Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Imperial Idealist in Me and Manifest Destiny (Part I)

Words have meaning. Since the first caveman grunted to another, we have been trying to interpret the meaning of each word, its level of application, the inflection indicating sarcasm, sincerity, anger, joy or disbelief. Over tens of thousands of years, we've added tens of thousands of words because one word or another just didn't seem to say what we wanted or what we meant. Even the production of a dictionary could not stop humans from arguing over the exact meaning and application of a word. Alliances have been made with words and wars have started over words. You watch politicians speak and they pick over their words hoping to say something without actually saying something. Writers make their livings conveying images and ideas via words and they've been lambasted over the use, appropriateness or lack of words.

In this medium, blogging, I have noticed that some of the biggest arguments begin over principle and end over semantics. In fact, I have participated in just such a discussion recently on several websites. At the Redhunter (a fellow blogger at Conserva-puppies with his own site), a very polite British Leftist dropped in and wanted to discuss American Idealism and what he (I believe the name belonged to a "he") believed was "the only redeeming quality" in America's current foreign policy. Therein ensued a discussion that meandered from such topics as American 19th century history, manifest destiny and modern politics that turned into a discussion about whether modern Americans believed in Manifest Destiny and, based on our current ability to project military, economic and diplomatic power around the globe, why the United States simply did not openly declare that it had an American Empire and admit other countries or territories under our "protection" as states, since they are affected by our policies, so that they may have a vote in our policies and actions, and that they may benefit from our best ideas on liberty and democracy.

Don't laugh. He (and many like him) are perfectly serious. Find out in the "read more" section.

Not the first time that I have heard this suggestion. In fact, I recall just such an opinion piece in the British Guardian newspaper during our last election (2004-Presidential) when the Guardian tried some activist journalism and attempted to get a town in Ohio to trade votes with British subjects accept that they were not advocating joining our union so much as insisting that, as a country affected by our policies, they should be allowed a say in our politics. That went over like a lead balloon.

In all of these discussions, including some great comments (and some not so great) at Harry's place, I have learned a great deal (though, I am sure its not enough) about foreign views of not only our modern politics, but even our shared history. In fact, these discussions have proved clearly a discussion I had not long ago at the Castle that truth is in fact, subjective. It can't be helped; we are a product of our own history, as individuals and nations, not to mention indoctrination through education and political persuasion.

So, there I was having a discussion with my Socialist English friend about American Idealism, Empire, History and Manifest Destiny. Our discussion, not surprisingly, ended with a disagreement over the meaning of Empire and whether it applied to modern American adventures and expansionism. Fortunately for me, I have learned a great deal about Socialists in the United States and Europe or I might have simply made some sarcastic remark about his political persuasion and gave it no thought.

For instance, did you know there are several kinds of socialists? There are the Stalinists and the Trotskyites as two examples. If I understand my political persuasions, Stalinists still believe that Stalin's USSR with its forced community farms, state owned industry, re-education camps, political gulags, aversion to free markets and, what these followers term, anti-imperialism, had it right. Even on to defending or excusing forced famines, re-distribution of lands, invasions of Eastern Europe and purging his political enemies. These are all blamed on circumstances that forced Stalin to make "terrible decisions"; circumstances that these folks believe were largely forced on him by imperial capitalists. Of course, don't dare to use the concept of "terrible decisions" forced by other circumstances as an explanation for actions of others. It is simply inexcusable. But, you understand, they still believe in universal human rights. One may be excused to wonder if being imprisoned for 20 years in a gulag, as forced labor is a universal human right.

Where as the Trotskyites (after the famed Communist and anti-Stalin Leon Trotsky who was eventually murdered by the KGB in South America) believe that Stalin perverted Marxist ideology, that Stalin's Communism was a disgusting totalitarian concept, that the lack of democracy in the USSR under Stalin betrayed Marxist ideology which stated that socialism required democracy and capitalism to flourish and that Stalinist Socialists are in fact impure heretics. Something both sides often throw at the other as they struggle for control of their party. Christopher Hitchens is a modern Trotskyite.

In England today, it appears that the Stalinists have control of the Socialist Party. These are the folks that run the SWP (Socialist Workers Party), which is supposed to be a Trotskyite organization, that had George Galloway as a front man and made alliances with various British Islamic (Islamist?) groups to form RESPECT, the anti-war political party. I am not totally up on the political make up of the British Parliament, but I believe that they won three seats, Gorgeous George being the most famous. Interesting that while he was appearing on Al Jazeera and trekking to Syria, amongst other places, making denunciations against England, the United States (dirty, imperialist, capitalist controlled by the Zionist lobby), Jews (Zionists) and insisting that Saddam Hussein was not a bad man (of course not, George had received a large chunk of money and oil vouchers from the fellow; he couldn't be all bad) he was defended and lauded by party members. Don't dare suggest to them that Saddam might have bribed him or that he had diverted funds from the Miriam charity that had accepted these oil vouchers from Saddam. It is all just a lie to discredit George.

Right up to the moment that George appeared on the British version of Big Brother, in a leotard, pretending to be a cat. Suddenly, George disappeared as the face of the SWP and Respect. Or, at least he hasn't been in the news quite as much. One could forgive SWP and Respect if they started to believe in the conspiracy that the Labour movement (which George had left in protest against the Iraq invasion) had sent George as an infiltrator or an agitator in order to discredit their movement. Then again, reading even current comments on the subject, he is still being defended like a principled prince of the people.

Ah, well. It's not much different than our own political structures here where you have the Liberals, the fringe left, Republicans, True Conservatives and Rinos, all of which seemed bent on defining their parties and jockeying for power before the next election, determined that they are the right message at the right time and that the rest are simply heretics to the cause.

You've heard it all before.

Trotskyite's like Christopher Hitchens are pro-war in Iraq in so far as it supports democracy and played to the humanitarian cause of relieving Iraqis of a genocidal maniac. Though, even in these ranks are those who support the war have various feelings on the subject including their own mixed guilt for supporting something that they half (or three quarters) feel was the result of a lie (WMD) and is part of the continuing hegemony or even new age imperialism of the United States that has resulted in a large number of deaths for Iraqis. I believe that my socialist friend at Redhunter (an interesting place, if you understand the gist of the name, to meet a socialist and converse) falls into this category.

One may wonder why this is at all important considering the title of this post. I believe that, to understand or even solidify our own ideas, you must compare them to others. As in trying to receive the objective truth, one must muddle through the subjective truth as provided by all witnesses. Even then, we’re likely to be missing something because, again, everyone experiences history through his or her own medium.

Which brings us to American History, or more distinctly, the history of the United States. Having been raised in the rural and suburban Mid-West, even in the post civil rights-Vietnam-rise of Liberalism (capital “L”; or, as my conservative friends like to say, hippy, free love, libertinism) era, American History was portrayed with a bit of triumphalism for the Great American Experiment and Manifest Destiny. We’re talking grade school through High School, not university. I can’t recall any teacher telling me or implying in anyway that I should be ashamed to be an American or of our history. While we discussed and debated Federalism v. State’s Rights and the causes of Civil War; slavery and John Brown; Locke v. Adams, the creation of the Monroe Doctrine; while we learned about Pilgrims and Pioneers, the Indian Wars and other events, no one ever said that these were Bad Things. Bad things happened for sure, but no one ever painted them as Things That Never Should Have Been. They were simply events in history. We were not asked to analyze them or even revise our opinions of America based on What We Know Now. It was all “America the Beautiful” and "Oh, Pioneers”.

We learned about the Trail of Tears and the internment of Japanese during WWII, but no teacher ever implied to me that I should feel guilty about these incidents. They were the past; events that occurred under different people and a different set of circumstances. At most, we looked at them as distasteful and Things That Should Never Happen Again. They were lessons in how, during such fantastic achievements of the nation, even the best intentioned could do terrible things in the name of National Security or greater movements and we should not forget lest we do them again. But neither “guilt” nor “shame” was implied as the outcome of that lesson.

That difference in how we view our history creates the difference in how we view our current endeavors. That difference is not simply between Americans and Europeans, but between the left and the right in America. Depending on how far left you go, the more guilt, shame and desire to change America today in order to make up for the past. We’re not simply talking about having learned lessons and never doing it again. I mean, some would go so far as to cut up America and give parts back to grievance groups. If you go far enough to the right, you can find such people as Buchanan who sees the US as having expanded beyond its original intent, whose military should be strictly used to defend the homeland and who is roundly referred to as an isolationist. Historically, he would have been the fellow that argued against such expeditions as the Banana Wars, the Panamanian excursion, interference in WWI and insisted we stay out of WWII. He would have read the Monroe Doctrine in its strictest interpretation and believes that it should be our guiding document on American Expansion or lack thereof.

Europeans, having a much longer history of expansion and contraction of Empires, have much more to feel guilty about. Particularly in light of new political ideology such as Communism and Socialism, which are not so dead on that continent and that rejects expansion of state’s power onto other nations as “imperialist”. The history of European Empires can be viewed as lessons in racism and how not to treat “subject” nations and their people. Self-determination was not an idea that these empires were familiar with or engendered in these subject nations. At least, not until post WWII when Empires began to totally break apart because damaged European nations could no longer support them financially or protect them militarily. Nations won or were given their independence, others were independent but became part of things like the British Commonwealth, an economic and security pact, but certainly no longer Empire.

But, it was the treatment of subjects during Imperial Europe that most troubles those on the left. Some, like my socialist friend, don’t see it as a total loss since they believe that England’s colonial rule of India provided the base of laws and ideas that led to the creation of Democratic India. That can’t be said for every imperial nation or subject country. For that reason, modern day left feel the need to flagellate themselves consistently, even if it was their great-great-grandfathers that did it, and look upon every action of modern states, every war that knocks off regimes, temporizes potential external and internal security threats and results in securing resources, as just another version of Empire Building.

One should not dismiss lightly the effects of colonialism on the modern world. Many continuing problems can be traced back to their imperial beginnings, but just as many problems began even long before. However, it is not simply modern European Imperialism that has changed the face of the world and affected the condition of modern nations. From Asia to the Americas, ancient empires to modern super powers, every nation has had an impact on the other. From genetics to culture, language to architecture, the expansion and contraction of empires have etched their imprint on every nation. Whether these expansions resulted in Empires as we imagine them with subject nations or simply wars that resulted in armistices or created client states, it is a matter of history. From the left’s point of view, these expansions and contractions are not simply episodes that have affected mankind, but are considered the worst of mankind and the cause of most of the world’s problems today.

Never mind that seems a little egotistical and self-indulgent of a well-developed guilt complex. I am unaware of any student in Mongolia feeling guilty about their Mongol ancestors and their Empire. I suppose that Europeans would be more apt to forgive that lack of guilt because Mongolians have been alternately invaded and oppressed as a subject nation by modern states and they are by no means a modern colossal able to project power beyond their borders. Because they are weak now, they are forgiven. Or maybe it’s a matter of subconscious racism that assumes that Mongols of the time were savages and could not know better, having not experienced the Enlightenment prior to or during the expansion of Empire so they had an excuse?

It is difficult to understand who gets a pass for Empire and under what circumstances. Then again, maybe it is simply a matter of modern psychology where guilt over actions is considered a purifying concept and not thinking about it and accepting that guilt is considered denial? That is almost exclusively a modern Western concept.

No real student of history would forget that civilizations, from the tribal to the city state, have expanded and contracted throughout history, even in pre-historic times, becoming dominant and then sometimes disappearing into other cultures all together. It is the history of man, not simply the history of modern nations. Some must feel that the evolution of thought since the Enlightenment should or would change that behavior. As if they could change the primal behavior of man with a simple thought. Rejecting that is a rejection of enlightenment and the universal rights of man. In fact, multi-cultural tendency is to try to preserve certain cultural aspects of other nations against the incursion of other nations’ culture brought on by globalization and advanced communications. This is considered progressive and enlightened. Others may reject that as rejecting the advancement of humanity, but that is another discussion.

The ego is a wonderful thing. For instance, there are British who still remember when Brittania ruled the waves and considers the British Empire to be a shining example of their nations ingenuity, creativity, strength and drive. They are rightly proud of their accomplishments. That is an expression of ego and some believe is denial regarding the reality of British Empire. There are others who see this period as an example of mankind’s worst towards others, oppression and rejection of modern British Principles. What they imagine is that, without the British Empire, some place like India would be different. If not better, at least it would not have changed at their hands. This is also an expression of the ego, imagining that all things in India stem from British Imperialism.

Some are even more conflicted since they believe that the British Empire was both good and bad. For instance, having spread British values on humanity and freedom, they may have injected humanitarian principles on an otherwise medieval or savage culture. One such principle was that colonial governors insisted that the practice of widows throwing themselves on the funeral pyres of their late husbands be stopped. On the other hand, they certainly exploited the cheap labor of indigenous tribes, took large amounts of resources with varying degrees of exchange for modern infrastructure, economy and education of the masses, recruited local men into the armed forces and used them to put down internal revolts against their own or other tribes.

Of course, maharajahs had been using the caste system and slave labor for centuries before the British came, fighting internecine wars, digging out jewels and metals, exploiting the system to gain wealth and land. The problem was, the British came and took advantage of the same system making their hands unclean in the Continuing Oppression of People. Which for socialists and other enlightened folks goes against all modern principles of universal human rights that should be looked upon with at least some aversion if not down right disgust. If not for the transplant of other British principles of equality that began the break up of the caste system, it would be totally irredeemable.

Not that the caste system is gone. You wouldn’t have Naxalists (communist Indian Maoists) running around India trying to overthrow the government if all was sweetness and light.

The point is, people have a tendency to imagine they are the sole arbiters of change, good or bad. They sometimes ignore the actions of others, insisting that through a tweaking of that, a dollop of this and not doing other things all together, the outcome would be, not just different, but better. They also have a tendency to look for redemption in their actions or those in the past while simultaneously flagellating themselves with guilt. It’s very Freudian. Worse yet, if modern history of a nation such a Germany includes other terrible acts in the not too distant past that included the rapine of nations and genocide of peoples, the guilt can overwhelm any attempts to find redemption. From that position, not only do they judge themselves, but the history of all nations.

To be continued....

Part II: American 19th Century History - Divine Mission or Pragmatism?

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