Paul A. Kramer, 39
Associate Professor, University of Iowa, August 2007-.
When you work on long-suppressed histories of violence and disenfranchisement, it can be off-putting to see them resurface as somebody's aspiration. I came to this realization very abruptly one October morning in 2003, as I sat down to rest beneath the clattering schedule board at Manhattan's Penn Station, unburdening myself of a half-dozen overflowing bags from The Strand-maybe you know this particular relief?-and opening up the Sunday New York Times. There, right on the front page, George W. Bush had an outbreak of historiography. Speaking before the Philippine legislature at the start of a six-nation trip through Southeast Asia, Bush invoked a peculiar Philippine-American past."America is proud of its part in the great story of the Filipino people," he proclaimed."Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule. Together we rescued the islands from invasion and occupation."
Bush's move here was familiar enough to any student of U. S. imperial history-writing: to smother into oblivion a brutal and protracted U. S. war against the Philippine Revolution (1899-1902) and 47 years of formal U. S. colonial rule by sandwiching them between two would-be liberatory bookends, the war against Spain (1898) and the war against Japan (1941-5). But if Bush's strategy was recognizable, the use of this usable past was new: sanitized in this way, the Philippine-American past could help sanction a new imperial future in the shape of a global"war on terror." Invoking José Rizal, the Philippines' national martyr, at one moment, and Saddam Hussein in another, Bush hailed the universality of"freedom" (at least in its neo-conservative variety) and the need for nations to"earn" it in battle against"grave and gathering danger." The historical success of the Philippine-American experiment in gun-point democratization vindicated the ongoing Iraq invasion, a project in which, in a neat symmetry, Philippine troops and medics now participated. In turn, the sinister invocation of Saddam's"mass graves" and"torture rooms" contributed to a century's work erasing those once operated by conquering U. S. troops in the Philippines itself.
What were the historian's responsibilities at such a moment? The question had not presented itself so urgently when I set out in the mid-1990s to investigate the racial politics of early 20th century Philippine-American colonialism. Indeed, my chosen dissertation topic had earned me some gentle ribbing from grad-school colleagues: in a post-Cold War world, what was this particular past going to be useful for? At the same time, though, pioneering intellectual currents, crossed with ongoing U. S. interventions, were making U. S. imperial power more visible-and more richly legible-to a wider range of scholars than ever before: to American Studies scholars urged to build empire into their"domestic" critiques by scholars like Amy Kaplan; to diplomatic historians, guided towards cultural analysis by historians like Emily Rosenberg; to cultural historians inspired to see the politics of difference, and particularly structures of race and gender, through lenses provided by colonial and post-colonial studies. It was a fascinating crossroads of influences to set up shop at.
The question I found myself asking was how, in the early 20th century, at a moment when racial imaginaries saturated global politics, including U. S. international politics, Americans had come to terms with colonial rule over Filipinos, a people with whom they had had virtually no prior experience. Given my training in U. S. history, my initial hypothesis was predictably"Americanist": that U. S. colonial officials, merchants, missionaries and journalists had"exported" prior racial understandings (of African-Americans, Native Americans and Asian-Americans, in particular) to comprehend the Philippines and its peoples. This interpretation, I now recognize, conveniently aligned the past I was studying with patterns that my largely nation-bound education had prepared me to recognize and, perhaps unconsciously, with the established job categories I imagined myself applying for. If Americans simply witnessed the"same difference" in the Philippines, it demonstrated that U. S. empire could be comprehended without intellectually departing from the conventional canons of U. S. historical understanding. Entirely legible within"national" terms, the world could be"annexed" to U. S. categories without fundamentally challenging them.
But the deeper I dove into the archival boxes, the less the world appeared to organize itself in this way. Far from tracking the seamless incorporation of the Philippines into older frameworks, I confronted profound arguments-among and between divergent groups of Americans and Filipinos-over the racial character of the Philippine population and the relevance of this question to matters of power and sovereignty. I witnessed new, imperial racial formations emerging from the specific, historical dynamics of colonial conquest and rule. As Americans engaged in heated debate amongst themselves-were Filipinos uniformly"savages" and in need of permanent, violent suppression, as the U. S. military held, or backward" children" in need of disciplinary"tutelage," as civilian officials and missionaries believed-collaborating Filipino elites came to play a decisive role in framing the racial terms of Philippine-American colonial state-building. The result of this charged and uneven dialogue was a racial state whose principal dividing line was an essentially religious one, separating Hispanicized Catholics from"non-Christian" animists and Muslims. As I attempted to trace this race-making process across national histories, it became clear to me that it could not simply be"annexed": embedded in both U. S. and Philippine pasts, it required me to find a way to narrate a history between them. It was going to involve learning Philippine history, with the help of a rich historiography and patient colleagues. And it was going to require paying careful attention to the varied and paradoxical ways that, as the U. S. rose as a world power in the 20th century, it became increasingly subject to the constraints and mandates of a global history. This would be the goal, however incompletely realized, of my first book.
But was my version of the U. S. imperial past obliged to answer George W. Bush's? Historical training and years of scouring archives had made me-and continue to make me-suspicious of streamlined historical analogies and genealogies, even those that hope to connect a critical past to a contemporary politics that I support. Faced with the journalist's question to historians-isn't the past you study just like the present I'm writing about on deadline?-one becomes painfully aware of the price of shaving history's ragged eccentricies down to"precedents,""parallels" and, perhaps most dangerously,"lessons." The Vietnam War, for example, had allowed the Philippine-American War to resurface in historical debate in the 1970s and 1980s and, in important ways, the earlier war would never again sink as far in the wells of American forgetting. But during both the Vietnam War and its aftermath, the search for analogies constrained as much as it enabled this scholarship, on both the right and left. In the face of the vast egotism of the present, the persistent but periodical assertion of a history's"relevance" ultimately serves to deny it its own"weight." Tethered to"exceptional" moments in the present, such histories are built to vanish.
As I revised my book and, in the post-9/11 period, became involved in the anti-war movement on my campus, and as Bush undertook his own effort at past-making, the question took shape with rising immediacy. What was I to do with McKinley's and Roosevelt's exceptionalist war waged in the name of" civilization"? With American publics learning their Southeast Asian cultural and religious anthropology by military means? How was I to make sense of extreme, racialized brutality by U. S. forces, including late-Victorian versions of"water-boarding"? How to read a refusal of Filipino self-government on the malleable grounds of intractable, racial-cultural failings, and a Philippine"nation-building" project characterized by an endless regress of"benchmarks"? How, ultimately, was I to interpret a denial of"empire" predicated on an occupation's permanently temporary character?
Inevitably, struggles over the neo-imperial present were raising certain elements of the past into sharper relief for me. And I wanted my work, in whatever miniscule way, to contribute to those struggles. But I did not want to surrender to them or their terms, either. My answer-a highly imperfect one, worked out more in the practice of writing than as a set principle-was to acknowledge but also to resist the force of the present, to write both playfully and darkly in a critical counterpoint between past and present. This meant acknowledging the often eerie resemblances that I observed, but-backing away from rigid analogy or direct lineage-also respecting the history's infinite distinctiveness. After all, it is from that limitless idiosyncrasy, the puzzling pasts that frustrate both the historian's standard frames of reference and the journalist's eternal present, that vital possibilities can emerge.
By Paul A. Kramer
About Paul A. Kramer
Kramer's supple and nuanced argument is transnational in scope, yet always keenly attuned to national variations and contexts. Provocative and deeply researched, Blood of Government makes a major contribution to the scholarship of U.S. imperialism. -- Stuart L. Bernath Book Prize (SHAFR)
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