Intruders in the Dust

24 Feb

Though hidden in plain sight, many of the shameful episodes in the history of the country that its citizens believe to be “the best and greatest nation” in the history of the world go unheeded. Even me, myself and I, a student of history and reader of William Appleman Williams and mentored by Howard Zinn was only dimly aware of the United States’s egregious activities in the newly “liberated” Philipines following the Spanish American Cuban war. A quick examination of the bibliography of Gregg Jones’s Honor in the Dust Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream(New American Library) makes it clear there is a substantial record of America’s imperialist adventure in the former Spanish Colony. And as far as I know none of this bad news makes it into the history texts offered in public schools.

Even so, the publication of Honor in the Dust might have gone unnoticed by me, had I not had the benefit of seeing John Sayles’s eye opening film Amigo which presents a snapshot of US armed forces in the Phillipines circa 1900 (think Vietnam, 60 years later.

Additionally, I had a lengthy conversation with John Sayles about his riveting novel A Moment in The Sun (MCSweeney’s).Set in post Reconstruction America, one of the 4 narrative threads in Sayles’s novel deals with the US occupation of the Philipines and the Filipino resistance.

The publisher’s inept description, “Honor in the Dust brilliantly captures an era brimming with American optimism and confidence as the nation expanded its influence abroad.” is convenient if not vague way of expressing the racism and exceptionalism rife in the ruling classes that sponsored acts of belligerence routinely visited upon our Caribbean Basin neighbors (Hence the proverb found in the Spanish speaking Americas, “So close to the United States, so far from God”) On the other, I’d bet the copy writer for this bit of piffle did not in fact read the book. A Boston Globe review does better:

Gregg Jones opens “Honor in the Dust’’ with a prologue describing the harsh treatment of Philippine rebel Joveniano Ealdama at the hands of American interrogators. He was subjected to what is now called waterboarding but was in November of 1900 known as the “water cure’’ or the “water torture,’’ and Jones leaves no doubt that it was widely considered to be torture…

…Jones, a journalist, has produced a deeply researched, well-written addition to the crowded shelves of histories about the Spanish-American War and the William McKinley-Theodore Roosevelt era in international affairs

Currently reading Schmidt Steps Back by Louis Begley (Knopf)

7 Responses to “Intruders in the Dust”

  1. spinoza1111 March 10, 2012 at 8:53 am #

    It was Simon Bolivar who said “poor Mexico! So close to the United States, so far from God.”

    One thing to remember. Roosevelt and Taft (the fattest man ever to govern the Phillipines) actually thought that the United States was a progressive, enlightened power which would administer the Phillipines until it was “ready” for self-government. In that they were (whether consciously or not) following John Stuart Mill who on the one hand stated a principle of liberty for which we’re still fighting, especially on behalf of women and the non-white but also on behalf of ourselves as workers: liberty must be absolute extending ONLY to not interfering with the equally important liberty of the Other.

    Mill believed in the 1830s that non-white races needed “tutelage” until they were ready to enjoy this form of liberty and it was on Mill that the British and American empires were founded: they were intended by their idealists to be temporary arrangements.

    As such they were very different from the Spanish empire which was based on the unification of Spain under Catholicism in the 1490s.

    Which is why the Spanish-American war was waged by the USA not as a war of conquest but of liberation. It is hard to keep a straight face about this, but Teddy Roosevelt unlike Taft had good intentions. It is a common saw (and for this reason bears examining) that intentions don’t matter, but from this common saw (which Kant denies) we get Stalinism’s “objective class enemy”.

    Do you remember Leon Stein, who taught history at Roosevelt? He taught us to think like men of the French Revolution when the 1968 events were unfolding in Paris. Not to be politically correct. Danton was a self-seeking merchant but also managed to speak for the people.

    Teddy Roosevelt’s contemporaries, including a skinny young student named Ho Chi Minh, took him seriously…and they weren’t betrayed by Teddy or Franklin. They were betrayed by office boys and rat bastards.

    No over-arching theory makes angels of British or American colonialists: no over-arching theory makes them devils. The British ruined Burma, as did the Belgians the Congo, by introducing the view that warlike “races” were better than Myanmar’s minorities. America has destroyed Iraq with free-market nonsense. Whereas we almost didn’t fuck up in the Phillipines.

    Replace colonialism with the free movement of labor to match that of capital.

    In the words of the old Protestant hymn, “age after age their tragic empires rise”: Spain’s Catholic empire, the British and American empires of “free trade” (with the advantage going of course to the initially more wealthy), and the Soviet empire of tongue in cheek Marxism. Even Cuba had a colonial adventure in Portuguese West Africa.

    This nonsense wouldn’t be necessary if the Left stopped romanticizing the indigenous, the stick in the mud, and Home in which it follows, unconsciously, Fascism’s “Heimat”. Instead it needs to support the truly marginal, such as the Africans who legally migrate to Hong Kong, chill at the Chung King, and export cellphones.

    • robertbirnbaum March 10, 2012 at 9:07 pm #


      The Crusades and Christianity inn general were based on “good ” intentions.McKinley is famously quoted about praying to God to guide him in the Philippines

      We have to look no further than the history of Europeans and their dealings with this continents indigenous peoples to understand the
      quality of civilization being brought to the “savages”

      • spinoza1111 March 11, 2012 at 7:04 am #

        I am on record as saying that the white pseudo-race is defined solely by its crimes…that it is in Susan Sontag’s words a cancer of history. I said so in response to a vermont professor who purports to teach white studies. In response I said there’s an English literature, a French art, a German music, but no “white” civilization except as defined by its impact on the non-white, and with certain exceptions, this impact has been bad.

        In other words, I’ve theorized this issue.

        At the same time, Americans were more progressive than Spaniards in 1897. This is just standard Marxist theory among other things: free markets and freedom of religion, which we brought to the Phillipines, are better than a mercantile state unified by Catholicism, period.

        Perhaps Marx didn’t realize that if we take dialectical materialism seriously, socialism would incorporate free markets. Hong Kong is the freest market on Earth yet roughly ensures that its vast inequality of wealth redounds to the benefit of all. It has inexpensive health care and the beginnings of a negative income tax, in the form of of 6000 HKD handout, no questions asked, to all citizens and permanent residents. This is combined with rule of law and freedom of speech…and, I shall concede, the absence of popular suffrage. But word to your Mama is that’s on the way because Beijing wants it.

        But I digress…the Negative Dialectic has been so pervasive since the Spanish-American war that if the Republicans could field a Teddy Roosevelt (who did NOT believe that the rich had no responsibility to society) this would be progressive.

        Hegel calls it “the low cunning of Reason”. An idiot Harvard student creates a software tool to find hot girls…and through Facebook we get the Arab Spring of 2011 and OccupyWallStreet.

        William Randolph Hearst wants to sell newspapers to people who move their lips when they read, so he sends Richard Harding Davis down to Cuba to find a war…Davis wires back “girls beautiful stop no war”. Hearst wires back “you worry about the girls I’ll worry about the war”. Boom, a war which avoids, for both Cuba and the Phillipines what happened in Angola both at the end of Portuguese (mercantile/Catholic) domination and in the long post-liberation civil war which was prolonged and bloody BOTH because of the CIA and ALSO because of Cuba’s colonialist behavior in Africa, in the 1970s.

        Cuba and the Phillipines avoided what happened to Angola because they escaped Spanish domination courtesy of Admiral Dewey in Manila Bay and Teddy Roosevelt on San Juan Hill. Dewey’s Thrillah in Manila was progressive.

        Going back further. The Span-yards were MORE progressive than the indigenous societies of pre-Columbian America ON BALANCE…especially as regards the Aztec, Mayan and Incan empires, which were the creation of a priestly caste based on the oppression of everybody else.

        This is profoundly unfashionable. However, Ferdinand and Isabella, and their successors, DID require their conquistadores to read “the requirement” before they could kill Indians, to demand that the Indios submit to Spain. This is almost absurd: but from the notion of human rights, which was NOT ONLY evolving in Christian Europe BUT ALSO in pre-Columbian America we get whatever we got today.

        Far more important, the very existence of writing (cf Derrida) makes a profound difference. We have no way of knowing proto-human righs in pre-Columbian America because of the absence, for the most part of writing. But we KNOW that the first non-Indians to protest the Spanish treatment of the Indians were the Franciscans and Bartolomeo de las Casas.

        The white male New Left, in my view, never really solved this puzzle, and the result was the foolish crippling of Ed Hanrahan in the Loop during “the days of rage” of 1970. And as a direct result, I’ve had to put up with fifty years of pure bullshit as a white male worker and father. My Dad could vote for Roosevelt, Henry Wallace and Adlai Stevenson. I got McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, John Kerry the Joke, and Obama.

        These historical figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln are white male fathers whom sons reject at a considerable cost.

  2. spinoza1111 March 11, 2012 at 7:07 am #

    Correction: the sound byte between Hearst and Davis is pure fiction from Citizen Kane. Davis did work for Hearst in Cuba but was closer to Roosevelt and didn’t like Hearst’s sensationalism.

    • robertbirnbaum March 12, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

      First, wasn’t it Richard Elrod who was injured in the Days of Rage?

      If I understand this miasma of erudition and pretzel logic, left responses to (self) righteous Christian Imperialism led to ” McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, John Kerry the Joke, and Obama.” Wow! By the way, the other choices were Nixon, Dole, Reagan, Bush and Jr.

      Also. the Cold Warriors saving White Christendom from godless Commies gave us Trujillo, the Somozas, the Duvaliers, Sigmun Rhee and autocratic thugs around the world using rationale that included FDR’s formulation, “he may be a devil but he’s our devil”

      The point being the a fine blend of racism, imperialism that synthesizes into exceptionalism also has a thin veneer of religiosity that trumped the lip service given to the so called Four Freedoms and the chimera of self determination. So the Brits and the Yanks end up being (for peoples of color) not much better than the Spanish, the Ruskies (Red or White) and the Nazis (though the Krauts do win awards for “most evil” based on the scale and efficiency of their so called Final Solution).

      By the way the Spanish- American-Cuban War is rife with apocrypha. I gravitate to Dutch Leonard’s snapshot in his novel, Cuba Libre—Remington sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Ingelaterra wait for some action.

      Anyway the sorry state of the Republic (ours) has mostly to do with an out-of-wack class structure that it is taboo to discuss else charges of inciting class warfare and strife abound. Thus politics as we know them today is about advertising and branding candidates and issues as commodities. WHich doesn’t augur well for the future.

      • spinoza1111 March 13, 2012 at 5:43 am #

        Yeah, it was Elrod.

        Thanks for the backhand compliment. Yes it is a miasma of erudition and pretzel logic, but it’s by that very statement erudition and logic. I’m having loads of laughs being once again the twerp I was at Roosevelt when I did better than you in Temple’s logic class, but you were far better informed on things that actually mattered.

        But back then I’d not read Hegel and thereby concluded that HISTORY is a miasma of pretzels and in being so prolix I come closer to doing justice to the truth.

        You haven’t shown me that in fact, the American empire was not a bit better than the Spanish empire. Can you seriously show it was worse once you factor out its greater physical power? I don’t think you can.

        Dumbing things down is the problem, even in progressive politics.

  3. Jack Ealdama April 27, 2017 at 5:14 am #

    Thanks for this article. Joveniano Ealdama, a respected town “el presidente,” is our great grandfather. There was a military tribunal after news broke about his water torture, but it was held in a southern province in the Philippines, far from War critics in the United States. Joveniano was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Captain Glenn, his torturer, was minimally fined. It is said that while in prison, Joveniano was banished to the Marianas, never to see his wife and 4 young children ever again.

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