Thoughts and Prayers for The American Empire

Alexander Billinis

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“We started south from Chicago, flanking the Indiana border. When traveling across flat land without bold geographical markers, transitions are subtle but, somewhere in the lower half of Illinois, I felt I was leaving the North and transitioning to a part of the country with a more tribal, blood-and-soil identity. It might have been the crosses, the religious radio stations and billboards, or the preponderance of pickup trucks, but something told me I was not in multi-ethnic, global Chicago any longer. There were no borders or barriers, but I felt grateful, and hardly for the last time—that we were all part of a larger federal empire—where the diversity of the whole balanced the insularity of the parts.”—Alexander Billinis

Roaming East Roman

By Alexander Billinis

What broke asunder might well break asunder again.

What broke asunder might well break asunder again.

Alexander Billinis

CLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—May 2018—When we first repatriated to the United States from Europe, in 2013, America was, for most of my immediate family, essentially a foreign land.

My Serbian-born wife had lived in America—in Chicago and, briefly, in Milwaukee—from 1996 to 2006, and my son was born in Chicago in 2004. From 2006 to 2013 we lived in three European countries in succession, and my daughter was born in London in 2009.

We held dual and, in one child’s case, triple nationality: America was a distant and vast empire to which we felt an imperial-style loyalty. I remembered America from my birth, childhood, and adulthood, and I wanted to reconnect with my American roots after years as a European.

As we faced the realities of not-so-post-recession Chicago, most of our energy went to settling the kids in, and finding employment. I wanted to acculturate my children to their country so that their history classes involved much more than just texts and lectures.

History is, for me, a secular religion, and my offspring had long become used to pilgrimages” throughout Europe.

Our first American road-trip was in the autumn of 2014, just as Chicago’s winter was beginning to shut things down. We were going to cross the width of Illinois to the Mississippi River ;specifically, to the small port of Galena, so favored by the Chicago Bed & Breakfast crowd. Vilma and I had been there before, on our first overnight trip as a couple, so it was a nostalgic return visit for us: for the kids, it was a deep dive into American culture and geography.

The Mississippi was the first western border for the nascent United States, and I referred to the river as “America’s Danube.” The Mississippi was also a highway for commerce and culture, which explained, perhaps, the several, spicy New Orleans joints in Galena. I made a mental note that we needed to follow up with a trip to New Orleans at some later date.

Crossing the “Mighty Mo” into Iowa, I told my fellow travelers that we had just left the US of 1783 and crossed into French territory. At that precise moment, I recalled traversing the “51st Partisan Division Bridge,” across the Danube between Serbia and Croatia.

When my wife was a little girl—and even a young woman—the Danube was merely the border between two Yugoslav Republics. Now, it is a well-fortified international border with a state-of-the-art Croatian border post.

That, and much more, is what happens when empires collapse.

By Spring Break 2015, after our second freezing winter in Chicago, we again consulted the map. Due south of Chicago, the Gulf of Mexico had many beaches on offer, and those in Alabama touted prices that fit our modest family budget. This destination would also give us a chance of seeing both Mobile and New Orleans, historic US cities with histories rich in commerce and culture, but which also highlighted the North-South divide so important in the country’s past and, perhaps, the Billinises’ future.

We started south from Chicago, flanking the Indiana border. When traveling across flat land without bold geographical barriers, transitions are subtle but, somewhere in the lower half of Illinois, I felt I was leaving the North and transitioning to a part of the country with a more tribal, blood-and-soil identity. It might have been the crosses, the religious radio stations and billboards, or the preponderance of pickup trucks, but something told me that I was not in multi-ethnic, global Chicago any longer. There were no borders or barriers, but I felt grateful, and hardly for the last time—that we were all part of a larger federal empire—where the diversity of the whole balanced the insularity of the parts.

Crossing over the rain-ravaged Ohio River, another American highway, we entered a stormy Kentucky, which I envision as a borderland, which neither North nor South really controlled during the Civil War; its green hills ideal guerilla country, readily recalling the Serbian mountains, also for centuries the home of hardy mountain guerillas. Not for nothing did Lincoln say about his rough home state, “I hope to have God on our side, but we must have Kentucky.”

By this point, the accent of the locals had changed profoundly, and my kids’ subtle ears caught every nuance. We crossed the Tennessee state line, where I announced that we had crossed into “The Confederate States of America,” passing over what had once been an (albeit unrecognized) “international” border. A car accident had backed up traffic, so we waited it out inside the Tennessee State Welcome Center, where brochures and maps and depictions of Civil War battles held our attention. We were accustomed to crossing international frontiers, and the distances between US states was often greater than those between European countries.

Sometimes, in America, as in Europe, the cultures of the various regions or states . . . seemed like those of different countries. It gets you to thinking—and worrying.

Driving deeper into the South, the accents and idiom morphed further, and the global diversity of the coasts, Chicago, and other cities settled into a literal black and white ethnic divide, where two races inhabit a common space, share a largely common culture, Protestant traditions, and regional pride, with obviously differently parsed versions of history and politics.

Not for the first time, I recalled the Ottomans’ imperial system, whereby Christians and Muslims inhabited the same space, but lived in parallel societies, where the Christians were inferior. The Ottomans, however, made no racial distinctions, in total contrast to the American experiment, and Christians might grudgingly acknowledge the Sultan as overlord, but they had no loyalty to the Ottoman state.

Not so the Black Americans, who, despite everything thrown at them by the Caucasian majority, love both the American Empire and their Southern identity, and have proven it for centuries.

After another trip South, over Spring Break 2016, in this case to South Carolina to attend a tennis camp and tour of Savannah, we were hooked, though some of us more than others. Visiting Clemson at the suggestion of my editor, we decided to make the move south from Chicago, as “tax refugees,” though Chicago’s winters probably topped our list of reasons for decamping.

The snow is why there is a huge “Chicago Diaspora” all along the west coast of Florida, and yet another in Arizona. This northeastern and mid-western exodus has made the Sunshine State the third largest in population, despite its small size and inability to accommodate so much humanity on its waterlogged landmass.

Florida is also a mosaic of 21st-century American enclaves in miniature: from New York, Jewish pods in the Southeast along with a globalized Hispanidad and, increasingly, wealthy Russian expats, plus the hordes of Yankee and Midlander transplants encroaching on interior and panhandle cultures that once comprised the  rougher edges of the Deep South.

“The garden has it all,” to translate a Greek saying.

Yet, we are all Americans, all holders of this “imperial” nationality, in spite of, and perhaps because of, the tribal and regional tapestry that lies beneath. Notwithstanding our common “Imperial” nationality, the cultural differences within this great empire called the United States are indeed meaningful. Though we are thoroughly mixed and without European-style tribal-territorial roots, there exists enough regional/cultural “rootedness” in some areas to make me imagine that politics, geography, and economics might cause this great empire to sunder into constituent parts.

Here in Clemson, a university enclave, of sorts, in a Southern/Scots-Irish Protestant “nation” rooted in the Appalachian region, there is a diversity typical of any college town.

Technically, as Americans, we are in our own country. Also, technically, my family and I, as “white Christian Americans,” are part of the majority culture, both of this region and of the American Empire as a whole.

I am teaching a series of classes on Eastern Europe, at Clemson University’s OLLI (Lifelong Learning) Center. Though my students are generally very well read and average 20 years older than their instructor, I try to analogize facts on the ground in Eastern Europe to those here in the US. It is not an easy task and, yet, the diversity of America, its vast geography, its imperial present, its would-be “tribes” below the surface, somehow make the comparison plausible.

In class, we are currently talking about the dissolution of empires in Eastern Europe and the coming of the nation state.

But, as I asked my class, what happens if our “American Empire” disappears?

Then, at the stroke of a pen, or the future ordinance of a legislature reminiscent of past ones, we would become, either in theory or in fact, foreigners (or at least resident aliens) in South Carolina. Our American commonality would no longer apply, and our English, with our northern accents, markers of otherness. “White” in a vastness of European immigrants in America is one thing. It clearly different means something different when most of the region is Anglo-Celtic and Protestant, and you are Southern European, and Orthodox. In theory, of course, we would lose both our imperial identity . . . and not be at home anymore. Anywhere.

Call it my little fever dream, if you will, but one informed by history.

Thoughts and prayers are needed for this American Empire. May it become a kinder, gentler one.

Note: The image of Generals Lee and Grant derives from “Slate.

Alexander Billinis

About Alexander Billinis

Obsessed with traces of lost empires (especially the Byzantine and the Hapsburg), Alexander Billinis self-identifies as an American-Generation-X-Liberal, but with a European’s faith in social democracy. An international banker who's spent much of his career in the Europe of the Financial Crisis, Billinis has most recently lived in Chicago and in Sombor, Serbia, in the multi-ethnic province of Vojvodina. Before that, he lived in the UK and Greece. A bi-national citizen of the United States and Greece, with a facility in several languages, this “Roaming East Roman” has now returned to the United States for the foreseeable future, unearthing his law degree to practice the law; and writing and lecturing on the side. His book, The Eagle has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe, is a travelogue of the Balkans, Asia Minor, and Southern Italy. His second book, a novel, Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, reveals the common heritage of an Aegean littoral now divided up by exclusivist states. Both books are available via and other online vendors.
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5 Responses to Thoughts and Prayers for The American Empire

  1. Avatar Ron Pavellas says:

    I regret that the USA has become an Empire (was it born during World War One, the Spanish-American War, or earlier?). George Washington certainly did not intend this for his country, even if he may have discerned the possibility. But, if not the USA, who or which? It seems the world will always have empires (was the first one of the Egyptians, Persians?). Rome went from a kingdom to a republic, to an empire, all of which lasted around 1,250 years. The succeeding Byzantine Empire lasted around 1,000 years. The succeeding Ottoman Empire lasted almost 500 years. The British Empire lasted, arguably, around 500 years. The Soviet Empire lasted around seventy years.The USA has been a nation-state for 242 years, of which it has been an Empire, arguably, for around 100 years. Who or what will succeed our nation as a dominant empire? China? What becomes of a former empire? Look to the “United Kingdom”? My Swedish wife observes that she sees no analog in Europe to the USA’s quintessentially “American” founding documents, which I revere. Can they, and our adherence to what they represent, save us from final dissolution into sectarianism and group identification? George Washington warned against political parties. Other founders were not so sure about “democracy,” preferring the emphasis on “Republic.” Although I am not formally “religious,” I see that we need some greater spiritual or moral or philosophical glue to keep us united.
    Thanks for your beautifully literate and soulful journey.
    Best wishes,
    Ron Pavellas

  2. Avatar Alex says:

    Thank you for your comment, Ron, it got me to thinking. I believe that the US has been an empire from the beginning, it was too vast to be anything else. Like all empires, it had demons and dark sides, as well as many redeeming factors (the founding documents you revere being a key redemption, particularly when interpreted gently). I accept the faults and foibles of our empire, and love it both for positive reasons, and for negative ones–think of the alternative.

  3. Avatar Will says:

    Very thoughtful, Alex – y’all’s journey. I wonder, though, if – after the empire’s dissolution – in this pie-shaped mini-republic, MOST of us will find ourselves “foreign” residents. Even those of us with native credentials and accents nowadays include a very great many who are not quite so nativist in outlook. The neo-confederates and revanchist dreamers are the ones who will claim ownership, and all the rest of us (not just those whose life credentials were gained elsewhere) will be deemed suspect. Much like I remember my childhood in rural SC.

  4. Avatar C Jackson Counelis says:

    Thanks Alexander. You have given us a clear picture of our historical moment. Thanks for sharing. If Sharing is soaked to resolving our historical moment, and I live in hope that it’s so…here’s some very new writing from the next generation, from our daughter,written today:
    7 Hours Difference — A life
    Eleana Kouneli May 4, 2018

    -What time is it there ?


    -I never remember the time difference.

    -7 hours difference, it has been my whole life.

    Time zones have been a part of my daily life ever since I can remember. My mother would contact her relatives in the United States when we lived in Greece, long before social media of course, or even a steady phone line (for those who remember a time before smart phones). I would call my American grandmother (at great cost for international calls) once a month, and all other communication was with letter writing and post cards. (yes letters; remember those??)

    At 14 my parents and I moved to the United States, where maintaining communication with friends and loved ones back in Greece was an exercise not only in keeping up with daily life, but also the Greek language. I distinctly recall my friend sending me spelling corrections in my letters to her when she would reply. (thanks Georgia after all those years).

    At 23 I moved back to Athens, and communicated weekly with cell phones and regular calls and emails with my friends in London, Paris and the U.S. I would stay awake in the very late hours (12- 3am) to talk to my friends in New York, and try to catch up as best as we could with cheap international calling cards just to fill each other in on our lives.

    Now back in New York with chats, Viber, Whats-app, Facebook messenger, Instagram, time is relative. Time difference almost doesn’t matter. I talk to my close friends after they have put their kids to bed. They stay up for a night cap and a quiet moment, and I text back and forth at 5 am in the morning with my cousins and best friends before I go to work. I live between two time zones, always carving time to connect, talk, share our lives whenever possible.

    It’s somewhat easier to stay connected with technology on our side; but still that phone call once a week, once a month, or even once a day; happens between those seven hours difference. I feel like a double agent, calculating, managing time in a split world between the one I live here in New York and the one I live with my friends and family back in Greece. We steal moments from our present lives to share stories, gossip, news, family pictures, and most recently most of my writing here.

    What time is it there? 5.30am–

    What are you doing up that early??

    Taking time to talk with you…

    What time zone are you in

  5. Avatar Alex Billinis says:

    Will, I think that you are correct. The fact is that most of us have enough in us that is diverse, and foreign, that this diversity will require our pie shaped mini republic to remain part of the greater federal republic. Too many of us have an outer or inner diversity to allow for a primary color paint over of the mosaic beneath.

    Or so I pray.

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