Saturday, December 15, 2007
Massacre Is An Acquired Taste
Massacre is an acquired taste. The United States is arguably the only country on the planet whose national personality and self-image is rooted in centuries of unremitting expansion through race war punctuated by massacre. There have always been “free-fire zones” all along the coveted, ever moving peripheries of white American power, from the “Indian country” surrounding the settler beachheads of Plymouth Rock and Jamestown to the “Sunni Triangle” of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. Whole peoples – millions – have been erased in the glorious march of American Manifest Destiny.
It is true that the globe-ravaging European colonial powers certainly killed more human beings in the course of their imperial careers than their settler sons in North America. However, the national characters of Britain, Spain, France, Holland and Belgium were already formed when the Great European Breakout and Worldwide Pillage commenced. Although their wealth was later built on the blood and bones of faraway “natives” and slaves, European civil societies were already shaped by long histories of conflict among themselves, between classes and nations on their small sub-continent. Britain and France stretched forth their naval and army tentacles to ensure that wealth arrived in Liverpool and Marseilles, but the colonized peoples did not effectively intrude on the evolution of European society.
Nobody had to invent the historical personalities of the Frenchman in France, the Englishman in England. Their civil societies were deeply impacted – and some sectors greatly enriched – by the existence of the colonies, but not (until very recently) by the foreign peoples who died for European prosperity.
The English settler colonies in North America were different – unique. Masses of armed migrants came to steal, and stay, and keep stealing. Theirs was an enterprise of aggrandizement at the native’s expense, and unlimited expansion. Less than a century and a half after the massacre and near-erasure of the Pequots – in celebration of which the Governor of Massachusetts proclaimed the first day of Pilgrim Thanksgiving – the white colonists decided that they were a distinct people, no longer Europeans.
They were right. American colonial society was shaped by constant depredations against non-whites, close up and brutal. By 1776, one out of five non-Indian residents of the colonies were Black slaves, the control and dehumanization of which had become a daily collective duty of much of the white population. Across the Alleghenies lay unconquered Indian lands that, once cleansed, could usher into being a white empire that would dwarf Europe. The English King and his treaties with the Indians stood in the way; he had to go.
The “American” mission was clear, manifest: to endlessly expand through the elimination of impediments posed by the External Other (“savage” Indians), while keeping white society safe and separate from the “debauchery” of the valuable, Internal Other (Black slaves). This is the foundation on which the American iconography and celebration is based. Lacking any other, it is the template of white American identity and purported “civilization.”