“America’s Soul”: A History Lesson for Paul Krugman


Being seriously Left can make for some lonely wandering in the wilderness of dominant U.S. corporate media.  It’s terrible, of course, to hear one right-wing talk radio or television host after another denounce some recent conservative White House statement and/or Democratic Party policy palliative as a terrible example of "far left" radicalism and "socialism."  You have a hard time knowing which is worse: the idiotic description of (say) President Barack Obama’s corporate health care plan (or his corporate-welfarist "bank rescue" scheme or his tepid economic stimulus bill or…fill in the blank) as "socialist" or the default assumption that "socialism" – the democratic control of their society and economy by the working majority – is necessarily and obviously some sort of terrible thing.  

Just as painful for me, however, are the conservative, power-worshipping statements you see and hear on the leftmost side of the excruciatingly constricted corporate media continuum.  It may be even worse over on what passes for the left of the U.S. communications system.


This may be worse, actually. When you’re watching FOX News or the action-drama "24" (conceived by an open Republican neocon) or reading the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal or listening to Sean Hannity, after all, there’s little chance that you are going to be fooled into even momentarily thinking you are dealing with anything other than an  enemy. The right wing talk radio and FOX News mob makes little effort to hide its virulent hatred of anything and everything left-wing (an absurdly broad category for them, to be sure).  They regularly advance unimaginably false representations of basic social and political reality, completely denying the role of key oppression structures in the creation of contemporary miseries like poverty, inequality, war, and invasion.


Over on the official "left" side of the governing media range, the content can sometimes seem seductive. Listening to MSNBC and PBS or reading The New York Times, a left person can occasionally be fooled into thinking they’ve found some truth-telling allies in the "MSM" (mainstream media).  Your eyebrows raise and you start to feel vindicated as you get into a news or commentary piece that tells some terrible truths about a ocietal and/or policy matter that concerns you.


Then comes the right hook from the not-so left wing of the mass consent-manufactory that is corporate media. You’ve just gotten reminder of the pervasive hold of dominant authoritarian ideology in the corporate management of what passes for a free "marketplace of ideas" in the United States. You’ve received another lesson in the awesome power of a doctrinal system that is beyond significant moral and political challenge.




Look, for example, at a recent column titled "Reclaiming America’s Soul" (New York Times, April 24, 2009) by Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, a self-described "progressive" who is probably the nation’s leading left-liberal commentator. Published two weeks ago, Krugman’s opinion-editorial eviscerated Obama’s nauseating argument against undertaking federal investigations and prosecutions in regard to the George W. Bush administration’s justification and use of torture. As Krugman noted, Obama’s claim that "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past" ignores what ought to seen as a rather elementary point – that we must expose and punish human rights crimes not merely to exact retribution but to prevent the recurrence of such crimes in the present and future.


Krugman rightly mocked the Obama administration’s preposterous claim that "investigating the times of the Bush era" would "divert time and energy and energy needed elsewhere." There is no reason to expect American government and society to be crippled because the Justice Department and Congress did their constitutionally mandated jobs by "uncovering the truth and enforcing the law."


Krugman also usefully exposed the absurdity of some centrist Democrats’ claim that "revisiting the abuses of the Bush years would undermine the political consensus the president needs to pursue his agenda." The "answer to that," Krugman observed, "is, what political consensus?  There are still, alas, a significant number of people in our political life who stand on the side of the torturers.  But these are the same people who have been relentless in their efforts to block President Obama’s attempt to deal with our economic crisis and will be equally relentless in their opposition when he endeavors to deal with health care and climate change.  The president cannot lose their good will, because they never offered any."


As Krugman also rightly noted, finally, we also need serious investigations and prosecutions in connection with the Bush administration’s fraudulent "march to War" – a reference to the previous White House’s deliberately deceptive case for the invasion of Iraq. 


But Krugman’s clever column was crippled by two key flaws. The first problem was that he failed (forgot perhaps) to mention that Obama approaches the nation’s economic, health-care, and climate problems with a hopelessly inadequate and corporate-neoliberal approach that is not particularly progressive. He’s not giving the Republicans all that much progressive to block in the first place


The second problem – and the reason for this essay – comes three paragraphs in. That’s where Krugman argues that "America is more than a collection of policies.  We are, or at least we used to be, a nation of moral ideals. In the past, our nation has sometimes done an imperfect job of upholding those ideals.  But never before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for" as they did under George W. Bush.


"We need" to investigate the Bush administration’s torture policies and war campaign, Krugman concluded "because this is a nation of laws." We need to do it "for the sake of our future — because it’s about reclaiming America’s soul."

Here, Krugman demonstrated his acceptance of the standard doctrinal and nationally narcissistic notion that the United States’ core historical essence is an elevated respect for law and morality.  Seen from this viewpoint, George W. Bush’s crimes can be portrayed as a freakish anomaly – as outside the inherently noble, democratic, and humanitarian mainstream of the shining U.S. experience and role in the world. But this is complete historical nonsense, as one might think (naively perhaps) that the Nobel Prize-winner Krugman is too smart and "progressive" not to know.




Some facts of history are rather elementary.  One such fact is that "America’s soul" was forged in the abject racist annihilation and ethnic cleansing of native people. This terrible history is pock-marked with such horrid atrocities as the razing of 20 Cherokee towns in 1776, the forced removal of the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Seminole nations to Oklahoma (1828-1840), the savage clearance of the Sauk nation from their ancestral home in northern Illinois (1832-1833), the massacre of at least 75 Pomo Indians trapped on an island in the Russian River area of California (1850), the brutal murder of as many as 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at Sand Creek, Colorado (1864)), the slaughter of more than 100 Cheyenne, including women and children,  by Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh U.S. Cavalry at Washita (in Oklahoma in 1868), the openly extermination-ist clearance of Lakota Sioux from the Black Hills (1876-1877), and the Seventh Cavalry’s  massacre of 350 unarmed Lakota at Wounded Knee (1890).


These and other genocidal anti-Indian atrocities that preceded it received hearty approval in future US President and Spanish-American War instigator Theodore Roosevelt’s four-volume 1899 study The Winning of the West.  Written by a heralded symbol and agent of "American soul," The Winning of the West was a white-supremacist paean to Anglo-America’s near- eradication of North America’s original civilizations.  "During the past three centuries," Roosevelt opined, "the spread of English-speaking people over the world’s waste spaces" (meaning spaces not occupied by "progressive" capitalist-developmental Caucasians) was a great and welcome "feat of power," for which the "English-speaking race" could justly feel proud. No such "feat" of "race power" was more laudable, however, than "the vast movement by which this continent [North America] was conquered and peopled" – the "crowning and greatest achievement of a series of mighty movements."  The Anglo-American pioneers conducted what Roosevelt called the noble civilizing "work" of "overcoming the original inhabitants" while at the same time "warding off the assaults of the kindred [that is European-Caucasian] nations that were bent on the same schemes."  The North-American settlers performed the most heroic "work" of all, for they "confronted the most formidable savage foes ever encountered by colonists of European stock." [1]


Destroying the Indian "savages," Roosevelt claimed, was white North America’s third greatest work to date, exceeded only by "the preservation of the Union itself and the emancipation of the blacks" – this as African-Americans suffered under terrorist Jim Crow regime in the former slave states and faced countless indignities throughout the U.S. Between 1889 and 1918, 3,224 Americans were lynched within the United States, mostly in the South. Seventy-eight percent of these atrocity victims were black. In most cases the victims were hung or burned to death by mobs of soulful white "vigilantes," commonly in front of thousands of gleeful spectators.




As the nineteenth century came to a close, America’s racist and imperial soul-force was increasingly directed at victims beyond the North American continent.  New predominantly non-white victims were searched out and destroyed overseas, always in the name of the United States’ higher morality and commitment to the benevolent ideals of democracy and rule of law.  Between 1898 and 1905, for example, the U.S. Army, frequently led by "old Indian fighters," seized the Philippines from its prior colonial master (Spain) and crushed a Filipino independence movement.  The new American Empire’s first overseas counter-insurgency campaign killed as many as 600,000 natives of the newly US-acquired Philippine islands.  Few prisoners were taken and the Red Cross reported an extremely high ratio of dead to wounded, indicating U.S. "determination to kill every native in sight." Throughout the U.S. "pacification" of the Philippines, the United States’ armed forces soulfully referred to the Filipinos as "niggers," "barbarians," and "savages." America’s racist and Social-Darwinist President (1901-08) Theodore Roosevelt vilified resisting Filipinos as "Apaches."  The phrase "gook" made its first appearance as a U.S. military term to describe angry and frightened Asians who inhabit lands invaded by "freedom-loving" Americans. George Custer’s legendary Seventh Cavalry arrived to help suppress "gook Apaches" in 1905.


The U.S. butchery received indirect racist approval from leading U.S. financial authority and Wall Street journalist Charles A. Conant, who anticipated J.A. Hobson and V.I. Lenin’s celebrated theories of imperialism in an essay titled "The Economic Basis of Imperialism."  Beyond his argument that surplus domestic capital in core industrial states provided the taproot for U.S. and European expansion into the global periphery, Conant claimed that the US was entering a path of global power "marked out for them as children of the Anglo Saxon race."  The new movement towards overseas imperialism was "the result," Conant argued, of "natural laws of economic and race development.  The great civilized people have today at their command the means of developing the decadent nations of the world," who require benevolent Anglo-Saxon intervention because they are on the wrong side of the law of the "survival of the fittest" (Charles A. Conant, The United States in the Orient, New York, NY, 1900, p. 2).  




The benevolent American soul headquartered in Washington also directed its special love for law and morality at people in its own hemisphere. Between 1915 and1934, for example, Haiti lived under the supreme authority of the U.S. Marine Corps, which dissolved that formerly sovereign country’s National Assembly, restored practical slavery for much of the populace, turned the economy over to U.S. corporations, and massacred an untold number of Haitian peasants. During a "battle" at Fort Reviere, the Marines killed 51 Haitians and did not suffer a single casualty, helping U.S. Smedley D. Butler earn a Congressional Medal of Honor.


This imperial butchery was encouraged by the toxic racism of the "moral idealist" Woodrow Wilson administration, one of whose high diplomatic officials told Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing that "Negro blood" kept the Haitians "almost in a state of savagery and complete ignorance." Lansing agreed, claiming that "the African race are devoid of any capacity for political organization" and "governance" and marked by "a tendency to revert to savagery and to cast aside the shackles of civilization which are irksome to their physical nature" (quoted in Noam Chomsky, World Orders Old and New [New York, 1996], p.44).




The United States’ soulful commitment to "civilization" deepened as the 20th century marched forward. Other great moments in the development of "America’s soul" included:


* The Franklin Roosevelt administration’s decision to support Italian and German fascism as reasonable middle-class bulwarks against European social democracy and Soviet "communism"—a decision that was reversed only by the realization that the fascist Axis threatened U.S. imperial power and related global Open Door investment interests 


* The Roosevelt administration’s decision to adopt an official position of "neutrality" that translated into support for Spanish fascism against popular-democratic Spanish forces during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s 


* The Roosevelt administration’s decision to restore fascists and monarchists to power in Allied-occupied Italy during and after the great "peoples’ war for democracy" (World War II)  <

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