GLEN ELLYN, Ill. — “Empires are enormously profitable — for the ruling class. For the people, they are expensive,” noted author Michael Parenti said in a talk at the College of DuPage on Nov. 16. “Don’t think for a moment that the rulers are stupid,” he said. “If you think that, you are being stupid.”

Parenti was speaking on the topic of the “Darker Myths of Empire” at an event sponsored by the college’s English Department, part of a series of programs on the contemporary relevance of Joseph Conrad’s novel, “The Heart of Darkness.”

Parenti said he did not really want to talk about the myths of empire. Instead, he said, he wanted to discuss the “hidden truths of empire.”

He noted that apologists for empires depict them as forces for peace. Even the terms used to describe empires reflect that — Pax Romana, Pax Britannia, Pax Americana, and so on. Apologists for empire do not speak of the violence and oppression of empires, Parenti said.

Similarly, he said, apologists for empire frequently describe them as the result of unintentional, unconscious actions. Thus, according to one writer, “The British empire was put together in a fit of absent-mindedness,” while according to another writer, “The U.S. was thrust onto the world stage.”

Debunking such interpretations, Parenti said, “Empires are the product of deliberate contrivance. No social order can maintain itself without conscious human agency.”

Parenti noted that recently some right-wing writers have begun to speak openly of their goal of building a U.S. empire. In the past, though, people in the U.S. were frequently taught that empire-building was something other countries did, not the U.S. For example, U.S. children were often taught that the country had no colonies, ignoring Puerto Rico and the realities of neocolonialism.

Neocolonialism, Parenti said, leaves countries with a “husk of independence, while the substance of independence is taken away from them.” He detailed the history of U.S. ne-colonialism, starting with the United States’ relationship to Cuba in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1901, he said, Cuba was forced to include the Platt Amendment in its constitution, which prohibited Cuba from negotiating treaties with any country other than the United States and allowed U.S. intervention in Cuban affairs if the U.S. deemed it necessary.

Empire is not about power for power’s sake, Parenti said. “It’s about material interests. It’s about the plunder of land, natural resources, markets and cheap labor.” He continued, “If you want to know why Third World countries are poor, look the history of imperialism. They are not naturally poor. Imperialism made them poor. They were plundered.”

The U.S. has spent over $200 billion in Iraq, a third of which is unaccounted for, Parenti said. The oil cartels are raking in profits, he said, while every community in the United States pays, and schools and libraries and hospitals are closing.

To win support for empire building, Parenti said, the rulers manipulate patriotism and fear. They tell people that they are “fighting for democracy, for the security and survival of the nation, and so on.” With respect to the war in Iraq, Parenti said, “millions of people don’t know that the United States put Saddam Hussein in power. He was their ‘pro-Western’ poster boy until he showed signs of economic independence.”

Parenti ended his talk with a quote from the 19th century Populist leader Tom Watson on the Spanish-American War, which, Parenti said, is relevant today: “The privileged classes all profit from this war. … What do the people get out of this war? The fighting. And the taxes.”

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