Blogs > Cliopatria > For a Mystic Chimera, It Sure Gets Around

Jul 2, 2009 5:16 am

For a Mystic Chimera, It Sure Gets Around

In the first volume of his biography of Andrew Jackson, Robert Remini neatly captures the strangeness of state sovereignty. It happens in a single quiet paragraph that describes the ceremony on the morning of July 17, 1821, in which Spain relinquished its claim to the Floridas. Jackson handed the Spanish governor"the instruments of his authority to take possession of the territory," and Governor José Callava responded by giving Jackson control of his keys and his archives. Then, finally, having surrendered the symbols of power, Callava"released the inhabitants of West Florida from their allegiance to Spain." The paragraph ends with members of the Spanish crowd -- suddenly finding themselves members of an American crowd -- bursting into tears.

(The next paragraph opens with a letter from Rachel Jackson to a friend, reporting that she is watching the entire city of Pensacola"sit solitary and mourn.")

I was brought back to that paragraph last week by one of those Christopher Hitchens columns that gets stuck in the lower intestine and won't go away. It's the one in which he dismisses the idea of treading carefully to avoid giving Iranians the idea that the United States is intervening in their own business."There is nothing at all that any Western country can do," he assures us,"to avoid the charge of intervening in Iran's internal affairs." But better yet, Hitchens adds, Iranians can't really complain about our intervention in their business, since they already do it to us:

"There is then the larger question of the Iranian theocracy and its continual, arrogant intervention in our affairs: its export of violence and cruelty and lies to Lebanon and Palestine and Iraq and its unashamed defiance of the United Nations, the European Union, and the International Atomic Energy Agency on the nontrivial matter of nuclear weapons."

I love, love, love that plenary declaration about"our affairs," and the casually offered list that follows: Iran is meddling in things that are ours -- like, you know, the Middle East. Hitchens is a lazy enough writer that you can make several different arguments about who his we might be; maybe he means"the West," or"we drunken Trotskyites," or whatever.

But it seems just as clear to me that Hitchens is seeing like a state, parked in the District of Columbia and watching the imperial city reach out across its planet to perform its work of shaping and ordering. American sovereignty is unbounded; Iranian sovereignty is rude. At the very least, that view would be one that Hitchens shares with the state's formal agents. A few days after Hitchens accused Iran of meddling in our Middle East, Gen. Ray Odierno accused Iran of meddling in our Iraq. In a CNN interview, a reporter asked questions like this:

"Are the Iraqis ready for these awesome new responsibilities?"

And got answers like this:

"I do believe they're ready, John."

(Keep scrolling down for the exchange in which Odierno says the Iranians"still continue to interfere inside of Iraq" and are"still attempting to have undue influence inside of Iraq." The American commander in Iraq doesn't think there's any place for foreigners to interfere with the internal affairs of that sovereign nation.)

For historians, state power rests on very thin crust. State actors manage imagined communities with invented traditions, but only for as long as the ritual works. States are ephemeral; sovereignty grows out of statements on paper and the performance of symbolic acts -- here are the keys, General Jackson -- and the tenuousness of that recurring project means that it keeps crashing and burning. States disappear, and take the massively powerful apparatus of the state with them; the Stasi archives seem quaint. Floridians were Spanish until some guy read a sentence from a piece of paper that said they weren't.

But how do we bridge that view of the state with the bizarre reality of this thing that owns all the gravity and subsumes everything -- General Motors, AIG, Iraq, the financial industry, and, coming soon, entire broad swaths of the energy and health care fields, and etcetera -- so entirely that we can sit inside its orbit and casually talk about our affairs like Iraq and Lebanon?

I think of the state as a consensual hallucination, and yet somehow the American model turns out to run much of the world like personal property. I don't understand how we get from there to here. The"state" is a guy who shows up with some pieces of paper -- the"instruments of his authority to take possession" -- and then really takes possession.

Of everything that isn't bolted down, apparently.

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