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imperialism & war | legacies

"We are now aware that we are an empire"

One of our weaknesses as an empire is that we are able to force our culture on others; the weakness is that we do not have any input from them.
for the interview with Mark Hertsgaard, author of "The Eagle's Shadow," click on

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"We are now aware that we are an empire" 29.Nov.2006 22:52

Craig Morris 29.11.2006 (reposted by somebody else)

A talk with Mark Hertsgaard, US journalist and author of "The Eagle's Shadow"
In 1983, [extern] Mark Hertsgaard published his first book, Nuclear Inc.: the men and the money, in which he investigated the wheeling in dealing behind the rise of the nuclear power industry in the US. In 1989, he published a seminal work on how government spokespeople and the press had begun to work together to limit the scope of public debate in On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency. However, Hertsgaard is probably not best known for these two books, which demonstrate that he had his finger on the pulse of significant trends from the outset, but for his two last books Earth Odyssey and The Eagle's Shadow: why America fascinates and infuriates the world. For the former, he traveled the world to visit some of the most troublesome environmental areas. On these trips, he was also confronted with the world's opinions about and prejudices towards his home country. Craig Morris spoke with Mark Hertsgaard for Telepolis.


The media in the US claim to be objective, thus playing down any bias they have, while in Europe it is not unknown for a newspaper to throw its weight behind a particular party or politician publicly. By hiding behind this alleged objectivity, the press in the US tends to hide its own agenda. How do you see it?

Mark Hertsgaard: Objectivity is the wrong term. There is no such thing as objectivity. Americans in the media try to have a balance, but what they usually call balance is actually a reflection of the status quo. For instance, if you are covering Washington the mainstream approach is to get a Republican versus a Democrat. That can be fine on some issues if there is a genuine difference of opinion between the two parties. But sometimes there is not, such as in the Iraq war where the two parties basically agreed on going to war and the only people who didn't were the far left wing of the Democratic Party, which pointed out that the whole basis for the war -- weapons of mass destruction -- did not exist. Those antiwar voices were basically shut out of the debate in the US press. So what we end up with is neither objectivity nor true balance, but rather a reflection of a limited scope of opinions held by those in power. What mainstream journalism calls objectivity often amounts to little better than simply writing down what those in power think. To my mind, that is not real reporting, certainly not in the sense of being a watchdog.

But even when we do have that balance, we sometimes end up with a manipulation of the facts by giving specious counterarguments equal weight. The opponents of the theory of global warming and evolution are given equal coverage, which they are not outside the US.

Mark Hertsgaard: Climate change is a very good example. For many years, the US press felt that they had to balance this point of view. They ended up doing a terrible job and left an impression upon Americans that there was some kind of debate going on among scientists, which is simply not the case. So if you focus on what I would call false objectivity, you get the story wrong. And getting the story wrong is unforgivable for the media. We do sometimes get the story wrong, but it is our job to go back and correct it. And that's not what happened.

So should the US have a press more like in Britain or Germany, where newspapers sometimes wear their political affiliations on their lapels?

Mark Hertsgaard: I think every country has the right to its own style of journalism. There's a lot to be said for the American style, and there are times in Europe when I am reading the French, the Italian, or the German press and I think, "OK, give me some of the facts before you tell me your opinion." When you're in Europe, you do have to know what the paper's opinions are before you can accept the facts that are given. So I have criticisms of the European press, too.

Overall though, I think the European approach is a more honest way to do the work. In my work, I try to have a combination: a great devotion to facts but no fear of drawing conclusions. And most of all, I do not feel like I have to draw some kind of false balance.

One of our weaknesses as an empire is that we are able to force our culture on others; the weakness is then that we do not have any input from them. Most Americans would probably say that it is good to learn foreign languages, but around the world the people who are multilingual are generally those whose culture is the weakest. Would you agree that part of our empire's weakness stems from its strength?

Mark Hertsgaard: Yes, but I don't think that the US empire is unique in that respect. The British did not go out and learn Hindi. That's the nature of empire: the people on the bottom have to put up with you. In fact, it is not uncommon for people in Africa to know five languages.

In "Eagle's Shadow," you say that Americans would not even think of their country as an empire, yet around the world it is taken for granted that the US is one. You say that this sets us apart from the Roman or the British Empire because, for instance, the Romans prided themselves on their empire, whereas it was a moral dilemma for the British. But both acknowledged their empires.

Mark Hertsgaard: I think we are moving beyond that now. My book came out three years ago, and now it is no longer uncommon to hear America described as an empire -- partly because of what has happened in Iraq, but partly because the Bush administration began being straightforward about being an empire. This admission has triggered a certain amount of discussion that has legitimated the word; some people criticize it, and some people defend the US empire. That may have been an unintended development, but I think it is a healthy one. We are now at least aware that we are an empire, and I think more and more Americans are becoming a bit uncomfortable with that as we see where it can lead, as in Iraq.

"The US military budget, it is a bloated, disgusting mess"

In "Eagle's Shadow," you also talk about the peace dividend that we are not getting. Can you remind us of what that was?

Mark Hertsgaard: Basically, during the Cold War we were told that our military investments would pay a great dividend after the war was won, but after the Cold War the powers that be basically invented another enemy. Don't get me wrong: the Osama Bin Ladens of the world are bad guys, and they need to be brought to justice. They are not an invention. But before the terrorists came along, politicians in Washington were talking about using the drug war as their rallying point. Now, the terrorists are dealt with as a military threat instead of as a criminal gang.

If you look at the US military budget, it is a bloated, disgusting mess. Most of it does not even have anything to do with Rumsfeld's definition of modern military requirements. It is basically still Cold War stuff. It has much more to do with corporate welfare than with any legitimate military needs. You could easily carve $150 billion out of that budget without touching any muscle and invest it in the things that the country really needs without leaving the country less defended.

It is important to remember the dimensions here: when we talk about investments in renewable energy, the figures are in the millions, but we are spending billions every month in Iraq. In terms of security, you also mentioned an official CIA report stating that there is a connection between our foreign policies and terrorism:

Johnson quotes a 1997 report by the Pentagon's Defense Science Board: "Historical data show a strong correlation between US involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States."

Mark Hertsgaard: The book that everyone needs to read if they want to understand the American empire is called "Blowback" by Chalmers Johnson.

"People are coming to realize that going Green brings in the greenbacks"

The Democrats have now taken power in the Senate and House. In terms of energy policy, I doubt that anything will change. Republican governors and state legislators have designed some of the most progressive energy policies in this country. And this is the good news: maybe we will finally start to agree on one direction for energy policy at least as Republicans rediscover the connection between the words "conservative" and "conserve." Do you think anything will change?

Mark Hertsgaard: I think there's enormous movement at the state level, and it is bipartisan. And it is important to keep in mind that one of the few bright spots for the Republicans in this election was Schwarzenegger. He took the biggest state in a landslide victory basically by going Green. Other Republicans will recognize that lesson. Energy independence is now bipartisan concern at the mass level and at the elite level in Washington. People are coming to realize that going Green brings in the greenbacks.

I am optimistic. Bush is not going to do anything sensible, but he will have to veto a lot of things that are -- such as a climate change bill -- and take the political heat for it. Then, in 2008 Republicans are going to have to run on that. So the initiatives will continue to come from the state levels, but that is not small. California is the sixth biggest economy in the world, and if you put us together with the 10 northeastern states that are working on carbon trading, that would become the third biggest economy in the world. In a sense, it almost doesn't matter what Washington does, because sooner or later Washington will have to take up the standards. Businesses are going to tell Washington that they need to be able to plan. At the very least, there will be no more of this slash and burn for environmental and economic policy.

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