America's Imperial Quest

Barbarian Virtuesby Matthew Frye JacobsonHill & Wang. 314p $30

The Chinese had no pocketsno place to carry "a pocket-comb, a folding foot-rule, a cork-screw, a boot-buttoner, a pair of tweezers, a minute compass, a folding pair of scissors, a pin-ball, a pocket-mirror...a fountain pen," or any other such American-made product. Moreover, the Chinese were hostile to all improvement. Yet late 19th-century Americans, driven by their fears of overproduction, fantasized about this China market that one American businessman referred to as no longer the old Far East, but our new Far West. Americans even invited Chinese immigrant workers to build their railroads across the Great Plains. Only when the work was done did Americans invoke the free white persons clause of the 1790 Naturalization Act to bar the Chinese from the privileges of American citizenship and launch a campaign of exclusion marked by blatant racialism.

Matthew Frye Jacobson (associate professor of American studies at Yale), in this beautifully written post-colonial synthesis of the origins of American imperialism, reminds the reader that for more than a century Americans have seen the world’s people as consumers of American goods and, when they immigrate, as America’s workers. Unprecedented industrial production fueled the expansionism of the United States, first, to China (and to Hawaii and the Philippines as stepping stones to China), to Latin America and, finally, to the Caribbean. American manufacturers needed markets. But this global reach of the United States was accompanied by a parochial vision. Whether it was the Chinese who had no pockets or Latin Americans perceived as savages across the border ready for fight and mischief, or Africans as savage and as cruel as Sabor (Tarzan’s reaction) or Filipinos characterized as our little brown brothers by William Howard Taftand to whom the Declaration of Independence was never meant to apply, according to Albert BeveridgeAmericans remained convinced of their own superiority and of their right to rule the world’s people as consumers for their own profit.

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Ironically, it was this same unprecedented industrial production that beckoned the world’s people to American shores as workers. Most earned far more than they could have earned in their native countries ($8 to $10 a week in the United States compared to $22 a year in Hungary), but their differences and American dependence on them made them a national icon charged with awesome positive and negative value. And when many became involved in labor radicalism (over 3,000 work stoppages in 1901 alone), instead of understanding the ills capitalism had wrought, Americans blamed foreigners, calling them modern white coolies who fatten on garbage. They violently put down their strikes and passed restrictive legislation. August Spies, tried and hanged for taking part in a bombing at the 1886 Haymarket Square workers’ rally for an eight-hour day but really for his foreign’ ideas and even his foreign birth, understood. He wrote, I admit I ought not to have been born a foreigner, but little children, particularly unborn children, will make mistakes!

Every aspect of American culture supported these attitudes. Jacobson, like Edward Said (Culture and Imperialism, 1994), brilliantly weaves myriad sources, exploring Harper’s Weekly, NorthAmerican Review, National Geographic, The New York Herald, Charles Dudley Warner’s Mummies and Moslems, Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, O. Henry’s Cabbages and Kings, Edgar Rice Burrough’s Jungle Tales of Tarzan, Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain and others. He notes especially David Spurr’s analysis of the rhetoric of empire: negative descriptions; a need to civilize; emphasis on the exotic nature of the land or people; depictions of natives as wilderness in human form; literary negation (Differently clothed peoples became naked savages’; inhabited forests became blank wilderness’; Africa became the dark continent.’); defining the landscape according to what is missing in the eye of the Westerner (no good roads or public lighting, for instance); and an erotic charge that captured the foreign peoples, native or immigrant, with a steady pornographic stare.

In an era before scientific fieldwork, social scientists relied upon such writings to create theories about cultural development, hereditary determinations and intellectual prowess. By the turn of the 20th century, with Asians excluded (not only Chinese and Japanese, but Indians, Koreans and Armenians as well) and the black question settled (Jim Crow was in full force), scientific discussions driven by evolutionism, eugenics and the heredity of intelligence centered on racialist ideas about various European peoples and their inherent and inescapable weaknesses, especially regarding their participation in the American democratic state.

The collateral damage to American democracy at home appeared in the ranks of the Immigration Restriction League, informed the findings of the Dillingham Commission and molded the formulations of the National Origins Act. Those European races so unfamiliar with democratic practices, so corruptible and so inherently incapable of participating in self-government were no longer welcome. Abroad, Americans devised ways to avoid extending the benefits of their democracy with deliberately race-based disenfranchisement. When faced with continuing resistance, as in Cuba and the Philippines, the United States simply declared its right to interfere in Cuban affairs (Platt Amendment) and waged a savage war in which 222,000 Filipinos died (only 2,000 Americans) and in which American soldiers made few distinctions between Filipino civilians and combatants. In each case, Americans seized control, characterized the native peoples as savage and granted none of the privileges of democracy.

None of this was new. The United States was simply the latest player in an oft-repeated scenario of Western imperialism, proclaiming its national interests at stake in the imperial quest, its need to deal zealously with any resistance from lesser peoples, the exceptional (rather than imperial) nature of its conquests and its need to deny the progressive principles of its national culture to those abroad.

American prosperity had been rooted in that very moment when global power was so lustily seized and expanded. From the mid-19th-century Plains wars to the mid-20th-century Southeast Asian wars, the United States’ rise to global predominance was neither intermittent nor blind, unintentional, or accidental. Late 19th-century Americans consciously chose imperial power along with the undemocratic baggage and even the bloodshed that entailed; and many Americans...liked it. They still do.

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