"Together," Donald "Make America Great Again" Trump told U.S. Naval Academy graduates last May, "there is nothing Americans can't do, absolutely nothing. In recent years, and even decades," Trump added, "too many people have forgotten that truth. They've forgotten that our ancestors trounced an empire, tamed a continent, and triumphed over the worst evils in history."
"Your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings ... are ... a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States, at this very hour."-- Frederick Douglass, July 4th, 1852
I was reminded of Trump's statement recently as I reflected on the remarkable record of climate-change driven extreme weather events that have hit the United States in recent years. Epic wild-fires, droughts, rains, floods, tornadoes, snowfalls, and hurricanes are humbling U.S.-America. They are only a foretaste of the stern continental taming U.S.-Americans can expect at the hands of Mother Nature in coming years. (More on that below.)
Where was one to begin in processing the untruth and affront embedded in Trump's reflection on how "America" was once "great"?
"Our ancestors"? I have a paternal grandfather who may have been descended from original 18th or even 17th century Scotch-Irish immigrants to North America, but my largest ethnic strain is Finnish, thanks to the Luhtala family's "chain migration" to DeKalb, Illinois in the early 20th century, long after the closing of the western U.S. frontier. (The Luhtalas worked in barbed-wire plants to help the continent's capitalist "tamers"/takers mark their territorial conquests off as private property.)
Like hundreds of millions of other U.S-Americans, I have ancestors who came long after the nation's original white and mostly English, Irish, and German "settlers." (Currently, 14% of the U.S. population is foreign-born, the largest percentage since 1910, right after my Finnish great-grandparents arrived, when 15% of US-Americans were born in other countries.)
These "ancestors...trounced an empire"? Not really. The U.S. merely broke off from the Western edge of the British Empire, which would go on to rule the world like no global hegemon until the post-World War II Pax Americana (more on that lovely formation below). The British Empire had a pretty damn good run from the end of the Napoleonic Wars through the rest of the 19th century.
For what it's worth, the propertied masters atop the so-called American Revolution understood their new slave-owning republic as an empire -- an "empire of liberty," they called it, with no sense of irony given their dedication to the ruthless ethnic cleansing (to use a 20th century phrase) of the nation's original inhabits and the expansion of Black chattel slavery.
"Tamed a continent"? Leaving aside the fact that Canada and Mexico also hold much of the North America, Trump's phrase was an insolent slight of the continent's original inhabitants. Here the president channeled the original "settlers" concept of the 10-18 million human beings who lived in North America prior to white-European invasion as pre-historic "savages" who required the stern hand of the "civilized" white man to impose order.
It was Orwellian twaddle and truth inversion. The continent's First Nations people were highly civilized, unscathed by class rule, and harmoniously connected to the natural environment in ways that hold critical significance for human and other living things in our current age of capitalist ecocide, As the Native American author and activist Ward Churchill wrote more than two decades ago:
"On...the day Christopher Columbus first washed up on a Caribbean beach, North America was long since endowed with an abundant and exceedingly complex cluster of civilizations. Having continuously occupied the continent for at least 50,000 years, the native inhabitants evidenced a total population of perhaps 15 million, cities as large as the 40,000-resident urban center at Cahokia (in present-day Illinois), highly advanced conceptions of architecture and engineering, spiritual traditions embodying equivalents to modern eco-science, refined knowledge of pharmacology and holistic medicine, and highly sophisticated systems of governance, trade, and diplomacy. The traditional economies of the continent were ...based in environmentally sound farming procedures which originated well over half the vegetal foodstuffs now consumed by peoples the world over. By and large, the indigenous societies demonstrating such attainments were organized along extremely egalitarian lines, with real property held collectively and matrifocality a normative standard."Pre-Conquest North America contained "large-scale societies which had perfected ways of organizing themselves into psychologically fulfilling wholes, experiencing very high standards of living, and still maintaining environmental harmony...War, in the Euro-derived sense in which the term is understood today" -- as highly organized mass annihilation -- "was," Churchill noted, "unknown" among and between the First Nations.
Also unknown in the continent's original civilizations was economic inequality and poverty on anything remotely like the scale of early modern Europe. The Old World was home to a capitalist order whose relentless enclosure of the European commons and destruction of independent farmer and artisan livelihoods generated a surplus population desperate to spill onto North America.
Now the U.S. itself hosts savage inequalities -- the top tenth of the nation's One Percent owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent and its riches three persons have as much net worth between as the bottom half -- that make Western Europe (incubator of modern class rule) look egalitarian.
Tamed a continent? It was more like raped a continent.
The "Indians" (absurdly so misnamed because the "settlers" mistakenly thought they had discovered "the Indes") were seen by "Predator" -- Churchill's understandable (from an indigenist perspective) term for the European invaders -- as animalized brutes fit for elimination and removal even as the newcomers incorporated numerous aspects of Native American culture (moccasins, canoes, and more).
A lethal combination of germs, superior numbers, technology, and killing capacities -- including the moral capacity to wipe out whole villages with no more spiritual discomfort than that involved in shooting deer and coyotes -- inflicted astonishing population decline on Native North America. One after another, original North American nations and tribes were liquidated and dispersed. "By 1890," Churchill noted, "fewer than 250,000 Indians remained alive within the United States, a degree of decimation extending into the upper ninetieth percentile."
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Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org and firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007), Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (more...