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From Columbus to Trump: What Has America Gotten Wrong?

Although there is much right about our American history and culture, we have gotten one thing horribly wrong: We have overemphasized getting and spending. What the English poet William Wordsworth once wrote applies to us even more.

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away . . .

The first step on this wrong path began when Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola (today shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Eminent historian Edmund S. Morgan’s 2008 essay “The Conquerors” makes this clear. Columbus discovered a people (the Arawak Indians) who seemed to live in a “golden world . . . simply and innocently without enforcement of laws, without quarreling, judges, and libels, content only to satisfy nature.”

But Columbus and the new Spanish authorities soon demanded gold and work from the natives. The Arawaks, however, had insufficient gold, and to them “work had not been an important part of human life.” “When gold was not forthcoming, the Europeans began killing.” The Arawaks “were tortured, burned, and fed to the dogs by their masters. They died from overwork and from new European diseases. They killed themselves. And they took pains to avoid having children. Life was not fit to live, and they stopped living.” They declined from a population of at least 100,000 in 1492 to about 200 in 1542. To take their place, to do the work the Arawaks shunned, the Spanish imported slaves from Africa. Thus an American beginning to two of its most heinous crimes—genocide against native Americans and slavery.

The Spanish brought to the New World the European idea that Civilization, Christianity, and hard work (at least for the masses) was good. Idleness was bad. Morgan states that the Arawaks “were destroyed by Spanish greed.” But he reminds us that greed often disguises itself as “the profit motive, or free enterprise, or the work ethic, or the American way.”

Now flash forward to the late nineteenth century and what do we see? The Gilded Age that Mark Twain satirized. The age of the Robber Barons such as J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and railway tycoon Jay Gould. As the railways spread westward, natural resources were often destructively exploited, as were the Native Americans, who were more concerned with living harmoniously with nature than with earning profits.

By the end of the century, the United States was evolving into what some labeled a “consumer culture.” As William Leach states: “From the 1890s on, American corporate business, in league with key institutions, began the transformation of American society into a society preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition, with more goods this year than last, more next year than this.  American consumer capitalism produced . . . a future-oriented culture of desire that confused the good life with goods.  It was a culture that first appeared as an alternative culture . . . and then unfolded to become the reigning culture in the United States.”

To sell all the products our expanding businesses could produce, to provide sufficient jobs, we needed not only more U.S. consumption, but also new foreign markets. In 1898, the soon-to-be senator from Indiana, Albert Beveridge, linked our industrial expansion with the U.S. imperialism evident that year in the annexation of Hawaii and the Spanish-American War, which wrested Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines away from Spain: “American factories are making more than the American people can use; American soil is producing more than they can consume. Fate has written our policy for us; the trade of the world must and shall be ours.” . . . The Philippines are logically our first target.”

Our president in 1898 was William McKinley, and his justification was similar to that which Morgan attributes to Columbus and the Spanish who subjugated the Arawaks. “There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” But like the Arawaks, not all of the Filipinos wished to come under new foreign control. To subjugate the Filipinos, U.S. troops had to wage war against guerilla forces. By the end of 1902, over 200,000 Filipinos had died. What one participating U. S. officer had to say about the conflict reminds us of the ruthless treatment of Columbus and the Spanish against the Arawaks:

Our men have been relentless, have killed to exterminate men, women, and children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people, from lads of ten up, an idea prevailing that the Filipino was little better than a dog, a noisome reptile in some instances, whose best disposition was the rubbish heap. Our soldiers have pumped salt water into men "to make them talk," have taken prisoners of people who had held up their hands and peacefully surrendered, and, an hour later, without an atom of evidence to show that they were even insurrectos, stood them up on a bridge, and shot them down one by one to drop into the water below and float down as examples to those who found their bullet-loaded corpses. [See here for sources of quotes regarding the Philippines.]

Now flash forward another century to a more contemporary setting. In his America's War for the Greater Middle East, Andrew Bacevich begins his book dealing with the period 1980-2011 this way: “From the outset, America's War for the Greater Middle East was a war to preserve the American way of life, rooted in a specific understanding of freedom and requiring an abundance of cheap energy. . . . Oil has always defined the raison d'être of the War for the Greater Middle East. Over time, other considerations intruded and complicated the war's conduct, but oil as a prerequisite of freedom was from day one an abiding consideration.” Bacevich indicates that this “way of life” and “freedom” were based on U.S. consumption patterns and were “shallow and materialistic, … [their] foundation a bland conformity.”

Finally, we come to 2017 and President Donald Trump. Already a year ago I wrote about his insistence on “American energy dominance,” his “Odd Fixation on Seizing Middle Eastern Oil Fields,” and his Gilded-Age life style—surrounded by gold-platted, gilded, and glittering furnishings in his penthouses, airplanes, and luxury cars. On his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, our new president indicated that the $110 billion dollar arms deal he signed with his host’s government would create more American jobs—no words were forthcoming on how the sale might escalate a Middle East arms race.

At about the same time Trump officially released his budget blueprint, about which one progressive web site declared: “Trump Resurrecting ‘Gilded Age,’ Trump Budget Sacrifices All for Military and Ultra-Rich.” Who better in contemporary life reflects the “getting and spending,” the spirit of the Gilded Age and Robber Barons, and the willingness to use war and weapons to maintain the consuming “American Way” than Donald Trump?

To be sure, emphasizing the three C’s of Christianity, Civilization, and Capitalism and sometimes imposing them on less “civilized” peoples have not been uniquely American experiences, as the whole history of European imperialism demonstrates. And within the USA, there have been many objections to such an emphasis. In the few decades before WWI, for example, U. S. Progressives attempted “to limit the socially destructive effects of morally unhindered capitalism, to extract from those [capitalist] markets the tasks they had demonstrably bungled, to counterbalance the markets’ atomizing social effects with a counter calculus of the public weal [well-being].”

In 1950, according to Henry Steele Commager, one of America’s most prominent historians, “Almost all the major [U.S.] writers” in the half century after 1885 were critical of “the acquisitive society” and up to 1950 very few novelists revised that judgment. In 1963, anthropologist Jules Henry wrote in Culture Against Manthat the U. S. culture of his day was “a culture increasingly feeling the effects of almost 150 years of lopsided preoccupation with amassing wealth and raising its standard of living.” He believed that the two main “commandments” of U. S. culture were “Create More Desire” and “Thou Shalt Consume.”

The previous year, the English economist E. F. Schumacher stated that “present-day industrial society everywhere shows this evil characteristic of incessantly stimulating greed, envy and avarice.” In the 1970s Schumacher was a popular lecturer in the USA, wrote the best-selling book, Small Is Beautiful, and influenced politicians like Governor Jerry Brown of California and, to a lesser extent, Jimmy Carter, who invited him for a visit to the White House.

In July 1979 Carter even sounded a bit like Schumacher in a speech that Bacevich praises as bearing “comparison with Abraham Lincoln at his most profound, Woodrow Wilson at his most prophetic, and Franklin Roosevelt at his most farsighted.” In it, Carter warned that “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” He then proposed a sweeping conservation program meant to lessen American energy dependence. But he soon backtracked when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (December 1979) aroused the fear that Soviet troops would move closer to the Persian Gulf and “consolidate a strategic position . . . that poses a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil.”

At present the defenders of Columbus, of the rich plutocrats from Rockefeller to Trump, of perceiving global warming as a hoax, and of U. S. militarism abroad to help ensure what Bacevich calls “our way of life” continue to identify their beliefs with the American way. In a 2017 article “Who Are We?” conservative columnist Ross Douthat suggested that many Trump supporters preferred “the older narrative” of U.S. history, the one that glorified Columbus, the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, Lewis and Clark, and Davy Crockett, the one that emphasized the melting pot (not multiculturalism), and the U.S. Christian tradition (not separation of church and state, and certainly not any secularist thinking).

Moreover, like Columbus and Spanish authorities, the defenders of such thinking tend to be hypercritical of those they believe lack a sufficient work ethic. A recent Pew Research Center poll indicated that Republicans were more than twice as likely as Democrats to believe that rich people are rich because they work harder, and almost three times as likely as Democrats to believe that the poor are poor because they are lazier.

Battling against such beliefs, many Americans continue to propose a different American vision. It is more empathetic toward the poor, Native Americans, and descendants of U.S. slaves; more environmentally conscious; and less concerned with owning possessions and with what the philosopher William James once referred to as “the bitch-goddess Success.” Rather than glorifying Columbus and one of Trump’s favorite presidents, Andrew Jackson, who was a slaveholder and persecutor of Native Americans, it sympathizes with the persecuted indigenous peoples of the U.S. and, like the city of Seattle, in October it would rather honor them than Columbus. Finally, it wishes to follow Wordsworth’s advice and not give its heart away “getting and spending.”