Saturday, April 22, 2006

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

Part I: Imperial Idealist in Me and Manifest Destiny

Lies, Myths and Legends

They say that those that do not know history are doomed to repeat it. I disagree. Instead, I see history influencing the future. Like painting and wallpapering the same wall over hundreds of years without ever resolving or removing some previous layers. Eventually, the paint starts pealing and some of those old layers are bound to start showing up, no matter how neat or liberal you were with the paint. That’s when you realize that fifty years ago, some one had atrocious taste in colors and had no idea how to hang wallpaper.

An old history teacher once likened history to a path: without it you don’t know where you’ve been, where you are or where you are going. I would add to that and say, if you don’t know history, you might as well wear a blindfold, put your fingers in your ears and skip down the path singing, “la-la-la-la-la” so you can’t hear history screaming at you that the bridge is out up ahead and the drop to the ravine below is fifty feet.

Then there are those who always look longingly to the past, standing still or only ever slowly walking backwards into the future. Those folks always imagine the past as “better times”, more perfect and less fraught with worry or troubles. It’s easy to imagine that because things in the distance tend to look blurry, even to those with some of the best eyesight, disguising the blemishes as it slowly fades away.

The truth is, though, that most people don’t know much about history. We don’t need snap surveys from the Jay Leno show, asking the man (or woman) on the street to name the first president (and utterly failing) to know that. You could simply pick ten people from your family or friends and ask them a few questions about American history. Or, ask yourself. Could you name three people who signed the Declaration of Independence? What year was it signed? Who wrote it? What are the three “unalienable rights” listed? What country did we declare independence from? Who was the king? What year was the Revolutionary war over? What was the name of the document that was first used to govern the United States? What document replaced it? How many amendments were in the Bill of Rights? Who wrote it? What was the fifth amendment? How about the ninth?

If they are computer savvy, they (or you) could look them up, but the odds are they can’t tell you off the top of their heads even half the answers. One may wonder why that is. I’ve heard it theorized that it is because Americans by nature are forward looking people with little time for the past. Frankly, I think that’s a romanticized version of the truth. I am always reminded of my stepsister’s comment when she was sixteen and I was trying to help her with her history class that she was failing. She said, “Why do I need to learn this? It’s not like I’ll ever use it.” Of course, she said the same thing about algebra only to be surprised a few years later when she was trying to balance her checkbook and I pointed out that she was using algebra to determine if all the checks had been deducted and figuring her actual balance. Talk about shock. In fact, she originally did not accept my point and argued with me for fifteen minutes that it was simple addition and subtraction.

For the most part, Americans don’t know much about their own history because they do not find it pertinent to their daily lives. It’s not really that they are looking forward; so much as they are not looking around at all. In fact, we’re a very myopic nation. Yet, somehow, we keep stumbling forward on the path, blindfolded and deaf, without actually meeting with complete tragedy. Of all the things to admire about this country and its people, maybe this incredible dumb luck is the most importantt.

Why is history so important? Because; knowledge is power. It’s not just a silly cliché. Without knowledge, people can tell you anything and lead you around by the nose. How do you make good decisions without knowledge? Without knowledge, your decisions are a crap shoot; a game of chance. You might as well decide what to do next by playing “Eenie-Meanie-Minie-Mo”.

Take for example, Ward Churchill, a professor of American Indian Studies at Colorado University. Half of his lectures are made up of myths and half-truths; and he is a professor who has educated hundreds if not thousands of students and given hundreds of lectures to focus groups on the subject. His most famous “myth as truth” is that the American Government provided blankets infected with small pox to Indians on purpose, with malice afore thought, with the plan to wipe out this first “red menace”. I’m certain that many people have heard this myth before and did not need Ward Churchill to say it.

The truth is, the treatment of American Indians was bad enough without adding myths. Some things happened due to ignorance, some due to idealism, some due to corruption and greed and still more from an overabundance of all three. That wasn’t just the white settlers and government. The Indian population had their share of fellow travelers on all of these paths. Even today, corruption, cronyism and nepotism on Indian reservations is rampant. But, if you hear it from Churchill, the American government and white European settlers were the first fascists that committed germ warfare and genocide. He neglects to inform his students and lecture listeners of the fact that medical science had not yet learned how germs were carried and certainly did not know how to treat certain diseases like small pox. He neglects to inform his students that small pox was a major disease that wiped out large parts of the white population during the same period. Entire settlements were abandoned after small pox decimated the population. It was one of the major causes of early mortality among children. At some points, it was tantamount to the medieval plague.

Of course, the return answer to this is that none of this would have happened if the dirty, nasty, brutish white settlers had never landed on the continent in the first place. That is supposed to shut you up and ask no more questions. Apparently, it is quite effective. At this point, you are either a fully indoctrinated convert (oh, converts are the most passionate and blind) or, by Churchill’s standard you are simply an ignorant white, genocide-denying oppressor.

It’s effective because, even people who study American Indian history or brush up against it in their other studies don’t really know much about American Indians. In fact, most people come in two categories of knowledge. The first are those whose only contact with American Indian history is through movies where everyone is a grunting, bare chested, breech-cloth, war bonnet wearing savage wielding a bow and arrow or they are the fully indoctrinated that imagines the word “Indian” immediately confers a spiritual nobility that defies petty human emotions and frailties, insisting that the Indians never knew jealousy, treachery or hate and never experienced so much as a broken bone, much less cancer or heart disease before a white man stepped foot on this continent.

If you believe any one of these three myths, germ warfare, total savages or noble race, are the true history of American Indians and white settlers, then you have entered into the second stage of “knowledge of American History”: myth. These myths get bounced around and said enough, read enough, seen enough; eventually they are part of our common discourse. They become history in place of history.

Americans are not the only nation or culture that experiences myths as history. There’s Tamerlane, Genghis Khan and the Mongol hoard; Salahdin’s nobility in the face of savage “civilized” Christian Crusaders; Joan of Arc, Boudicca and even modern myths like the Alamo and Manifest Destiny. For the most part, myths are the simplified way that people remember their history. The Good Myth and the Bad Myth take hold and often obscure “history”. Then it’s all “O, Pioneers” versus “Wounded Knee”.

Then along comes someone like Churchill or my Socialist friend and they start talking about history from their point of view, some of which includes myths or twisting some events to fit a narrative and some of which is simply similar ignorance of history. They talk to other people whose grasp of history is equally or even more tenuous and then they too either start believing or at least they begin to doubt what they think they know because it seems like the person has a better grasp of history than they do. In the case of Ward Churchill, who has a tendency to call others Nazis and “little Eichmans”, he uses the same techniques that Hitler did to formulate “history”. One only has to read Mein Kampf to understand how this works. If you read it, Hitler sounds very sane and logical in his thinking. He points to certain economic and political issues, he talks about moments in history and in between that he adds his own narrative or twist to facts so that it sounds imminently practical and realistic. Compound this with a certain rhetorical style and the next thing you know, hundreds of thousands of people have bought it and swallowed it, hook, line and sinker. Then you get real genocide and mass murder.

Therein lies the danger of not knowing history. What you don’t know really can hurt you.

What troubles lie in the reprisal of American 19th Century history? The first is the narrative that shapes the future of the United States. But, just like modern American history cannot be told without reviewing the 19th or 20th Century, you cannot understand the 19th Century without understanding the cause and effect of 18th century American politics and thinking.

We’ll start simple with post Revolutionary United States. By this time, the rebels had gotten what they wanted: Free United States. There was no country running this country. There was neither king nor parliament. In other words, they were completely responsible for the failure or success of the new nation. The first thing they did was squabble amongst themselves on the best way forward. Strong Central Government or Weak Central Government with strong States Rights and Sovereignty. Having just fought a war that was won on a shoestring budget and came within a hairs’ breath of ending in defeat at the hands of a strong government with an organized, professional military, many were not interested in creating their own central government with the same ability to oppress them. The opposition, like Alexander Hamilton, argued that without a strong central government, the newly formed country was vulnerable to attack and any or all states could be economically jeopardized by blockades or boycotts. Further, the states would be competing individually for international commerce. The danger there was in undercutting any individual state’s economy that might lead to internal war.

Of course, there were many other arguments for and against a strong central government. It wasn’t resolved over night. The Articles of Confederation governed the nation for almost 13 years. Eventually, the problems with this document became apparent. The central government could not sustain a military to defend the people. It could not impose taxes to support the central government. The taxes that it did impose were difficult to collect because states would choose to arbitrarily disregard whatever taxes they felt were oppressive and the central government did not have enough money to field the number of tax collectors required to oversee the enforcement.

On top of that, each state printed their own money and even within those states, each bank would have their own banknote that would be honored or not depending on relationships with other banks inside the state or in outside. The value of these notes was based on the assets of the individual banks. Exchange rates were outrageous and inflation was running rampant. The nation was in danger of collapse just a few short years after being born into existence.

To combat this, the founders decided to create a central bank, the Federal Reserve. The value of the notes would be based on the value of the Federal Reserve’s assets and performance that in turn was based on the performance of the entire nation. Large deposits of gold and silver backed this up. Because the notes could be exchanged for tangible wealth, the currency stabilized. Bank issued notes did not disappear completely, but they did become less common and less traded. Eventually, all that was left of the previous system were bank drafts (ie, checks), cashier checks and money orders (something most of us are familiar with today).

Depending on whom you read now or noted thinkers and businessmen back then, the Federal Reserve was equally lauded and despised. There were many banks that owned many assets and controlled large gold and silver deposits. Their bank notes were very valuable and it made the owners very wealthy. When the Federal Reserve came in and developed one currency with a stable value, some banks’ assets were immediately devalued. Others complained that a central bank that controlled the largest gold and silver deposits put too much power in the hands of the central government that could choose at any time not to honor the obligations of individual banks. He who controls the money, controls the country. Others were highly suspicious of individuals involved in setting up the bank; many were prominent businessmen. These suspicions ranged from a back door attempt to control the central government to trying to put other banks out of business.

You can read all sorts of letters, newspapers and debates on the subject. These same questions still exist today. It is one of the foundations of the “wealthy capitalists businessmen control the US government” conspiracies. What the conspiracy ignores, however, is that the Federal Reserve did not guarantee success. It was a huge risk that these men were undertaking, for themselves and for the nation. Forgetting that or dismissing it as unimportant is the first necessity in buying the far left and Socialist conspiracy that America’s foundation and continued existence is to benefit wealthy businessmen.

Then there is the question of the military.

Today, it seems very logical that we should have a standing army to defend the nation. The size, scope and purpose we continue to debate. Some people may be surprised to find that this argument is the same argument we were having in 1789. At that time, the pros and cons were more concerned about the possible use of military internally to suppress the people versus protecting the people. Now we are concerned about the military being used externally to suppress or expand versus simply protecting the physical borders of the nation. But, in the end, it’s still the same argument: How big and what for?

Why did the government feel that a standing army was needed? Several problems existed. Indian raids on the frontier settlements were common. All three of the European superpowers of the time still had colonies and garrisons of troops on the continent. The British concocted some of the Indian raids. British troops routinely pushed down into contested territories. There was piracy and various internal rebellions. Ships carrying letters of marque regularly interdicted ships from other nations and the United States, interfering with commerce and endangering the economy. The European nations, who still had colonies on the continent, were constantly at war and the Americans feared that they would be constantly at the mercy of these wars when they bled over onto this continent or the seas nearby.

This was no idle threat or imagination of the founders. Many of them, including George Washington, had fought in the French and Indian Wars that involved the main armies of England and France as well as the use of different Indian tribes as proxies. They feared that this war could be repeated or that Indians would be used as proxies against their nation. France and England were still at war at the beginning of the 19th Century.

These issues drove the practical, pragmatic representatives; generally those who were already in favor of a strong central government. Then there were the idealists who came from both sides of the aisle, both the pro-military and anti-military. There was talk among some of the Americans that Canada should be invaded and annexed. Others began to talk about spreading freedom and democracy to every corner of the continent. This was the first manifestation of Manifest Destiny. It was equally billed as a divine mission and a practical necessity for defense. Others believed in American Exceptionalism. In other words, only here in the thirteen colonies could freedom and democracy exist. It was limited to this place because only the right people with the right beliefs lived here. Attempting to expand it might weaken the nation and unfettered immigration or inclusion of “others” might bring in people who did not agree with or understand the concept, thus, endangering the future existence of democracy.

All of these arguments should sound familiar because they are the same arguments that we hear today. There are even groups in Canada and the United States that advocate annexing all or part of Canada. People who talk about immigrants today use the same arguments that people have been using for nearly the entire 217 years as a nation.

The problem with learning about the “true” history of the United States is that certain classes, specific education paths and even political persuasion tends to push people towards emphasizing one part of history over the other. That’s if they know anything at all. Most people who think about Westward Expansion simply think that pioneers looked west into a vast, unpopulated, undeveloped areas and decided to go there. That idea comes from two factors: the mythologized “Manifest Destiny” history of the United States and “O’ Pioneers”. Not that the myth has it totally wrong. Once western territories were made available for settlement either by purchase or annexation, many citizens and immigrants chose to move west precisely because they did see vast tracts of (largely) uninhabited lands just ripe for people and development.

Even before annexation or purchase of territory, many pioneers chose to move to these areas, not at the behest of the government in an attempt to populate areas and then claim them for protection of their citizens, but because what they really wanted to do was to get away from the government. Those who felt the centralized government was going to be too strong thought that distance could protect them. On top of that, as immigration increased to the country, the price of land continued to increase at a speedy pace in the established colonies/states whereas a man could simply move his family into the Ohio Valley, stake out some land, clear it, build a cabin and proclaim it his own. Free of charge. That is until the government eventually reached the area and began to collect taxes. Also, as immigration continued, the land in the valley began to get a little crowded for some.

This had its risks. Pioneers who moved beyond the reach of the government were also beyond its protection. They either staved off attacks from hostile Indians on their own or created local militia. If someone was sick, they had to rely on local healers who had learned the “art”. There were few professional physicians running around the frontier. Education? Roads? Law enforcement and judges? It was hit or miss for most people. Problems were settled between the plaintiffs. If someone in the family could read or write, it was likely they were teaching their own children and the neighbors’.

For some groups, it was certainly a matter of divine mission and direction from God. For most, however, God only entered into it when they were praying that the crops would hold, the cattle would increase and their families would remain safe. Not to mention Sunday services. That’s not to denigrate or try to depreciate religion in the Pioneers or try to prove that there wasn’t any. We are talking about the end of the 18th century. Language and life were peppered with references to God, divinity and guidance. Many of the earliest pioneers were Protestant descendents of the Calvinist movement that tended towards the concept of pre-ordination and pre-destination. Sermons, books and political speech were peppered with the concept. Not to mention, difficult times and a life of hardship tended to make people look for divine intervention. Sometimes, divine intervention was closer than the local militia or doctor.

This was another factor in Manifest Destiny becoming a predominant theme in America’s history, myths and legends.

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