General 10-22-2004

Righteous: “An Empire Disguised as a Nation”

Jakki Spicer looks for complexity in "An Empire Disguised as a Nation" (at the Jungle Theater) and finds none.

An Empire Disguised as a Nation: A Call to Conscience ought to be called A Lecture Disguised as a Play: A Call to Your Guilty Conscience. Honestly, if one entered the theater knowing that one was going to get a rather hasty course in the history of American imperialism, laced with occasional sarcastic humor and a song or three, with no attempt at nuance or subtlety, and a final ladling of guilt, one might be more disposed to accept this piece for what it is. One might even feel compelled to admire the conviction of two people who will stand up before an audience and announce their political and ethical views, particularly when one is a former career-soldier turned writer and actor, who will tell you that war sucks, but it is, after all, just a job that professional soldier have been sent by us to do. As it is, one just finds oneself a little annoyed.

The piece is framed, it is true, as a lecture presented by Adjunct Professor Dean J. Seal, and presided over by Steve Anderson (both of whom also wrote the work), representative of the U.S. Government, dressed in camouflage, and seated at a desk stenciled with the words “U.S. Gov. Property. Fuck Off.” He is there, we are told, for the purposes of displaying images and providing security; nor is he above exerting a little coercive pressure during the lecture—indeed he does break in not infrequently with a correctives to Seal’s words. This in itself is an amusing conceit, and the images with their captions are often the most clever elements of the piece (a picture of a Cherokee with a chart of his nation’s writing is titled: “Indian with inferior alphabet”; even more amusing is the series of images of U.S. military helicopters named after various Indian tribes: Apache, Blackhawk, Chinook, and so on: See, we do honor them). The lecture unfolds as a rather rushed run-down of the last 200-some years of oppression, racism, and war waged by bad Americans, ending in a healthy dose of Lutheran guilt for whatever ways we might ourselves be implicated in this evil, and a glimmering promise of redemption if only we live cheaply and egg Hummers.

There is nothing uninteresting about the history of American imperialism, from the wholesale slaughter of the natives to the despicable mess we are currently making of Iraq; that is, the ongoing American love affair with war is a scintillating and scandalous tale. And yet, slicing the world once again into good guys and bad does nothing more than repeat the Bushisms that we rail against in the first place.

Yes, annexing Mexico with a largely unprovoked war was not very nice; yes, driving a 6-mile-a-gallon Hummer around town is lame and irresponsible. We are not so stupid; we know all this. But history presented as a juggernaut fueled by the forces of greed and evil, against which only the occasional voice of reason can pipe up now and again, hardly does justice to the complexities of the world.

But it does rely on a certain self-satisfied righteousness: if you see the world divided into good and evil, it is easy enough to scramble yourself over to the side of good and wag your accusing finger at all those who still shop at WalMart. It is a shame the piece finally collapses into this sort of righteous simplicity; one might have really learned something from a more complex reminder of U.S. history, one that enticed the imagination with what might be done differently, rather than reiterated the same good guy/bad guy rhetoric, even if from the left.