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Americanism - Part I, American Innocence

by delicatemonster Mon May 14th, 2007 at 02:44:02 PM EST

`Americanism' the term and the concept has a relatively old pedigree. Generally it's seen as a belief system that implies American values are the most ideal of cultural values or an attitude that gives special importance to the United States of America. It became a more `formal' term when Pope Pius IX decided to define the concept as  a heresy. I can only imagine what the Knights of Columbus thought of that. This declaration apparently occurred when America was coming into its own as the quintessential imperial melting pot and, as such, it couldn't very well maintain a `state religion' no matter what the Catholics might think. For those interested in that particular moment, Wikepedia has a good write up
here .

The main gist of the disagreement was the idea that Americans would embrace their constitution over their religion. The call for a separation of church and state embedded in the US constitution and a founding principle of our country was considered a heresy by the Catholic popes.  What's most interesting is that the term has now come full circle...

From something that was considered heretical because it admantantly embraced the separation of the church and the state and the concept of individual liberty, 'Americanism' now has evolved into meaning nearly its exact opposite: the advocacy of Christianity over all other religions and the suppression of the individual's freedom to ensure the `security' of the state. The Catholic church has yet to call this latest revision of Americanism a `heresy'. No doubt the Knights of Columbus are greatly relieved.

In addition to American Religiosity and American Militarism, I use two other terms to define Americanism: American Innocence and American Exceptionalism. Each of these are less separate strands then gradations or shades of an American ideology. In the following four sections, I hope to broadly define that term, and to show why and how `Americanism' has become, in fact, another `ism', like communism or capitalism or fascism- with, of course, a cheerful American face.

Part I

American Innocence

Hegel didn't think much of Native Americans. Around 1822 he wrote that they were "like unenlightened children, living from one day to the next, and untouched by higher thoughts or aspirations."  But in a not so subtle manner, Hegel paid homage to the primitiveness of the place called America and wanted European Americans  "weary of the historical arsenal of the old Europe" to "abandon the ground on which world history has hitherto been enacted." Hegel hoped, as William Blake wished as well, that the American `experiment' would rise above the weight of European history, and "offer a new sense of reality for the world."

It's a beguiling fantasy based in historical fact: the persecuted Europeans flee the Old Europe. They arrive in the Americas, wide-eyed and curious, desirous only for a new life. They are Adam and Eve returning to the primeval Garden, seeking absolution from the decadence of European history, seeking innocence. "Hardy, courageous, tough - this is the self-image of the colonial settlers."

We know this is true, because we have diaries and journals in which their visions are noted by the peerless settlers themselves. Alas, we also have the accounts of the others--those `unenlightened children'--the Indians--whom the innocent `pioneers' first encountered.

In The Legacy of Conquest, Patrica Limerick's writes: " Few White American went West intending to ruin the natives. Even when they were trespassers, westering Americans were hardly, in their own eyes, criminals, rather they were `pioneeers'."

No matter how often and petulantly white Americans trespassed Indian's land and were thus rebuffed, they always held firm to a belief in their essential innocence. In the early 1600, a massacre of the Pequot Indians drew this exacting description from Captain John Mason. He writes precisely how he had his men attack the village by burning it to the ground while the Indians slept inside, men, women and children alike:


"Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword, some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived that they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy"

The Native Americans were savages who needed to be rebuffed or manipulated, whose death was `wrought so wonderfully for them' by God. Despite the unpleasant `scent thereof', the Americans considered themselves valiant pioneers, and their speedy `victory' was a sign of God's deference. European Americans, viewing their actions through the narrow lens of their own subjective experience, determined their motives were pure, based on God's design. Of course, an objective reading of their activities would indicate Americans were as barbaric as any conquering Roman legion. Yet, according to Limerick the poor pioneering white women and men always proclaimed their innocence as they pushed Native Americans farther and farther West.

"The ends abundantly justified the means, personal interest in the acquisition of property coincided with national interest in the acquisition of territory, and those interests overlapped in turn with the mission to extend the domain of Christian civilization."  

God justified the national expansion, the national expansion justified the personal expansion and personal interests certainly helped--but it was all `okayed'. The pioneers were innocent by every externalized `moral' authority that mattered to them--God or country. Both had signed off on the great effort to civilize the West. Passionate preachers and demagogic politicians cleansed the settlers' hands of the Indians' blood.  

Embedded in their culture in this way, they were like their white Southerners counterparts who lamented the dreadful responsibilities of their `slavery ownership', that paternalistic burden that Kipling once described as "The White Man's" burden. Again, it was a burden of responsibility forced on them by outside `higher' authorities. Responsibility for the benefits derived from the slavery lay elsewhere, but the benefits, themselves, the fruits of such slavery would surely be gracefully accepted. Shirley plantation rises majestically near the James in silent homage of the bargain.

In March 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders tendered its report on the uprisings of the decade, and it offered an indictment that covers this general sense of amnesia, what Vijay Prashad calls `innocent amensia', a kind of amnesia designed to maintain innocence:

"What white Americans have never fully understood -- but what the Negro can never forget -- is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it."
Writes Prashad, "our inability to deal with racism is a consequence of the innocent amnesia of whiteness, the grave desire to represent racism as the touchiness of the oppressed or as the province of an isolated group of hotheads", having nothing to do with our society, our family or our lives.

This dynamic is as alive today as it was nearly 200 years ago. We find it in candidates who talk about the American character and the American way with such inspiration and zeal. Historically, the `American' way has been to take what we think is ours by right, complain about any intrusion upon that  `right' or obstruction to gaining it, all the while maintaining the goodness of our motives, based, primarily upon the believes that we ourselves are good. God is on our side, and therefore, any of our consequent actions are divinely ordained. If not God than certainly a set of irrefutably 'good' principles: freedom, democracy, etc... Our 'good' intentions --even when they are shifting per month -- are used to cleanse our deeds. So even if these actions are not necessarily divinely ordained because they are undertaken for a 'good' cause, our motives are pure and so are we. No matter how disastrous for us or others the end results happen to be. Current examples of maintaining a sense of innocence despite demonstrable historical facts run rampant today in the behavior of pundits and politicians -on both the left and the right. Those who complain about Iraq citizens being unwilling to take up the `burden' for their own country, when, in fact, it was the initial crime of our dunderheaded war and occupation that made such an unfortunate  `taking up' necessary are perfect examples.

In fact, in an irony free swagger, Michael Savage uses Rudyard Kipling's White Man's Burden to indict the Iraqis.

From the March 20 broadcast of Talk Radio Network's Savage Nation:

SAVAGE: Tell me if this doesn't apply to the United States in Iraq:

Take up the White Man's burden --
Send forth the best ye breed --
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild --
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Take up the White Man's burden --
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;

Of course, as Media Matters points out, Kipling's poem, written in 1899, is widely believed to have been written as an endorsement of the U.S. invasion of the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. The poem describes the indigenous, colonized peoples of the world as "half-devil and half-child" and goes on to describe imperialism as a noble, if doomed, venture.

Savage ends with this suitably hysterical rant:

Do you want to live in a thousand years of Islamic rule? Do you want to live with a sword hanging over your head? Do you want your wife or your girlfriend or your daughter to walk around in a black costume with her face covered? Is that what you want? Do you clitorectomies performed in hospitals because they don't want a woman to have any pleasure? Do you want every other religion outlawed? Do you want the churches and the synagogues closed or blown up? Because that's what you're arguing for if you are saying we are an imperialist nation. So, if I have to make a choice between American imperialism and Muslim imperialism, I'll tell you which side I'm on.

No mention that Iraq was a completely secular state BEFORE we invaded, that it was specifically because of our invasion that Iraq with Iran might form  an Islamic Shiite crescent across all of Mesopotamia, or that if we had not invaded Iraq initially, none of this would be even a remote possibility.

People who argue that the war was `right', but it's implementation unfortunate or incompetent are not unlike Savage, failing to take responsibility for the initial crime of the war, or the continued crime of the occupation and all the consequences that fall out from that initial crime. But Savage has made at least one salient observation:

You know, when you say that "America is a colonialist or imperialist nation," as the idiots in college are saying -- if you say that in a vacuum, it sounds like we're a bad nation and bad people.

But it becomes even more substantial when stated with the appropriate historical context; not less. Savage is not alone in this believe. Like many contemporary pundits, Americans as a group are 'innocent' no matter how dreadful their deeds to their own citizens or others. It is one of the fundamental cornerstones to the current version of 'Americanism'. There is always a justification, usually the 'burden' of leadership following God or some ennobling principle ('freedom' and Democracy are the current favorites of late) to excuse the misdeeds and massacres, the aggresive acquisitions of the American Empire, an  ahistorical 'amnesia of innocence' to cloak the crimes.

Needless to say, we've changed since the days of Captain John Mason's massacre of the Pequod Indians, but not near as much as we might have hoped.

Next diary... Americanism, Part II American Exceptionalism

Just out of curiosity, why are we talking about this?
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Mon May 14th, 2007 at 05:39:18 PM EST
Another American trying to start an "ET is anti-American" spat?

Bush is a symptom, not the disease.
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon May 14th, 2007 at 05:47:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh, sure, blame the Americans. :-0
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Mon May 14th, 2007 at 05:56:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Like me Migeru is a bit of a pot-stirrer...

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Tue May 15th, 2007 at 01:03:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually, I started thinking about this after Jerome posted his Obama smack down which did cause quite a raucous over dKos. I guess it upset a few apple carts over here too. But for the record (for whatever it's worth) I hadn't intended so much to start another 'anti-American' spat as trace the history of four primary themes/ideas that run through American history: Innocence, Exceptionalism, Militarism and Religiosity. Taken together I call them 'Americanism'. It's one way of thinking about the American culture, but surely not the only way. I found them useful when trying to understand why Obama, a liberal Democratic candidate, would espouse a fairly 'Americanistic' world view--as Jerome originally noted in his post(though he didn't use that particular phrase).

I orginally posted this at dKos and cross posted over at Progressive Historian by request, and, because the idea originated from a post over here and because I thought there might be some interesting insights generated over here, I posted here as well.

by delicatemonster (delicatemons@delicatemonster.com) on Mon May 14th, 2007 at 07:59:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Is the American "innocence" supposed to be exceptional? Or was it just greater than anywhere else?

I would call it "willful ignorance". Colonists were taking upon "white man's burden" without learning what kind of cultures they were "saving". Their conviction was their reality.

by das monde on Tue May 15th, 2007 at 12:46:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think 'willful' ignorance is probably close to right--at least regards our contemporary population (as opposed to the colonists or later immigrants, many of whom came over here in remarkably bad condition themselves--illiterate and in so called 'coffin boats' to use the turn of the century Irish example). Certainly, given that we have a nominally free press still there's no reason they can't find out these things. But it's also probably a lot about what they choose to view/read as their information source. If you get all of your news from any major US MSM outlet, you've effectively chosen to write off about 3/4s of the world's news. Of course, if that's all you've ever known, the question of intent gets a bit muddy.

Generally, I'd say folks who mainline MSM (everything from FOX to CNN)and that's their only source of information about the world tend to be innocent about US activities in the world in the sense that Blake used the word, meaning ignorant or un-experienced. Are they culpable? Well, as we like to say in the states: 'ignorance of the law is no excuse'.

by delicatemonster (delicatemons@delicatemonster.com) on Tue May 15th, 2007 at 11:06:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Why talk about this? Well I did recommend the diary. Why did I recommend the diary? Perhaps it is - to paraphrase a Mexican saying "Poor Canada. So close to the US, so far from God." Maybe because I sometimes feel that all I do is live and breathe the US even though I live in a different country. I think, though, that a show down is coming between the US and Europe.

My feeling is that the US is in decline as a super power. I suspect that a united Europe will eventually take the place of the US - or for a while compete with the US as the super power.

As with the US/USSR conflict, I feel that human rights will be the overt public arena of conflict. American baggage will figure heavily in this conflict with a rather large percentage of the US being unwilling or unable to see the human rights failings of the US. This article seems to me to help summarize what I see as part of the upcoming conflict with Europe.

I feel that within the "West" almost every country has lurched to the right - and is taking short sift to human rights. The US seems to be the "light unto the nations" in this regard. I am not sure what Britain will do. It is my hope that Britain will be at least partially constrained by the EU.

aspiring to genteel poverty

by edwin (eeeeeeee222222rrrrreeeeeaaaaadddddd@@@@yyyyaaaaaaa) on Tue May 15th, 2007 at 09:54:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you for that informative essay. I can't comment upon it as a completed whole as I know there's more to come and I look forward to them.

However I think it's unfair to single out Mike Savage for his comments about Iraq. There was an awful lot of this self-serving drivel in very similar tone written in the British press as well. Ignorance and the need to declare awful deeds as noble duty, is something that all militaristic nations have as a necessity to maintain their state of belligerence.

and thanks for Vijay Prashad's quote, I shall be paraphrasing that elsewhere.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue May 15th, 2007 at 06:59:44 AM EST

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