Empire of Amnesia: Memory and Hegemony in a U.S.-Dominated World
On February 10, I was invited to give a keynote speech at a conference titled “Empire Resurgent: Narratives, Nationalisms and New Dystopias” at the University of California, Irvine School of the Humanities. The conference was organized by Amy Wilentz and Jeffrey Wasserstrom; other participants included Lea Ypi, Adam Hochschild, Marlene Daut, and Samuel Moyn.
What follows is a transcript of my speech for Racket subscribers, edited for comprehensibility in written form. Hope you enjoy.
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I flew here on Wednesday night, thinking about how to represent something as big and thorny as memory and hegemony in a U.S. dominated world when I emerged, bleary-eyed to realize the Orange County Airport Commission had done it for me. Standing right at the exit of the airport was a larger-than-life statue of a cowboy. But not just any cowboy: it’s John Wayne.
This John Wayne is nine feet tall, atop a marble pedestal in full frontier regalia, striding toward the courtesy shuttle lane. The sculptor, Robert Summers of Cleberne, Texas — a city named for a Confederate general, by the way, speaking of historical memory — designed it in 1980, according to the airport website, “in two tiers to allow visitors to touch the statue, the pedestal provides a fitting home for one of the nation's most loved and remembered patriots.” Again, this is a movie star.
In case that is too subtle, the airport commission hung a monumental American flag in a size reminiscent of the famous opening scene in Franklin Schaffner’s Patton, though in counter-position. The militarist overtones are no accident. The sculptor, Summers’, other statuary works include monuments to actual settler cowboys as well as part of the United States Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. One of his more recent projects are statues honoring the founders of Yates Petroleum, speaking of gangsters of capitalism. And in case anyone missed the point of all that, as I leave the airport I immediately find myself on MacArthur Boulevard.
This is part of what I’m referring to has hegemony. I’m drawing a bit on the definition offered by the great theorist—and attempted practitioner of—hegemony, Antonio Gramsci as
the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group.” This consent, Gramsci writes, “is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.”
What Gramsci is doing here is functionally destroying a distinction between hegemony and domination. These things work together, especially in the functioning of an empire. But while much of the discourse about empire, much of the terrific discourse that we've had over the last day, legitimately and understandably focuses on the violence and the coercion part, I want to use my time here to dwell a little bit more on the concept of consent.
Consent, you know, takes many forms in an empire. Going back to sort of my opening anecdote and metaphor, you know, everyone on the plane, including me, consented to land at John Wayne Airport. Literally, we booked our tickets to it. We paid our airport fees to it. I didn’t make a point on the way out of doing, as some of my friends in my adoptive hometown of Charlottesville have done, and torn the statue down. This is a statue of a man who made a career glorifying genocide and settler colonialism. And in 1971 gave an interview to Playboy Magazine, in which he said, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.”
That’s a quote and an interview, which, speaking of historical memory — when that quote started circulating again a couple of years ago, people kept referring to it as having been resurrected or brought back up because it had been forgotten. But of course, John Wayne hasn’t been forgotten. It was just the things that John Wayne said and the things that John Wayne actually called attention to that he was representing had been forgotten, because that is how cultural memory works.
Because I am not, I believe, one of the primarily aggrieved parties of the memory of John Wayne and settler colonialism in America in general, I guess I am roughly giving my consent to taking my place among the settler colonialists—among the, the implementers of empire.
But, and this may be a slightly more provocative statement, the colonized or at least a substratum of the colonized give their consent as well.
I wrote my latest book, Gangsters of Capitalism, with the idea of exploring historical memory. It’s essentially a biography of Smedley Butler. For those who don’t know — I’ve learned