17 The Empire Is Naked

the naked emperor and the atomic shoes

I’ve thought of writing this piece for months, but every time I stopped my fingers from hitting the keyboard. Keep it positive, keep it interesting, keep it personal. We expatriates are, after all, disenfranchised people in the societies we inhabit. Better to avoid politics.

In the oval office sits a sad (and strikingly stupid) little boy trapped in the body of a fat orange man. I sit in my comfy chair in Seoul, in my new apartment, with my wife. Rarely have I felt quite so keenly that everything is politics.

I was five and my brother had a guitar. I knew the guitar was the coolest instrument in the world, because my brother had a guitar and my brother was the coolest person in the world. My music career began with my brother’s guitar and one knock-off Slovenian pop-rock song about America.

My brother saved his guitar, though not all its strings.

I had a very short music career.

But, like almost everyone in mid-80s Yugoslavia, I knew what America meant. It meant the United States of America and opportunity and wealth and blue jeans and rocks and rolls. Probably jam rolls, but I wasn’t sure. Ok, maybe I got rock-and-roll wrong.

Five years later Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union collapsed and I learned, that I had been living in oppression because the Free World had won. And told me so. Repeatedly. I learned that we had been the baddies, that we had lost and the goodies had won. Rambo had finally beaten the Predator. Or something.

It took some time for the Americans, the English, and sometimes the French, to win properly. Yugoslavia’s collapse was messy and yugoslavs remained a popular antagonist in Holywood for most of the 90s.

The 21st century came, the millennium bug did not infect us with Y2K. We were finally properly beaten and Holywood could find a new baddie. It was quite a relief that I now needed subtitles to understand the villains.

Through all this, the Voice of America reassured me. There are imperfections. There are mistakes. But five-year-old me was not wrong when he held that guitar and sang those misheard lyrics about white sails, America, blue jeans, hamburgers and freedom.

Yes, I might worry.

Somebody had lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The anniversaries of Pinochet’s coup in Chile and the invasion of Honduras were forgotten.

That long war in Afghanistan was ridiculous.

The Somalia thing?

So many military bases.

All the guns sold to those revolting Saudi tyrants.

The robot death machines in the skies of seven countries.

Yes, I might worry about little details like that. But I’d be soothed by the messages from Washington and the fig leafs from the United Nations. Don’t you know that no country around can always be an angel. When things go wrong the United States seem to be bad, but they’re just a state whose intentions are good. And I’d nod, pleased that I hadn’t misunderstood.*

Then a fat orange man became the president of the United States and opened his mouth and the stupid little boy inside him shouted out:

“My Empire has no clothes! My Empire needs no clothes!”

Very important people tried to hush the boy up. They gave him toys. They made announcements. They waved flags and money and history books. But this just made the little boy angry, and he shouted more and more loudly:

“My Empire has no clothes!”

And every time he shouted, it became a little harder to see the rock-and-roll and the blue jeans. Every time it became a little harder to see peace, partnership, respect. Every time the gold flaked off the iron a little more.

I have a hard time not seeing the hobnailed boots these days.

I so want to see peace and common prosperity, but I keep seeing those boots. I keep seeing those boots because that stupid little boy trapped inside the fat old man can’t help himself. He has to boast that he has the biggest, strongest, straightest Empire ever.

That poor, scared, squashed, stupid little boy.

Those big, scary, atomic boots.

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*Rephrased from The Animals (1965) Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood