The relevance of irrelevance
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 32: Wicked Problems, Exquisite Dilemmas
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Robin Hemley
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Robin Hemley’s biography and other articles by this writer
IN 1901 Mark Twain battled America’s imperial designs in the pages of an American literary magazine. Remarkably, the North American Review still exists, though its influence, at least in geopolitics, has long since waned. Twain’s foray into American foreign policy created a dust-up in the US as soon as the piece was published, with thousands of people in equal number deriding him as unpatriotic and lauding him as a hero.
The issues that so outraged Twain and stirred him to write his controversial article, ‘To the Person Sitting in Darkness’, not only seem irrelevant to a contemporary audience at first glance, but nearly unintelligible. The personalities of whom he writes were household names in his day, but no more. For a contemporary audience to appreciate Twain’s essay a history lesson is in order. And isn’t this exactly the problem with political essays: like political poems and stories, don’t they quickly become dated and irrelevant?
According to James D Smelkoff of the Harvard Institute of Relevant Studies, in 1901 current events remained relevant for an average of 900 years for the majority of the reading public. That means that the First Crusade’s capture of Jerusalem in 1099 had just lost its relevance to Mark Twain’s audience. In 1960 Relevance had eroded to a mere 350 years (the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620 was still safe, but barely). For the past ten years, Relevance has held steady at six weeks. With the disappearance of most news outlets, major events might soon be irrelevant before they happen, according to Smelkoff.
‘Not that it really matters,’ the Boston Globe quoted him as saying, two weeks before I began this essay.
So, a brief history lesson. It won’t be boring. You won’t die. Please stay with me. Breathe. Breathe, damn you!
IN 1898 AMERICA declared war on Spain because of the explosion onboard and subsequent sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Bay. The resulting war, created in large part by the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst, lasted all of three months. That’s what it took for the brash republic of the United States of America to defeat a doddering empire. The US, founded on principles of self-determination, sided with the Cubans and freed them from the Spanish yoke, but didn’t quite know what to do with the Philippines, which had been a colony of Spain for more than three centuries. Filipino rebels had been fighting against the Spanish for two years when the Americans came along and said, ‘Hey, let us help you.’ By this time the Filipinos had pretty well surrounded the Spanish garrison in Manila and didn’t need much help. The US escorted the leader of the Filipino resistance, Emilio Aguinaldo, from exile in Hong Kong and made short work of the Spanish, who surrendered to Admiral Dewey.
Simply put, the US wanted a share of the imperial pie in Asia that the Europeans had been feasting on for centuries; but in order to project their power, which in those days was only naval, it needed coaling stations to fuel ships on the long trip across the Pacific. That’s why it needed Hawaii (acquired in 1893, when a group of American businessmen, supported by an American battleship, staged a coup and imprisoned Hawaii’s queen) and Guam (also won during the Spanish-American War), and why it needed the Philippines.
But the notion of empire seemed to conflict with the principles on which the US was founded. How could the bastion of liberty – the Statue of Liberty was a mere fifteen years old in 1901, and therefore still decidedly relevant – deny liberty to another country?
The argument went like this: the Filipinos were not ready to govern themselves. Americans’ ‘little brown brothers’ needed help. They needed to be Christianised – with a different brand of Christianity from the Catholicism they had practiced for three centuries. The Philippines were not a colony. We repeat. Not a colony. America does not colonise. They were...something else. A purchase. A possession.
America bought the Philippines from the Spanish because you can’t buy love but you can buy land, and sometimes with the people thrown into the bargain. But the idea of buying the Philippines, in a kind of legal contract, was simply a ploy. We might illustrate the idea in this way: a thief breaks into a house and steals a treasured urn. The police capture the thief but, instead of returning the urn to its rightful owner, decide instead to buy it from the thief. The original owner protests, so the police, outraged, jail the owner and execute his family members.
Filipinos, as it turned out, didn’t need such analogies. They wanted nothing other than liberty – though they wanted their own brand of liberty, which is widely considered inferior to American liberty, so America had to show them. It was a matter of quality control; in contemporary terms, the US was fighting liberty piracy. Liberty is America’s intellectual property. When fighting broke out between American soldiers and Filipino soldiers, the Americans slaughtered them by the thousands, as well as thousands of Filipino civilians.