Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Introduction: Contours and Context Segment 3/17
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In Adams's version, Jackson sought to defend Americans from "all the runaway negroes, all the savage Indians, all the pirates, and all the traitors to their country" who were mobilized by the British to "wage an exterminating war" against these innocents -- a mélange of "half-truths, falsehoods, and powerful rhetoric," Weeks shows. In reality, the aim of Jackson's "bloodthirsty tactics" and aggression in violation of the Constitution was to conquer the Spanish-held territory and exterminate runaway slaves and Indians who had sought to escape the savagery of the colonists -- "mingled hordes of lawless Indians and negroes" who were waging "savage, servile, exterminating war against the United States," in the rhetoric that impressed Jefferson and modern scholars. Two innocent Englishmen were executed by the conquerors for conspiring to incite the savages, an act that Adams commended for its "salutary efficacy for terror and example." The story ended 20 years later, Weeks continues, with the "second war of extermination against" the Seminoles, "in which the remaining members of the tribe either moved west or were killed or forced to take refuge in the dense swamps of Florida," surviving today "in the national consciousness as the mascot of Florida State University." If the Nazis had been victorious, perhaps Jews and Gypsies would survive as mascots of the Universities of Munich and Freiburg.6

"In defending Jackson," Weeks writes, "Adams was implicitly defending Indian removal, slavery, and the use of military force without congressional approval," establishing an important precedent that holds until today, in the last case.

Extermination of the lesser breeds with utter respect for the laws of humanity is a pervasive feature of the European conquest. Massacre of people who are utterly defenseless is considered a particular mark of heroism, as we saw again during the 1991 Gulf slaughter. A concomitant is the standard phrase "hero of X," referring to the manager who sat shuffling papers in some quiet room while his minions were fighting the battle of X, slogging through jungles and deserts, trying to escape enemy fire, or, preferably, raining death and destruction from afar. Murder of infants by starvation and disease through economic warfare, a US specialty for many years, is considered less meritorious, therefore concealed by the doctrinal institutions.

The ability to churn out self-acclaim for unspeakable atrocities is highly regarded, virtually an entry ticket to the ranks of the respectable intellectual culture. The practices are routine, unnoticed, like the air we breathe. It is, for example, hardly likely that the producers of the evening news cringe in embarrassment as they present George Bush in his farewell address, wiping away a tear as he recalled the US troops who reached out in sympathy to pleading Iraqi soldiers, thinking perhaps of the "turkey shoot" on the Basra highway or the B-52 attacks on conscripts hiding in the sand -- or the Shi'ite and Kurdish civilians left to the tender mercies of Saddam Hussein as Bush returned to support for his old friend in the interests of "stability" a few weeks later, with nods of sober approval in news and commentary. And none would be so rude as to raise a question about the thousands of children dying as Bush and Saddam played their little games.7

A related task is to reshape history so as to demonstrate the nobility of our intentions and the lofty ideals that guide us as we bring "dreadful misfortunes" to those lucky enough to fall under our sway. The more hard-headed warn that we should not "revert to form" with the Cold War ended, "granting idealism a near exclusive hold on our foreign policy" as we slip back unthinkingly to our role of world benefactor while ignoring "the national interest"; the world is too harsh a place for us to be guided solely by the "Wilsonian idealism" that has so long lighted our path (New York Times chief diplomatic correspondent Thomas Friedman, quoting a high official with approval). This sage counsel also has deep roots. As the country celebrated an earlier victory in 1783, a committee warned Congress not to go to excess in "gratify[ing] their better feelings in acts of humanity"; "generosity becomes bankrupt and frustrates its own designs by prodigal bounty," the committee explained as it recommended the further robbery of Indian lands.8 The reverential awe over our humanitarian intervention in Indochina, which would fill many volumes, has also been accompanied by regular warning that our generosity might be excessive, possibly harmful to the "national interest."

Falsification of the historical record, often reaching quite impressive levels, can persist for many centuries, as illustrated by the fate of those who faced "the savage injustice of the Europeans" from the early years of the conquest. It was not until the cultural revival of the 1960s that it became possible to confront some of the realities, even in scholarship, apart from rare and largely ignored exceptions.

It would not be fair to imply that the regular fabrication of useful history passes entirely unnoticed. In mid-1992, the New York Times Book Review devoted an essay to this abomination, with a lead headline running across the top of the front page reading: "You Can't Murder History." The thought was jarring, to put it mildly, as the quincentenary approached, with its ample evidence that history can be murdered with the same "singular felicity" as people; the Times archives alone provide an instructive record. No need for concern, however. The essay kept to a proper topic: the murder of history in "the old Soviet Union," where history "was like cancer in the human body, an invisible presence whose existence is bravely denied but against which every conceivable weapon is mobilized." The author recalls "those all-powerful Soviet officials whose job it was to suppress the public's memory of this grisly episode" of the murder of the Czar and his family, but who, in the end, "could not hold back the tide."9

Unfortunate commissars, whose power base had collapsed.

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6 Ibid., ch. 5.

7 For numerous examples, see TTT, chapter 3.9, and 501, chapters 1, 9, among many other sources. The Bush spectacle was presented with proper awe on network TV (Peter Jennings, ABC 7PM, Jan. 5), but kept from the Newspaper of Record (NYT, Jan. 6, 1993). To plumb the depths, however, one must look elsewhere, for example, to the gushing tribute to colonialist atrocities ("colonialism is an act of generosity and idealism of which only rising civilizations are capable," etc.) by Angelo Codevilla of Stanford University's Hoover Institute (Wall Street Journal, Jan. 7, 1993). For similar effusions in the British press, see my Raymond Williams memorial lecture, London, Nov. 1992. In a seminar at MIT, US Census Bureau specialist Beth Daponte estimated 111,000 civilian casualties from the effects of the Gulf war (AP, AFP, Age, Australia, Sept. 10, 1992). In Figaro (Paris), Claude Lorieux reports from Iraq that the worst suffering from the embargo is among the Shi'ites in the South, citing UNICEF figures (World Press Review, Jan. 1993). A Harvard Study Team estimated that 50,000 children died in the first eight months of 1991, many from the effects of radioactive artillery shells (Eric Hoskins, oped, NYT, Jan. 21, 1993, a rare mention of the ongoing disaster).

8 Friedman, NYT, Jan. 12, 1992; Horsman, Expansion, 15f.

9 Frederick Starr, NYT Book Review, July 19, 1992.