America’s destiny … warts included

This post is part of a history of a human rights class reading list. See more reviews under the human rights tag.

Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right by Anders Stephanson is a short gast-hi-resbook (it almost doesn’t fit the page length for Cannonball Read), but don’t be deceived. It is incredibly dense. It is one of those books that to understand it fully you almost need to read it twice. Nonetheless, if you really want to know more about the origins of manifest destiny and America exceptionalism, this is a perfect starting point.

I am presenting this book to my class on Wednesday and need to work through some thoughts beforehand. So if this review seems disjointed it is because I’m still getting my head around his arguments. Basically he is examining the origins of the ideology of manifest destiny in American thought and political culture. While we can point directly to John O’Sullivan who coined the term in 1845 when he wrote that the role of the US is “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions,” Stephanson argues that the broader idea of manifest destiny is rooted in the Puritans’ understanding of themselves as God’s chosen people.

He then looks at how this religiously rooted ideology develops over time and negotiates expanding US borders. This religious ideology then becomes intertwined with agricultural and industrial capitalism and mutates into a more secular understanding of manifest destiny, but while the national ideology takes on a new character, “the sacred-prophetic impulse never waned” (110). The interesting difference in these two ideologies is that the older religious idea of manifest destiny focused on a predestined future of God’s chosen people, while in the newer ideology will be determined by individual agency.

The most interesting chapter to me is his closing essay where he discusses President Wilson’s time up to the 1990s. He critiques President Wilson’s understanding of the United States’ role as the leader in the world and how that is still infused with a prophetic mission. This translates into a principle of universal right that believes it is always right and sees those who disagree as “inhuman or criminal” (119).

Interestingly he ends in the mid-1990s (the book was published in 1995) and maintains that the difficulty for the US is that it has lost its defining enemy with the end of the Cold War, and therefore “simple concepts super-imposed on simple divisions and simple enemies no longer suffice as basic ideological props of American geopolitics (129).” I would love to see an update to the work in light of the past decade’s events. Have we invented a new enemy in “terrorism” based on our understanding of America’s destiny?

King of the severed hands #cbr6

I am taking a graduate course on the history of human rights (yes, for the fun of it) and hope to write book reviews (depending on time). If you are interested you can see those reviews under the human rights tag. More to come.

Monument in Arlon. It says "I have undertaken the work in Congo in the interest of civilisation and for the good of Belgium." CC 2.0

Monument in Arlon. It says “I have undertaken the work in Congo in the interest of civilization and for the good of Belgium.” (cc 2.0 by Olnnu)

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild is one of those books I always wanted to read, but had trouble getting around to. Honestly you know it isn’t going to be an “easy” book, so it was difficult to make the time. When I saw it on our supplemental reading list as a book on which I could give a required presentation, I jumped on it. I’m very glad I did.

This work describes King Leopold II’s land grab of the Congo River area during the scramble for Africa of the late 19th century, which led to the deaths of 8 to 10 million Africans, the destruction of their societies, and the devastation of the area’s wild rubber plants. Each chapter takes on a different character or episode through the history. Starting with Stanley’s quest to find Livingstone and journeying through Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Hochschild does a fabulous job telling this brutal story through the eyes of people who lived it. He also tries as much as possible to bring African voices into the narrative. Of course this is not easy considering the oppression of the regime and the lack of historical interest in those voices.

Along with other books in our class, Hochschild points out Leopold II’s need to couch his colonial conquest in humanitarian terms. (Polemical Pain, which I will review later, makes a similar argument using the American pro-slavery rhetoric). Of course this “humanitarian effort” is patronizing, based on “moral uplift”, scientific progress, and stopping the Arab slave trade. To do this Leopold creates a Geographical Conference in 1876 and humanitarian shell organizations. All of these efforts are used to bolster his ambitions to create his colony in Africa.

Ultimately though, the story’s main focus are the people who tried to bring attention to the brutal regime in the Congo, including George Washington Williams, E.D. Morel, Reverend William H. Sheppard, and Sir Roger Casement. In various ways all of them contributed to what Hochschild calls the first international human rights movement of the 20th century. It is humbling to read about the sacrifices each one of them made to bring attention to the brutality of Leopold’s colony. While it is the Africans who suffered, these people gave up quite a bit, in some case their lives, to stop that suffering.

The only major criticism is that Hochschild’s tendency to psychoanalyze his characters can be a bit much. He describes Stanley as “one part titan of rugged force …; the other a vulnerable, illegitimate son of the working class.” King Leopold II whom for good reason he is much less kind seems like a ball of evil enveloped in aristocratic clothing. While it makes the book more readable, he never goes into enough depth about their psychology (except maybe Stanley) to understand their motivations. Statements like — “the adventurers who carried out the European seizure of Africa were often not the bold, bluff, hardy men of legend, but restless, unhappy, driven men, in flight from something in their past” — feel trite and cliched in comparison to the weighty history he is describing. Instead, I would prefer that he stick to contextualizing their actions in the society, economics, and culture of the day than to try to “understand the man.” But, psychoanalysis makes for more engaging popular history. 

My minor criticism is that I would have loved more maps … or any maps. Granted I can grab my phone and google the Congo River, but I love a good map to guide me along. I wish more authors could appreciate that. Hochschild is an excellent narrator who describes the surroundings well enough to imagine, but any work with such a strong connection to geography needs some maps.

This is an important work and required reading for anyone interested in colonialism, human rights or Africa. While it isn’t an easy topic, Hochschild is a kind narrator and writes extremely well. Don’t wait like I did; just go ahead and read it!

Inventing Human Rights: A History by Lynn Hunt

I promised myself I would write at least 24 reviews for Cannonball this year and I have written exactly one. I’m reading a lot, but no time for writing it seems.  So, in the name of a snow day, here is review #2!

This semester I am taking a graduate class on the history of human rights. It has been fantastic even though snow has interrupted it twice now. One of our first books was Inventing Human Rights by Lynn Hunt. She examines the language of human rights as it emerged with the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence. She argues that before and during that time period we see a change in thinking and a rise in empathy towards other people. This coincided with the emergence of new popular literature, the epistolary novel, as well as shifts in perceptions of torture and its purpose.

The strongest section is her chapter on Richardson’s Pamela and Rousseau’s Julie, the two big epistolary novels of that time period. She does a nice job explaining how these works could give rise to empathy for others. Of course she can’t make a causal argument, but she attempts to show how people identified strongly with the “fate” of those main characters, so much so that they begin to think they were real. (It reminds me of the Harry Potter fan base especially with Rowling’s reinterpretation of Hermione and Ron’s relationship.)

The challenge with this book is that she is trying to make a much stronger argument about empathy, and I don’t think she succeeds. In arguing for empathy she is actually arguing that it is a biological change in how we think about others–that our brains fundamentally change. It is an interesting argument, but how on earth do you prove that, especially in relation to historical events and people. Luckily she doesn’t dwell too much on this idea and the rest of the book is still fascinating and well worth a read if you are interested in human rights history.