November 13, 2009

Tracing the Connections: Demonizing "The Other" and U.S. Foreign Policy

Several days ago, I wrote about an especially despicable example of the tragic and destructive process of demonization of "the other." As is true of all peoples throughout history, we prefer to think of ourselves as having significantly advanced and as being more self-aware and "civilized" than our forebears with regard to these issues. Blatant proclamations of racist hatred are thus frowned upon today, at least if one seeks to be "respectable" and wishes to be well-received in mainstream media. But the basic dynamics involved have not altered. As a result, the identical loathing disguises itself in purportedly measured, "objective" analysis. The resulting variants of the same racism find expression in the writings of people like Michelle Malkin (where the racism is embraced in the name of "security") and Charles Murray (where it is founded on "science," a claim which is conclusively and comprehensively false). New times demand new masks. Remove them, and the hatred is the same.

That was true of the earlier example I discussed, and it is true of this Charles Krauthammer column. As a preliminary matter, we should recall that Krauthammer is a self-confessed monster, one who announces that we must adopt tactics that we ourselves view as evil -- but that we must do so because our enemies are subhuman to a degree that forces us to do so. The monstrous tactic in that case was torture. See, "A Monster's Confession, and the Choice to be Human." As I rephrased Krauthammer's transparent and threadbare rationalizations of the embrace of evil, but only for the purposes of accuracy and precision: "You have left me no choice but to be a monster. Because I am helpless to resist what I know to be evil, I am still moral. I still uphold the values of civilization."

I mention this because it is a fact about Krauthammer (and those who hold similar views) of great and awful consequence. It is not an ancillary, secondary issue. It is the issue.

In his Fortune article, Varadarajan located the source of Hasan's evil in the fact that he is a Muslim. Krauthammer does the same:
Nidal Hasan (allegedly) cold-bloodedly killed 13 innocent people. His business card had his name, his profession, his medical degrees and his occupational identity. U.S. Army? No. "SoA" -- Soldier of Allah. In such cases, political correctness is not just an abomination. It's a danger, clear and present.
Later in his column, Krauthammer writes:
Was anything done about this potential danger? Of course not. Who wants to be accused of Islamophobia and prejudice against a colleague's religion?

One must not speak of such things. Not even now.
The touching concern with such "accusations" and "prejudice" -- and the injunction that "[o]ne must not speak of such things" -- would not seem to have deterred Krauthammer himself. Indeed, his accusations and prejudice appear in the august pages of the Washington Post. As was true of the vile utterances of Malkin and Murray (and many others), such views can be found in America's primary artery.

What would Krauthammer and others of like mind do if they were not so tragically inhibited in expressing their views? Of course, we must emphasize, as they do repeatedly, that their views have nothing whatsoever to do with prejudice, unreasoning bigotry, or hatred: they are based on facts, they are "objective," they are an accurate assessment of an "existential" enemy.

We don't need to wonder what they might do. We know what they would do, and it finds lethal expression in the foreign policy of the United States, not only today but for more than a century. In a post the other day, Jackson Lears's recently published book, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920, featured prominently. You might want to read that earlier post to appreciate the general outlines of Lears's argument (and the review excerpted there accurately summarizes Lears's themes, which is why I chose it).

I was looking through the Lears book again last evening. I read the following passage for the second or third time; as it had on the earlier occasions, it caused me to gasp, because of how precisely this view is repeated today. I've written in detail about the ghastly U.S. occupation of the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century. Lears discusses that episode at length, for the cultural, political and psychological elements involved were crucial in forging America's identity for the next century, and into today. Future posts will offer more on this subject, but I tell you now that every subject of moment at present -- and I mean every subject, from racism, sexism (and our conception of masculinity in particular), class prejudice, to U.S. policy both at home and abroad -- was debated at length in the 1890s, in terms that will be shockingly familiar, often horrifyingly so.

And horror is the only appropriate emotion in response to this very brief passage from Lears:
The fight dragged on for years. The Filipinos' determination to resist domination pushed American commanders into desperate measures, such as General Jacob Smith's order to shoot anyone over ten. Many Americans, and certainly most policy makers, shared the view of the Philadelphia Ledger with respect to the indiscriminate killing of civilians: "It is not civilized warfare, but we are not dealing with a civilized people. The only thing they know and fear is force, violence, and brutality, and we are giving it to them." A combat veteran of the war was more succinct: "The only good Filipino is a dead one," he said, neatly summarizing the connection between Geronimo and Aguinaldo.
You will find many more details of the U.S.'s murderous campaign in the Philippines in my post on that subject. Lears's reference to Geronimo speaks of another connection: that when the U.S. embarked on empire abroad, its policy continued the conduct in which it had so bloodily engaged in its drive westward across the continent. Lears discusses that connection at length, and the same connection is made by Matthew Frye Jacobson in his book, Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples At Home and Abroad, 1876-1917.

The earlier post has a longer excerpt from Jacobson. For our purposes here, this is the critical passage:
In expurgating the period of U.S. expansionism that bridges the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Americans adopt a broken narrative that casts Manifest Destiny and continental expansionism falsely adrift from "modern" U.S. history, and obscures the extent to which the modern state was built, and modern nationalism generated, in close relation to the imperialist project. The effect is to mystify U.S. involvement in global affairs by hiding the very moment when global power was so lustily seized. If there is no turn-of-the-century expansionism, then Manifest Destiny becomes an irrelevance of dim antiquity, and both the Wilsonian internationalism and the Cold War interventionism of the twentieth century can be imagined as developing upon an entirely different epistemological footing. Without the Philippines, in other words, it becomes easy to suppose a radical historical disjuncture separating the plains wars of the mid-nineteenth century and the Southeast Asian wars of the mid-twentieth: that U.S. soldiers referred to areas within Vietnam as "Indian Country" becomes a matter of simple metaphor, not of deeper ideology. But our first land war in Asia was fought not in 1950-53 but in 1899-1902, and it was waged largely by American officers who had received their practical training in campaigns against the "savages" of the Western plains in the 1870s.

This erasure has generally allowed a view that the United States has played its part as a power on the world scene only reluctantly. The triumph of American innocence, as Stuart Creighton Miller has called this willful revision, constitutes a pillar of twentieth-century American liberalism. Unabashed discussion of racial conquest has long faded from American political discourse; there is simply no longer a place in national self-conception for the rhetoric of "waste spaces" and of "unfitness for "self-government," or for the glorious war against "savages" that obtained in Theodore Roosevelt's day. And yet Americans still find themselves in possession of an empire marked by myriad alliances with pliant dictators, by an unbroken history of military interventions, by a twelve-digit defense budget, and by a global network of military bases--and so they have some explaining to do.
As I often have occasion to note these days: see the connections.

I excerpted Jacobson's book in a still earlier post about many of these issues: "The Old Theme -- A 'Redeemer Nation,' with Some Explaining to Do." In that article, I also examined Albert Beveridge's consequential speech to the Senate, "In Support of an American Empire." I strongly suggest you read the excerpts from that speech I offered, to see the roots of the "paternalism and racism" that remain so central to U.S. foreign policy. (If you doubt that even for a moment, see Hillary Clinton's loathsome comments here. Obama and almost all other national politicians have made similar statements, and on more than one occasion.) Lears also focuses on Beveridge, for his views quickly became embedded in the policies and actions of the U.S. ruling class. As just one example from the Beveridge speech:
MR. PRESIDENT, the times call for candor. The Philippines are ours forever, "territory belonging to the United States," as the Constitution calls them. And just beyond the Philippines are China's illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world. And we will move forward to our work, not howling out regrets like slaves whipped to their burdens but with gratitude for a task worthy of our strength and thanksgiving to Almighty God that He has marked us as His chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world.


It has been charged that our conduct of the war has been cruel. Senators, it has been the reverse. I have been in our hospitals and seen the Filipino wounded as carefully, tenderly cared for as our own. Within our lines they may plow and sow and reap and go about the affairs of peace with absolute liberty. And yet all this kindness was misunderstood, or rather not understood. Senators must remember that we are not dealing with Americans or Europeans. We are dealing with Orientals. We are dealing with Orientals who are Malays. We are dealing with Malays instructed in Spanish methods. They mistake kindness for weakness, forbearance for fear. It could not be otherwise unless you could erase hundreds of years of savagery, other hundreds of years of Orientalism, and still other hundreds of years of Spanish character and custom.
And we repeat all this today. Only the targets of our hatred and unending campaigns of murder have changed. You will not hear about "Orientals" as subhumans (not often or primarily, at least not yet, or not yet again, I should accurately say), but you will frequently hear this about Muslims and Arabs, and this is exactly what writers such as Varadarajan and Krauthammer say repeatedly.

Let us return for a moment to the earlier period, the time when far too many Americans prefer to believe we were "innocent" and unfamiliar with torture, murder and the many forms of barbarity. Such articles of faith can only be maintained by systematically blinding oneself to mountains of evidence. Most Americans' impregnable ignorance of history is of inestimable value in that regard. Remember the perspective that maintained about the Filipinos: "we are not dealing with a civilized people. The only thing they know and fear is force, violence, and brutality, and we are giving it to them."

And then consider, from an essay I wrote more than five years ago, in March 2004, "Iraq -- The Practice of Denial," the following:
[N]ow, in connection with our new "get tough" policy in Iraq -- a policy which involves surrounding entire towns with barbed wire among other delightful "innovations" (as if there is anything new about such methods, especially for the Iraqis) -- we have American military commanders making statements like the following:

"Underlying the new strategy, the Americans say, is the conviction that only a tougher approach will quell the insurgency and that the new strategy must punish not only the guerrillas but also make clear to ordinary Iraqis the cost of not cooperating.

"'You have to understand the Arab mind,' Capt. Todd Brown, a company commander with the Fourth Infantry Division, said as he stood outside the gates of Abu Hishma. 'The only thing they understand is force — force, pride and saving face.'"
Arabs, Muslims, Filipinos, Germans (that would be first, and very significantly, in World War One, not Two), Japanese, and too many other groups to mention -- what's the difference? When required for purposes of the United States drive to conquest, control and global hegemonic dominance, they are all subhumans. They understand only force, brutality and murder -- and the United States is more than happy to deliver the required message, to an extent so monstrous that it ought to profoundly shock any decent human being. This view necessarily leads to the policies continued by Obama, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in connection with Iran, and doubtless with regard to other countries yet unnamed before his time in office is complete.

And the problem is not only with the ruling class; would that it were. As I wrote at the end of one of my earlier essays about the Philippines:
Tragically, the truth for many Americans is still worse. In an essay about the alleged policy justifications for the Philippine occupation, "The Old Theme -- A 'Redeemer Nation,' with Some Explaining to Do," I offered some excerpts from Matthew Frye Jacobson's Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples At Home and Abroad, 1876-1917. The final passage from Jacobson that I included was this one:
When we recall and squarely face U.S. conduct in the Philippines at the dawn of Pacific empire in 1899, we [cannot] pass off the U.S. rise to global predominance as blind, unintentional, or accidental. Despite some opposition, the United States consciously chose imperial power along with the antidemocratic baggage and even the bloodshed that entailed; and many Americans--none more than Teddy Roosevelt--liked it.
To which I added:
And too many Americans like it still.
And that, dear reader, is the simple, infinitely awful truth.