American Empire and the Fourth World: The Bowl with One Spoon, Part One

by Anthony J. Hall
ISBN: 0773523324

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A Review of: The American Empire and the Fourth World: The Bowl With One Spoon, Part One
by Fraser Bell

No two generations of historians see the past in quite the same way, which is how it ought to be. Revisionism is inevitable and necessary otherwise history would become atrophied and one-dimensional, like a Byzantine fresco; it would cease to be a repository of ideas and simply become the pastime of the antiquarian and the re-enactor enthusiast. Unfortunately though there is a tendency among some of the revisionists to distort the usual relationship between past and present, so that their version of history smacks of pamphleteering or advocacy journalism. This sort of history contains a number of problems: among them, the tendency of the writer to conscript people and events of other eras to justify his political or personal creed, an attempt to make linear connections between A and B where none exist, and a lack of interest or comprehension about the differences between "now" and "then".
Anthony Hall's approach to history might be inferred from his preamble, in which he writes that, "in the post-September 11 world, the imagery of terrorism replaced that of savagery and communism as the main explanatory catch-all to describe the real, illusory, or manufactured enemies of the American way of life." As proof of this, Hall blames the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, "which historically imbued the expansionist ethos of the United States with Christian purposethis time with a vengeance on a truly global scale." The result of this territorial aggrandizement was that the Indians were systematically crushed as the Anglo-Saxon steamroller moved through the Ohio Valley and then crossed the Mississippi and pushed relentlessly through the Great Plains and on to California. But this expansionist energy, according to the author, did not spend itself when the Frontier was finally closed. In fact-and here is the crux of Hall's argument-far from being expended, the imperial designs of the United States know no limits, and one after the other, Filipinos, Vietnamese, South Americans, and even "displaced Palestinians", have become victims of the Pax Americana. And yet, in spite of the depredations of this new Roman Empire, says Hall, there is after all a "last line of resistance," which is to say the indigenous peoples of the Fourth World-North American Indians and Inuit, Australian Aborigines, New Zealand Maoris. The Fourth World, trans-cultural, self-sufficient and wise in the ways of biodiversity and "ecological equilibrium," can be seen as a model and as an alternative to American imperialism, globalization, and presumably the whole caboodle of Western Civilization as well.
If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, it's because there's nothing particularly new about Hall's arguments. Like Richard Slotkin in "Gunfighter Nation", Hall uses the famous Turner "Frontier Thesis" as a means of explaining American expansionism. Unlike the American though this Canadian doesn't appear to have read the thesis, or if he did, he muddles its meaning. Frederick Turner, with his series of essays, "The Significance of the American Frontier in American History" (1893), sought to explain the American character as it was shaped by the Frontier experience. Turner, very much a progressive in his day, stressed that a new and regenerated man was born out of his experience on the Frontier, and that with the drive West into the "vast free spaces of the continent," democracy was re-invigorated. Although perhaps Turner made too much of American distinctiveness (what 19th century nation-state did not seek to extend its frontier?) there's not a shred of evidence in Turner's writing that he advocated, as Hall puts it, "a New World empire headed for global domination." Hall appears in fact to have conflated Turner's thesis with Teddy Roosevelt's "The Winning of the West"-a nasty paean of triumphalism in which Turner's farmers and entrepreneurs are overshadowed by the mystique of "the man who knows Indians," as personified by Robert Rogers of the Rangers, Sam Houston, Kit Carson. If initially at least Turner accepted the occupation of the Philippines as part of the spoils of war (as did Mark Twain) his emphasis was always on the expansion of the democratic ideal; of promoting the virtues of "..a self-conscious and self-restrained democracy" which, as he quite rightly pointed out, had no precedent. Hardly the sentiments of an Empire man.
One might wish that Turner hadn't spoken about "free spaces" when the plains were full of Sioux, Kiowas, and Comanches; or expressed doubts that "negroes" or Slavs were capable of adapting to American life. He did this because he held the beliefs of a man of his time and his place. But Anthony Hall can't seem to grasp that elementary fact about the people of the past. The author exhibits all the symptoms of someone who is impatient with the fact that history is so "unlike" now; that the hopelessly unenlightened boobs back then didn't comprehend the world with the acuity and sensitivity of someone like, say, a professor from Southern Alberta.
Entirely in keeping with this approach to his subject, the author (tautologically, you might say) blunders back and forth through about six centuries of history, praising this lot, damning that lot, without even the pretense of objectivity. Never hesitant about repeating himself, just in case you didn't get it the first time, Hall returns again and again to the matter of Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. He quotes with considerable indignation that part of the Declaration, in which Jefferson accuses George III of threatening the lives of the American colonists by "bringing on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions." As with the Turner Thesis, Hall takes Jefferson's words out of context, ignores the general sense of one of the great documents of human liberty, apparently for the sake of bolstering the thrust of his book. The British did incite tribes like the Mohawk and the Shawnee against the settlers on the Pennsylvania border, but if the Indians were no more savage than the "Scotch-Irish" frontiersmen, they were certainly no less so. Even as Jefferson was writing the Declaration, an army of Hessian mercenaries was being transported to America to put down the rebellion; American Tories were being armed by the British government; the Continental Congress was attempting to organize an army of farm boys and artisans to fight the British regulars. Jefferson might be forgiven for not having anticipated the niceties of usage expected by the language-police of the early twenty first century.
As Hall does not seem to understand either the importance of Jefferson or "The Declaration of Independence", it follows that he does not understand the Enlightenment-another subject which he repeatedly makes reference to. He has a vague idea about the "natural man" or the Noble Savage whom Rousseau ("one of the major literary figures of eighteenth century Europe," in case you were wondering) wrote about in "Discourse on the Origin and Bases of Inequality Among Men". But since for Hall ideas are merely decorations in the margins, they can be used any old how; their application doesn't actually have to make sense, as in his assertion that it was the Roussian tradition which led directly to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Had the Hall bothered to read Montesquieu or Voltaire he might have discerned in Jefferson a remarkable family resemblance. For while the men of the Enlightenment might differ widely in many of their views, they held in common certain broad beliefs: they believed that society was improving and would get better; they were contemptuous of superstition, obscurantism, mumbo-jumbo in general. They were skeptical of dogma; they were believers in the liberating powers of science; they were humanists; insofar as they had a God, it was Reason. If Jefferson saw the Indians as savages, his attitude wasn't due to ideas of racial superiority (that poisonous pseudo-science would appear in the nineteenth century), but to his impatience with the limitations and superstition of what he regarded as archaic remnants from the past. Jefferson was an optimist. He looked to the future as a coming golden age of democracy with the United States in the vanguard. He wasn't a romantic Roussian, but neither was he the father of American imperialism. Whatever the Jeffersonian legacy might be, it had little to do with the Marines storming Vera Cruz, or with little myopic Teddy Roosevelt hoofing it up San Juan Hill, or with Dubya's debacle in Iraq.
As for American imperialism, one thing is certain: the idea of "empire" has never been enthusiastically embraced either by the American people as a whole or by the country's intellectuals, from Thoreau down to Susan Sontag and Lewis Lapham. The foreign policy of the United States has alternated between assuming the "white man's burden" and the sort of isolationism which prevailed between 1918 and the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. International adventurism is the staple of all Great Powers and the U.S.A. is no exception. Certainly there is no lack of cheerleaders for a Pax Americana: the historian Niall Ferguson; Richard Perle and David Frum; Michael Ignatieff in "Empire Lite"; Charles Krauthammer of the "New Republic". America is an international busybody; a blundering and often dangerous gendarme, more like the pretend Second Empire of Napoleon Third than the European colonial powers of the late nineteenth century.
But Anthony Hall clearly doesn't get that either; the impenetrable Bastille of his thesis won't allow it. Aside from his execrable academic style-verbose, jargon-ridden, opaque-Hall is guilty of what E.P. Thompson describes as "the enormous condescension of posterity." Like the "Burkean Tory" he is, Anthony Hall uses the past as self-serving justification for the present. His regard for the Fourth World takes the form of making a virtue out of cultural stasis; of powerlessness; of poverty and dispossession; of a perpetuity of Bantustans from the Palliser Triangle to Alice Springs. Hall loves his indigenous peoples. He loves them so much he prefers them inside a plastic bubble, safe from the current of history.
Ten days before he died, Jefferson wrote, "The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truths that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs , nor a few favoured booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. . . "
Or by the grace of academic careerists.

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