Among the themes of this summer’s upcoming events is an evaluation of empires, and the claims of American imperialism. Heidi Shoup, our organization’s president spoke on this theme and others in the introduction of Timothy Parsons to our council members last night at the Charles Sumner School in downtown DC. Really I doubt we could find a better start for an exploration of imperialist themes than a discussion with Timothy Parsons, author of The Rule of Empires. A scholar of history, and an educator at Washington University of St. Louis, Dr. Parsons presented a powerful argument in support of the ideas expressed in his book.
The foundation of Dr. Parsons’ argument lay in creating a firm definition of imperialism. Throughout the centuries imperialism has become representative of a number of ideas, understood in varied ways by differing cultures. From ancient Rome to British India, from economic empires and political ideologies to Soviet republics and African colonies some would have us believe that empire as an idea has remained constant and unwavering. Dr. Parsons’ arguments are based directly in contrast with this idea; they require first and foremost, an acceptance of the differences between empire and other forms of forceful coercion. In defining empire narrowly as the formal direct rule of one group over another, Parsons prepared the rest of his argument to stand up against possible criticisms via examples of cultural assimilation and economic hegemony.
With this definition firmly set Dr. Parsons expressed his stance that empire could never be morally or fiscally justifiable. In contrast with our appreciation for some of these past great “civilizers” and military regimes, Parsons painted a picture of inequality, servitude and exploitation. Here I believe Dr. Parsons would likely be engaged by all of the standard traditional arguments over the betterment of native societies and moral superiority of these past conquering nations. Dr. Parsons might find his ideas less argued however in the area of his stance against the fiscal sustainability of empire.
Once, when governors had less ability to control the daily activities of the governed, Dr. Parsons claims imperial goals might have been more reasonable. When a nation was required to delegate authority to local officials, the potential assimilation of the conquered people made resistance less an issue. In the modern empire occupiers have met a host of challenges brought by subjugation and the increased ability of subjects to communicate with one another and the outside world. In many ways the idea of moral superiority has contributed to the failure of modern empire.
The concept of an international moral order might seem new and brilliant when applied to our struggles in the Middle East, but the idea is far from fresh. Historically many with imperial aims have attempted to justify otherwise unacceptable behaviors with moral rhetoric on the benefits of lifting folk from savagery. Though few would appreciate the comparisons and some might even be offended by them, Dr. Parsons listed the actions of Rome, the Conquistadors and Hitler in justifying imperial aims. No nations have seemed impervious to this sense of nationalism gone wrong, when one takes pride in one’s own nation it unfortunately seems not a far stretch to view it as superior to all others.
On the conclusion of Dr. Parsons’ presentation, questions from the audience ranged in nature from full support to utter disagreement. Those disagreements which occurred however seemed largely irreconcilable differences over the understanding of modern empires histories.