We need not bow before our Emperor (yet)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

Green-zoning Germany

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:

  1. Prof Nouriel Roubini describes “The Decline of the American Empire”, 18 August 2008
  2. The foundation of America’s empire: our chain of bases around the world, 8 September 2008
  3. “A shattering moment in America’s fall from power”, 19 November 2008
  4. “End of Empire” by David Roche, 29 November 2008
  5. The transition between Imperial reigns: what will it mean for America?, 16 December 2008
  6. To understand the Imperial Unconscious, Tom provides the Dictionary of American Empire-Speak, 6 March 2009
  7. Team Obama, guardians of the American Empire (did you expect anything else?), 14 April 2009
  8. A look at the new world – after the downturn, 19 March 2009
  9. Lapham: Democracy at Bay in America, 5 May 2009
  10. New bases in Afghanistan – more outposts of America’s Empire, 21 May 2009
  11. Niall Ferguson, poet-laureate of the American Empire, 27 May 2009
  12. Words important for all Americans to hear, from Tom Engelhardt, 7 June 2009
  13. A wonderful discussion about the American Empire, 24 June 2009

19 thoughts on “We need not bow before our Emperor (yet)”

  1. I visited Washington DC for the first time this year (travelling over from Ireland). As a student of IR and reading constantly about America’s distrust of ‘big government’ and liberal ideals I was amazed at what I found. Anyone who believes America does not believe in big government has never been to DC! It is indeed one of the most regal places I have ever seen, with many tributes to ancient Rome and Greece in the form of the massive pillared buildings. While sitting on the side of the Mall I was reading a NYT article on the disrepair it has fallen under, the Park Service had been complaining that it was falling apart and becoming dangerous, the government was not prepared to pay enough money to fix it up even though they knew of the risks. I asked my American travelling companion what did she think of the state of the Mall? She look at it briefly and reckoned it all looked fine. I laughed and said “there is a metaphor in their somewhere regarding US citizen’s”.

  2. While reflecting on this article, it occurred to me that it would perhaps be simpler, and certainly less costly, to manufacture a stage set for the President of the United States as needed instead of actually sending him or her abroad. Rather than employing a small army of guards and reporters, we could employ carpenters and painters to create the necessary sets in some great enclosed space somewhere.

    World leaders could fly to simulacra of their houses of parliament, meet with the president and fly back without incurring the cost and economic dislocation of hosting him or her in their own countries. Perhaps when robotics are suitably advanced they can simply arrange to meet with the US head of state by telepresence.

    Indeed. We could make the entire enterprise pay, handsomely, rather than having the whole traveling entourage sit idle when the president is at home as is now the case, we could rent the set out and allow wealthy men and women to enjoy a presidential tour of mock-Paris or faux-London, in all the heavily armed and blinkered splendor of the American Presidency.

  3. When real reform comes we close down the Kennedy Center and we liquidate the National Endowment for the Arts, both set up to glorify our leaders. Yuk. How about if the President and his wife cook every now and then, or eat out? Enough already.

  4. Grimgrin–why bother with the stage? Let’s just use a green screen. That way after prerecording speeches at major universities, foreign capitals, and national disaster sites, Obama or one of his czars can do the weather as well! We probably don’t even need to build one, the White House could probably just rent one from one of the local affiliates. If we cut down on spending for all these trips, we’d have no problem funding health care. For a humorous but pointed analysis of other reasons why these trips are wrong, you can head here–search for “President Obama — Stop Talking!” if you don’t like football.

    But all of this makes me wonder that in addition all the waste and circumstance if the office of the president isn’t slowly becoming an all powerful figurehead and cheerleader rather than executive leader. The current and previous president (and maybe this is just short memory) seem to be particularly bad. They spend all of their time on the bully pulpit while the zealots (Cheney) or technocrats (Obama’s czars) are left to handle the more mundane issues of day to day governance of the US.

    Also, I don’t think we should blame Poetry Out Loud, Jazz Masters, or the American Brass Quintet for the evolution of presidential visits to self-edifying public spectacles. In an age where reality TV, Michael Bay, and Disney manufactured pop sensations out compete serious art in defining our culture, they may be the last safeguards of a meaningful artistic legacy.

  5. Keith: All that was built in the 1700s in traditional government fashion. Society was a bit more.. stratified. There was a small middle class of urban artisans and craftsmen. All our founding fathers were aristocrats.

    underscore: I can only agree. Part of the problem is that purchasing power and decisions are increasingly resting among the newer generation, who haven’t quite grown up yet, and are driven more by emotion than logic.

    Besides. I thought most ingredients was bought not by the first ladies, but by the White House cooking staff. Perhaps it’s beyond Obama’s leadership skills to tell them to buy organic…

  6. underscore- A green screen is not a grotesque waste of resources and mockery of any principle you might claim to stand for. As such I don’t think it’ll be a good fit. As another thought perhaps the first lady would benefit from her own full model farm, instead of just a vegetable garden, or the odd visit to market.

  7. It’s gotten worse over the years, probably.

    It wasn’t that bad everywhere in the Clinton years. I lived in Delft (a small town in the Netherlands) when Clinton visited. It was fun and impressive to watch a bunch of blackhawks and chinooks fly over a few times on practice runs.

    And in the center of Delft, a friend of mine had his photo taken arm in arm with Clinton (both he and Clinton had broken leg at that time). So at that time it was still possible.

  8. The madness is complete. Americans used to understand that no one man (or woman), no matter how valuable on the national stage, is literally irreplaceable (an exception possibly for Lincoln, but that’s a subject for another post). Our Presidents used to have the courage to meet the people without an army of police, secret service agents, and other functionaries interposed between them and the public. One used to be able to visit the White House, enter and leave without passing endless security barriers, check points, guard dogs, etc. of today’s modern-day “Wolf’s Lair” / Fuehrerbunker. No one wants a sitting President targeted, but what is lost when a nation is so physcially remote from its leaders – not only the CIC but Congress, the courts system, and much of the federal bureaucracy? Funny, as the caliber of the inhabitants of the Oval Office goes down over the years, the pomp and circumstance gets ratcheted up more and more.
    Our leaders, once great men who held human-sized offices, are now small men (and women) who occupy ever-larger caravans of hangers-on, syncophants, security peoeple, assorted support staff, and the ever-hungry members of the media. Someone should tell them the fable of the emperor who lost his clothes.

    Leaders cannot win moral legitimacy if they are unwilling to live as those they lead, live. Bin Laden, though a billionaire, lives in a cave in Afghanistan. Bush, Obama, or their senior generals/admirals, none of those Americans will travel in that part of the world as a simple PFC would, without a vast security apparatus. Care to guess whose moral authority with his people is better?

  9. Pete:

    You’re mistaking the incredibly paranoid preparations of the Secret Service for a lack of Presidential courage. The Secret Service was much less paranoid before Reagan’s near assassination and became doubly vigilant after a failed assassination attempt against Bush in Georgia involving a grenade launcher.
    Fabius Maximus replies: You are correct, but so is Pete in a sense. Courage would be telling the Secret Service to tone down the security, reminding them the President is an elected official — not King — and no other head of state needs this elaborate protection. The SS does work for him, after all.

  10. The Presidential system was meant for a simpler time and just doesn’t scale up. The result is leadership by a PR man and a bunch of amateur bureaucrats.

    Take away the elections and you have the same system as a country after a coup. Perhaps that is the appeal.

  11. My wife’s grandfather lived to 98. He died about ten years ago. A favorite story of his was about the time he met the Pope. It turns out, in the thirties, he was waiting in Harrisburg Pa. for a train when in walks the Pope, apparently visiting the U.S. Like two regular guys, for several hours, he sat and chatted with His Holiness, about God knows what. When it was time to leave, the Pope shook his hand, and left.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Perhaps he was in fact a Bishop, and the story grew a bit (as they tend to do).

  12. The Pope in the 1930s was Pius XI, (Achille Ratti?) and there is no historical record of his ever leaving the Vatican after being elected Pope, much less visiting the United States. Don’t know who your grandfather-in-law met, but I doubt it was the Pope. Sorry to spoil a wonderful memory with hard facts. . .

  13. Pluto, I appreciate your comments, and see their point; I was feeling exceptionally cynical when I wrote that post. However, my question remains: what does it say about us, the people of this nation, and our elected officials, that the current system exists as it does?

    IMO, the crisis of moral authority that exists in American governance stems at least in part from the sense that our leaders do not share the same risks and burdens as the rest of us. The Secret Service is paid to be paranoid, we can agree, but as FM notes, the President has the authority to set his security as he see fit. That the President, members of Congress, and assorted bureaucrats have hunkered down behind layers upon layers of security, guards, barriers, electronic surveillance, physical barriers and the like – says to me that our leaders either see themselves as too important to risk contact with the public, fear intermingling with them, regard them as a nuisance to be disregarded, or do not wish their activities to be in the public eye and under scrutiny. None of these is a positive development in my view, and all are potential contributors to the growing gulf in the U.S. between the leaders and the led.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Agreed. This is a symptom of a problem, one facet of the growing crisis of legitimacy that will be characteristic of this era, that of the Decline of the State.

  14. This is really interesting and worthy of serious study . Our Queen is recognised as On Duty when wearing a Hat , and Off Duty , when wearing a headscarf . Celebrities go unrecognised without their make up , wigs and corsets . Michael Jackson , I take back all the horrid things I said about your cruel treatment of ‘ your ‘ children . It was a masterstroke , covering them when with you . Michele , if you had a blanket over your head when with Obama …
    I’ve missed London Fashion Week or I could have presented a collection of high-fashion burquas .
    Fabius Maximus replies: Do they wear corsets? Does anyone wear corsets these days? Also, I assume you mean the women.

  15. Anyone else see the item in the news that the San Diego Sheriff’s Dept. deployed an LRAD – an area-denial sonic weapon – at a townhall meeting in that city? FM, you have commented in the past on the increasing level of militarization of law enforcement agencies, and this seems to be a blatant example of it. This weapon was used in Iraq among other places. It was deployed in the townhall meetings because some cowardly elected officials were afraid of some people raising their voices. Our elected officials are now afraid to face someone’s grandma and grandpa, because they might be angry about the state of healthcare? Pathetic. No matter where you fall on this debate, I cannot believe that any American is happy that his/her elected officials are so deficient in moral fiber.

    Item 2: A convicted felon escaped from custody here in the western Chicago suburbs, after he overcome two officers escorting him to a hearing. The man in question had robbed a number of banks prior, and in his roughly 36-hour flight from the law, he committed two carjackings, robbed a bank, and otherwise spread mayhem throughout the area. Glad the SWAT team was available, no argument there. However, I could not help but notice that several of the officers pictured in the local papers were virtually indistinguishable from military MPs and/or scout-snipers – full-auto assault rifles, Kevlar helmets, cartridge cases and belts, all the battle rattle; the sniper had a gilly suit, and other equipment that an army or USMC sniper would have, though I did not see grenades or other ordnance of the kind. Draw your own conclusions. At what point does the police = the military, and visa versa? As 4GW people have predicted, the lines between LE and military are blurring and in some cases disappearing. Does this distinction indicate a more violent society in which a more hravily armed police force is necessary (per the high-profile gun battles in CA in the 1990s which then found police underarmed/equipped), or something else?

  16. just to highlight the ridiculous example of today

    the city of Pittsburgh is shut down for the G20 summit–friends of mine have had their classes closed, roads are closed, and there’s a huge police/national guard presence.

    in response to the meeting and the presence of so many world leaders at a forum discussing economics–dissidents of all stripes and views (mostly left leaning) are taking to the streets, protesting, trying to break the barriers.

    meanwhile, “US First Lady Michelle Obama is giving porcelain tea sets and a honey vase with honey made at the White House to the wives of foreign dignitaries in Pittsburgh for the G20.”

  17. Follow up to 12:
    It’s rough when you realize you even have to fact check your relatives. Should have known the Pope(s) would be the last to eschew pomp and circumstance. Paul VI, the first to visit here in the sixties, had a Pope-mobile of sorts replete with security even then. He couldn’t say no even if he’d wanted. To his credit, Paul stipulated upon his death, he wanted a pauper’s in ground, un-monumented, burial. Walking the walk (of humility) in death, he could not assume in life.
    Still, won’t be selecting “Pontiffs for $1000” on Jeopardy any time soon.

  18. “Americans used to understand that no one man (or woman), no matter how valuable on the national stage, is literally irreplaceable (an exception possibly for Lincoln…”
    And pray tell, what happened to that fellow 144 years ago?
    This is one crazy world, and if a leader must travel, precautions are needed. Especially the American Prez, either detested or adored, it is just about equally dangerous.
    But as others have said, that is quite an ‘if’ – there is almost no reason why a lot of this couldn’t be handled more inexpensively and rationally with video conferencing equipment.
    Sure there have been some nice moments and memorable speeches, like JFK’s jelly donut at the Berlin wall. But does anybody think an American in the street or anyone else finds it particularly stirring when a visit occurs. I think “Mrs. Obama goes to market” actually makes more sense than “the Prez goes to Iraq”.
    Fabius Maximus replies: While much of what you say is true, why don’t leaders of other nations take such elaborate precautions?

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