Ira Chernus  



Ira Chernus

Empires are like dogs. They have two ways to establish their dominance. A dog can attack another dog and bite its neck until the victim gives up. Or a dog can intimidate another dog. A dog can be so fearsome that its victim just rolls over, shows its belly, and surrenders. The winner gains victory just by gazing down on the loserís belly.

Empires also have two ways to gain power. An empire can build a bigger, better army to invade another peopleís land and destroy the victimís armies. Thatís the neck-biting approach. Or an empire can intimidate another nation so effectively that the other nation signals its submission before the fighting begins. The empire wins simply by gazing down on its victimís upturned belly.

The neck- biters expend huge amounts of material, money, and human life. The belly-gazers rely on a symbolic drama to achieve the same effect. It is much more efficient.

Today the advocates of American empire are divided between neck-biters and belly-gazers. The neck-biters have their fingers on the trigger, itching for war, while the belly-gazers chant their mantra: "Give inspections a chance." The belly-gazers are a strange coalition. They include many powerful people in the U.S. political, economic, and media elite. They also include the governing elites of France, Germany, Russia, and China, and ó surprise of surprises ó Saddam Hussein and the ruling elite of Iraq. Belly-gazing politics does make strange bedfellows.

It also makes gripping symbolic drama. The Iraqi dog is too smart to roll over and give up all at once. It shows its belly oh so slowly, inch by inch, giving tiny concessions almost every day now. The mainstream media love it. Every Iraqi concession becomes an instant banner headline. Then George W. responds with some growling rhetoric to proclaim his top-dog status, and that too becomes a banner headline.

To the neck-biters, it must all be terribly frustrating. They donít understand the power of symbolism. To them it is just clever Iraqi maneuvering to forestall the inevitable onslaught. The Iraqis are indeed clever. They have managed to create a symbolic drama exciting enough to satisfy the U.S. public. The public is gripped by the daily twists in the plot. On one level, itís little more than a real-life soap opera. As Thomas Friedman recently wrote, if it werenít all so important, youíd be tempted to cook up some popcorn and settle down on the couch to watch the show.

On another level, though, it is the stuff that international politics is made of. Patriotic red-blooded Americans want to know that we are indeed, and will remain, "Number One." After all, as Godís chosen people, isnít that our God-given right and destiny? But the same red-blooded Americans believe that their blood is more red, more pure, more sacred than the blood of foreigners. They donít want any of it shed if U.S. casualties can be avoided. So a daily dose of symbolic victory is enough to satisfy most of them.

That is why so many Americans are joining the antiwar movement. The movement is riding a tide of success largely because so many Americans, both elite and average, would rather be belly-gazers than neck-biters. When the cover of Time asks: "Should We Go To War?," it really means "Should we be neck-biters or belly gazers?" The very fact that Time asks the question shows that the neck-biters, who once thought they would face little domestic opposition, are in trouble.

But it also shows how easily we can be trapped inside the common ground shared by the neck-biters and belly-gazers. Think of the questions Timeís cover will never ask: Should We Go To Empire? Should We Even Think About The Many Ways We Undermine Democracy In Our Pursuit Of Empire? Should We Question Our Moral Superiority Over Saddam Hussein? Should Iraq Have The Same Right As The U.S. To Develop Weapons Of Mass Destruction? Should The World Be Just As Frightened Of Our Weapons As Of Iraqís? Should U.N. Inspectors Look For Our Weapons Too?

None of those questions are permitted in the mainstream debate about the war. The neck-biters and belly-gazers have no conscious conspiracy to keep those questions out. They just assume that such questions are meaningless and therefore unaskable.

This is the crucial function of the symbolic drama unfolding daily in our news media. It does not simply let the U.S. gaze upon Iraqís upturned belly. More importantly, it legitimizes the belly-gazing approach to empire. It trumpets over and over again the message that "we" have a moral right to our symbolic victory over the enemy. It says that the only legitimate questions are about means, not ends. It excludes the voices questioning the Bush administration's motives and its morality.

However, the antiwar movement offers those of us who want to raise these questions a unique window of opportunity. We are now in a coalition with a lot of belly-gazers. It may not last very long. For this brief moment, though, we have a chance to talk to them. If we tell them "the truth" as we see it, they probably will not listen. But if we are tactful and courteous, we can raise questions in their minds.

The belly-gazers already see some of the contradictions in Bushís neck-biting approach to Iraq. We can ask them to explore those contradictions, to put a tiny lever in the solid wall of "the truth" that they have been raised to see. It is a wall riddled with endless contradictions. Sometimes all it takes is one crack for the whole thing to come tumbling down.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.