Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger
A startling thought occurred to me recently and that is while I’m only approaching the age of sixty-seven, I have lived in eight decades on this planet. Every one of those eight decades has had an American involvement in a foreign war. To be sure there is a massive degree of difference in magnitude let’s say between World War II and Grenada, but both were wars nonetheless. There is a common thread in all of these involvements that goes beyond the immediate causes and that is the quest for Empire. A persistent undertone in American thought has been expansive since Jefferson made The Louisiana Purchase. While this need to expand hasn’t always been present in the public political debate as a motivation, those whose thoughts held sway over the political and intellectual backbone of our country openly discussed it. While America, which initially remained primarily an agrarian nation, was expanding into the vast frontier of this continent, our dreams of empire focused on taming the country and overwhelming its Native American population. By the mid Nineteenth Century, the industrial revolution influenced American thought and the need to expand to acquire natural resources, replaced agrarian needs, while making the taming of the frontier more urgent.
Given our constitutional underpinnings and the magnificent sentiments of the Declaration of Independence, many felt qualms about our displacement of Native Americans in our expansion westward. Darwin’s Origin of The Species, published in 1859 became an instant sensation for intellectuals worldwide and for those with the power to shape a nation’s thought processes. Social Darwinism, survival of the fittest, was the new model for developing rationales and mythologies, which absolved the country of residual guilt in our struggle with the native population and allowed opinion shapers and ideologues to frame the issue in terms of the struggle of civilization against savagery.
Though most proponents of expansion never directly used the term Social Darwinism, it was the commonly understood intellectual underpinning of their theories. These theories devolved and spread into popular entertainments, literature, and journalism, creating a mythology of the virile American hero vanquishing the uncivilized brutes who would prevent our manifest destiny.
By the 1890’s most American thinkers believed the Frontier to be closed. Two of the most influential were Frederick Jackson Turner and Theodore Roosevelt:
They both believed that the struggle of the “Frontier” had imbued the country with the energy that was leading to its emergence as a great international power. Turner was more subdued in emphasizing the heroic aspects of the struggle, while Roosevelt dwelled mainly on the singular heroism and virility of men who lived “the strenuous Life”. They also shared a belief that it was the natural state of human affairs for the “civilized races” to overcome the savage barbarians.Roosevelt was much more direct in his theories and they included the notion that the Anglo-Saxon/Teutonic peoples were the most highly evolved and that it was their duty to bring civilization to the savages and rule over them. Mr. Roosevelt, coming from the upper, managerial classes also believed it was the duty of that class to guide the rest of the American populace, with their superior qualities of leadership. He was the more influential of the two writers at the time and his theories found themselves guiding popular American Culture in novels and in entertainments such as “Buffalo Bills Wild West Show.
This vastly popular entertainment depicted the heroism of the frontier and the virility of those heroes who tamed it. While Bill Cody was friendly with Native Americans and evinced some understanding of them, his show presented them as savages mercilessly attacking white settlers and white soldiers alike. This in turn evolved into a common American mythology, which had the effect of absolving all of our brutality in displacing the natives and gave great purpose to these actions. We were advancing civilization.
The quandary then for thinkers like Roosevelt and Turner was that if the American Frontier had energized this country towards greatness, with the close of that frontier, how could we re-energize our nation to continue to strive ever upwards in our destiny to become the greatest of nations? Roosevelt’s answer was much more open and direct than Turner’s and fit better into the needs of American Industry and into what was our manifest destiny to be first among nations. His answer was imperialism and empire. Roosevelt’s rationale was that those who were not of Anglo-Saxon/Teutonic origin represented inferior racial stock, which needed guidance by the more competent and more virile race that we represented. One might think pondering this statement that something is amiss with it, since the America Roosevelt talked of had a much more diverse population. While that is true, T.R. saw his class, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, as the “race” of the surviving fittest who needed to guide the less evolved racial types such as Native Americans, Blacks, Celts, Latins, Jews and other Eastern Europeans. While distinguishing his class from the others in the population, he at the same time conflated all Americans as representing the Anglo-Saxon/Teutonic “Races”.
There are some that might argue that Roosevelt was known as a “Progressive” and that these are not what is considered to be “Progressive” beliefs today. The problem today, as in the past, is that when political/sociological discussions are framed in labels, the essence of the discussion gets lost. Labels change through the years. The original “liberals” for instance have far different beliefs than the present “liberals”. “Conservative” beliefs have shown a similar reversal through the years. The Republican Party of abolitionists became the Republican Party of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”.
That replacing the impelling energy of our westward expansion, with the impetus of imperialist notions of empire, made sense to those whose economic growth depended on expansion to new markets and control of new natural resources, the industrialist/capitalist/wealthy classes. Empire, rarely directly stated as such, provided for expansion of American business interests into a global market and a global supply chain. For the masses, each new imperialist gambit was framed in the classic mythological terms of avenging ourselves against savages who would bring this country down. Our enemies are always depicted as being less human than we, almost animalistic, therefore we are justified in opposing them with all the might available and with little mercy.
My proposition, outlined with needed brevity given the forum, is that our country in its expansion has always acted imperialistically, yet has used a series of myths to make our aims palatable and our motives seem pure. Today we are engaged in three wars, all with countries containing strategic resources and all these societies depicted as lacking the cultural civilization to create a modern, democratic state without our “assistance”. The thinking behind these involvements, at least publicly, is our troops and country making great sacrifices to uplift nations from oppression. Privately we are doing it to expand our world domination, empire, and for the benefit of those who determine our nation’s actions.
This article linked reveals the boldness of those who believe in American Empire and dream of a “Pax Americana” imposed on the world:
Given that this was engendered by the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, in 1997, it provides ample reasons for why we are at war today. You will note that the countries where we are making war also seem to be depicted popularly as failed nations, incapable of achievement in the modern world without our assistance.
Five years before the Project for a New American Century social critic and historian Richard Slotkin wrote “Gunfighter Nation”,
which impressed me greatly when I first read it and impresses me even more almost twenty years later. Slotkin provided the impetus for my musings here and I think unknowingly foreshadowed the events that have been shaping American Foreign policy in the Twenty-first Century. If we view the action of American Foreign Policy from this perspective, we can understand that imperialism has been the driving policy in our countries history and racialism conflated with civilization has provided the mythological underpinnings selling this policy to the people.
Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger
29 thoughts on “The American Quest for Empire”
Is it 135 countries that now have American military bases? What was that warning about standing armies down through the ages?
When Obama first entered office he said that the US would eventually pull out of Iraq entirely. There are now seven permanent bases there. The first thing he did was to ‘request’ that the Fed print 800 billion dollars out of thin air, which went straight back to the Fed as interest repayments – not ‘to stimulate the economy’, is there any doubt that he is Fed shill? End the scam.
Perhaps the myth is that humans want peace.
“You do know woodrow wilson held a white house screening of “birth of a nation”?”
The “less than sterling” Mr. Wilson was a rabid racist and hater of all those he perceived of different classes. The game in America has always been the division of people via xenophobic hatred of those deemed “the other”.In some sense this has abated to where perhaps 55% are much less xenophobic than in the past. However, at least 25% of the remainder are rabid in their hatred. In my lifetime it has changed to a small degree, but the hatred, racism and xenophobia are still there and have much influence in the running of this nation.
Part of the point I was trying to make regarding the usage of mythology is that it is effective when it allows people to oppress those who have been mythologized as less developed in humanity and indeed can be labeled savages and/or animals. As a child, I saw TV cartoon shows were rife with depicting black people as either minstrel show caricatures or blatantly apelike. This reinforced the mythology on the young and impressionable.
My first assignment as a caseworker for the NYC Welfare Department was on 125th Street in Harlem. At the time it was cluttered side by side by stores selling all sorts of badly made products at expensive prices. The meat and produce in the supermarkets was substandard and old. The housing stock, which was architecturally beautiful had been broken up cheaply into makeshift apartment, barely dry-walled, much less painted. Rents were higher than deserved and the entire area, except perhaps for The Apollo, was owned by outsiders.
I would walk these streets alone in the late, turbulent 60’s and 70’s, a blond white man in a sea of dark faces. When I met the eyes of someone on the street there was usually a smile and a hello. I never felt threatened day or night, nor was I ever treated with less than normal human courtesy. This was true after transfer to many of what was considered by the average New Yorker frightening neighborhoods. Yet at night, home watching the news I was surprised to see these neighborhoods I knew so well, characterized as frightening places, populated by hostile people. This disconnect between my working reality and the media portrayals is what brought me to try to discern the mythology behind.
This was a creation, or more appropriately, continuation of the mythology of the savage, who must be tamed by WASP’s (who themselves were mainly made up of non-WASPS hired specifically to spread oppression. I do believe that most humans can distinguish between right and wrong, but mythology allows them to act viciously towards those characterize unfairly as lesser beings.
“Studies show that war, occupation, and Manichean frames invariable lead to dehumanization of generalized enemies, and that dehumanization increases the propensity for indiscriminate violence.”
We are on the same page here and I see you get what I may be imperfectly trying to state.Saw the entire video and you were right the cupola scene illustrates the tactics I talk of. Watched the whole thing and found it compelling yet mystifyingly surreal, but remember I’m and old fart and the last video games I played were Mario Bros., when my kids were young.
“A handful of the people we don’t really care about are fighting them over there so that we don’t have to be afraid of them killing us over here,”
Bill H. has it exactly right, but I would expand on it. In Viet Nam the popular wisdom of the Beltway was that we were preventing the “dominoes” of Communism from falling all over Asia. The Vietnamese people were only seen as a threat to us because a loss to Ho Chi Minh there, would spread to
Cambodia, Laos, etc. and present us with Communists in power in the vast lands of Eastern Europe and Asia. These lands of course contained more than half of the world’s population. The threat then was the Commies would be winning that struggle to the death known as “The Cold War” and therein would lay our peril.
“I’m curious what your thoughts are concerning popular opinion overcoming the power of myths”.
The battle to determine the guiding myth is the battle for popular opinion. Thomas Frank, the author of “What’s The Matter With Kansas?” delves into why many people in voting Republican seem to be voting against their own best interests. People have bought into the mythology, put forth through years off propaganda, that all taxes for instance are evil. You of course know the rest of the mythology attached to this as shaped by the Lee Atwater’s, Grover Norquist’s and Karl Roves of the Right.
In truth the basic mythology used by the Faux Conservatives today can be broken down into very simple concepts:
1.Our philosophy is powerfully virile, willing to use overwhelming force to protect you people from harm.
2. Liberals are effeminate, intellectual sissies who can’t keep you safe because they side with the “Evil Ones” opposing us
3. Government can’t work as efficiently as business and is corrupt, except for its agents of social control like the military and the law enforcement establishment.
4. All taxation is evil and is extortion to line the pockets of “Liberals” and their supporters.
5. The True American is the “entrepreneur”.
Our side of this struggle for the hearts and minds of the people is outmatched specifically because rather than creating our own, truer mythology, we try to win them over with reason. Mythology operates on the “gut”, unconscious level and is therefore not susceptible to logical persuasion.
You’ll also find the first few images of this fascinating. I wouldnt expect you to watch the whole thing, but stick with at least 3 minutes until you get to the guy giving the speech on the gazebo.
I guess i take for granted the notion that racism and genocide are part of american history from the very beginning. The drug war would simply be the domestic arm of this policy. You do know woodrow wilson held a white house screening of “birth of a nation” ?
“For the police and the people of the Bayview / Hunter’s Point, naivete and rationalizations are hard to come by. There is a war going on. The police talk about a war on crime, a war on drugs, a war on gangs. People in the city talk about a war on the community, a war on the youth, a war on black men. The logic of occupation is the same in the Bay Area as it is in Baghdad or Afghanistan. The police and military cross train each other in counter-insurgency, police train soldiers headed to battle, soldiers return to train city police in urban battlefield tactics. Studies show that war, occupation, and Manichean frames invariable lead to dehumanization of generalized enemies, and that dehumanization increases the propensity for indiscriminate violence. This context of dehumanization and police violence in the Bayview is driven by age-old racism, and more recent economic restructuring (neoliberalism), along with efforts at gentrification, which have exacerbated racial inequalities from income to health to imprisonment. The State has relieved itself of the obligation to do anything about this reality except to respond with naked force. Couple this with shrinking budgets for schools, social programs and public assistance as police budgets swell, and you have an increase in inequality and potential unrest related to that inequality, which simply serves as a justification for more and more police and prisons under the existing political common sense of those in power.”
Just another day in america.
Also just to clarify one more time, I do not have a “people”
Bill H. in his 9:54am post made an interesting point regarding Nam and the resulting changes to the propaganda of myth usage.
I’m curious what your thoughts are concerning popular opinion overcoming the power of myths.
“I do have to say it seems almost irrelevant to level the charge of social darwinism.”
“Why even bother mentioning that we for whatever reason lack empathy for the people we are trying to exterminate?”
The point I’m making is that this imperialism had to have a mythology to give it impetus. This is necessary because there was opposition to these actions all along the way. Just as there was a long history of abolitionism, there were also many opposed to the genocidal actions against Native Americans. Even totalitarian countries need the bulk of the people on their side. We weren’t yet so totalitarian and so popular support was needed to sanction these acts and to make them seem congruent with what was seen as American Ideals. Those ideals embodied in the Bill of Rights and Constitution had a popular mythology created around them and sold to the people to create a national ethos. Genocide didn’t jibe with that mythology, unless couched in racialist terms, seemingly supported by scientific theory.
The Social Darwinism borrowed from Darwin the notion of survival of the fittest. Here though was both their trickery and misunderstanding of Darwin’s theories, by developing the false idea that there were species in humans referred to as race (the notion of different races among humanity based on color is wrong) culture and ethnicity. By conflating “fittest” into racial, ethnic and cultural terms they came up with the idea that technological advancement between cultures (and skin color) measured “fitness.”
Blacks were savages who couldn’t govern themselves. Native Americans were savages who didn’t effectively use their land. Latinos and Filipino’s were thought the same, etc. Because of this “fact” the “White Race” (really Anglo-Saxon/Teutonic in their belief) had a duty to impose its will on those less advanced technologically and therefore less “fit”. Part of their proof of technological “fitness” was in the development of weaponry, which led to superiority in battle, which they defined into “better fighting spirit” (i.e. more virility). Yes they did use the idea of masculine virility as a concept of their measurements.
This all went into the American Western Expansion and developed the idea that the “Frontier” was the “anvil” that shaped “American Exceptionalism” on the forge of battle. This idea became the mythology by which guilt was absolved and greed justified. The mythology in turn was used to create popular support and the troops needed for cannon fodder. It was the time worn human tactic of demonizing those thought to be the “enemy” and encouraging xenophobia, in the service of conquest.
An interesting sidelight to this Social Darwinist conflation is that it was used to fight the nascent labor movement in this country by equating the workers with the “savages” who needed to be disciplined and controlled by the “fitter” to lead, Anglo-Saxon Teutonic Managerial Class. Teddy Roosevelt was a strong proponent of this and extremely enraged by labor daring to question their superiors.
I wrote the original article and this as a result of the change in my thinking through the years. I see the use of created mythology as a means of social control and a vehicle for the elite humans in power to control the bulk of the people, in the service of whichever elite’s personal needs. While us average people argue Party (faction) and Ism’s to the point occasionally of violence, we fail to see the bigger picture. Mythology can and has through history served valuable purposes, but it is a two edged sword. As the ability to disseminate ideas technologically has multiplied exponentially, we become lost in our myths and fail to see the bigger picture. I am struggling in my life to personally see beyond my own myths of existence and i think it is a worthy struggle for all humans who truly want to be awake to the world around them.
Whatever justification our wars may have had prior to Vietnam, since that time any popular support they have enjoyed, and the popular apathy that receive today, is based on fear. “We are fighting them over there so that we don’t have to fight them over here.” That’s nonsense, of course and actually translates to, “A handful of the people we don’t really care about are fighting them over there so that we don’t have to be afraid of them killing us over here,”
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