on June 6, 2006
The authors of this timely volume are historians and social scientists with a wide range of expertise and perspective. In light of the current "fashion" of speaking of the United States as "empire," they ask and seek to answer important, clarifying questions about what "empire" really means and how current manifestations of social, political and economic power are similar to or different from examples from the past.
It is a modest but important exercise in seeking to use language intentionally. Their most valuable insights are that social and political power tends to operate flexibly and fluidly in ways that defy easy or sharp categorization. In asking questions about "lessons" from the past, they help us remember that each historical situation is unique and that our rush to find patterns or similarities between the present and past can be just as obfuscating as revealing. And yet, there are patterns to be observed and learned from, once one takes the time to look carefully.
If there is a central weakness in this collection, it is in the authors' inability to point beyond description to proscription. They uniformly abhor the systemic abuse of people and the planet that is so manifest in today's world, yet hesitate to (can't?) propose alternatives. From my perspective as one who works with the Christian tradition, this is perhaps not so much a weakness as simply an acknowledgment: social science is a valuable tool for telling us how the world is; religious experience and traditions provide opportunities to envision how it should be.