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Friday, October 25, 2013

America's Imperial Crusade in the Philippines

In an essay titled “Expansion and Peace” originally published on December 21, 1899, Theodore Roosevelt offered this defense of U.S. imperialism in the Philippines:

the expansion of a civilized nation has invariably meant the growth of the area in which peace is normal throughout the world.  The same will be true of the Philippines.  If the men who have counseled national degradation, national dishonor, by urging us to leave the Philippines and put the Aguinaldan oligarchy in control of those islands, could have their way, we should merely turn them over to rapine and bloodshed until some stronger, manlier power stepped in to do the task we had shown ourselves fearful of performing.  But, as it is, this country will keep the islands and will establish therein a stable and orderly government, so that one more fair spot of the world’s surface shall have been snatched from the forces of darkness.  Fundamentally the cause of expansion is the cause of peace.

It is worth noting here how Roosevelt uses Enlightenment rhetoric and imagery.  U.S. expansion, he argues, is an enlightening prospect that promises to “snatch” portions of the world’s surface “from the forces of darkness.”  Empire, in this mode, is literally a matter of enlightening.  But in this, as in other representative passages of Roosevelt’s epic prose, he is ultimately less concerned with the enlightenment of those who live in darkness on far away islands than he is with those among his fellow countrymen who, due to either moral depravity or intellectual obtuseness, simply refuse or are incapable of seeing the radiant light of American imperialism.  In the passage at hand, he depicts American anti-imperialists as men who have counseled “national degradation” and “national dishonor”.

In his famous essay of 1899, “The Strenuous Life”, he depicts the anti-imperialists in similarly unflattering terms:

The timid man, the lazy man, the man who distrusts his country, the over-civilized man, who has lost the great fighting, masterful virtues, the ignorant man, and the man of dull mind, whose soul is incapable of feeling the mighty lift that thrills ‘stern men with empires in their brains’ –all these, of course, shrink from seeing us build a navy and an army adequate to our needs; shrink from seeing us do our share of the world’s work, by bringing order out of chaos in the great, fair tropic islands from which the valor of our soldiers and sailors has driven the Spanish flag.  These are the men who fear the strenuous life, who fear the only national life which is really worth leading.

With this rhetoric of courageous and strenuous effort, Roosevelt seeks to construct a modern heroic type: the imperial civilizer; but this would-be modern hero actually reverts back to pre-modern forms of heroism celebrated centuries before by Spanish imperial apologists who conceived of their own empire in the Americas as the divinely sanctioned and heroic work of self-sacrificing saints and crusading conquistadors.  By means of such heroic rhetoric, Roosevelt sought, not unlike the Spaniards several centuries before him, to elevate the adventurer and even the criminal to the status of an absolute moral conscience. This totalizing and absolutist conception of the imperial hero is tainted, no doubt, with the universalism of Enlightenment moral and political thought.  But Roosevelt’s heroes of American imperialism are not modern-day Prometheans who dare to steal the light of the gods in order to improve the lot of mankind with their modern science and technological know-how; they are rather pre-modern heroes, bent on imposing the tyrannical spirit of their “strenuous way of life” on those unfortunate enough to come face to face with them in a struggle to retain their own freedom.