Friday, January 22, 2010

THE WHITE MAN'S BURDEN

In 1899, English poet Rudyard Kipling penned a poetic commentary on American occupation of the Philippines. Entitled, “The White Man’s Burden,” its sardonic message has been debated in literature classes for generations.

A New York newspaperman, John L. O’Sullivan, arguing for the annexation of Texas in 1845, insisted that the people of the United States were commissioned by the Almighty to migrate west. It was, in his view, our ‘Manifest Destiny’ to populate the continent.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the white man moved west under the protection of the United States army, which literally waged war against indigenous native tribes. Indians who were not killed or assimilated into the majority white population were moved to reservations.

Teddy Roosevelt personified the American spirit of ‘Manifest Destiny.’ He envisioned American expansion even more grandiose than stretching from sea to shining sea.

First Hawaii, then the Philippines. Roosevelt wanted a presence in the Pacific. He saw the native Filipinos as savages, primitive and uncivilized.

As President, he had 1,200 Filipinos brought to the 1904 World’s Fair in Saint Louis where they were put on display. James Bradley, author of The Imperial Cruise, quotes one fairgoer this way, “I went up to the Philippine village today and I saw the wild, barbaric Igorots, who eat dogs, and are so vicious that they are fenced in and guarded by a special constabulary…”

Further on, Bradley says, fair visitors would come upon the reassuring scene of freshly scrubbed Filipino children reciting their lessons in an American school, and finally they would see a troop of Filipino soldiers, dressed in U.S. army uniforms, and performing snapping military drills.

It was all part of what Roosevelt, and McKinley before him, had lauded as a policy of ‘benevolent assimilation.’ Benevolent indeed. In fact, the American occupation of the Philippines, after purchasing the islands from Spain for 20 million dollars, was a long, bloody, and brutal war. Natives were tortured and murdered by the tens and hundreds of thousands. Returning veterans were quoted in newspapers as saying, “The country won’t be pacified until the niggers are killed off like Indians.”

The water cure, a crude and violent precursor of waterboarding, inspired a popular U.S. army marching song,

Get the old syringe boys and fill it to the brim
We’ve caught another nigger and we’ll operate on him
Let someone take the handle who can work it with a vim
Shouting the battle cry of freedom

We Americans have always been confident of our own rectitude. And we have every right to be proud of our tradition of generosity and compassion. This evening, we saw film clips of U.S. soldiers and marines ministering to the suffering people of Haiti. Last Sunday, our priest told us that the entire weekly collection would go to help the earthquake victims. At the Publix market, the check out lady asked if I wanted something added to my bill for Haitian relief.

We give, and we pray. And some of us get up and go to wherever we may be needed. Wherever we can help.

And when we see the squalor and the poverty and the anarchy; when we hear of the looting, the fighting, the random violence; the frantic grabbing and clutching that frustrates attempts to organize distribution of food and water, we wonder why there is no order, nobody in charge, no system in place for relief and survival.

Today there are echoes of Teddy Roosevelt’s benevolent assimilation. How many years will it take to rebuild the infrastructure in Haiti? How much will it cost? How can we be assured that our largess is not wasted by corruption and incompetence?
How long should our troops stay to help the people?

Perhaps we should ask ourselves whether it is really our manifest destiny to

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

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