Sunday, January 31, 2016


The Philippine Tangle
by William James 
Boston Evening Transcript
(March 1, 1899) 
An observer who should judge solely by the sort of evidence which the newspapers present might easily suppose
that the American people felt little concern about the perfor
mances of our Government in the Philippine Islands, and
were practically indifferent to their moral aspects. The cann
on of our gunboats at Manila and the ratification of the
treaty have sent even the most vehement anti-imperialist journals temporarily to cover, and the bugbear of
copperheadism has reduced the freest tongues for a while to
silence. The excitement of battle, this time as always,
has produced its cowing and disorganizing effect upon the opposition.
But since then, Executive and
all, we have been swept away by the
overmastering flood. And now what it has
swept us into is an adventure that in sober seriousness
and definite English speech must be described as literally
piratical. Our treatment of the Aguinaldo movement at Manila and at Iloilo is piracy positive and absolute, and the
American people appear as pirates pure and simple, as da
y by day the real facts of the situation are coming to the
What was only vaguely apprehended is now clear with
a definiteness that is startling indeed. Here was a
people towards whom we felt no ill-will, against whom we had not even a slanderous rumor to bring; a people for
whose tenacious struggle against their Spanish oppressors we have for years past spoken (so far as we spoke of them
at all) with nothing but admiration and sympathy. Here wa
s a leader who, as the Spanish lies about him, on which
we were fed so long, drop off, and as the truth gets
more and more known, appears as an exceptionally fine
specimen of the patriot and national hero; not only daring, but honest; not only a fighter, but a governor and
organizer of extraordinary power. Here were the precious beginnings of an indigenous national life, with which, if
we had any responsibilities to these islands at all, it was our first duty to have squared ourselves. Aguinaldo's
movement was, and evidently deserved to be, an ideal p
opular movement, which as far as it had had time to exist
was showing itself "fit" to survive and
likely to become a health
y piece of national self-development. It was all we
had to build on, at any rate, so far -- if we had any de
sire not to succeed to the Span
iards' inheritance of native
And what did our Administration do? So far as the facts have leaked out, it issued instructions to the
commanders on the ground simply to freeze Aguinaldo out, as a dangerous rival with whom all compromising
entanglement was sedulously to be avoided by the great
Yankee business concern. We were not to "recognize" him,
we were to deny him all account of our intentions; and in ge
neral to refuse any account of our intentions to anybody,
except to declare in abstract terms their "benevolence," until
the inhabitants, without a pledge of any sort from US,
should turn over their country into our hands. Our Pres
ident's bouffe-proclamation was the only thing vouchsafed:
"We are here for your own good; therefore unconditionally surrender to our tender mercies, or we'll blow you into
kingdom come."
It is horrible, simply horrible. Surely there cannot be
many born and bred American
s who, when they look at
the bare fact of what we are doing, the fact taken all by
itself, do not feel this, and do not blush with burning shame
at the unspeakable meanness and ignominy of the trick?
Why, then, do we go on? First, the war fever; and then the pride which always refuses to back down when
under fire. But these are passions that interfere with the r
easonable settlement of any affair; and in this affair we
have to deal with a factor altogether peculiar with our be
lief, namely, in a national destiny which must be "big" at
any cost, and which for some inscrutable reason it has become infamous for us to disbelieve in or refuse. We are to
be missionaries of civilization, and to bear the white man'
s burden, painful as it often is. We must sow our ideals,
plant our order, impose our God. The individual lives are nothing. Our duty and our destiny call, and civilization
must go on.
Could there be a more damning indictment of that whole bloated idol termed "modern civilization" than this
amounts to? Civilization is, then, the big,
hollow, resounding, corrupting, sophis
ticating, confusing
torrent of mere
brutal momentum and irrationality that brings forth fruits li
ke this! It is safe to say that one Christian missionary,
whether primitive, Protestant or Catholic, of the original missionary type, one Buddhist or Mohammedan of a
genuine saintly sort, one ethical reformer or philanthropist,
or one disciple of Tolstoi would do more real good in
these islands than our whole army and navy can possibly ef
fect with our whole civiliza
tion at their back. He could
build up realities, in however small a degree; we can only
destroy the inner realities; and indeed destroy in a year
more of them than a generation can make good.
It is by their moral fruits exclusively that these benigh
ted brown people, "half-devil an
d half-child" as they are,
are condemned to judge a civilization.
Ours is already execrated by th
em forever for its hideous fruits.
Shall it not in so far forth be execrated by ourselves
? Shall the unsophisticated verdict upon its hideousness
which the plain moral sense pronounces avail nothing to stem
the torrent of mere empty "bigness" in our destiny,
before which it is said we must all knock under, swallo
wing our higher sentiments with a gulp? The issue is
perfectly plain at last. We are cold-bloodedly, wantonly and abominably destroying the soul of a people who never
did us an atom of harm in their lives. It is bald, brutal piracy, impossible to dish up any longer in the cold pot-grease
of President McKinley's cant at the r
ecent Boston banquet -- surely as sham
efully evasive a speech, considering the
right of the public to know definite facts, as can ofte
n have fallen even from a professional politician's lips. The
worst of our imperialists is that they do not themselves know where sincerity ends and insincerity begins. Their state
of consciousness is so new, so mixed of primitively human passions and, in political circles, of calculations that are
anything but primitively human; so at variance, moreover, with their former mental habits -- and so empty of
definite data and contents; that they face various ways at
once, and their portraits should be taken with a squint. One
reads the President's speech with a st
range feeling -- as if the very words were squinting on the page.
The impotence of the private individual, with imperialism under full headway as it is, is deplorable indeed.
But every American has a voice or a pen, and may use it. So, impelled by my own sense of duty, I write these
present words. One by one we shall creep from cover, an
d the opposition will organize itself. If the Filipinos hold
out long enough, there is a good chance (the canting game
being already pretty well
played out, and the piracy
having to show itself henceforward naked) of the older American beliefs and sentiments coming to their rights
again, and of the Administration being terrified into
a conciliatory policy towards the native government.
The programme for the opposition should, it seems to me, be radical. The infamy and iniquity of a war of
conquest must stop. A "protectorate," of course, if they
will have it, though after this they would probably rather
welcome any European Power; and as regards the inner stat
e of the island, freedom, "fit" or "unfit;" that is, home
rule without humbugging phrases, and what
ever anarchy may go with it until the
Filipinos learn from each other, not
from us, how to govern themselves. Mr. Adams's progra
mme -- which anyone may have by writing to Mr. Erving
Winslow, Anti-Imperialist League, Washington, D.C. -- seems to contain the only hopeful key to the situation. Until
the opposition newspapers seriously begin, and the mass mee
tings are held, let every American who still wishes his
country to possess its ancient soul -- soul a thousand tim
es more dear than ever, now that it seems in danger of
perdition -- do what little he can in the way of ope
n speech and writing, and above all let him give his
representatives and senators in Wash
ington a positive piece of his mind.

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