Superior Force: An Inferior Method Of Survival

What becomes of an empire as it sinks into a depraved desire to expand and, ultimately, survive at any cost? This is the question on my mind since I finished Orhan Pamuk’s tome Nights of Plague which some reviewers called a work in three genres: historical novel, murder mystery, and political allegory.

Pamuk lives and writes in Türkiye, rump of the once powerful Ottoman Empire. He’s often in trouble with his government for not depicting their antecedents splendidly enough — as for instance when he acknowledged the Armenian genocide and was placed under house arrest as a result. This time he’s accused of mocking Atatürk, the founder of modern Türkiye. But the events of his new novel, set as the Ottoman Empire sputters out, are as imaginary as its physical setting: an island besieged by bubonic plague.

It was impossible for me to read this book without noticing the many parallels to my own failing empire. 

When spying and surveillance become the way to hold on to power long after rulers have lost the confidence of the ruled, I think of the U.S. Not only informers but technology-based surveillance of every phone call (thank you, Edward Snowden), every email (no thank you, Google), and every social media post is the fuel our sputtering empire runs on. We’ve now seen firsthand evidence that Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other platforms are deeply infested by U.S. alphabet agencies like the CIA, FBI, and NSA — one might even say, controlled by them.

Fake news? Dying empires specialize in it. The inability to reflect on blunders and correct course is baked in to imperial hubris. This guarantees more mistakes and the kind of poor decisions that hasten one’s demise. For example, a series of failed wars in the Middle East and 800+ military outposts in other nations that are economically, morally, and environmentally unsustainable. Extreme weather events batter us while the empire continues pumping greenhouse gasses out at an alarming rate to maintain its self-appointed dominance. And funding failed rocket launches that trash the environment while government entities like the FAA look away.

Inability to manage public health in an atmosphere of suspicion and deliberate misinformation by governments who must proclaim their glory (whether D or R flavored) characterizes our day. When almost no one trusts government at all levels, the only way to get people to cooperate with it is through fear and intimidation. These methods are notoriously bad at promoting healthy outcomes.

Which brings us to torture.

A central conflict is Pamuk’s book is the tension between methods of solving a crime such as murder. The Ottoman method is to decide who the culprits are, then torture them until they confess. The Sherlock Holmes method (the reigning sultan is a fan) is to use deductive reasoning to discover the culprits. Our modern Turkish novelist paints these as “East” versus “West” and indeed this lens was prevalent at the turn of the 20th Century. But is that still accurate today?

Who bombed the Nord Stream pipeline? Only examine the obfuscation and determination not to know the answer to see what “the West” has come to. 

Where did SARS-CoV-2 come from? Many have concluded based on the evidence that it was invented in a lab especially its highly significant gain-of-function ability to be spread via aerosols. The U.S. government in particular has distinguished itself in spreading false information and in punishing those who offer a counter narrative, or even those who wonder aloud if the official narrative is plausible.

Julian Assange is the most visible victim of torture inflicted for telling the truth about U.S. war crimes. His torment is meant as a warning to us all: practice actual journalism and prepare to forfeit your freedom, your health, even your life. As the torturers signal their false respect for press freedom and journalists.

Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo stand as exemplars of torture regimes that even an Ottoman sultan would admire. But once instilling fear in others reaches the level of terrorizing, the information gained is practically worthless.  The cruelty of extraordinary rendition as a fishing expedition for possible future informants and infiltrators is a source of pride for the twisted individuals responsible.

Plausible deniability is also as U.S.ian today as it was once Ottoman. Pamuk’s sultan gets rid of political enemies by making sure they’re murdered far away from the capitol by agents whose actions cannot be traced back to the head of state. Similarly, the U.S./NATO proxy war on Russia via Ukraine has been a huge disinformation success. My venal senator Susan Collins just sent me email claiming we’re there to defend democracy (in one of the least democratic of European nations) and to respond to Russia’s “unprovoked” invasion of the Donbas region.

But sure let’s keep claiming that Russia is the one shelling the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia that they’ve controlled for a year now. By refusing to see the truth that Ukraine is doing the shelling (with U.S. or NATO equipment), we also refuse to understand how to stave off a possible meltdown. 

Our hands are tied by our own lies.

When the application of force is seen as the solution to any and all problems, your society is bound to fail. Because many problems — like pandemics — cannot be solved by force. Education, persuasion, and confidence that leaders can make tough but beneficial public health decisions are the stuff of public health management. In their absence, the infection rages on.

Love, Kindness, And Solidarity Are The Most Radical Acts Of All

The longest night of the year calls us to practice radical love. 

I’m writing before dawn as I stoke up the fire to warm the house while a carpet of tiny ice crystals sparkles outside reflecting the full moon in the sky.

Rituals of light involving candles, bonfires, and holiday decorations prop up our sagging morale as we in the Global North struggle through the second winter of a pandemic more deadly than ever. 

source: Getty Images

The passing of Black elder bell hooks was an occasion to remind ourselves of her wisdom and fierce advocacy for love as the ultimate radical act. Her guidance:

love is a combination of six ingredients: care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust,

and so if you don’t know what you’re doing, just pull out that little card and ask yourself ‘in what way does my action that I’m taking reflect these traits, these characteristics, these values’

Tempers are raging in the world white supremacist patriarchy created. That world is filled with threats of violence, actual violence, and a hail of bullets at regular intervals. Videos shared on Tiktok went viral calling for last Friday to be national school shooting day. Previous campaigns motivated students to destroy school bathrooms and punch teachers.

Teachers are quitting in droves, and those still hanging on are posting anguished reflections on the rising tide of anger directed at them by parents who have come undone and children whose social opportunities boiled down to zoom and video games for a year. 

High school teacher Julie Holderbaum wrote:

Oh my God, another one? How many school shootings does that make this year?

Are all teachers as overwhelmed and exhausted as I am?

Does anyone care what teachers are going through in this country?

When is someone going to do something about it?

Health care workers also are operating in a state of extreme duress that can only be sustained for so long. Much of it is fueled by their frustration and despair as angry, ignorant people refuse to observe safety protocols to protect others: the little children too young for the vaccines, and the immunocompromised people too ill to receive them.

Brute force in the form of vaccine mandates has failed as those who study public health success stories knew it would. 

Irresponsible advice last spring — from the CDC no less — to take off our masks and resume commerce and in-person school led us deeper into the crisis. 

This month the White House press secretary sneered at a reporter who asked why the federal government does not provide at home tests for everybody like other countries do (i.e. countries with universal public health care programs). Simple, non-invasive PPE like N95 masks for all is still lacking.

Providing them would be an act of love, but the people have long since stopped expecting rule by corporations or oxymoronic for-profit health care to be guided by love. Will they share vaccine knowledge with the world or hoard it to increase their own wealth? You know the answer.

Scholar of failing empires Chris Hedges says that cruelty it not an accidental byproduct of the current system, it is the point

Our courts fail to punish sexual exploitation of children, protecting the powerful men and women in Epstein’s little black book.

Instead, a court in the government that capitalism and its foundation, racism, built, punish a Puerto Rican immigrant truck driver whose company vehicle brakes failed resulting in a crash fatal for others. 

Image source: “Viral TikTok Shows Truckers Boycott On Behalf Of Rogel Augilera-Mederos

Aguilera-Mederos manifested love when he said how he wished that he could have traded his own life for that of the victims. 

The judge sentenced him to 110 years. Silver lining in that particular cloud: truck drivers are refusing to enter the state of Colorado in response and over 3 million people have signed this petition asking that his sentence be commuted to time served.

Workers are unionizing like mad, hooray! Solidarity is an act of love — while condemning someone risk death for the bottom line is routine corporate behavior even in a weather emergency.


As the war machine churns out deadly poisons, accelerates climate change, and takes no responsibility for burning children to death in Afghanistan; as the social safety net tears beyond repair and your wealthy government responds by going on holiday; and its automated messages fill inboxes with ominious reminders of the resumption of student loan payments in January; as we struggle through the longest night of the year,


love, kindness, and solidarity are the most radical acts of all.