On Protests, Revolutions, and the New Roman Empire: Notes on America

By American, I mean that I am a beneficiary of empire, more specifically: the same empire so central in creating the world as we know it today, the same empire that was protested the world over in 2019. A different kind of Rome, this time clad in stars and stripes, presides over a different kind of Empire today.

By Anne Lee Steele

It is hard to deny that 2019 was the year of the global protest, especially when headlines seemed to pour in from the world over: from Hong Kong, from Lebanon, from Chile; from Bolivia, France, India, Iran, Spain, and the United Kingdom to name a few more. The aims of these movements may have diverged in their specifics, but their very parallel existence speaks to a kind of globalized dissatisfaction: in governance, in the economic system – indeed, in the world as we know it today. Some effects are immediate: prime ministers and presidents have resigned, and referendums have been called for. Others are not so visible- they take time: time to fester, to take root and ultimately, to poison the tree.

I would know, because I come from a country that starts revolutions elsewhere, and on purpose. 

In a word, I am American: and however many ways that identity is hyphenated (as Asian-American, as Korean-American, as Mixed-Race and Second-Generation; whichever identity has a more nullifying effect in the moment), few things can disguise the implications of what I mean by this. By American, I mean that I am a beneficiary of empire, more specifically: the same empire so central in creating the world as we know it today, the same empire that was protested the world over in 2019. A different kind of Rome, this time clad in stars and stripes, presides over a different kind of Empire today.

In the proverbial Rome, revolution is more closely associated with the newest ‘disruptive’ tech innovation in Silicon Valley than a substantive shift in political life. Many have asked why Americans haven’t taken to the streets in the same way that others around the world have. The Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and People’s Climate movement have shown that mass mobilization is indeed possible. However, these protests have rarely translated into concrete political change on the national level, let alone a palpable shift in foreign policy. Despite the cries for change, the walls of Rome are oceans-wide, and militantly enforced along its southern (and increasingly northern) borders. Is it a different kind of ‘tyranny of the majority’, as de Tocqueville famously claimed in his Democracy in America? Few realize, let alone acknowledge that enabling life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in Rome seems to be deeply tied to the disaffection of just about everyone else.

The examples of this are endless. In an era of climate change, the average American has a higher carbon cost than much of the world’s poorest – multiple times over. The rise of lithium, cobalt, graphite and other resource extraction for the world’s consumer and “green” tech has led to entirely new industries – and waste – in a multitude of countries. And this is putting aside the most obvious examples: of wars waged abroad for the sake of comfort and convenience at home, and ultimately for what has become the largest network of military bases the world has ever seen

The recent assassination of General Soleimani accompanied a resurgence of public interest in America’s antagonistic history with Iran. As I watched it all, I recalled a professor from the University of Tehran asking point-blank on live television: “Does America have the right to assassinate someone from a country they don’t like, simply because they want to?”. A sense of collective morality might say no, but history speaks for itself. In 1953, a covert CIA operation overthrew the democratically-elected (and widely beloved) Mohammad Mossadegh to install a brutal Shah that ruled over Iran for over 25 years, until the Iranian Revolution in 1979. But make no mistake: this is not a one-off phenomenon. The United States has a long history of intervention, first made explicit by the Monroe Doctrine and only amplified during the Cold War. They were pursued in Latin America through the “banana republics” of the United Fruit Company, CIA-backed regimes of Operation Condor, and the Chicago-bred economists enabled by the Washington Consensus. Intervention sparked the Vietnam War. Operations expanded under Reagan. Regimes changed worldwide, ultimately leading up to the War on Terror, which Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently admitted on live television was started on the widely-criticized hoax of “Weapons of Mass Destruction”.

This past January, the assassination and accompanying protests brought about hushed whispers of a draft, and trending tweets about World War III. When I mentioned these fears to an Iranian colleague, he bluntly asked why, saying: “If there is war, it’s in our region and [these] innocent people [that will suffer]… The war has already started through sanctions”. Rome is insulated from real revolution after all.

When Americans leave their nation to walk the streets of the rest of the world, streets their country was instrumental in shaping, they are often both amazed and perplexed, even disappointed by how familiar it seems. In her recent Notes on a Foreign Country, Suzy Hansen talks about the naivety and unease with which she confronted her “American-ness” while living in Istanbul. The United States is anti-Empire only in theory, having declared itself independent of European rule and the centuries of colonization pursued in their wake. In practice, it is ubiquitous, even inescapable. The American corporation has replicated itself worldwide in the form of the corporate chain. The citizen of Rome is never too far from home if a McDonald’s is nearby.

But for those who do know of this history “hidden” in plain sight – my friends and family among them – they usually acknowledge it, but ultimately shrug their shoulders. “If not us, who?” they ask. More often than not, our conversations and debates tend to devolve into arguments for the net good of America’s global presence. When my family and I visited Russia in 2017 (as a gift to my mother, who hadn’t left the US since her naturalization), my brother noted how similar his conversations on Putin and national pride mirrored that of his American co-patriots. This was in the middle of the Special Council Investigation and the resurgence of Cold War-esque narratives that would have you think that Russia was our sworn enemy. 

“We all want the same thing; we were just born on different sides of the same cultural coin,” I remember him saying, “People are essentially the same, even if their governments are not.” On some level, this is true; the slings and arrows of international politics rarely enter the consciousness of everyday people. When I brought up our government’s own history of interference, he initially acknowledged its imperfection. But in the same breadth, he argued that because he was American, he was ultimately obliged to defend his country’s interests in whatever form they take. Said another way, he implied that the ends that benefited him ultimately justify the means through which they were achieved. After all, who would willingly strip Rome’s gilded gates?

He and many others have decided, for now, to side with what could be called the winners of the world order. After 2019’s year of protest, I wonder how this might change. Maybe it will take the fall of Rome for them to realize that the Empire has always had a voice of its own.

This article was first released in the latest publication of the Graduate Press, entitled “Revolutions”. Download the Spring print edition here.

Photo by Christoph Schmid on Unsplash.

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