It all started with the Wanderer's Daughter's question:
"I can't help but feeling a tiny bit of shame at our national ethnocentricity." she said, "Read: blindness. OK, it's more than a tiny bit of shame...but I don't want to be written off as unpatriotic. I'm not. I am genuinely fond of my country. Heaven knows, I had plenty of opportunities to leave it, and I turned them all down. Here's the thing: I love my country. I do! It's a beautiful country. There are many ways in which I love my country. But, how did we get so isolated and blindered? The horror. How do we break out of this inward-gazing cycle?"And that got me to thinking about how it seemed that my country had been at war with someone, somewhere, pretty much all of my adult life - and most of my childhood, too, since the little fracas in Southeast Asia kicked off when I was two.I didn't like the idea that I was living in, and had spent much of my life in the uniform of, some sort of warrior state, the Sparta of the Western Hemisphere. Are we the warmongers of the West? Are we so egocentric, so violent towards anyone not "like us" that the rest of the world should be afraid, be very afraid?
So I sat down to read and think about this a bit.
Here's my conclusions, for what they're worth.
To sum up; I don't think that we in the U.S. are uniquely racist, blind or bellicose. I do think we have inherited an aggressive and inward-looking mindset from the European nations that produced us, and that we are in the midst of an odd period in which the U.S. is both disproportionally physically and militarily strong but intellectually weak, having been led from rational thought through the intent of knaves and fools. We do tend to blunder about overseas, but more from ignorance and fretfulness than malice or cupidity. So I think the answer is that we suffer from some social institution failures that make our overseas adventuring possible (especially when it coincides with the needs of our elites) - but that we're not typically imperial; we're just at the apogee of one of our policy cycles.
Here's the answer in detail:
1. We are Western Europeans, and as such have fallen heir to the Western European legacy: advanced technology, political unity and aggressive self-confidence. Western Europe is perhaps the single most unique example of hypertrophic technical, social and political development - a geopolitical Perfect Storm (at least you might think of it that way if you had been an Aztec, a Penobscot, a Ceylonese, a Zulu, a Burman or an Australian aborigine...) - in human history. The inhabitants of Eurasia were specially gifted by biology and technology, to start with.
A huge concentration of domesticatable animals - and in particular, chickens and pigs, who combined to bless us with infectious lethal diseases like influenza, smallpox and cholera - and plants are found only within Eurasia. This combination enabled concentrated agriculture and husbandry, the production of excess wealth, and the early development of soldiering as a trade as well as political sophistication.
The combination of technical and social innovation produced advanced metallurgy and woodcraft, creating everything from hinges and doors to arquebuses and caravels.
Just the right amount of external political pressure - in the form of the Islamic enemies to the east who were strong enough to menace but not to conquer - and intercene squabbling among the nations of Western Europe created politically centralized, fiscally and economically adventurous, socially cohesive and technically innovative nation-states at a time when most of the rest of the world was still at the feudal level or even no more organized than bands of hunter-gatherers. And then released these clenched fists of nations on the rest of the world long before it was ready for them.
In other words, starting in the 15th Century the Old World went through the rest of the world like a dose of fucking salts. The native civilizations of the New World were overwhelmed.However, being Spanish and Portugese, the Spanish and Portugese conquerors of Central and South America wanted only to mulct their new dominions of treasure. They didn't exterminate their native subjects; in fact, a Mexican acquaintance of mine once bemoaned his country's ongoing social and political problems as going back to the uncomfortable fusion of mostly-autochthenous proles being ruled by mostly-allocthonous nobles. "You got to kill all your Indians!" he griped, "And we just fucked ours..."
The North Americans did, in fact, largely exterminate the native peoples. Instead of a hybrid civilization of native and European - mestizo - the Norteamericanos are puro Anglo, the lineal descendants of those aggro, technical and tactical hard men who swarmed ashore in 1492 and 1620...
The past three hundred and eighty-some years we've been living off the social and political capital we inherited from our European procreators. So it's not surprising that, as a nation, we are both aggressive and self-involved. The people who created America weren't interested in hearing what Asians, Africans or native Americans had to say. They were interested in taking from those people what was good for them; what was theirs was theirs and what was yours was...negotiable.
2. We are in the midst of an extreme endmember of a Great Power cycle, in which our country is disproportionately powerful and engaged in global fiddling; we don't have the perspective to see ourselves in context regarding this - it seems like we're the Global Bully and always have been. Prior to 1945 our national aggressiveness was pretty much taken up with all that native American extermination I was talking about. We fought the British (to get free of the Daddy - all kids go through that), the French (just because), the Algerians (because they were pissing us off), the Mexicans (for the same reason we killed all the native Americans - they had some land we wanted), each other (over African slaves, which most of the white people fighting didn't much like, either), the Spanish (to prove we could) and the Filipinos (because they were brown and they had some land we wanted). Pretty small potatoes, really, and when you look at what the British, French and Germans were up to at the same time, well...we weren't much of a bully.By the 20th Century, though, we were throwing our weight around pretty good in our neighborhood; the Central Americans got pretty sick of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps by 1939, I can tell you. But it was WW2 and the resulting Cold War that really got us in the global meddling business. Suddenly the entire world was a combat zone; it was us, eyeball-to-eyeball with the godless Commies. And remember, the old European powers who had been doing all the dirty work in the Third World hustings?
No more British imperial satraps to murder a couple of hundred thousand Singhalese. Suddenly a pipsqueak popinjay in some craptacular principality a zillion miles from anywhere was a Major Diplomatic Incident. Suddenly the CIA was lurking everywhere, funding plots and plotters, assassinating dictators and generally meddling in other people's business.And when you are the global economic powerhouse and defender of the West? Your armies and navies are busy, busy...
Paul Kennedy, in his work "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers", describes the process by which nation-states accumulate economic, political and military power, use that power to extend their geopolitical reach, eventually over-reach themselves (the term Kennedy uses is "imperial overstretch"), and then decline. Because we are in the "stretch" (or possibly in the early stages of "overstretch") we see ourselves as this colossus, bestriding the narrow world and seemingly fighting everywhere and endlessly.
But, in fact, the entire period of this "Imperial America" has been less than a human lifetime. And nowhere is there any indication that the nation trewed up in it has the moral, social, political or economic desire or will to continue this domination any sustained period of time.
3. The great imperial powers of the past profited (in the selfish sense) from something we generally lack: the social belief that they were literally superior to those they ruled. Human history until the last half of the 20th Century was pretty kind to conquerors. Attacking, overwhelming and ruling other peoples was considered the natural order of things. The conqueror was the better man, the conquered the inferior, branded by God and Nature with the forehead-L for Loser.From the earliest days of "civilization" (and by that I mean the coagulation of humans into organized social groups: farming communities, towns, cities, city-states, nations and so forth...) the "civilized" had never lacked the innate sense that they were "better"; smarter, more put-together, richer, cleaner, better-smelling than the "uncivilized".
Perhaps the oldest human conflict was between the "farmer" - the human who lived off crops and herds,who needed a fixed abode and a settled society - and the "nomad", who continued in the ancient ways of hunting, gathering and traveling. The farmer needed his "own" land, his "own" animals and plants, and was inevitably going to end up fighting the nomad, whose peregrinations in search of game and wild plants didn't respect the farmer's fields and flocks.To the farmer - and in the sense that we're ALL "farmers", that is, all of our civilizations are the lineal descendants of the first Euphrates River valley townspeople - the nomad is barely human; a wild, dirty, dangerous savage. He appears like the wolf and is hunted like the wolf.
Townspeople like dogs and cats.
But since the extermination of 99.9% of human nomads, and the explosion of written and now electronic communication that has allowed humans to get to know all variety of other human types and ways, the pose of cultural superiority has become increasingly hard to maintain. Certainly there are many people who resist the notion that their ways are not the "best". But, generally speaking, one of the few real changes in global human behavior is the cessation of casual, widely-accepted, offhand racial, social or sexual superiority.
Here's a good example.
More than one hundred years ago someone named Frank Norris wrote a story called "Moran of the Lady Letty" purporting to tell the story of coastal skulduggery in 19th Century California. The villains of the piece are the Chinese "coolies" who crew many of the vessels. The author, clearly sensible of his readership's taste, lets you know right away what you need to know about the "Chinamen": "Cowardly, superstitious rats"; "the evil glint in his slant, small eye..."; "...the yellow devils..."And women? Our heroine, Moran, enters as a self-confident ship captain and holds her own until she falls for our hero, delightfully named Wilbur. Then, in her own words: "I'm not proud and strong and independent...I'm just a woman now, dear..." There's worse to come. Moran is threatened by the eeeeevil coolie Hoang. Let's let our narrator describe the scene:
"Hoang slipped the knife from the sleeve of his blouse. For an instant the old imperiousness, the old savage pride and anger, leapt in Moran's breast - then died away forever. Only a few weeks ago, and she would have fought Hoang without hesitation and without mercy; she would have wrenched a leg from the table and brained him where he stood. But she had learned since to know what it was to be dependent; to rely for protection on someone who was stronger than she; to know her weakness; to know that she was at last a woman, and to be proud of it."And Moran's reward for her learning, her newfound status as a Real Woman, her enlightenment to the joys of femininity?
"Instinctively she cried out "Mate- mate! Oh mate, where are you? Help me!" and Hoang's knife nailed the words within her throat."Chinky-chinky Chinaman bad! Woman weak! White man ruler of the Earth! Got it?This sort of appalling crap was common currency in this country until well into the 1950's and 1960's. The notion that "civilized" white people were the natural masters of Chinamen, wogs, niggers, darkies of all sorts, dagoes, heatherns...well, it was just the natural way of the world. And with that way came the natural consequence: the willingness, even the eagerness, to take up the White Man's Burden. The notion of an American Empire would have seemed as natural as the British and French and Roman empires that preceded it.
But to proclaim an American Empire is to meet with loud and angry rebuttals. Outside of the C.H.U.D. wing of the Republican Party it is nearly impossible to hold this sort of opinion, support the ideal of Empire, out loud today. The old, formal, racist and imperialist rationales are almost completely discredited. The idea that a formal American "empire", where Americans physically rule over the ignorant, dusky heathen foreigners, cannot be intellectually justified by today's standards.
So by all rights, we should be a nation of interested bystanders, lending money and a patient ear when needed to our foreign friends in their difficult times, but maintaining our physical force and geopolitical influence only for our truly strategic national objectives, as decided by the People in Congress is open, informed debate? Why doesn't this happen?
Why are American troops posted so many places overseas? Why do American soldiers so often fight what, truthfully, should be other nations' civil wars and domestic uprisings? How can you make the American public - the notional "ruler" of their own country - so "isolated and blindered" as to support the prosecution of so many piddling, profitless foreign wars and police actions since 1980? Lebanon and Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989, Kuwait in 1991, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990's, Iraq and Afghanistan in the Oughts?
That's the subject of our next post.