 February 2005 — Carpets must be laid around the world when the Emperor travels, least his foot touch the real world.
Similar stories can be told of every President back to Johnson. Perhaps, on a lesser scale, back to Truman. The important point is that the size of the Imperial entourage, the lavishness of the programs, grows with each generation. Continued long enough and we will be bowing down before them.
(1) “Hi-Ho, the Derry-O“, Dana Milbank, columnist for the Washington Post, 18 September 2009
Let’s say you’re preparing dinner and you realize with dismay that you don’t have any certified organic Tuscan kale. What to do? Here’s how Michelle Obama handled this very predicament Thursday afternoon:
The Secret Service and the D.C. police brought in three dozen vehicles and shut down H Street, Vermont Avenue, two lanes of I Street and an entrance to the McPherson Square Metro station. They swept the area, in front of the Department of Veterans Affairs, with bomb-sniffing dogs and installed magnetometers in the middle of the street, put up barricades to keep pedestrians out, and took positions with binoculars atop trucks. Though the produce stand was only a block or so from the White House, the first lady hopped into her armored limousine and pulled into the market amid the wail of sirens.
Then, and only then, could Obama purchase her leafy greens. “Now it’s time to buy some food,” she told several hundred people who came to watch. “Let’s shop!”
Cowbells were rung. Somebody put a lei of marigolds around Obama’s neck. The first lady picked up a straw basket and headed for the “Farm at Sunnyside” tent, where she loaded up with organic Asian pears, cherry tomatoes, multicolored potatoes, free-range eggs and, yes, two bunches of Tuscan kale. She left the produce with an aide, who paid the cashier as Obama made her way back to the limousine.
There’s nothing like the simple pleasures of a farm stand to return us to our agrarian roots.
The first lady had encouraged Freshfarm Markets, the group that runs popular farmers markets in Dupont Circle and elsewhere, to set up near the White House, and she helped get the approvals to shut down Vermont Avenue during rush hour on Thursdays. But the result was quite the opposite of a quaint farmers market. Considering all the logistics, each tomato she purchased had a carbon footprint of several tons.
… The first lady, in gray slacks and blue sweater, marveled that the people were “so pumped up” despite the rain. “I have never seen so many people so excited about fruits and vegetables!” she said. (Must be the tender baby arugula.)
She spoke of the global reach of her cause: “The first thing world leaders, prime ministers, kings, queens ask me about is the White House garden. And then they ask about Bo.”
She spoke of the fuel fed to the world’s most powerful man: “I’ve learned that when my family eats fresh food, healthy food, that it really affects how we feel, how we get through the day . . . whether there’s a Cabinet meeting or whether we’re just walking the dog.”
And she spoke of her own culinary efforts: “There are times when putting together a healthy meal is harder than you might imagine.”
Particularly when it involves a soundstage, an interpreter for the deaf, three TV satellite trucks and the closing of part of downtown Washington.
(2) “Potemkin World… or the President in the Zone“, Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch, 27 February 2005 — Excerpt:
“The great motorcade,” wrote Canadian correspondent Don Murray, “swept through the streets of the city… The crowds … but there were no crowds. George W. Bush’s imperial procession through Europe took place in a hermetically sealed environment. In Brussels it was, at times, eerie. The procession containing the great, armour-plated limousine (flown in from Washington) rolled through streets denuded of human beings except for riot police. Whole areas of the Belgian capital were sealed off before the American president passed.”
Murray doesn’t mention the 19 American escort vehiclesin that procession with the President’s car (known to insiders as “the beast”), or the 200 secret service agents, or the 15 sniffer dogs, or the Blackhawk helicopter, or the 5 cooks, or the 50 White House aides, all of which added up to only part of the President’s vast traveling entourage. Nor does he mention the huge press contingent tailing along inside the president’s security “bubble,” many of them evidently with their passports not in their own possession but in the hands of White House officials, or the more than 10,000 policemen and the various frogmenthe Germans mustered for the President’s brief visit to the depopulated German town of Mainz to shake hands with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
This image of cities emptied of normal life (like those atomically depopulated ones of 1950s sci-fi films) is not exactly something Americans would have carried away from last week’s enthusiastic TV news reports about the bonhomie between European and American leaders, as our President went on his four-day “charm offensive” to repair first-term damage to the transatlantic alliance. But two letters came into the Tomdispatch e-mailbox — one from a young chemist in Germany, the other from a middle-aged engineer in Baghdad — that reminded me of how differently many in the rest of the world view the offshore bubbles we continually set up, whether in Belgium, Germany, or the Green Zone in Baghdad. (Both letters are reproduced at the end of this dispatch.)
Here’s one of the strangest things about our President: He travels often enough, but in some sense he never goes anywhere. As I wrote back in November 2003, as George and party were preparing to descend on London (central areas of which were being closed down for the “visit”)
“American presidential trips abroad increasingly remind me of the vast, completely ritualized dynastic processionals by which ancient emperors and potentates once crossed their domains and those of their satraps. Our President’s processionals are enormous moving bubbles (even when he visits alien places closer to home like the Big Apple) that shut cities, close down institutions, turn off life itself. Essentially, when the President moves abroad, like some vast turtle, he carries his shell with him.”
Back then, I was less aware that, for Bush & Co., all life is lived inside a bubble carefully wiped clean of any traces of recalcitrant, unpredictable, roiling humanity, of anything that might throw their dream world into question. On the electoral campaign trail in 2004, George probably never attended an event in which his audience wasn’t carefully vetted for, and often quite literally pledged to, eternal friendliness, not to say utter adoration. (Anyone who somehow managed to slip by with, say, a Kerry T-shirt on, was summarily ejected or even arrested.)
… With that, let me turn to those two letters from outside the bubble. Oliver Hass, a 28 year-old chemist and graduate student from Oldenberg, Germany, wrote me recently about what the President’s trip looked like to him. … He then wrote me the following – I’ve added a few links — under the title:
I want to describe to you some of the circumstances of President Bush’s recent visit to Germany, because it’s a beautiful example of the divergence of intentions and impact. Reading the headlines in the American newspapers, I see that this visit is being treated as a great opening for the healing process in the transatlantic alliance and your public opinion seems optimistic that your President’s journey will improve our relationship, despite the continuing great divide on major subjects of international policy.
But let me describe to you this visit/experience through the eyes of the average German citizen:
This last week, after all, Mainz, a little town in Germany, was turned into a Potemkin village.
… To underline the new era of friendship, the President was to pay a visit to us, a stop-over on his European charm offensive. But to make sure that the President wasn’t appalled by reality, so much was done to create a bubble at Mainz in the heart of Germany. And here’s where the Green Zone comes into play. As in Baghdad, so Mainz too was turned into a maximum-security zone and the citizens of Mainz and the surrounding area learned what exporting democracy really meant.
First and most obvious was the great disproportion between the President’s freedom to travel and the average citizen’s right to move in public places. Last Wednesday for his arrival, all Autobahnen (highways) around Mainz were closed for several hours. A helicopter flight from the airport to the city might have seemed like a more practical way to transport the President than cutting the veins of the most frequented Autobahn-segment in Germany — and that was just the beginning of our voyage into the absurd.
Many citizens of Mainz weren’t even able to drive their cars. They were forced to park kilometres away from their homes, simply because they lived near one of the maybe-routes the President’s convoy might conceivably have taken. Using the railway system might have seemed a solution, but unfortunately over 100 trains were also cancelled (and a similar number of flights at the airport in Frankfurt during the time that Air Force One arrived).
… Anyway, most people in Mainz didn’t really have a reason to leave home that day. For example, Opel decided to close its factory on Wednesday, because workers and suppliers wouldn’t make it to work in time. 750 cars weren’t built and the production loss has to be compensated for by the workers on the next two Saturdays. Linde Vacuum asked their employees to take one day off. In addition, most small businesses in Mainz were closed and the inner city had all the charm of a ghost town — the streets were totally empty.
In Germany you are free to write a letter to your representative, but unfortunately if you wanted to, you would have had to wait a few days, because all letter boxes were taken away too. The costs of this extravaganza can’t yet be tallied. 15,000 additional security forces were out on the streets and the one thing we know is that we, the taxpayers, will be left with the final price tag.
The most disturbing aspects of this visit/nightmare haven’t even been mentioned yet. People were told to stay away from their windows and they were forbiddento step out on their balconies! And the Secret Service that protects your President even had plans to shut down the mobile phone communication system. They didn’t actually go so far, but the public expression of that idea alone tells a story about the direction of Secret-Service thoughts. And I don’t think the intention on this subject was to disrupt “mobile-ignited” explosives, but to further complicate the situation for Germans who wanted to protest the visit. It was hard enough to organize a demonstration in a ghost city, where you couldn’t even get lunch at a cafe. With the communication systems off, the protestors would have been further marginalized and easily scattered.
To complete the Potemkin masquerade, I should just mention the planned meeting between some ordinary citizens of Mainz and your President, like the town-hall meetings in America. But don’t think the assembly actually consisted of ordinary citizens. After the German delegation emphasized that they would not collect the questions beforehand and fake the conversation (as had happened at the meeting Rice had with students in France), the American delegation cancelled that meeting. An emperor shouldn’t be annoyed by tough questions. Instead 20 so-called young leaders were chosen by the [conservative] Aspen Institute and the German Marshall Fund, and so a few hand-picked Germans were talking with the President instead of upset citizens.
The overall feeling that remains is that we got trampled upon by the President’s baggage — like those beds of roses at Buckingham palace, if you remember that “the-queen-is-not-amused” episode. Mainz was not blessed by this visit, it was doomed. Liberty of action was interrupted and the burden of costs for the visit remains in Germany. Diplomats are trained to accentuate symbolic gestures and the return to a dialogue, but average citizens have been stunned by how much less our freedoms were worth than George Bush’s. The media worked fine for the President’s propaganda and you won’t hear too much about this, especially not outside of Germany. The latest Potemkin village was planned all too well and, as you know, the people have no role in this scenery. Welcome to the world of delusion.
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Posts about the American Empire:
- Prof Nouriel Roubini describes “The Decline of the American Empire”, 18 August 2008
- The foundation of America’s empire: our chain of bases around the world, 8 September 2008
- “A shattering moment in America’s fall from power”, 19 November 2008
- “End of Empire” by David Roche, 29 November 2008
- The transition between Imperial reigns: what will it mean for America?, 16 December 2008
- To understand the Imperial Unconscious, Tom provides the Dictionary of American Empire-Speak, 6 March 2009
- Team Obama, guardians of the American Empire (did you expect anything else?), 14 April 2009
- A look at the new world – after the downturn, 19 March 2009
- Lapham: Democracy at Bay in America, 5 May 2009
- New bases in Afghanistan – more outposts of America’s Empire, 21 May 2009
- Niall Ferguson, poet-laureate of the American Empire, 27 May 2009
- Words important for all Americans to hear, from Tom Engelhardt, 7 June 2009
- A wonderful discussion about the American Empire, 24 June 2009