Looking carefully at that which is unseen.

An Empire of Tourists, not Salesmen

One of my favorite jokes goes like this:

What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.

American tourists have long had a reputation for ugliness, both active and passive, and as someone who’s lived overseas and watched touristas americanus in the wild I can testify to the accuracy of that observation. Ugliness is more than just a manner of dressing – though I wouldn’t be the first to point out the question of “why do Americans dress on tour like they’d never ever dress at home,” it’s more a matter of action. It’s an inherent unawareness of – if not active disrespect for – the local people, culture, and environment. Oh, not every American tourist is “ugly,” and certainly other cultures and nations have ugly tourists,* in various senses of the word, but only Americans have managed, in general, to make an art form of their ugliness. Americans carry with them that fascinating sense of entitlement, self-importance, incuriosity, and permanent-adolescent-center-of-the-universe that characterizes the way they act at home, and so things like common courtesy (let alone courtesy in the native language), tolerance, and an understanding that they’re essentially guests in someone else’s home just go by the wayside.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the same culture that produces tourists like that produces imperial bureaucrats like that, from the highest officials down to the lowliest foot soldier enforcing imperial dicta. How many of our Fearless Leaders (most of whom have never been “boots on the ground” themselves, but I digress) could dicker a good deal on a chess set in Korea’s Itaewon, or talk about SS uniforms at a stammtisch in a little German village whose name I’ve forgotten. For that matter, would they even want to do something like that? The answer is certainly “no,” and would be followed up by “why would they?” Which is the heart of the problem – for all their vaunted “Liberal” values, they don’t actually care about other people – what egocentric does – except to the extent that that “other person” has something they want? Oh, to be sure, they’re very good at feigning an interest; faking sincerity comes naturally to them. But at the end of the day, it’s still all about them.

Which brings us to the alleged oddball nature of the American Empire. Empires, as a general rule, involve soldiers going out and plunder coming back. Again, it’s not an original observation on my part that the American Empire certainly has the “soldiers going out” part down pat – but the plunder coming home seems to be a bit on the sparse side, doesn’t it? It’s been observed again and again how American blood and treasure are being spent, and all for, pretty much, nothing. Seems pretty strange, doesn’t it?

Well … not really. Indeed, soldiers are going out. And, despite appearances, there is plenty of plunder. However, historically, consider where the plunder went that was obtained allegedly more-traditional empires. It wasn’t the average Joe, Juan, Chen, or Xotoltec who got the goodies – it was the Emperor and his cronies who did. To the extent that a returning conquistador spent a few pieces of eight in a local tavern, Jose may well see some of that loot, but it was in a trickle-down method. And the American Empire is no different – it’s not yer averij schlub on the street who’s garnering any wealth, it’s the cronies of the Emperor – or of the empire in general – who get the big bucks.

But wait. There’s no wealth pouring out of Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya or Okinawa or Korea or Germany or any of the other myriad places where Imperial Troops are stationed. So how are the cronies becoming wealthy?

Simple – Americans have, as most other nations and tribes do, a view of themselves as unique in the world (and on top of same) and in this sense they possibly are: America may well be the first empire in history which has been plundering itself from the start. All empires, toward the end of existence, turn inwards and begin decaying and eating their own substance. Rome’s inflation and employment restrictions, Britain’s advanced but deteriorating welfare state, the Qing dynasty’s withdrawal from the oceans, the Soviet Union’s economic collapse – all examples of wealth running out followed by empire running down. Empires cost money, the money must come from somewhere, and at some point the wealth tank needle points to E. America started from a position of using its own national wealth to build and maintain an empire (for the most part – the continental real estate that would be the source of later wealth was generally taken from the locals), rather than coming to that position later in Imperial life. Thus what you have today is the American Empire plundering its own citizens, as it has for a century and a half, to build and hold an empire that provides … not much of anything, as best I can tell, other than “having an empire.” Much of that plundering has been of the future, with debt taken on that will saddle the citizenry for decades to come, even if all spending stopped now. And thanks to the incuriosity of Americans, this plunder is not even noticed – or if it is, it’s actually applauded by people who just don’t think about the consequences of plunder.

Not the beneficiaries of that plunder, of course, politicians, the military, and defense contractors have done well by their share of the plunder. But like all empires, there is eventually nothing left to plunder – and the collapse begins.

The real irony is that America was actually, at one time, on track to be an entirely different and truly first-in-history type of empire. America could have been an actual self-sustaining empire, ruling the whole world, simply by recognizing and playing to what any reasonable observer might have noticed – what was conquering the world was and can never be American troops. What was taking the world was American culture. However, there is a lot of excitement in watching guns and smart bombs (from a safe distance at home, of course) and really very little fun in just being a salesman. Thus we end up with an Army post at YongSan, and not Disneyland, Seoul. We have barbed wire in Baghdad, not McDonalds. Firebases in Afghanistan, not Ford dealers. Money flows out to contractors, who produce bombs and bullets, which produce martyrs and enemies – when instead we could be producing music and movies and finding other ways to season and fry chicken, which would have the money flowing into the nation, rather than out. We could have been selling America, instead of selling America out.

Others have recognized this growth. They may not have approved, but they at least recognized it. And like other imperial ambitions, they opposed it. Unlike other empires, though, it was a tough one to fight. Anybody can argue against bayonets carried by foreigners – but who doesn’t like a good hamburger?

*I had a thoroughly delightful private tour of London from a Scottish bus driver who assured me – correctly – that based on his experience the Koreans that filled the rest of the bus travelling between points of interest wouldn’t care a whit about intervening history, they just wanted the whirlwind “get off, blow through, take pictures at the famous place” tour. As such, he and I spent hours chatting about all of the little places in between the various museums and galleries we stopped at (none of which we stayed at long enough to read any of the descriptions of the contents). He had great fun going into more depth on things than even regular tourists cared about, and I had no end of neat little tidbits and assorted whatnottery to take back home with me.


2 responses to “An Empire of Tourists, not Salesmen

  1. Philip May 11, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    I was going to chastise you about the assumption that only Americans are ugly in foreign lands. I have seen enough specimens of ugly turistas britanicus to know better. You have to remember that when you spend long eough outside your own country you become perhaps overly sensitive to your compatriots behavior and habits.

    You also have to be aware that American cultural imperialism is seen in many parts of the world as being as bad, if not worse than seeing GIs marching up the street. However, that is where real salesmanship comes in, adapting the offering to match local custom — you know, little things like putting the steering wheel in the right side of the car you want to sell in Japan or the UK, not expecting Hindus to be enthusiastic over Big Macs (eve if the beef content is minuscule) etc.

    Also recognize that much of today’s commercial imperialism is not about going out and plundering the wealth of other countries to bring home to America. Its about generating wealth outside the clutches of America, and ensuring that it stays there.

    • Hobbit@Law May 11, 2011 at 11:30 pm

      Oh, I think that most nations have ugly tourists – but only Americans seem to have turned it into an art form so far as absolute utter indifference to the locals goes. Which is not to say that touring London in the midst of a bunch of Koreans wasn’t interesting, but the Koreans did not make pests of themselves to the locals.

      I’ve no doubt at all that cultural imperialism is seen as bad – if not worse. Tough kibble on that one, Rest Of The World. We’ve discovered a tasty form of empire that your local residents swallow without the need for a single bayonet pointed at them. And if the rest of the world doesn’t like it, there’s always the North Korean model (or the French model, at least in regard to toeing the line against the English language’s inroads on them).

      Tax avoidance – well, that’s a topic for a different day. 😀

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