Simon Schama: this “imperial calamity” we inherited

Simon Schama, the silver-tongued historian, is indulging me with a further reflection on this “imperial calamity,” as he put it, that we Americans seem to have inherited from his other country, Britain. There is no way out, he seems to conclude — no relief from the burdens and sorrows of empire. I am wondering: what teaches a great power that its time is running out? “Bankruptcy!” he exclaims, about the British experience. In the American struggle with strategic decline, Schama says, there will be no silencing the “neurotic insistence” on American exceptionalism, and no cure for “the testosterone of fury.”

“Obama’s whole project, which is incredibly difficult to bring off, is basically to be the manager of declining expectations. Now you can’t go to the hustings and say to the people: my plan for the future of the Great American Republic is that we become more ordinary, that we run foreign policy on the cheap, and have a humble posture in the world. You really have to educate the American public in a more realistic way about what’s possible in the American future — but not in an election year. As we say, good luck on that, mate.”

My other country is a small island, 60 million population. It took a long time — I grew up in a period of declinism, really, where we got used to runs on the pound, botched fiascos — a long, bloody, somber education in our limitations. But there was something always about the British temper that was historically ironic. At least when I grew up, notwithstanding the gorgeousness of Churchillian rhetoric, there was also the sense that history is a kind of tableau of the tragic irony of overreach; even Thucydides saw that.

Irony is in very short supply on Capitol Hill, and it’s regarded as a kind of jaded, European admission of defeat. We’ve got back now to our founding fathers. The only figure among the great founding fathers who had no problem with irony at the same time as he had no problem about envisioning a great continental democratic future was of course the peerless Benjamin Franklin, who did put all those things together in an un-defensive way. And we’ve just blocked that ever since.

I suspect I’ll be long since gone to the buttercups and the tombs of my fathers, but in the end — and I guess the question is more about imperial Rome — we will simply, over a long period of time, become accustomed to our limitations. And at some point in the future there will be some Edward Gibbon sitting in the ruins, meditating on the Decline and Fall of the American Empire, and nailing it.

Simon Schama with Chris Lydon at Columbia University in NYC, May 12, 2011.

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  • Simon Schama’s PBS art history reflections were first-rate.

    The current Schama ROS interview might be augmented as follows:

    One might think of America’s empire as part of an Anglo-American imperial sweep or arc.

    In Satyajit Ray’s movie from the sixties, “Charulata” based on Tagore,
    The Anglo-Afghan War is the backdrop of the household tensions being described with the female title character Charulata shown as emotionally unfulfilled and restless and that condition resonating with the outside world in the form of the war.

    Disraeli is mentioned in this 1964 movie as the imperialist, Gladstone the anti-imperialist.

    Coming to our own time, Niall Ferguson says he’s a Gladstonian but he’s a Disraeli imperialist (put on your jodhpurs) in Gladstonian clothing.

    Simon Schama has—truth be told—pushed Islamophobia on TV and also, for Israel-centric reasons, oscillates between Disraeli and Gladstone too, though on a different braid or strand when compared to Ferguson who’s an empire nostalgia revisionist historian. These two brands of Zionism are not identical since Schama is a left-Zionist and Ferguson, his antagonist on TV debates, a right-Zionist.

    None of this is ever discussed and these topics are not (as they say in German) “salonfaehig” or permissible.

    Both Ferguson and Schama recently returned from Israel whose dominance they hope for and which yearning twists their analyses into pretzels-within-pretzels. The Herzliya Conference recently attended by Ferguson is a far-right annexationist forum.
    http://cambridgeforecast.wordpress.com/?s=charulata

    The British tradition of Islamophobia/Orientalism, always threatening to engulf America, is conveyed in a popular way here:

    http://cambridgeforecast.wordpress.com/2010/06/20/globalization-and-islam-in-spy-fiction-john-buchans-1916-book-greenmantle/

  • “History as a tableau of tragic irony.” Yes! And that’s why we’ll never be free of this dead empire hanging around our collective neck. Americans need psychic Geritol–we have irony-poor blood. Especially your typical capitalist.

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  • Potter

    Just back from Rome- examining the artifacts of the Roman Empire, fascinated by Roman history, I very much appreciate Simon Schama’s take on us here. We need to pull back and see the long sweep of things. I have been feeling that we here in the US are better understood knowing deepest history, no less our own. We are such a young country. I agree that our imperial attitude is a psychological issue, and, as much as anything else having to do with our relative youth ( proving ourselves). But Schama makes other good points on the practical level; we are in a much more complicated globalized world and the idea of isolation, perhaps impossible from the start, is certainly impossible now. Perhaps the problem ( if it is a problem) is civilizing an unstoppable social and political evolution, that we are in the process of blending into one another. We were, from the first, more a country of multinational immigrants. Now we are a world where people move around across boundaries much more easily, and mix.

    I really hate the chest beating fist in the air “USA, USA” chanting, the flags flying on super sized SUV’s ( what that has come to mean) and the GW Bush doctrine ( still with us), bellicose, that we need to fight, to kill over there for our freedom here. It is as though it will not come back to haunt us in some way. It is maybe a psychological isolationism when physical isolation is now impossible and a distraction from problems here at home.

    Simon Schama always brings insight. Thank you.

  • Ed

    “…my plan for the future of the Great American Republic is that we become more ordinary, that we run foreign policy on the cheap, and have a humble posture in the world. You really have to educate the American public in a more realistic way about what’s possible in the American future — but not in an election year. As we say, good luck on that, mate”

    Seems a bit cynical to me. Most of people I know would welcome a more ‘humble posture in the world’. Less involvement in these endless foreign wars/battles/police operations/peacekeepings/nationbuildings, etc.

    Then again, it surprises me that the Obama administration has chosen to get involved in Libya’s revolution. I thought that was exactly what they wouldn’t do.

    Anyway, I personally don’t have ‘somber feelings’ about the decline of the Empire. It’d be better for both the US and the rest of the world to not have an ’empire’. The fact that other people are coming to this conclusion lately makes me feel relatively optimistic.

  • Grady Lee Howard

    In the same way that financialism (95% of capital volume is now speculative and not materially productive.) has become an additional addiction on top of the malaise of Empire (Congressional-Military-Industrial-Elite Classism Complex) media celebrity has become an addiction of intellectual political analysts. When one hears Simon Schama (and the like) one is listening to Empire joke and boast about it’s impunity. No commentator is outside the envelop of Imperialism until the commentator becomes a political enemy of Empire, which Lydon’s guests assuredly are not. Book publication/speaking engagements/video interviews (wordy enterprise) become an impediment to principled critique and truthfulness. It is entirely different the meaning of Woodie Guthrie’s song about Pretty Boy Floyd if he sings about a robbing banker rather than a bank robber. In actuality, if the big criminal is immortalized in lays it is but an advertisement of his power, the audacity that follows the unveiling of societal atrocities. Don’t ask the people to quit the addiction of serving great concentrated power when you yourself are enthralled with the spoils. (A ruined societal landscape is why we call ill-gotten gains “spoils” after all.)

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