interview with Eric Lis M.D. C.M., Emperor of Aerican Empire by samyuktha pc
Nationhood, nationalism, patriotism… I cannot even claim to understand why my neighbour and I should be part of one country, and why the friend who came over last night is actually a refugee in this country. I am in terrible confusion. Why does the city I live in, Chennai, have to end at the toll booth three kilometres away from my house in Neelankarai? How come until four months Neelankarai was not part of Chennai? Whose city is this? Whose state is this? Whose nation is this? It perplexes me that India constitutes of land whose people, culture, language, dialect and almost everything changes every few kilometres? What is Indian culture? Why does the Indian map strain for some ‘commonness’ in this land? Why am I part of a construct that I do not understand and cannot really question? This confusion made me read a lot about micronations. Finally, I managed to get in touch with Eric Lis, Emperor of the Aerican Empire. Aerican Empire is a micronation founded in 1987 by Eric Lis who obtained his M.D. C.M. from Mc. Gill University, which included him and a few of his friends. They claimed territory, fought wars, and finally moved into their web domain in 1997.
This post is constructed from a long meandering conversation with Emperor Eric Lis on the Aerican Empire, nationalism, micronations, ideologies, and more.
Eric said, “I agree with you that the concept of “nationhood” is quite arbitrary. Borders, after all, are defined by people; they may or may not be determined by geographical features or ancient battles. Language may divide a field which is otherwise identical. Here in North America, Canada and the United States share a huge border and culture crosses it freely, but the two countries have somehow formed distinct national identities and many Canadians will tell you very firmly that they aren’t Americans. In my opinion, like many things in life, nationalism and nationhood can be open to interpretation, although I find that many people don’t see that.”
What is a micronation?
“There is no definition for the word micronation in Webster’s Dictionary. There is no universally accepted definition of the word. Depending on who you ask, it may be limited to serious nation-building projects or it may include some website that an eight-year old child put on the internet ten minutes ago. For legal purposes, the Aerican Empire defines a micronation as “a state or nation which claims citizens and a distinct culture but which has not been recognized as legitimate by the established states of the world.” You can compare this to the Wikipedia definition, which is “entities that claim to be independent nations or states but which are not recognized by world governments or major international organizations.” For what it’s worth, the Wikipedia definition is probably the most widely-accepted definition in the world, to my knowledge. The common theme between the two definitions is that these micronations are that 1) the micronation makes claims, as opposed to being recognized to control, and 2) these claims are largely unrecognized except by other micronations.”
Cocos Keeling Island is the oldest known micronation, ruled by the Clunies-Ross family. To read more of its history and the fight with the Commonwealth BBC’s article ‘The man who lost a coral kingdom‘ is a good start. If you would like to pry at the available details the CIA World Fact Bookshould do.
Micronations initially were formed as a form of protest against big nation-states and establishment in general. For instance, in 1970, Leonard Casley declared The Principality of Hutt River as independent after a dispute over wheat quotas. The Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Seaswas established in 2004 as a symbolic political protest by a group of gay rights activists based in southeast Queensland. However, in the mid-1990s they started to be created for personal entertainment, fantasy, or creative fiction.
For instance, the Aerican website talks about how the Empire was founded:“We started before we had ever heard the term micronation. The Emperor decided, on his birthday, to do something no one else he knew had ever done. Therefore, he made a city called Aerica. Over the years, it grew to its present form. In 1997, the Emperor heard the term “micronation” and realized he had one. A pretty darn good one, too, if I may say so.”
How do people find the Aerican Empire? Is there any kind of campaigning?
“We used to do a lot of campaigning, primarily in chat rooms and political forums. Starting about eight to ten years ago, we became big enough that people started to hear about us on their own (by word of mouth or by newspaper and website interviews), and they would come to our site. These days, our single biggest source of traffic is our article on Wikipedia. I have no idea, however, how people come to be at the Wikipedia article. “
New York Times first brought out the micronational dialogue in 2000, featuring the Aerican Empire as “one of the more imaginative sites, refers to itself as ”the Monty Python of micronationalism,” and its inhabitants worship a being known as the Great Penguin” in an article called Utopian Rulers, and Spoofs, Stake Out Territory Online. This article boosted the visits and citizens at Aerican’s geocities site, their headquarters before they moved to their current website. Many micronations survive on the viral essence of internet to pick up in popularity as an interesting phenomena. Another good source on micronations is Simon Seller’s book ‘Micronations Lonely Planet’s Guide to Home-Made Nations’. BLDGBLOG’s interview with Simon Seller where he talks about his own stint at creating his micronation and the idea of creating this book is a wonderful read. This exhaustive list of micronations could take a year to travel through.
humour and Aerica
In my first trip through the Empire’s website, I was taken aback by its ‘silliness’. I showed it to some of my friends and they thought it was all just a huge joke. What is the Aerican Empire?
“Let me amend that: it is not just a huge joke. There is, obviously, an element of humour to the Empire. I will be the first person to admit that when you stick a big, yellow smiley-face on your national flag, you have to accept that some people will refuse to take you seriously as a result. I consider humour to be an important part of life, and in particular, an important part of my life, and I try to incorporate humour in almost everything I do… which includes my vision of a better world. To me, the Aerican Empire is a serious attempt to bring together people of a like mind and a like attitude from all over the world, to unite them under a common cultural banner – to make them into a nation, if you will – and to build up a functioning country around them. The Empire is a totally serious attempt to create something real, lasting, and meaningful, but we use humour to bring together and unite the people who will it. I don’t know about you, but I want my neighbours to be people who meet challenges with a joke instead of with fear, intolerance, and hatred. Over the years, some people have inevitably told me that you cannot build something serious while you are being silly… I feel very sorry for those people, because they must live very dull, unhappy lives.”
All Eric’s emails are signed with Charlie Chaplin’s words, ‘In the end, everything is a gag.‘ I had a problem with humour in attitude being synonymous to ‘silly’. I thoroughly read through the Empire’s website. It seemed like some things were written deliberately to be silly humour. Why?
You’re right that the website has a number of parts which are there purely for comedy’s sake. The website has a lot o serious and practical information – our population figures, our history, our constitution and so forth – and also a lot of bits that make no sense in any way except as a joke, such as one link our site to a government organization known as the BLT (Bacon Lettuce and Tomato). The humour is meant to be mixed in with the serious information because you can’t understand the Empire if you only read one of them
Who writes for the website?
“The website has had portions written by many people over the years. I wrote much of it, but dozens of different people have contributed different parts. Our constitution, for example, has had amendments written by many different senators. The home pages of our colonies were all written by different people. One of the proudest moments of my life was some years ago when I was looking at the website and suddenly realises that a lot of very good, very important parts were written by people other than me. That was the moment that I knew Aerica had grown into something greater than I could have created on my own.”
The Empire’s Mission Statement talks about how fixing on something definitive leaves no room for change, because it is to serious. So, is Aerican Empire a never ending dialogue changing with every new citizen and if there is a far dream of getting a concrete land nation built out of this, will the ‘silliness’ survive till then?
“I think that you’ve captured a lot of the essence of the Empire there, but perhaps not all of it. Our mission statement doesn’t talk about humour; it says that our goal is to create a world where people act ethically, wisely, and kindly, in which case a government – any sort of government – might be unnecessary. Obviously, that’s a utopian and presumably impossible goal, but many of the best goals in life are impossible ones. You’re absolutely right, though, that I believe that the Empire does grow and evolve with every single person who joins, and I think that this willingness to grow is precisely why we’ve survived and thrived where other “more serious” micronations have disappeared. As for whether the silliness will survive, I believe that the silliness will probably outlast anything else that we build. If the history of the world teaches us anything, it’s that kingdoms come and go, but stories can live for millennia.”
territory, boundaries, conquest
The Aerican Empire has been around for the past two and half decades transforming from what it was in Eric’s mind to what it is today, a strong cybernation. They have claimed territories all over the universe including a colony on Mars, the northern hemisphere of Pluto and an imaginary planet, all with Montreal Canada as their capital. It seems a bit scattered, fragmented and fluid to me.
Where is the Aerican Empire?
I wouldn’t call our territory “fluid.” To me, this implies that our borders are subject to rapid change and that they aren’t stable. It would be more accurate to say that our territories are “scattered” or perhaps that our borders are “eccentric.” We claim many small territories in different locations, and these territories are not contiguous with each other. Our territory is very stable; once we claim a piece of land, we are very clear in stating that it is ours, and we accept new land only once every four or five years; before a new territory becomes a part of the Empire, the residents really have to prove their value to the Empire. Our citizenship does change more rapidly, but this is because people apply to join every day. Our population falls once per year, in June, when all citizens have to reply to an email confirming that they want to remain citizens, and whoever fails to reply within one month loses their citizenship. In this way, our population is kept much lower than it could be, but we ensure that our members are active and truly want to remain citizens.
How do you choose these territories?
Conceivably, our territories could be anywhere in the universe… although I will freely admit that we don’t have any way of reaching a lot of those territories. There’s generally some logic or reason behind any of our land claims, although that logic might be a bit spurious. You’re right that our territory is very scattered and fragmented, but I don’t see how that matters. After all, we lack the resources to secure a square mile of Canadian soil, so I don’t see how it’s any different that we lack the resources to secure a square mile of Mars. One very liberating thing about building a micronation is that, right off the bat, everything you “claim” is a bit of a silly claim. Once you’re being silly, you have the freedom to exaggerate and stretch your imagination a little bit. And of course, I’ll remind you that at its height, the British Empire was also rather fragmented.
When I read his comments about the British Empire as though it was fantastic I have no clue why I got disturbed. Was it because I am part of India? Was it because imperialism and colonisation disturbs me? Or is it disturbing me that this is still a reality? I was soothed on the edges of political correctness when he replied,
“I didn’t mean to imply that the British Empire was good or bad. The British Empire was, above all, complicated. It had its good points and its bad ones… and unfortunately, its bad points were often very, very bad. My point was only that despite being fragmented, the British Empire was successful and powerful, for a time. I only know the very basics of the history of how the British treated India and its peoples, but I would not call any of it “good.” Unfortunately, India is only one place where such terrible things were done. This is another powerful example of the harm that can be caused when you have absolute certainty that your nation and culture is the best one.”
I did not know that one could buy land of planets. This is a point in Aerica’s FAQ Page: “I’ve been looking at other nations, and none of them are “interplanetary”. Explain that. In 1989, the Emperor decided he wanted to be sillier than a city. Besides which, he did not want to be a country within a country. Pretty soon, it was a planet. Then a few planets. Then more. Eventually, some land off-planet was even bought legally rather than made up.” How can someone buy extra-terrestial land? Is there is an extra-terrestial real estate industry? There is! Individuals and groups have websites that sell deeds on the moon, Mars, some far undiscovered planets and more. There is also great talk about buying stars. For instance, there is a space called Peace Week that was bought as an honorary to John Lennon recently. It sells at $20 an acre. Pretty cheap if you ask me. But, there is no national or international alliance that authorizes this. This detailed text on the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty will tell you how hundred countries have signed agreeing that no State or Nation can purchase or appropriate extra-terrestial land. However, there is a nice loophole. Individuals and private corporations are left out of this. Enter capitalism, imperialism, and colonization in the entire Universe.
history, meaning and purpose
I really needed to understand what made this ‘Empire’ a state or a nation. This took me to their Constitution, Government Agencies, History and other literature. What is the ideology behind the Empire?
The Aerican Empire isn’t really governed by any single ideology. We take elements from democracy, socialism, libertarianism, capitalism… we try to adopt the ideas that seem to work and try not to get caught up in ideas that don’t work as well. As a population, you could say that our citizens tend to be a bit left-leaning: they favour universal health care, for example, and believe that education is a right and not a privilege. Beyond that, we have all the same scattered and varied ideologies you would see in any nation. Because our members come from all over the world and have led different lives with different experiences, we have a wealth of different viewpoints and beliefs we can draw upon. If there is one ideology which is common to every citizen, it is this: to live a good life requires you to try to accept others (even when this is hard), to appreciate both art and science (even when this seems mutually exclusive), and to always remember that no matter how dark life gets, we have to remember how to laugh. Beyond that, you could also say that most Aericans enjoy fantasy and science fiction, but I don’t know that this qualifies as an ideology.
Has Aerican Empire waged or fought any wars? Or what is war like when you are a micronation? Who are your ‘enemies’?
I’m embarrassed to admit that, in the past, the Aerican Empire fought in many wars. There’s an important qualifier to this: in our more warlike era, I was much younger and quite a bit less bright. Like many children, I (and the Empire’s other early members) went through a period when we thought that war and combat was a good thing, something to be proud of. We outgrew that stage a very long time ago – by which I mean, decades – and we haven’t had any “wars” in a very long time. Today, the Empire considers micronational war to be an impossibility; assuming people don’t actually try to storm my front door, then war can only be fought online via insults or games, and to avert a war, all it takes is for one side not to “play along.” We refuse to play along with anyone who believes that this sort of thing is a productive way to solve problems. I am proud to say that at this time, although there are many people I do not agree with, neither I nor Aerica as a whole has any “enemies.”
What are your responsibilities as Emperor of the Aerican Empire?
My official responsibilities as the Emperor are to remain an active voting member of the Senate – which is like our parliament, our main executive and legislative body – and to cast a second vote in the event that the rest of the Senate is deadlocked. It is my responsibility to speak on behalf of all Imperial citizens and not to favour any one citizen or any one region over another. Unofficially, as the most public face of the Empire and the creator of many of our websites and services, I also moderate our mailing list, do most of the updating and management of the website, and conduct most of our interviews with the press.
Why should the Emperor stay until death, abdication or impeachment? Isn’t that not monarchical?
In some ways, it is monarchical. The Emperor’s position was designed as a lifelong position, in part, to protect me and my claim to it. I won’t deny that, and in fact, I’m proud to be that sort of pragmatic thinker. Remember, though, that although the position may be held for a long time, the Emperor does not necessarily have the broad-ranging powers of a typical monarch. Furthermore, although the position is held for life, there is a clear system in place for impeachment; an incompetent or abusive emperor can (and should!) be removed. In any case, you say “monarchical” as though it were a bad thing. I don’t necessarily agree with that. Democracy has its place and the people should have a voice and a measure of control over the government, but if a monarch is good at what they do, it seems to me, they ought to keep doing it.
Maybe, my tone could have indicated ‘monarchical’ as a bad thing. It just seems so senseless to give all power in the hand of one person. It does not make it better when they are five people. Probably, the Aerican Empire is beautiful in that way. It transforms with each new person that joins them. The Constitution, the dialogue, the needs, the wants and the activities are all open to change. Isn’t your empire limited to only those who have internet access and maybe this already means they’ve had an education, a certain well-off lifestyle, which might come as a standard background?
You’re absolutely correct. An unfortunate side-effect of our current status is that our membership is, in effect, limited to people who have regular Internet access, and thus, a certain minimal level of socioeconomic status. I would not say that we’re limited to people who are “well-off” since in North America and much of Europe even relatively poor individuals can often still have Internet access, but I would agree that there is a certain minimum SES required, not by our laws, but by our logistics. Furthermore, because our site is mostly unilingual, our population is arguably limited to people who have at least some fluency in English. I’m also very aware of the fact that for all of our talk about humour and approaching life with a laugh, many people in the world are not fortunate enough to have lives which encourage that sort of outlook. In a sense, it is a major limitation of the Empire that we cannot offer our citizenship equally to everyone. On the other hand, in a sense, this is no different from what many countries do. When someone applies for citizenship in Canada or the United States or wherever, immigration officials will generally want to know that a prospective immigrant has money, or is employable, or speaks the language. In effect, our use of a website implicitly asks some of those same questions… for better or for worse.
Who or what funds the Aerican Empire?
The Empire’s main source of funding is, unfortunately, me. I personally pay for our website, which is our primary expense. Our only other expenses are usually our occasional contests (whoever organizes the contest usually pays for the prizes, so it’s actually often not me). When we minted our first run of coins not too long ago, we took pre-orders from citizens so that the costs got shared (people who wanted coins paid for them), and this made it a feasible project.
I was trying to discover what nation-building meant to me while I heard how he built his. Micronations as an idea is very interesting. It is pretty much like building a community. Or forget nation-building, just the process of community-building is exciting. As he explained and we talked, the website became simpler when the basic doubts about Aerican Empire’s Government, Constitution were explained to me. It suddenly dawned on me how actually their website was so simple. I just wish the Constitution, the bureaucracy, the Legislative, the Executive and the Judiciary of India were this openly explained to us and that is was at our disposal to always question. It is sad that even I do not know all my fundamental rights or the basic acts of law that affirm or violate them. I have to wait until one of them have been brought to notice. And it is not surprising that I see more and more people walking so clueless about this State.
I have a liking towards literature on compassion and transcendental reality. My realities are blurred. For the past two months, I have been busy from 9 to 6 trying to earn money. I have forgotten to write, paint or make theatre for the past month and a half. It is opportune that this conversation happened because it is forcing me to experience all of this rather than turn a blind eye, numb face, or run away.
What do you do?
I’m an amateur writer; I’ve published two short stories in Weird Tales Magazine. Unsurprisingly, I enjoy playing Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games (by which I mean, table-top games, with real people, not videogames). I paint miniatures when I can find the time, which is less and less these days. Most of my time – the parts not taken up by my unceasing quest to conquer the world – is taken up by work; I’m a resident in psychiatry at the McGill University Health Center in Montreal, and between my clinical duties, my studies, and my research, a lot of other things unfortunately don’t get as much attention as I would like.
This conversation has left me thinking and reading. Maybe we would join a micronation or we could create one with a site like NationStates. It is just irritating that we confirm to so many things without seriously trying to question it. Is there anyway of making historical awareness a part of equal daily dialogue and beyond the same Freedom Struggle syllabus we study for a decade until we thoroughly despise history?