The Empire Strikes Civilians

What if the true meaning of Rome is not justice but injustice, not civilization but institutionalized barbarism? What if, when you look back as Freud did at the Eternal City–a sobriquet that Rome had already earned two thousand years ago–you find at the bottom of all its archaeological strata not a forum or a palace but a corpse? (Adam Kirsch, “The Empire Strikes Back,” The New Yorker, 9 January 2012.)

This week I read two recent articles whose titles were identical or nearly so to that of the second installment of the original Star Wars trilogy. The first read was the article above, from The New Yorker, in which Kirsch united book reviews of a number of new takes on the Roman Empire to suggest that our lasting impression of Roman peace, honor and glory means that the Romans were successful in determining how future generations would (mis)remember their legacy of genocide, inequality and bloody conquest.

The other article, published in yesterday’s New York Times, was entitled “The Empires Strike Back” (Soner Cagaptay, 14 January 2012), and characterized the current power struggle between France and Turkey over the Mediterranean and Arab worlds as an ongoing conflict that has existed at least since Napoleon picked up the crumbling Ottoman Empire’s flak, first by invading Egypt in 1878. As Cagaptay writes, “France’s rise as a Mediterranean power has been an inverse function of Turkish decline around the same sea.”

The irony of both Star Wars references (or, perhaps more bluntly, their error) is that, as noted by Huey Freeman of “The Boondocks,” “Star Wars is the story of a revolution” against the evil Galactic Empire, not the story of the glorious exploits of empire. The piece in the Times in particular ignores the meaning of the referent by using this title to suggest the French and Turkish empires striking back at one another. The title is more subtle in The New Yorker, where it speaks to the article’s theme of Rome as an omnipresent palimpsest where past and present coincide–the Empire, it seems, striking back at the present from the past.

In the fall of 2010 when Jay-Z released his (and dream hampton’s) book Decoded, there was a wonderful event at the New York Public Library where, led by an annoying moderator, Jay-Z and Cornel West spoke together about Jay-Z’s career as well as wider issues in the rap world. (This was actually during my first semester teaching and we had a great time engaging social media when I offered my students extra credit if they would live Tweet this event–with our own tag, #hiphopocracy.) At the very end of the event (1:48 on the video, above) the moderator cued “Empire State of Mind” and all three of them–the moderator, Jay-Z, and Cornel West–started nodding their heads in tandem. When it was finished, Dr. West couldn’t help but comment:

Empire state of mind, empire state of mind! I’m tellin you. I’m always–you know, as an anti-imperialist I’ve always been suspicious of this “Empire State” talk…you know what I mean? But at the same time–[well,] I’m in deep solidarity with my indigenous brothers and sisters whose land they actually subjugated.

But, just on the musical tip…[pause, then a laugh from the audience] that’s a beautiful song, man. (Adapted from Creative Meditations.)

But as Dr. West concluded, “We’re all in process.” And further, I don’t think Jay is unaware of the hypocrisies –hiphopocrisies?–of his participation in an imperialist culture. In “What More Can I Say” off The Black Album (2003), Jay-Z samples Gladiator‘s eponymous gladiator (Russel Crowe’s character Maximus) screaming to the Roman spectators after the emperor’s armored fighters failed to slay him. “Are you not entertained?” Crowe cries. “Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?”

After spending “What More Can I Say” pointing to his own raps as proof that he’s the best rapper around, Jay-Z offers a smidge of contrition: “God forgive me for my brash delivery, but I remember vividly what these streets did to me.” In an apology undercut by its aggressive, impressive, deft mosaic rhyme, Jay-Z suggests the rapper’s surprising relationship to American imperialist capitalism: like your slave Maximus, Jay seems to suggest, you brought me here to exploit me and watch me struggle, then die – but I have beaten your system and upended it, a feat all  the more incredible for the great injustices you have stacked against me.

Holla back!

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