Obama Aurelius: on undead imperialism
“There once was a dream that was Rome.”
Everyone’s favourite swords and sandals epic Gladiator (2000) has a lot to answer for. Not because it’s riddled with factual inaccuracies, those are awesome — even historians (the cool ones at least) will agree. Historical films don’t need to be accurate, they need to be fun. The nerds don’t get it: no one has to care what kind of tridents real-life gladiators would have used, or who won which forgettably horrible war in the woods, or how “Roman chariots didn’t have obvious gas canisters in them,” apparently. Artistic license is sacred, and that movie is still great twenty years later (sorry).
By far the most accurate thing about Gladiator is its depiction of the personality traits of Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who became emperor after the death of his father, the great philosopher-ruler Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). By all accounts he was a shallow, decadent, incompetent monster who habitually made death threats to senators he found annoying. He’s even recorded as having fought in the Colosseum, even if the lions he slew would almost certainly have been starved in captivity for several weeks beforehand. His sister Lucilla (Connie Nielson) really did make a failed assassination plot against him. Commodus’s reign is widely regarded today as the moment the Roman empire began to truly decline, and his braver contemporaries were all too happy to state for the record that he should never have been made emperor:
“This man [Commodus] was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life; and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature.”
— Cassius Dio, Historia Romana
It is of little importance to us today that the real Commodus executed his sister, nor that there’s no record of a general named Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crow) who became a slave who became a gladiator who became a blah, blah, etc. But in defence of the nerds, there is one historical inaccuracy in Gladiator that might actually matter, because it resonates with the modern myths we tell ourselves to make sense of the insane Cartesian disaster that is the 21st century: Marcus Aurelius was not murdered by his large adult son, he died of the plague. Why does this matter?
Because if Marcus Aurelius has anything resembling a present-day equivalent, it is President Barack Obama. This is not praise.
“Greatness is a vision.”
“This is what makes us evil: that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past.”
— Seneca, Moral Letters
In an early scene, Hollywood Marcus ponders “will I be known as the philosopher? The warrior? The tyrant?” This is easy to answer, as Marcus Aurelius remains famous (rather than infamous) today for two reasons.
The first is that he is remembered 1800 years later as the ‘last great emperor’ of Rome, as significant and hallowed a ruler as Augustus, Hadrian, Claudius, even the big JC himself. Everyone knows that after Aurelius, everything went to shit. The empire was ravaged by plagues, debt, political stagnation, corruption, and restless warrior tribes hungry for new territory. The emperors got wilder and weirder, which would have been fine in more prosperous times — Caligula got away with being the greatest shitposter in history, after all — but late 2nd century Europe was no such era. By the time Aurelius came to power in 161 the slow, deep rot that eventually eats away at the heart of every great empire had already set in. Marcus Aurelius’s achievement, then, was to hold it all together in spite of everything, giving the Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”, the American exceptionalism of the ancient world) two more decades of relatively stable government than it frankly deserved by that point. Most of the time he ruled from his campaign tent in the dark Teutonic warzones of the north.
The second, more significant reason for his enduring fame is that he was a major philosopher in his own right. People still read Marcus’s private writings on stoicism, published thereafter in a collection known as the Meditations, in search of the solace and guidance his work sought to bring to honourable souls troubled by the impossible task of living nobly in a world of madness and stupidity. “I learned to be religious, and liberal,” he wrote, “and to guard, not only against evil actions, but even against any evil intentions entering my thoughts.”
He advocated (and personally adhered to) living with only simple comforts, a strong work ethic, manly integrity, and other such calmcore macho beard-strokery befitting of a Good Dad™ who thinks the world revolves around him. At least in the emperor’s case the world did revolve around him, which is perhaps why the Meditations are so popular among entrepreneurs, politicians, and business bloggers who are surely gonna make it big any day now. Pompous white men who creep on women and believe that they are anointed for great things worship the guy: Bill Clinton claimed to have read the Meditations twice on the campaign trail.
(Eric Trump quoted the movie version of Marcus thinking he was just a fictional character, because that’s American meritocracy for you).
It would be deeply unfair with so many centuries of hindsight to blame Marcus Aurelius for the moral quality of his modern readership, and even less fair to hold him responsible for the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act (a leading cause of the 2008 global financial crisis). A lot of decent writers have terrible fans — look at Rick & Morty — and just because philosophical stoicism in the 21st century has become a decidedly neoliberal drug, that doesn’t make its ancient architects guilty by association. For all their soothsayers and auguries, the Romans could never have predicted the literally apocalyptic madness of late capitalism. At least Marcus Aurelius was trying his best to run the place according to a coherent value system, and at least his soothsayers didn’t receive economics research grants from Wall Street. Stoicism is the basic bitch of European philosophy, but she means well.
That being so, the fact that this cluster of solipsistic logic bros now attempting to lay claim to Aurelius — and stoicism in general — have such obvious unity of purpose between them is plenty reason enough to question what it is they are claiming. This is as true of Marcus as it is of Orwell, whose political value system powering his entire oeuvre has been effectively (and deeply ironically) scrubbed away from our collective understanding by the sort of dishonest ideological bores the Daily Telegraph likes to publish in between suppressing investigative reporting on their advertising clients’ financial fraud. These things are not unconnected: “who controls the past controls the future,” someone once said.
One needn’t assert such control deliberately. On the contrary, the most powerful propaganda is always that which tricks people into repeating it as if it were their own idea, something that “works best when those who are being manipulated are confident they are acting on their own free will,” as Goebbels was foolish enough to admit out loud. An inappropriate comparison? Perhaps it would have been, if borrowed Roman iconography wasn’t essential to the aesthetic of several white supremacist empires in more recent history: consider even just the eagle, as a military symbol, intentionally co-opted from ancient Rome by Napoleon, and Hitler. And America. Few ideological coups in human history can match the sheer endurance of Roman propaganda, otherwise people would have stopped using it for their own ends by now.
The Pax Romana was an imperial peace — that is to say, not peaceful at all — and its founding frontman Augustus, as the first hereditary emperor, needed a revised history that secured his nascent legitimacy. He was savvy enough to commission works that did just that. Virgil was no Homer: Augustus’s regime paid him — via PR guru Gaius Maecenas — to write the Aeneid not for innocent cultural fun but for urgent mythological supremacy. There’s a section in the epic poem that explicitly links the blood of Augustus to that of Romulus, and another that sets out the Pax Romana not as mere foreign policy but as ancient (Trojan) prophecy:
“Romans, never forget that this will be your appointed task: to use your arts to be the governor of the world, to bring to it peace, serenely maintained with order and with justice, to spare the defeated and to bring an end to war by vanquishing the proud.”
— Virgil, The Aeneid
Gladiator’s fictional depiction of Commodus’s patricide makes sense as a narrative device because otherwise Maximus would be rebelling against a legitimate ruler. This would have been as harmless as any other Hollywood inaccuracy if only it had been about a different ruler, one whose supposed wisdom was not being preserved for ideological purposes in the present day. The film does the real Aurelius an enormous favour: it maintains our favourable perception of the philosopher-king by pretending he never declared the monstrously buffoonish Commodus as his rightful heir against the counsel of his closest advisors. Referring to Commodus’s painfully obvious unsuitability to rule, Cassius Dio commented that “this, I think, Marcus clearly perceived beforehand.”
For a short time Marcus and Commodus were even officially both emperors at the same time, in the 3 years immediately prior to his death. Though imperial Rome was a hereditary monarchy, the convention was not feudal primogeniture (firstborn son as automatic heir) but instead the adoption and grooming of a smart young candidate deemed suitable for the task of governing. Augustus was Julius Caesar’s adopted son, Caligula was Tiberius’s adopted son (for some stupid reason), Aurelius was Antoninus Pius’s adopted son, and so on.
Commodus was a truly catastrophic exception. Granting him heirdom was neither the behaviour of a wise man nor of a Good Dad™. That is the behaviour of an entitled bungler, a hypocrite, a weakling. And Marcus knew his kid was bad. What, then, is the philosopher-king in reality? What is the truth of the Pax Romana? What is American exceptionalism? What is an empire?
“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” So said the philosopher-king of the Pax Americana, once again the ‘last great emperor’ of a dying empire lashing out with senseless aggression before everything once again went to shit. Barack Obama and Marcus Aurelius were both afflicted by the same awful curse: to be the poor tragic soul of a ruler burdened unlike all his foolish predecessors with actually understanding the terrible nature of the bloodthirsty machine atop which he sat, and through which his most deeply-held values were ultimately devoured by all the lies of his empire.
“People should know when they’re conquered.”
Commodus was far from the first horrendously stupid error of imperial heirdom. Anyone who bothers to dig deep enough beneath the marble columns and vast amphitheatres is capable of breaking the spell of Roman greatness. Ancient Rome was ridiculous. The emperor Caligula (“Little Boots” in Latin) has been widely regarded by history to have been utterly, certifiably bonkers. He made his horse a consul. He blew his predecessor’s hoard of wealth in the space of a year. He declared himself a living god and frequently dressed up in public as Apollo and Jupiter. He tweeted to his supporters that NASA shouldn’t go to the Moon because they ought instead to go to Mars, “of which the Moon is a part.”
Following the electoral college’s predictably risible decision not to break with its precious convention of overriding the popular vote (and thus spare the world from the blatant incoming lunacy of President-elect Donald J. Trump), President Obama attempted to keep a lid on everyone’s shock by reminding America that “the peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. And over the next few months, we are going to show that to the world.” They certainly showed us. It had all happened before:
“When you first rise in the morning tell yourself: I will encounter busybodies, ingrates, egomaniacs, liars, the jealous, and cranks. They are all stricken with these afflictions because they don’t know the difference between good and evil. Because I have understood the beauty of good and the ugliness of evil, I know that these wrong-doers are still akin to me … and that none can do me harm, or implicate me in ugliness — nor can I be angry at my relatives or hate them. For we are made for cooperation.”
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
The madness of Caligula seems a little too convenient a narrative for it to be entirely trustworthy. Ancient Rome was ridiculous, and the reductive notion that nobody at the time might have become aware of the insane amount of power they’d been granted, and subsequently decided to troll everyone just to see how long they’d fall for it, is frankly absurd. “He made his horse a consul therefore he must be mad” feels a lot less plausible than “he made his horse a consul and you pompous bootlickers were pathetic enough not to assassinate him for showing you up like this.”
Nowhere in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does it identify a patient sending several legions to invade the south coast of Britain only to have them step onto the beach, collect seashells, then turn around and sail away without even trying to conquer anyone. That’s not a symptom of mental illness, that’s a prank. The empire was the joke. The empire was the mad one. To be fair to the servile morons he ruled over, that joke DID finally make them feel silly enough to have to murder him, but the fact that it took them several years to reach that conclusion is a perfect demonstration of just how absurd (and absurdly authoritarian) the Roman empire was as a political system.
This is why a handful of Roman historians long preceding Commodus had the clarity to effectively predict what would happen, even back when the bloody business was booming. Writing in the 1st century, the senator-historian Tacitus was an unusual character in that he wrote a history of Rome that was committed both to accurate reporting and to a structural critique of the empire. He argued, litigiously, that the start of the Pax Romana was also the end of political freedom. In effect, Tacitus identified the rising corruption and totalitarianism under the Caesars to be not the by-product of imperialism but the essential component of its process. Imperialism abroad necessarily equals oppression at home. It is an anti-imperialist critique that has, unfortunately, stood the test of time.
By comparison, defining troop deaths as equally innocent to civilian deaths is the result of decades of militarising US society. It‘s no coincidence that at the same time the police (who everyone except white America knows are the intentional tools of domestic white supremacy) have also militarised to make the non-white dissenter a “terrorist” too (Edward Snowden’s leaks and Ferguson being potent pre-Trump examples). Most modern policing and surveillance methodology in the UK was first put into practice in British colonies by the empire’s military. Political scientist Mark Neocleous’s Critique of Security looked at how similar our military brutality in India and Ireland was to our police brutality at home shortly thereafter.
Empires are never just built abroad. American exceptionalism, Britain’s “white man’s burden,” the Pax Romana, the German “place in the sun,” French Laïcité… all of them have the same ancient decay, the same necessity of empire: practice oppression there, perfect it here.
Since this decay is structural and Tacitus’s de facto predictions were more or less correct, Commodus’s mismanagement of the empire probably didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Suppose Rome’s fate had been different; suppose Commodus had never reigned and suppose the Romans had instead been ready to make Hillary Clinton the first female President. Would that have saved the empire from the tawdry death spiral already underway? Would Lucilla have steered Washington clear of its self-made maelstrom? Fate is a comfortingly authoritarian fiction, but then so is imperialism, in which case perhaps empires truly are fated to collapse beneath the weight of their own hegemony, in a sense that may as well be counted as real.
This is how empires die, choking inexorably on their own asinine pride. Unless (perhaps) they choose to overcome their own blinkered mythologies and false histories before it’s too late — but such a turning point is made nigh impossible by their inherent corruption and brutality, as Tacitus’s prophesy implied. And this is why imperial propaganda (and ideology) tends to survive so much longer than the “thousand year Reich” itself, zombie-like, not a life but a half-life, no longer in charge but still warmongering from among the ruins. Nuclear waste remains radioactive for millennia. Fossils become fuel.
This is why even dead empires must be exhumed, exorcised, and finally laid to rest: or else the past still controls us from the grave.
“Is Rome worth one good man’s life?”
“A person who doesn’t know what the universe is, doesn’t know who they are. A person who doesn’t know their purpose in life doesn’t know who they are or what the universe is. A person who doesn’t know any of these things doesn’t know why they are here. So what to make of people who seek or avoid the praise of those who have no knowledge of where or who they are?”
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
For the curse to be lifted — whether in France, or Britain, or America, or any other restlessly haunted cemetery of an imperial nation — there are only two problems with the philosopher-king worth bothering to take seriously: philosophers, and kingdoms.
If the assertion that Obama counts as a philosopher-king (of the same calibre as Aurelius) sounds farfetched, it is only because the philosopher-king was a silly concept to begin with. It was cooked up by Plato, whose idealised Republic attempted — centuries before Tacitus — to propose a way out of the vicious oligarchy->democracy->tyranny life cycle of the state. Plato’s solution to tyranny says “philosophers [must] become kings…or those now called kings [must]…genuinely and adequately philosophize.” Keep in mind that the most widely agreed-upon (some argue the only) example of the philosopher-king in real life is Marcus Aurelius.
Likening statecraft to seafaring, Plato argued that “a true captain must pay attention to the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds, and all that pertains to his craft, if he’s really to be the ruler of a ship.”
This sounds eminently agreeable, as well as a lot of pressure for someone to live up to (which is probably why philosopher-kings are so rare). And thus by Plato’s measure the erudite, collegiate, cultured first black President of the United States surely fits the bill, as several writers have explicitly argued. The same argument has been made for a predictable list of other Presidents, including Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Lincoln. In fact, it’s safe to say in comparison to the rest of the world that (white) American (male) public (heterosexual) intellectuals (with money) have a uniquely strong obsession with Plato’s philosopher-king concept, a group that heavily overlaps with the entrepreneur-worshipping Aurelius fandom. American exceptionalism is the common link.
Any claim that Obama is somehow less of a philosopher than his forebears, or even than Marcus Aurelius, would have to answer a genuinely unpleasant question: what do “actual” philosophers like Marcus have that this President does not?
The meritocracy-evangelising Stoics of today have, thanks to Descartes (a fool), a problem with the existence of the body: they know humans have them, but they have no idea what to do with this information. If they did they might have gone and found a less ludicrously fatuous school of thought to fuel their Caucasian gaslighting fantasies by now. Bodies are an extremely important conduit for state power, especially in a country founded on a system of racialised chattel slavery it still wrestles with today. Foucault referred to the subtle (or not) practice of preserving white hegemony in our enlightened times as:
“[A] battle that has to be waged not between races, but by a race that is portrayed as the one true race, the race that holds power and is entitled to define the norm, and against those who deviate from that norm, against those who pose a threat to the biological heritage.”
— Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended
Obama’s presidency upset the white supremacist regime of truth that had previously provided America with a sense of its sovereignty, its very fabric of society, as being primarily and specifically white…without having to actually say so out loud. The hopelessly irrational viciousness directed at Barack and his serenely, delightfully normal family was, of course, too steeped in its own resentful moral cowardice to know itself, and thus to admit what was obvious to everyone else: black bodies are making the White House look more rational and dignified, more ‘presidential’ (and more imperial, in the grandest sense) than any of those chuds had ever managed since the very beginning of the ghastly American project.
If you paid attention to the way he and Michelle so delicately attempted to speak beyond the minefields of white fragility (or if you simply read his books) it is immediately clear that the Obamas knew this. They knew what national wounds they were tasked with healing. They knew how much fear and loathing that task would bring upon them. They knew what history flowed through their bodies because they had done the work to understand what America is, and they demonstrated to the last people who wanted to hear it (but who deserved to hear it the most) what James Baldwin meant when he said to white America “I know more about you than you know about me.”
Compare them once again to the Stoics, whose chickenshit aversion to caring about bodies (therefore race) is really nothing nobler or more complicated than a desperate attempt to wriggle out of having to admit Barack was absolutely right about them: “you didn’t build that.” Aurelius faced no such challenge, and he couldn’t even raise his own kids properly. Who’s the real philosopher-king out of the two? The father of Commodus? Ok boomer.
Either Obama was forced to sell out, or he chose to. We might not be able to know for sure, but we can at least attempt to discern whether or not this an answer worth knowing. It is a tragedy worthy of Sophocles that for all the good being done, it had to happen right when the banks sailed into the sea of impunity and thousands of drones took flight.
“Am I not merciful?”
“My powers of empathy, my ability to reach into another’s heart, cannot penetrate the blank stares of those who would murder innocents with abstract, serene satisfaction.”
— Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father
Plato’s Republic has been condemned for millennia by both ancient and recent thinkers as fantastical, blinkered, even fascistic. The ever-mischievous Nietzsche was, as usual, more than happy to cast civility aside. “Plato was boring,” he sneered, calling his dialogue a “horribly self-satisfied and childish kind of dialectic” — Nietzsche had a love-hate obsession with Plato, whom he blamed for the totalitarianism of Christianity. Karl Popper, writing through the high-modernist hellscape of the mid 20th century, focused on Plato’s influence on dictators like Hitler and Stalin:
“Plato thus became, unconsciously, the pioneer of the many propagandists who, often in good faith, developed the technique of appealing to moral, humanitarian sentiments, for anti-humanitarian, immoral purposes… Most of the modern totalitarians are quite unaware that their ideas can be traced back to Plato.”
— Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies
The sad irony here is that Popper, whose criticism of Plato was served with its own broth of tortured admiration, found imperialism and ethno-nationalism to be praiseworthy. This, alongside most of the other Plato critics concerned about tyranny, goes to show that for all these thinkers’ disagreement with one another, the Republic and its philosopher-kings had always been an incorrigibly mendacious political opiate which had always created far more tyrants than liberators. Ultimately, the menace of Plato’s Republic today takes the form of a sort of intelligentsia porn for the type of smarmy intellectual freeloader who deludes himself that he is Übermensch because he was born on third base but believes he hit a triple.
This is precisely the corrupted ruling class bootlicker Tacitus feared, and for which Aurelius was a hand-wringing apologist — therefore the philosopher-king is in truth a perfect fit for the anointed benevolent strongman archetype that butters the bread of all serious imperialist propaganda. The most delicious boot polish money can buy, available now in a marketplace of ideas near you.
The Republic is all the excuses we make for why we now have to hurt someone whose plight we used to recognise when we were younger, the void in which we go hunting for monsters only to become them.
“I will not believe that they fought and died for nothing”
“I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in war I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among the nations…The whole world would rejoice to see the Hitler of peace and tolerance, and… I should like nothing better than to see a great, happy, peaceful Germany in the vanguard of Europe…The whole peoples of the British Empire and the French Republic earnestly desire to dwell in peace side by side with the German nation.”
— Winston Churchill
Anyone who ever spent more than five minutes being mad about something online is familiar with Godwin’s Law, even if they’ve never heard of it by name. Also known as ‘Godwin’s rule of Hitler analogies’ or ‘reductio ad Hitlerum,’ Godwin’s Law was coined in 1990 by author and attorney Mike Godwin and stated that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” This is also the case offline, of course, but the internet is an incalculably more significant (thus more damaging) arena of discourse than, say, arguing with your blowhard uncle over Sunday lunch.
The adage, which is useful and accurate when applied correctly, is greatly misunderstood by far too many people, particularly in the ideological predilection for radical centrists to favour mindless civility over intellectual honesty. There are several more-or-less official (since they have been endorsed by Mike Godwin himself) corollaries to Godwin’s Law, three of which highlight why such misapplications of it can be genuinely dangerous:
- Van der Leun’s Corollary: “As global connectivity improves, the probability of actual Nazis being on the net approaches one.”
- Miller’s Paradox: “As a network evolves, the number of Nazi comparisons not forestalled by citation to Godwin’s Law converges to zero.”
- Quirk’s Exception: “Intentional invocation of Godwin’s Law is ineffectual.”
On the one hand it is entirely true that Nazi comparisons are often histrionic and inappropriate. The ten-year-old accusing his mum of being a fascist for making him tidy his damn room for once is a classic example. Putting someone down in such scenarios is as simple as saying the word “Godwin,” forcing their lack of perspective into the spotlight. The resultant embarrassment is usually enough to make them shut up on the spot. This is something its creator articulated in a 1994 op-ed:
“Invariably, the comparisons trivialized the horror of the Holocaust and the social pathology of the Nazis. It was a trivialization I found both illogical (Michael Dukakis as a Nazi? Please!) and offensive (the millions of concentration-camp victims did not die to give some net.blowhard a handy trope).”
— Mike Godwin, Wired
But on the other hand, many people will cry “Godwin” to shut down any comparison to the 3rd Reich at all, even (sometimes especially) a perfectly appropriate one. Such casual misuse of Godwin’s Law is necessarily an act of bad faith, one which is often just as (or more) trivialising of concentration camp deaths as the person making an inappropriate Nazi comparison. This is Quirk’s Exception in action: ‘civility’ as outright denialism. And here is where empires come into it.
Ever since Britain’s 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union, the mantra of “my granddad fought in World War II” has become an increasingly common (and almost exclusively right wing) refrain among Leave supporters. This is not because the Remain side had any fewer such granddads — they could have more for all we know — but because Brexit is shaping up to be such a blatant economic and social disaster that Brexiteers (including Boris Johnson) are incapable of making it make sense without blasting forth the biggest, silliest, most hypocritical Godwin turd possible: the EU = the 3rd Reich. Britain’s neo-nazis and street fascists, ironically, all fall on this side of the ‘debate.’
A 2019 UK poll commissioned by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust found that one in 20 Britons don’t believe the Holocaust took place, more than one in 12 believe the scale of the Nazi exterminations has been deliberately exaggerated, and one in 5 mistakenly believe the concentration camp death count was only 2 million and not 6 million. There were similar results in equivalent polling in America and across Europe, whose other chief culprits are Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Sweden.
All of these countries were either involved in or party to the Holocaust; or have been separately genocidal white supremacist empires in their own right. In France’s case both, which French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre used to point out that the explicitly fascist genocides within Europe were expressions of essentially the same phenomenon as the settler-colonial genocides committed by the European empires outside of Europe.
Remember that Hitler took a great deal of racial policy inspiration from the American segregation system before he came to power. And remember that Churchill, fearing communism (and pretty much anyone who wasn’t white) enthusiastically admired Hitler and Mussolini’s domestic rule right up until the moment they became a foreign policy threat to Britain. Interestingly, when American alt-right media star Candace Owens delivered a talk to a UK audience in which she said “if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, OK, fine,” she was roundly condemned across the political spectrum for having made the same point Churchill did.
Why the double standard? Because in the British national mythology Churchill is the number one philosopher-king, and woe betide the disruptive little naysayer who dares to point out the most easily verifiable facts about his outrageously thuggish (even for the time) racist brutality. He bragged about being “in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes” and called Palestinians “barbaric hordes who ate little but camel dung.”
Most violently, Churchill declared “I hate Indians” on the grounds that “they are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” Hate. This is perhaps the most significant of all Churchill’s racist proclamations because he was responsible for the Bengal famine, which his revisionist fan club continues to claim (despite overwhelming scientific evidence) was simply the result of bad weather, rather than of Churchill’s racially-motivated policy of mass starvation. It is estimated that he killed as many as 3,000,000 people. Had this truly been tragic environmental happenstance, why did the British colonial administration there attempt to stop newspapers from reporting on and publishing photographs of the thousands of dead lining the streets?
Churchill didn’t even bother making the famine about the weather, instead blaming it on Indians “breeding like rabbits” and joking that it couldn’t be all that bad if Mahatma Gandhi was still alive. The Bengal famine was a criminal act with criminal intent. It was a genocide.
When your greatest national hero declared that Britain’s “Aryan stock is bound to triumph” — not over Germany, but over lands he intended the British empire to colonise — and yet continues to be celebrated for beating the Nazis, it merely highlights the most deeply unpleasant and neurotically suppressed fact about the British national character: that we only ever hated the 3rd Reich in particular but never fascism (or white supremacy) in general.
This is a core (if not the only) reason that Holocaust denial in Britain is so high despite our boorish patriotism insisting we were the ones who ended it: because we outright refuse to even consider holding a truth & reconciliation process for the British Empire, its genocidal crimes, and its core purpose of restructuring the world to favour white supremacist order. Most Britons still think the empire was good.
Every time a Briton says “we are a proud nation” and you ask “proud of what?” they will cite some creation or person whose success stood to some extent on the stolen wealth of colonial brutality which they deny ever happened. The denial of German racism is a device to uphold the denial of British racism. There are many complex contributory factors to British antisemitism, but our cowardly avoidance of a national reckoning with the violence that made us rich surely count as a crucial one, which makes the cultural conditions for Holocaust denial very fertile indeed.
Anxious British imperial Holocaust revisionism lingers in the mainstream — a crass example but a clear one: look how The King’s Speech is a film about a nervous royal making himself tough to speak up against the 3rd Reich, when in real life King George VI was deeply anti-Semitic. This kind of post-imperial masking, of making ourselves an unequivocal hero of anti-racism at the expense of a very clear historical record that we were not, plays havoc with the confused mind and perilously weak identity of the British patriot.
Denying British crimes means the British can’t have been all that bad because what about France, what about America, what about Germany…all of a sudden you are accidentally describing ALL white supremacy. That’s a fast track for a British patriot to slide into Holocaust denial: it is so much easier to deny or relativize the crimes of the British empire (which kept what it stole) if you extend the same logic to its neighbours. And the Holocaust fact-fiddler sees a present-day order at stake, which is perhaps why in 2012 the Daily Mail felt the need to tell young jobseekers:
“The German slogan ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ is somewhat tainted by its connection with Nazi concentration camps, but its essential message, ‘work sets you free’ still has something serious to commend it.”
Dominique Jackson, The Daily Mail
Somewhat tainted! See what imperial propaganda makes the ruling class feel comfortable justifying out loud while still pretending (only pretending, face it) to disapprove of Nazi concentration camps. There’s a sick rationale behind it all: why should they disapprove of Nazi concentration camps when they clearly have no problem with the British ones? The lingering horror of our imperial psyche haunts our fascism fetish just as it haunts our Brexit jingoism (which is the same thing). Until the UK finds the courage to see itself honestly, the ghost of empire will continue producing Holocaust deniers, war criminals, weirdos, creeps, and weirdly racist children’s authors.
With America now launching itself headfirst into a brand new concentration camp hellscape in the end times of its empire — just like the British in Kenya — naturally its own vacuous punditocracy tried to Godwin the facts to one side, because in that bizarre nation punching a Nazi is more outrageous than actually being one. And then this happened:
In several subtle but profound ways, and despite its claims to the contrary, the Stoic philosophy encourages a denial of personal responsibility more than an embrace of it. It fails as a philosophy because it has no coherent critique of power in the real world; it is a dead zone of political thought.
George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, all long-remembered as the first American philosopher-kings, owned hundreds of slaves between them. The closest American equivalent to the British taboo of never questioning Churchill’s racism would be to ask those same questions of the Founders, as the recent nationalistic tantrums over the brilliant 1619 Project have more than proved.
It is therefore of no little significance to us that, as philosophy professor M. Andrew Holowchak felt moved to observe, “Jefferson was…always nearer to Stoicism than to any other ethical system.”
“You have a great name. He must kill your name before he kills you.”
“Proof there is a God: I prayed every night for a year for Trump to win R primary. SHE EXISTS, and she made him win! Tx God. #Trump”
— Jim Messina (2012 Obama Campaign Manager and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff), May 4th 2016
Did Obama fail? That depends on what one believes his presidency was meant to accomplish; and by extension, on the staying power of those accomplishments since he left office. Many American liberals still celebrate his presidency for its dignity, upon which even his sane (that is to say, non-Trumpist) critics are generally willing to agree. The fact that it took a black president to embody an arguably greater level of statesmanlike decorum than the vast majority of his — frankly weird and boorish — predecessors is proof enough that something radical truly did happen under his leadership. America has only sporadically been so well-liked abroad since the Second World War. He is particularly missed in Europe, provided you ignore the usual suspects (whose idea of dignified leadership is worthless anyway, so fuck ‘em).
Naturally it helped that he never bombed or bullied Europe, and his attempted neoliberal TTIP trade deal was, happily, a failure most of us are very pleased about.
But for those who regard Obama’s leadership to have been a failure on its own terms, the bombs he dropped elsewhere are the proof in the pudding. His foreign policy legacy is utterly depressing. Reading the work of pre-drone Obama is a hell of a trip, and a painful exercise. The parallels between his erstwhile condemnation of terrorism and the (yes) terror he himself later inflicted are saddening to some, downright chilling to others. Yes, hindsight is 20–20, and Sunday morning quarterbacking is invariably an ignoble exercise. But the task here is not some vanity search for early warning signs of his eventual hypocrisy, which to the already committed anti-imperialist is perfectly self-evident: “if I’ve been able to fight off cynicism, I nevertheless like to think of myself as wise to the world, careful not to expect too much” proves nothing in itself except that he was careful to anticipate oppo-research because the GOP are perennially shameless and Obama isn’t an idiot.
Obama probably did mean the things he said back then, at least more than he did not; and in any case it would be virtually impossible to parse that from down here anyway. Even his post-9/11 evolution during his Senate years was a reasonable and sensitive one, which only became hypocritical after he took office. In the 2004 Dreams From My Father reprint, the future President’s new foreword reflected on the ways in which 9/11 had posed the young legislator difficult new questions about how best to make sense of this newly — for Americans — frightening world:
“What I do know is that history returned that day with a vengeance; that…the past is never dead and buried — it isn’t even past…The underlying struggle — between worlds of plenty and worlds of want; between the modern and the ancient; between those who embrace our teeming, colliding, irksome diversity, while still insisting on a set of values that binds us together, and those who would seek, under whatever flag or slogan or sacred text, a certainty and simplification that justifies cruelty toward those not like us — is the struggle set forth…in this book.”
— Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father [bold emphases mine]
Whether the President was an unwilling captive of the old guard’s bloody machinery, or whether his public endorsements of it were merely the Stockholm syndrome of a prisoner too overwhelmed by everyone else’s settler-colonial bullshit for one man’s soul to be a fair price of America’s sins, nobody with the slightest modicum of self-respect can claim in good faith that Obama’s drone fleet massacres were remotely consistent with the virtues to which he was once beholden. George W. Bush oversaw 57 drone strikes — almost exactly one tenth of the number President Obama dispatched over Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Between 384 and 807 civilians were killed in those countries, thanks to the Obama administration’s, mm, “certainty and simplification that justified cruelty to those not like us.”
It is one of longest-running con tricks in Democratic Party history that their ‘collateral damage’ is presented as somehow nobler or more rational than the usual Republican savagery, which at least has the twisted integrity to admit (proudly) to the racist nature of the Pax Americana’s invariably covetous adventures abroad.
Here is Obama’s failure: yes, it took a black president to be the most decent man in the Oval Office. How shameful then, how grotesque, that it took a black president to also win the record for most brown children killed by sky-robots flown by squaddies with Xbox controllers. These are inseparable occurrences, not ‘pros and cons’ in a fourth grade debating championship. Not that it’s worth wondering which corrupt groups were the President’s true constituencies in all this: again, everyone knows it was the oil industry, the weapons industry, the CIA, The Nancy Pelosi/Jar Jar Binks fan club and other centrist extremist cells, lovingly known as brunch in DC (as seen in the worst protest signs:
Barack Obama entered the White House with a soul, one which cared deeply about American inequality, American injustice, and American inhumanity; not merely that which he saw before him in the present day, but since the American inception. Was he in danger of becoming a good man? The question is neither possible nor fair. He was the terrible danger: to what author Sunny Singh refers to as “the big silence” — ostensibly about British literature’s glaringly unreconstructed imperialist errors, but one that applies no less neatly to equally sinister failures of post-imperial political cultures in France or America:
“Reminded that the big silence at the heart of Harry Potter (esp history) is about the Empire. Becomes obvious as she expands her storyworld. Most British writers telling stories (+histories) set in the UK are able to maintain a mutually agreed upon silence about the Empire”
— Sunny Singh
“You are in Elysium, and you’re already dead.”
If Obama was tasked with saving America he failed utterly, not because he could have done more (without, in all likelihood, getting killed) but because America’s founding mythology required from this singular black president more care and nuance given to the ‘will of the Founders’ than any president before or since. Ask a white president not to exhibit traits considered ‘white’ and the outrage becomes brutally hysterical, as if whiteness is somehow anything other than a life-support machine for a horrendously frail and incoherent sense of self. The living, embodied history of the black men and women of America must still navigate this silence even in the Oval Office. A silence that you could only whisper. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile.
No. If Obama was tasked with saving America he failed utterly for one reason: because America’s founding mythology, little more than a vindictive plantation curse masquerading as an honourable creed, is not worth saving.
“Gentlemen,” Obama said to assorted Wall Street CEOs during his urgent rescue mission of the global financial system, “my administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.” Many wondered why he didn’t simply move out of the pitchforks’ way. The reason, strangely, may not have been the hypocrisy it appeared to be. Picture it: the first black president (known for having read Marx in his youth, no less), tasked with saving American capitalism — the single whitest endeavour still at large in a mistakenly-branded “post racial” world — from the consequences of its own hubris, choosing instead to let the flames consume it all? Would you, Quintus?
Now Britain was never a nation by design; it just sort of happened, like a road accident at a Basingstoke roundabout, because every fool tribe from the ancient world who turned up here seeking finite riches ended up running out of cool adventures and decided to build an entire society based around placating the bitter embarrassment of disgraced ex-adventurers whose only abundant currency remaining was disappointment. Britain hates itself because it exists (there’s either no such thing as “British values,” or there is no such thing as God). If Obama had been tasked with saving the United Kingdom instead (lmao), he could simply have rescued Boaty McBoatface from his grisly fate, and into the briny depths might we all have blissfully sunk.
But America was always a project, always an intent. It has dreams. It has priorities. It has funnel cake. And America hates itself because it will never exist. (If there were such thing as God, the Mayflower would have sunk). Doesn’t exist? Clearly this is not meant literally — unless one takes the anarcho-adjacent views that, firstly, the nation state is an inorganic invention; and secondly that what we understand as the ‘nation state’ has only existed as a model since around the 18th century. Rather, the ‘existence’ of America(nism) as an ideology is fundamentally incapable of living up to its sense of self in real life as a nation bound together by an explicit raison d’etre. Its promise for instance of “liberty and justice for all” is a either: a vague and unfulfilled plan for a noble future for which precisely no-one of note has ever credibly demonstrated even an inclination to move towards; or something that requires us to believe in a fantasy universe in which nobody exists bar the white man.
Without its primordial wounds there can be no America; it is a deadbeat. An exceptional one. All its sons are Commodus. Just like Marcus Aurelius, Barack Obama did his best (and there’s a case to be made that Aurelius was the less successful of the two, as a father and as a thinker). Of course the former President has to gaslight the left and defend his tawdry record instead of criticise Trump’s nihilistic joyride to hell; the poor man has to think about the next black President in that ridiculous empire. He has to humiliate himself as a matter of duty to stop the violent stupidity from getting even worse in reaction.
Barack Obama didn’t sell his soul; the disgusting Pilgrim Fathers snatched it up the moment their ghostly hands could reach him, and they will never let him go for as long as America refuses to let them go.
“Soon you’ll be ashes or bones. A mere name at most — and even that is just a sound, an echo.”
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations