Fist Of History

December, 2009Archive for

The Fist – President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan – 1 December 2009

Friday, December 4th, 2009

The fist must be deployed no matter how much one might personally like the person giving a comment that is based on questionable (or downright bad) history, even in the case of President Barack Obama.  In his speech at West Point outlining the changes in policy Obama intends to implement regarding the United States and its military presence in Afghanistan Obama included the following comment:

“For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination.  Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations.  We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours.”

I am afraid that the history of the United States simply does not bear up to this comment when our actions are compared to our peer nations at any point that I know of in our history as a nation, sadly I am no expert but from what I do know of United States history and the history of the various Great Powers in existence and operation during our own history, the breakdown is roughly as follows:

1781 – 1880s:  The United States expands territory under its direct political, economic and cultural control through a policy of continued expansion in a western direction.  These territories are acquired through a combination of diplomatic efforts and the use of military force, during this period as a matter of policy the United States government assumes semi-complete control over the affairs of the various Native American/American Indian groups residing on territory later claimed by the United States government.  Key acquisitions include the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon I of France in 1803.  Acquisition of Florida from Spain in exchange for the cancellation of debts owed by Spain to the United States government/United States government assuming debt owed by Spain to United States nationals, 1819.  United States gaining one half (roughly) of disputed Oregon Territory from Great Britain, 1846.  United States gaining southwestern territories including California, New Mexico, Arizona, and part of Colorado as war concessions from the Republic of Mexico, 1848.

In each of the above cases the United States either used military force or threatened to use military force to gain territory from established, and diplomatically recognized, nations of equal sovereignty.  (In the case of Florida the United States had already in the past sent military forces into the territory and in regards to Louisiana the United States had already engaged in limited schemes to try and spark revolt in the territory from earlier Spanish control.)  In addition to this the United States government through diplomatic pressure and brute military force either subjugated or expelled native tribal groups from their long-standing association with certain territories.  Granted the United States would sign treaties with tribal chiefs or leaders, in some cases making said leaders up from whole-cloth to validate its actions, but this is not that different from the techniques used by European Great Powers in their own territorial gains in Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Africa.

As well the policy of the United States federal government, as well as that of many state governments during this period was decidedly opposed to the idea of allowing native tribal religions or social structures to survive, it was the policy of many levels of government in the United States to “civilize” native peoples, a war on cultural and religion if ever there was one.

1880s – 1930s: The United States government engages in direct colonial/imperial acquisitions of territory including the annexation of Hawaii in 1900, a sovereign kingdom nation previously recognized by the United States government as well as other national governments, as well as the seizure of former colonial possessions held by Spain after the Spanish-American war of 1898.  These newly gained territories included Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba and the Philippines.  Of these territories the United States still holds Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam.  The Philippines was not granted full independence until after World War II and were not granted Commonwealth status until the 1930s.  In fact the United States was gaining these territories at the same time that the various Great Powers of the world President Obama is probably speaking of, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Japan, and the United States was gaining these territories using the same methods employed by other Great Powers.  The United States also directly intervened in the internal affairs of many nations in the Caribbean during this same period, using military force to modify or suppress local rebellions in many Caribbean republics or dictatorships.  As well the United States engaged in one of its most brutal and prolonged military campaigns from 1900 through 1904 in the Philippines, suppressing a local uprising that attempted to militarily defeat the United States through irregular warfare and establish an independent Philippine republic.

It was not until the 1930s that the United States, under President Roosevelt, undertook a new direction in its relations with its neighbors in the Caribbean, the Good Neighbor policy, and renounced the use of force to defend United States interests in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.  However at the same time Great Britain and France had also begun to reduce their use of military force to intervene in colonial affairs.  Which makes our policy not exceptional but instead more of a reflection of the general shift in diplomacy in the 1930s, the recognition by many of the Great Powers of a need to shift their focus from gaining territory through military force to working with local populations and leaders to maintain the empires held, a policy also followed by the United States with our, admittedly, smaller imperial territorial holdings.

1930s – 1940s: The period of the infamous land grabs by Germany, Italy, Romania, Hungary, the Soviet Union, and Japan in a bid to redefine the global balance of power militarily, economically, and culturally.  The United States did not engage in such antics but, at the same time the various Great Powers in operation at the time did not recognize territorial changes through the use of arms.  It may be a fine point but the territorial shifts of the 1930s were achieved through diplomacy and consent, the actual seizure of territory by force was, broadly stated, rejected diplomatically and resisted militarily.  Land seized by the Soviet Union is an interesting case, it was not actually seized but instead ideologically loyal puppet states were installed to rule over the territories in compliance with the policies of the Soviet Union.

1950s – 1990s: the United States and the Soviet Union engage in a mutual dance for dominance stretching across a span of forty years roughly and the globe, known collectively as the Cold War.

So overall President Obama your statement does not appear, after analysis, to truly be accurate against the lens of history.  Unless you are speaking of quite ancient empires in which case you are correct but one could also argue the United States had not engaged in such behaviors of rape, conquest, and devastation such as Rome, the Persians, or the Huns engaged in because, in large part, we were not on the scene yet as a nation.

Historically Interesting Films – Metropolis

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

For those who have not heard of it, Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis is an incredibly powerful silent era work of science-fiction that has a powerful resonance even today in our inherited cultural backpack.  Metropolis story-wise tells a rather heavy-handed story about what happens if a society divides into two halves, one a mass of unskilled workers and the other leaders/capitalists who rule society and profit from its surpluses.  Metropolis is a heavy-handed film because Lang resorts at several points uses direct analogies to stories out of the Old Testament and to Christian imagery to drive home to the viewing audience the dangers of allowing such social division to reach endemic proportions.  Metropolis is usually considered a work of science-fiction because it presents a dystopian society and addresses issues of dehumanization, mechanization and its impact on human life and the human experience, and, of course, the impact of non-human mechanical humanoids upon society.  In particular Metropolis is among the first films to explore the question of what happens when something created by humanity that is non-organic expresses a will and mind of its own.  (In Metropolis apparently said non-organic entity is blessed with a lovely human appearance and decides to go into the lucrative field of naked dancing.)

So why see this film today?  First off because it was made in 1927, a year of high stability for the Weimar Republic (ruling interwar government of Germany and worthy of an introductory post of its own in the future) but also a year in which the ideological challenge and questions raised by Communism created an interesting resonance in the minds of people in Western Europe and the United States.  For people at all class levels an interesting question was raised, what was society to do with its unskilled laborers?  They produced much of the growing material prosperity of the 1920s but it was a prosperity that these same laboring classes were not as easily able to partake of as the expanding managerial classes.  What makes Metropolis particularly interesting is that at the same time the unskilled laboring classes are increasing in number the professional managerial classes overseeing the new engines of production were also increasing in number, it was this second group to which the film was addressed and was the most common viewing audience.  Yet, at the same time, that class does not appear much in Metropolis, if at all, and by its absence raises questions about the impact of that class in society and its long-term viability.  Issues which a newly minted professional class was itself struggling with in the 1920s, enjoying the benefits of increased leisure time and wealth but also the worries of how real said freedom was and what it meant to society that it existed.

Which is all well and good for the cultural value of Metropolis but that is not why you should see the film, although it is a valuable side aspect of the film.  No everyone should see the film because Metropolis provided us with the cultural image kit that we associate today with the idea of “dystopian Gothic city-scape.”  The feel of every Batman film made from the 1990s onwards, the feel of dystopian films such as Dark City, Dark Man, Blade Runner – all of these draw upon the images first pioneered by Metropolis.  The image of a the android to the modern mind, a humanoid figure made of shiny metal, that also owes a debt to Metropolis to the point that seeing such a figure today in cinema we immediately associate it with a mechanical humanoid entity.  Think of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, without that cultural back ground of information already present in society the idea of a mechanical man made of tin is just an odd one.  The idea said mechanical figure could aspire to human emotions is even more unsettling, but the cultural groundwork for the idea rests with Metropolis.  Today the idea of mechanical creations of our own hand rising up to overthrow us or aspiring to capture the human aspects of our own personality is a theme so common in popular culture many joke about the “robot apocalypse” or nervously believe it real and likely once the popular construct of true “artificial intelligence” is achieved, whatever that might mean.

But the main reason people should see Metropolis is to properly understand the parentage of the imagery in Madonna’s music video “Express Yourself” comes from, apparently the modern mindset believes that imagery comes from the 1990s Batman franchise of films and not this silent film classic.

Sources:

Wikipedia Entry on Metropolis