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Protest Song of the Day: ‘Empire’ by Dar Williams

To recognize the power of protest music, acknowledge its role in creating a culture of dissent and how musicians translate social issues and systemic problems into song, The Dissenter has launched a daily feature that highlights a protest song every weekday.

This morning, with all the new developments in the David Petraeus affair, I wanted a song about depraved lust-filled self-important individuals in government deluded with their power and privilege, especially those in the military. I wanted a song besides “Masters of War,” which most know already. I am still looking for a song I can dedicate to those types of people in positions of power in government. In any case, I arrived at Dar Williams’ song “Empire” and have decided to feature it today.

Williams’ song, as she told The Progressive in an interview in 2006, is about current American history and what America should learn about the histories of the Roman, British and Nazi empires.

…It’s a cautionary song because empires are doomed. They become more diffuse, more broke, demagogues rule, and so I was just pointing out some similarities between past empires and what’s going on right now. They all have had to apply more and more harsh rhetoric of superiority and divine right to justify the building of hegemony…

This verse fits the moment, where the country is realizing that a hero general, who pushed a morally bankrupt counterinsurgency strategy that was designed to support nation-building, is indeed human and can be flawed.

We like strong, happy people
Who don’t think there’s something wrong with pride,
Work makes them free
And we spread that freedom far and wide.

The lyrics—”We’ll kill the terror who rises/And a million of their races/But when our people torture you/That’s a few random cases”—fit an agency, like the CIA, which Petraeus was the head. However, though there is a journalist in the song who cries out to warn society, there was no journalist in this instance of history. All the journalists were intoxicated by the man that was Petraeus and, given the chance to have access to him, they had no hard questions. What they had was their commitment to venerating a star general and ensuring they would not publish anything that alienated him because he was a powerful man and they wanted to be sure they could bask in his aura again.


If you have requests for songs that should be featured or if you have a protest song you recorded, which you would like to see featured, email

And all previous Protest Song of the Day selections can be found here.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."