It's important to understand the War in Iraq as an imperial snuff film.
You can get away with a lot in America—destroying the financial system, illegal arms dealing, laundering drug money—without earning the lasting ire of our ruling class. America is an empire long ago built on a two-tiered view of human worth.
It's a country that has always treated some of its population as disposable. Which neatly limits your accountability for malfeasance. Consequences are for those other people. Up to a point.
Because of this two-tiered state of affairs, American life is not itself treated as sacred by our culture, nor is civic duty.
But the American Status Quo is another story. Rupturing that has consequences.
While we lost thousands of American lives on September 11th, 2001, we also lost our sense of the status quo. Bankers, politicians and generals spent their day feeling out of control. Literally running for their lives, American elites felt visceral fear as they evacuated their strongholds in the wake of a terrorist attack. The people who were supposed to be safest in our country, the people with the most power, were scrambling.
This is not how the United States is supposed to work.
Bush and his courtiers spent the day in a nightmare of uncertainty, vulnerability, and disconnection. The resulting trauma of that crisis was pumped and massaged into the psyche of the country. In the US, calls for blood were in the media, in the halls of government, in the corner bar.
Somehow, Afghanistan wasn't enough.
Meanwhile, Iraq never had anything to do with 9/11. Didn't, as claimed, have terrifying weapons that could end Our American Way of Life as We Knew It. What it did have was people who bore a passing cultural resemblance to the attackers who shattered our status quo. It had a feeble dictator.
So 18 months later we all watched on cable news while the American Empire made a demonstration of its power. The world's most expensive military made quick work of Iraq's defenses, concluding its invasion in less than one month.
Saddam, humiliated, was yanked out of a hole in the ground nine months after that. Then they killed him.
Truly some street thug shit, sending a message: the US can still deal pain and destruction wherever we want it. For the rest of the world, this was a threat. For US citizens, this was meant to be a reassuring promise.
For the traumatized elite, it was confirmation that they were still in control.
Foundation on TV+ is an intro to imperial power
Vague spoilers within.
One of the gifts of science fiction is its ability to reframe our perception. Spaceships are fun, but they're not really the point. What matters is that, from a new frame of reference, we can imagine old problems fresh. We can discover new points of view, freed from the biases of history and prejudice.
At its best, science fiction is a social simulation laboratory.
In the case of Foundation, the simulator projects an enormous, tactile model of empire.
How does empire work? What are its traits?
Foundation takes all these details and zooms in on them, letting us roam around and examine systems of empire. Imagine a sociological museum filled with exhibits, diagrams and models. By imagining a powerful state that spans an entire galaxy, Foundation lets us really dig into the mechanics of power.
And what is an empire?
Empires are… civic eruptions. They're tangled webs of logistics capacity, resources of all kinds, military power, and self-justifying ideology. Empires can snowball, since having all of these things in combination lets them seize more capacity, more resources, more power. Ideology provides the moral and cultural lubrication needed to enable these actions.
The challenge is stability. All that growth comes at a cost. Administrative overhead, yes, but also the resentments of those on the losing end of encounters with the empire.
Foundation explores the practical, visceral experience of an empire: the brutality of power, the terror of instability and decline. We join Cleon as his Peace is interrupted in a terrorist attack. He responds, much like America, with attacks that do little more than destabilize the game board and slake popular bloodlust.
"You can't play chess with someone who's willing to set the world on fire."
Like America, Cleon lets his subjects watch on TV as the empire enacts revenge upon far-away people who or may not have had anything to do with their crisis.
An imagination toolbox
America is an empire in decline. I walk with the trauma of watching a leviathan crumbling around me.
Logistics capacity sputters. Resources are squandered to fight enemies we don't have. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of lives are snuffed out by a plague—many multiples of those lost on 9/11.
Large swathes of our population are too ignorant to shield themselves from that plague now, even as science provides badly needed, effective protection. Meanwhile, grifters take money for cures that don't work.
We've always had the ability to shut down the covid pandemic within our borders. We've just never bothered to do the work.
There is, everywhere, an air of discontent. The minor burghers who would once bully the poor into low-wage work now lament shortages of people willing to be so oppressed. Labor actions are more and more frequent, as conditions grow so dire that workers must overcome decades of crumbling union power and organize.
Of course, injustice abounds. We see corruption out in the open, we see the innocent oppressed for the color of their skin, we see righteous anger in the streets.
And we see white supremacists trying to overthrow our government.
Meanwhile, basic needs go unmet. US citizens, supposedly the freest people in all the world, can't access medical care without risking financial calamity. Wages have stagnated. We've abandoned updating the federal minimum wage. Homelessness is a soaring problem, and though we have the resources to solve it, like covid, we just can't be bothered.
I don't know what's next for this place. Not knowing is scary and tiring.
Foundation enters with metaphors, postulates and scenarios to help me imagine the long term consequences of what I see around me. All of it is rendered in exquisite, emotional, human detail. So far, we've touched:
- The civic conflict between science and theology
- Colonialism and the tribute paid to tyrants
- Use of mathematics, engineering and science to enhance the imperial machine
- The use of media narratives to support the whims of the political elite
- Gerontocracy and the consequences of long-term elite crisis
- Civil unrest as an outcome of the dimming light of the state
- Imperial meddling in the political process of client states
Every detail of the writing is thoughtful, but every other detail is just as attentive. The production design brings us exquisitely rendered costumes, architecture, vehicles and props. A poignant, utterly distinctive score from Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica) sews everything together into perfect emotional resonance.
The cast is, of course, unbeatable.
I'm haunted and captivated by what I've seen so far. I chew on the stories between viewings, and find so much integrity in the web of cause and effect they describe.
The scale of the story works. It's a successful epic that feels both adult and nourishing. Where Game of Thrones hit us with brutality to be provocative, Foundation finds more subtle ways of taking our maturity seriously—without pulling punches on the brutality of empire.
It's not necessarily feel-good. But it's a story of how to recognize, survive and mitigate a difficult moment in history. It's a story about putting a floor on darkness and chaos. It's a tribute to our power to stand up to tyrants and chart a new course.
I don't know about you, but I need a little of that right now.