Saturday, August 1, 2009

Thoughts on Empire

I recently picked up a book entitled The Rise and Fall of the British Empire by a historian named Lawrence James, and I must say that, despite the author's tendency to jump around and inefficiently demarcate the boundaries of conflicts (in one page he'll refer to several wars and describe all of them as "the war"), I have found this tome about one of history's greatest empires to be enjoyable.

What surprised me most was the precariousness with which the British held their vast realm together; at its territorial peak in 1930 the Empire held a quarter of the world's land area and a quarter of its population, yet throughout its history it was threatened at various turns by the designs of France, Russia, and Germany. Often, the security of the Empire's future was won by the quick actions of bold commanders who made split-second decisions to salvage situations that could easily have turned the tide against London.

In addition to showing me some things I would not have known about what I once considered an invincible monolith, the story of Britain's imperial rise and decline reminded me, at points uncannily, of something I had experienced in my own life.

Many of you will remember this post, in which I recounted how, faced with true tyranny, I authored at the age of thirteen a constitution that my brothers and I, along with several other children, signed and adhered to. I also mentioned, vaguely, a provision in the document that allowed for the admission of "states" to this Constitutional Union, and that seven were eventually brought in. What I did not mention is what happened next, chiefly because, while the Constitution and its effect on our family is something I am still deeply proud of, the fate of those states was far less honorable.

"How crazy is it that all of that happened?" I put forward to Powell recently.

"Yeah," my brother said. "You know you can never tell anyone about that, right?"

"Of course," I said, not adding, "I'll just broadcast it anonymously over the Internet to people who don't know who we really are."

Technically, I'm violating a bond by making this blog post. After the Constitutional Union, a new tenet was added to the oath sworn by incoming citizens: existence of our creation could never be revealed to any adult or outsider under any circumstances.

In short, the admission of states (what we actually called provinces) of children to a constitutional alliance under the auspices of defending civil liberties resulted in the formation of an expansionist and highly aggressive nation peopled and run by boys and girls who ranged in age from roughly ten to fifteen.

While the Constitution remained what it had always been intended to be in our household, beyond our family the project took on a nature whose values were diametrically opposed to those espoused at its inception.

The first province admitted was Renaldi, which was governed by my cousins Perfect and Innocent in Country Music State. At that point, the reason for a people's integration into our union was a sincere desire to defend children's rights, and both of my cousins heard with excitement the entire Constitution before agreeing wholeheartedly to uphold it.

Their parents, liberal and nurturing, made the existence of such a document superfluous in their family, but it also made the girls natural supporters of the system.

The next province admitted was Nicholia, whose "governor" actually signed the Constitution. Originally, it was all about that document. When the third and fourth provinces, Angela (under Beautiful Cousin) and Cristalia (under Blonde Cousin) were created, both girls read and affixed their signatures to the code that we regarded with near sacredness. The Constitution was the whole point.

Something was brewing in the air, though, something whose roots were far from democratic.

What my brothers and I did, unintentionally, was to mark off entire neighborhoods and tell twelve-year-olds that they were in charge of running them.

Children's nature is idealized by adults who have been grown so long they forget what it was like to be small.

"Children have to learn to hate," is the constant mantra.

This is not true. Children, if anything, represent all the extremes of the human condition, all the virtues and vices of adulthood with none of the social restraints imposed on us as we get older. Remember Lord of the Flies? It could happen. That's another piece of literature that took me back to this experience.

The province of Renaldi had not been established a month when a young girl there by the name of Rachel broke away from my cousin's jurisdiction. Perfect, a genuinely sweet person and one of the few leaders within our union who lived up to its original ideals, had been speaking to the girl and some friends about what the Constitution represented and how wonderful it would be to stand for something so right.

Rachel couldn't have cared less about the Constitution but loved the idea of the infrasructure, and she ran with it. A week later she was calling herself "queen," and within a fortnight had massed a group of children to her side and led an attack on those who subscribed to my cousin's beliefs.

This took us completely by surprise, as we'd never intended the alliance to stand in opposition to anything but child abuse, but it was human nature at play. Within the alliance, the three governors besides Perfect were beginning to discover and become infatuated with the fact that they could exert authority over others. The attack on Renaldi forced my bewildered cousin to establish a military of her own and fight a fight she'd never wished to, while the realities of the conflict made empire necessary across our alliance.

The governors renamed themselves kings and queens, and the person at the head of the alliance, formerly just the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Union, became a Czar.

Because I had written the Constitution, I was the first of four individuals who would hold that title. I believed wholeheartedly in the Constitution, but found myself caught up in events.

At the height of the Renaldi catastrophe, when the province was actually occupied and my cousins terrorized by their rivals, there was widespread hysteria that a group of teenagers nine hundred miles away were somehow going to impose upon us a minors' version of the totalitarianism we'd signed the Constitution to avoid. The only answer was to make more provinces, territories that would counterbalance the Country Music State rebels.

This led to the admission of Atricia, our fifth province and the first in my new community of Beautiful Town. Before the events in Renaldi, creating any provinces in Beautiful Town had seemed excessive; our family abided by the Constitution, and that was all that mattered. We could spread the word in our area. Atricia's creation said something bad about where we were going.

When its first king, Lacrosse Boy, was crowned, he became the first provincial ruler to not sign the Constitution. It was unspoken acknowledgement of a fact that had been true for months: the Constitution wasn't the point anymore. Liberating children wasn't the point anymore. It was the opposite.

We started with the best of intentions, but between November of 2001 and January of 2002, the Constitutional Union underwent a metamorphosis that left it an imperial power. It was even renamed in April, becoming the Imperial Empire of Aria.

When, later that winter, the provinces of Andrea and Tylendaria were also admitted, neither incoming king signed or even mentioned the Constitution. It came to be seen, if anything, as a minor detail that no longer applied, at least not in our interactions with other children.

When Lacrosse Boy and I were in high school and past our days in that affair, we once discussed the bizareness of walking through former Imperial provinces with classmates who had no idea what had gone on there.

I looked at him as we sat sipping juice in my kitchen, one sixteen-year-old former head of state appraising another, and asked, "Did you ever tell anyone?"

He laughed.

"No way," he answered.

Lacrosse Boy was a popular athlete in our high school whose reputation would have been hurt far more than mine by the revelation of all we'd done. He was one of my successors, serving as our nation's third czar after a long reign as the king of Atricia.

"I mean," he began with a meaningful gaze. "Would you ever tell anyone?"

"No," I snorted. "I mean, some of the things we did..."

Years later, Powell, who served as Aria's final ruler, summed up the experience aptly: "It was just constant fighting. All the time."

Following the episode in Renaldi, and our extraordinarily-unlikely victory over a far larger rival that threatened our existence when our union was months old, leaders within the ruling aristocracy became determined that no rival league would ever menace our security again.

They, and I, attempted to ensure this by creating a heavily-stratified society in which power was dictated from the top, with the highest rung occupied by the Czar and his immediate circle and the lowest occupied by those children who in everything but name were slaves.

The construction of forts and the carrying-out of everyday tasks was performed by a segment of our population that had no say in the matter, children who didn't necessarily belong to an individual so much as they belonged to any aristocrat who happened to require their assistance at the time.

Later, chiefly after my reign had ended, I caught a lot of criticism for something that really wasn't my fault. The boys and girls charged with running a new empire had many grand ideas, and they certainly weren't going to do the physical work of bringing them into concrete existence.

Some provinces were wholly dependent on this institution; in Cristalia, nine-tenths of the population was enslaved.

Still, I could have put my foot down. Among all of us, there was only one person who did: Perfect. She told me in no uncertain terms that she would disband her province before a single Renaldian became a slave. She was alone in her convictions, and bound children became integral to the building of Aria's tangible institutions.

One of our more impressive projects was what we called our Capitol, located in a construction site behind our neighborhood.

It started as a two-story mound of dirt that was transformed in the course of several weeks.

A bowl was dug into its top to allow people to sit in it and be concealed from others on the ground, grates were attached to the slopes to serve as look-out posts, and a group of huge stones, dragged from a nearby field, was embedded into the side of the structure to make an actual staircase. All of this was done using involuntary labor. I even visited the site to speak with the Atrician noble, a friend of Lacrosse Boy's, who was supervising the project.

At the time, I just thought it was all very cool. I was thirteen to fifteen years old, and I'll admit, it was fun. Creating provinces, establishing colonies, and conquering anyone who stood in our way, was fun. In that, I could empathize with the British imperialists who went out with such joy to claim Africa and subdue the peoples of India. It wasn't until I got older that the first tinges of guilt, and the realization of the project's anthropological value, started to hit me.

If being the head of a sovereign country in eighth grade sounds like it would have been a blast, you should know that there was a lot to handle.

Between Andrea declaring its independence every other week, Atricia reminding the rest of the country that it mattered more than everyone else, Tylendaria regularly notifying our government that it was bankrupt, Angela sending us reports saying that it lacked the manpower for basic defense, Renaldi questioning the morality of every decision the Crown made, Cristalia petitioning me to legalize the immolation of slaves (that last one is a joke), and Nicholia calling to say that, oops--it got invaded again, running Aria was very stressful.

By the time I left, I was glad to be going.

Among the provinces, Atricia had the most going for it in terms of population, industry (you'd be surprised at the kinds of weapons that middle-schoolers with limited budgets can come up with), and military power, and for those exact same reasons was the biggest pain in mine and everyone else's rear ends.

Atricia was the province we needed, and it knew it. Its people, among them my best friend, would periodically remind us that Aria's ship would be sunk if the province ever left. They were especially mocking towards the people of Andrea.

Andrea, located immediately next to Atricia, was the second most populous province in Aria and also the second to be created in Beautiful Town.

This status led to a meanspirited but funny joke that Atricians would repeat until the end of imperial history: "It was made second for a reason."

The Andreans were, to be frank, excitable people. Their king, who happened to be my neighbor, believed that Andrea deserved status as an independent country, and its people were constantly agitating for separation from the empire. Now, you have to understand my predicament: my house was surrounded by Andrean territory. The king of Andrea lived next door. There was no way that I, as the sovereign of one state, was going to permit the creation of a potential rival within striking distance of my front porch.

Andrea seceded three times and was on the verge many times more, and in each instance the Atricians, led by Lacrosse Boy, came to the rescue. Popular will was such that I couldn't sack the Andrean king, which made interactions between us more awkward than you would ever believe.

Our parents were actually good friends and hung out a lot, which meant that we saw each other often, even in the midst of civil conflicts. As crazy as this is going to sound, we just adjusted to an incredibly-weird set of circumstances, managing to be cordial even when our allies were waging frequently-violent campaigns against one another.

At the center of this, though, was a very real passion and a visceral pride: the Andreans wanted to go it alone because they thought they were worthy of that, because they thought that they were an outstanding people. They were easily provoked to rebellion.

This combustibility was not helped by the fact that the Atricians found their neighbor's proclivity for secession to be openly hilarious.

A lot of this rivalry actually was pretty funny, but at the time it so inflamed the political situation that I couldn't see the humor.

During a heated argument among friends, an Andrean acquaintance of mine spat at an Atrician, "Nobody even likes you."

The Atrician, without missing a beat, replied, "If by nobody you mean Andrea, then yeah, you're totally right."

Another time, an Andrean introducing a new citizen to our circle informed them quite casually that "everyone hates Atricia."

"How can everyone hate Atricia?" one of the other boys came back. "Half the country lives there."

I don't know what the exact numbers were, and it wasn't half, but a clear plurality lived in Atricia. It was our California and New York rolled into one.

The Andrea/Atricia border actually ran along my property line, so that my front windows faced Andrea and my back ones faced Atricia. The proximity of our most powerful province to the place where I slept was a reassurance when the Andreans were acting up and an ominous threat when the Atricians threatened to flex their muscle.

The Andreans just never caught a break. Whenever there was a civil disturbance, troops from, inevitably, Atricia, came in to quell it.

A match between the Atrician and Andrean basketball teams in 2002 became something of an obsession for both provinces, to the point that I legitimately worried how we would hide the scale of the event from the adults.

When the Atrician team won, their players sailed onto the outdoor court screaming, "It was made second for a reason!"

The Andreans, enraged, huffed away, followed by cries of, "Wah, wah, I'm gonna go make my own country!"

Andrea, joking aside, really was made second, and I know because I was there when it was made. In fact, I made it.

At the time, imperial decree counted for a lot more than it did later on, and I could swing the creation of a new province just because I felt like it. So, over the objections of Atricia's king, I took a huge chunk of his eastern land and gave it to my neighbor. At a more advanced point in our history, the seizure of Atrician land against the will of the Atrician monarch for use by another province would have been a practical impossibility.

When that time arrived and I was handling regular insurrections from Andrea, Lacrosse Boy teased me mercilessly for my earlier decision.

"I told you," he said. "I told you even back then that it was a bad idea. I told you I didn't want you to do it, but you did."

"I know," I said.

"What were my exact words?"

"'You're letting them walk all over you.'"

The elite within and outside tended to socialize often, meaning that the leaders of our and other countries came from a small group of children whose members were mostly interconnected in one way or another. At times, this made the objective formulation of policy difficult to achieve.

One such occasion came in the spring of 2002, when I found myself grappling with a sudden uprising in Atricia. A boy from that province had found some large hills in the frontier zone, and, alleging that they were outside of Atricia, claimed them as is own. Government policy on this was clear; any territory uncovered by Imperial citizens belonged to the state. The boy in question rallied several radicals to his side and declared independence rather than surrender the hills.

Lacrosse Boy called me to let me know what was going on, and that very night we had massed forces at the border, ready to enter the frontier in a campaign of encirclement.

What I didn't count on was that my brother Powell, then king of Tylendaria, was a close friend of the instigator. When he learned who we were targeting, he threatened to turn his provincial army against me. Andrea, always eager for an opportunity to undermine Imperial power, put its lot in with my brother. Lacrosse Boy was furious and ready to restore order by force, but I backed down.

That night, I was steaming.

"You're such an asshole," I fumed at Powell. "You're such an asshole."

"No, BB, you're an asshole," was the response. "How could you do that to him?"

"He stole our land!" was my answer. "And committed treason."

The worst part of it was being unable to tell on him; what could I possibly have said to my parents? There was no one to appeal to, so I just stewed in my anger.

The result of this event was the formation of a new neighbor, Gorgan, that would eventually become an ally.

In addition to ties of friendship that linked many rulers, there were ties of blood; three of my cousins were provincial rulers. Visits from relatives thus became grand social occasions, and in the early summer of 2002 a state function was held in honor of Blonde Cousin and Beautiful Cousin, both queens, when they stayed at the same time.

We toured first through Atricia and then Andrea, greeted by throngs of civilians and the Andrean and Atrician delegations, who made small talk with my cousins as we processed towards the Capitol. This process, and, by extension, national unity, was helped along by the fact that an Atrician noble had a huge crush on the Queen of Cristalia and everyone else had trouble keeping their eyes off the Queen of Angela, who even at that age was strikingly pretty.

"Wow," Beautiful Cousin said. "At home, the empire isn't that big, but here you can really see it."

"I love coming here," Blonde Cousin gushed. "We get treated like princesses."

A highlight of the day came when, just before our group reached the Andrean border, a slave wielding a letter opener leapt from the crowd and dashed toward Beautiful Cousin.

I seriously doubt that this child intended to do anything other than scare us, but before he'd gotten ten feet he was tackled to the ground by about six different boys who were each twice his size. Beautiful Cousin was unnerved by this incident, and to compensate was able to witness first-hand an Imperial trial when the perpetrator was dragged to the Imperial Chain (our court) and sentenced to confinement.

As much fun as domestic politics was, a serious international crisis would surface every month or so to really spice things up.

In the spring of 2002, the king of Andrea asked me to meet with him.

"What's up?" I asked when I got to his house.

"We found another country," he said.

"What?" I asked. Whenever another nation was located it was regarded as a defense issue, likely because we'd been nearly subjugated by a foreign power early in our history and had subsequently spent our time doing the same thing to everyone else. "Is it a threat?"

"We can't tell," the king said.

"Well, where is it?" I inquired, hoping it would at least be a safe distance away.

"Yeah..." the king began. "It might technically be inside of Andrea."

"Super," I responded.

More than a year later, in the late summer of 2003, a den of anti-monarchists, a true democracy, was discovered on Tylendaria's western border. This huge settlement, larger than even Atricia, was located in a lower-income neighborhood and shared many links with Imperial slaves.

By this time our empire was well past its peak, and in the era of Aria's decline, when Imperial forces could not sufficiently defend the country's borders, the radicals made regular raids into our territory. These were mostly random incursions designed to startle the daylights out of Imperial citizens, a practice in which the radicals delighted, but one of the intrusions came within a block of me. I was not on the throne at this point and was instead serving as an adviser to Lacrosse Boy, who'd been crowned emperor earlier that year, but I was still recognized and the bandits crowed when they saw just who they were terrorizing.

There had been a time when the discovery of a large group of filthy democrats on our very borders would have been a godsend, an excuse to wage war and take someone over, but the truth is we weren't the power we used to be, and in late 2003 Aria was in no position to wage a large-scale conflict.

When a group of nobles, fed up with the radicals' escapades, went across the border after them, their convoy was promptly attacked.

"Who was involved?" Lacrosse Boy asked when informed of the event, hoping he could play it off as a misunderstanding.

"Second Twin."

Lacrosse Boy swore. Second Twin's brother was Atricia's new king.

"I know we can't really afford anything right now," the boy delivering the report continued. "But--" here he actually laughed--"can you imagine what it would look like?"

The two most traumatic events in our history were the invasion of Renaldi at the Empire's founding and the convulsions that our country experienced in the summer of 2002.

Under the severe strains of a world war that pushed our power to its farthest limits, tension on the home front intensified dramatically. Imperial slavery, never morally justifiable, was increasingly hard to defend from a practical perspective, and as the burdens on the slaves grew heavier than ever, leaders with various reasons to oppose the Crown emerged and rallied the downtrodden to them.

Beginning in late May, a mass slave uprising forced the governments of Andrea and Atricia to wage a battle for internal control. Fat Boy, originally an Atrician citizen, was briefly made the king of an eighth province, Kensington. The rest of the aristocracy never approved of him, and following the outbreak of our Second World War the Senate voted to enslave Kensington and its monarch.

In the face of this ultimate rejection, Fat Boy turned against the elite he'd once sought to join. The war effort flagged as the internal situation became more serious. On July 2, 2002, after two months of increasingly-bitter battles agaist former slaves and their allies, the Atrician government lost effective control of its territory to the rebellion.

I received a summons to Atricia that I thought came from Lacrosse Boy, but in fact he'd been deposed and I was being lured into a trap. When I crossed the Atrician border, I was arrested and brought before the Senate, which, led by Fat Boy, voted unanimously to dethrone me.

I was returned to Andrea, where Short Boy, their king, was waiting for me.

Catching sight of my escort, he asked frantically, "What happened?"

I was dazed at how quickly the situation had deteriorated, but I managed a coherent explanation of the events in the Senate. He looked like he'd been electrocuted. He sat down, hard, his eyes wide.

"Aria crashed," he muttered. "Man, Aria crashed."

"Isn't this what you wanted?" I asked bitterly.

He looked at me, and anger flashed in his eyes.

"No," he said. "I never wanted this."

Several moments passed in silence.

"Atricia is gone," he said, almost as if to make himself believe it. Then the king of Andrea wept.

The people of Andrea were not stupid and during this time were perfectly aware something was going on. A crowd of them had formed near the Imperial Chain, and he decided that he should go out to address his people.

The atmosphere as we departed his home was more somber than I can effectively convey. The young boy and his small escort walked wordlessly toward the Imperial Chain, from which we could hear a dull roar of conversation that grew louder as we neared.

Dozens of Andreans were surrounding the traditional symbols of Imperial power, many of them in states of advanced agitation, screeching unanswered questions into phones and at each other, trying to discern what had been happening.

The crowd, deprived of any official news out of Atricia, was riding upon a steady stream of hysterical conversation, fueled by rumor and hearsay. The dominant opinion seemed to be that one or more cities in Atricia had gone over to the enemy, while others held that the Atricians, led by Lacrosse Boy, were rallying a massive force to convene at the Imperial Chain and crush the rebellion.

When the children caught sight of Short Boy, their frenzied talking grew in intensity, then slowly subsided as the monarch climbed atop the Imperial Chain to address his subjects.

They were looking up at him with expectant eyes, worried, scared, angry, militant. Some seemed ready to take up arms with the Atricians and do whatever was necessary to impose sovereignty the way their nation always had before.

There was so much contained within their gazes, so many hopes, so much fierce pride mingled in with the fear.

Short Boy spoke.

"The King of Atricia has been overthrown," he said.

The mass of people gasped as one. Atricia, and its extremely popular king, well-liked even in Andrea, had stood as the guardian of Imperial power nearly since the Empire's founding. In crisis after crisis, Atricia, powerhouse of Aria, had stepped forth to redeem the country and assert its might. I think that some of them never for a moment believed that its defeat was possible.

A girl in the front of the crowd had clasped her hands to her mouth.

Several people, without thinking about it, were shaking their heads from side to side.

Short Boy looked out at his people, a people who in that moment were beginning to realize the weight of an insurmountable burden.

"It's up to us now," he said quietly.

Nobody could doubt what he meant.

Andrea was the only thing holding the Empire together, and unless it fought, Aria would perish. As I surveyed the people around me, I had no doubt that the boys and girls of the Second Province would prove brave beyond measure. I also had no doubt that they would lose.

Short Boy looked at me.

"I'm with you," he murmured.

He held my hand in the air and declared, "THIS, is our Czar."

A roar of furious support went up into the air.

Then he turned and left.

The cluster of Andreans standing there exploded into conversation the moment he was done. Cell phones were whipped out and boys and girls, many of them in tears, made frantic calls to friends in an effort to figure out what was happening. I just stood in the midst of this babble, ignoring the questions that people shouted at me, and headed home myself.

The Andrean provincial army mobilized, expecting an invasion within a week. The flood of public support for this effort took me by complete surprise; for the first time in our history, I was in no position to exert power over Andrea, and the long-awaited path to independence had been blown wide open. Yet in that moment, when the province's objectives were in sight, it rallied to the Crown to fight a war its king had to know he couldn't win.

Everyone else did; with the loss of Atricia international opinion held Aria's days numbered, and before the day was even out most of our colonies had declared independence. I made a very difficult call to Perfect Cousin that night, informing her of the situation and freeing her from a dying empire.

The universal reaction to the Fall of Atricia was one of disbelief and dismay.

My task was to inform the provincial leaders of the calamity. Among the harder calls I made that day was to Blonde Cousin, Queen of Cristalia, who had for a time dated an Atrician noble.

"Oh, no," she said, her voice breaking with emotion. I could practically see the tears pouring down her cheeks. "How?"

The people of Andrea, for all their traditional rivalry with their beleaguered neighbor, became rabidly pro-Atrician when the First Province was overcome. For all the valiant efforts they made to come to their brothers' aid, though, the situation was hopeless.

The next day, on July 3, 2002, a rebel force crossed the Andrean border after a futile effort by the Andreans to stop them. Throughout the next two days, Andrean armies suffered spectacular defeats across the province, slowly losing control of the territory. Before long, the rebels had occupied the Imperial Valley and reports offering glimpses of apocalypse started to pour in.

A friend found me later that day with news.

"It's the Imperial Chain," he said breathlessly.

"It's captured?" I asked.

"It's on fire," he answered.

The Fall of Andrea took place on July 4, 2002.

The Empire was over.

And what did I learn? What was the point? The bigges thing I figured out was that there was no point, that humankind's propensity for domination and thirst for power was never quenched.

That's it.

No comments: