From the New York Age, March 22nd, 1919.
Civilizing the ‘Backward Races’
One way in which the powerful nations justify themselves for taking the lands which belong to other people is to declare that they do it in order to carry civilization to these benighted races.
Adopting this slogan as a principle, the powerful nations seem able to commit the most high-handed robberies and outrages, and at the same time salve their consciences over with the thought that they are spreading civilization.
It was Bernard Shaw who wrote in one of his plays that there is nothing so good or so bad that you will not find an Englishman doing it, but that you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. Shaw says that when an Englishman wants a thing, he never tells himself he wants it. He waits patiently until there comes into his mind, no one knows how, a burning conviction that it is his moral and religious duty to conquer those who have got the thing he wants. He says that an Englishman will do anything, but that he always has a principle to justify it. He will bully you on manly principles, he will fight you on patriotic principles, he will rob you on business principles, and he will enslave you on imperialistic principles.
The ability to find a ‘moral’ principle to justify whatever you want to do is of tremendous advantage to a nation. Through it almost any kind of action can be made to pass as respectable. In fact, if the principle is properly promoted almost any kind of action can be made to gather up a sort of religious fervor as it goes along.
A colossal blunder made by Germany at the beginning of the war was that she failed to find a ‘moral’ issue on which to strike. England waited until she felt she was called upon to ‘save martyred Belgium.’ America waited until she felt she was called upon to ‘make the world safe for democracy.’ It is strange but true that men will fight harder for an ideal than for a fact. (For confirmation of this statement see histories of the various religious war.) Germany started out without a beautiful ideal couched in a high-sounding phrase, and was therefore handicapped all through the conflict. She had no point around which to rally spiritual forces; she had no club with which to compel one-sided opinion. Anyone might oppose a war for conquest, but how many could open their mouths against a war to ‘save martyred Belgium’ or to ‘make the world safe for democracy’?
The powerful nations of the world have followed this same moral process in dealing with what they term that backward races. They set up an imaginary ideal, and then proceed to commit all the cardinal sins in the name of sustaining that ideal.
Generally, the first step is to send out a missionary to give these ‘heathen’ people a religion which they did not ask for, which they do not particularly stand in need of, and which, when they get it, does not bring them anything near like all the good which they have been led to expect.
Then some ‘heathen’ who is not impressed by the superiority of the religion of England and Germany and Belgium over that of his own land and fathers shies a stone at the mission house. Thereupon the home government of the missionary sends a warship to protect him and put down the ‘native uprising.’ Protecting the missionaries usually results in taking all the land and all its wealth and resources away from those to whom it rightly belongs. This is done even if natives armed only with assegais have to be mown down with machine guns. And it is all done for the preservation of civilization.
No self-respecting nation could start out with the avowed purpose of murdering these natives and robbing them; but in the name of such lofty principles as the spread of Christianity and civilization anything may be done.
What is behind all this burning zeal which the powerful nations have to civilize the ‘backward races’ of the world? Is it a desire chiefly for the welfare of these races? Not at all; it is solely a desire on the part of these nations to fill their own coffers. And does this civilization which they carry do the people to whom they carry it any good? Very little, if any. At least, it costs these races many times what it is worth to them; and it is certain that most of the world would may equally as much to get rid of it.
The powerful nations are in the habit of pointing to one of these lands and saying, “Look, before we went in these people did not even wear shoes or derby hats or starched collars, they had no factories, they had no railroads. See how the import and export trade of the island has increased!” That is only one-half of the story. For the privilege of wearing derby hats and stiff collars and working in factories and on railroads the native has become a slave toiling to pay dividends to foreign stockholders.
This has been the case with Porto Rico. This island has belonged to the United States since the close of the Spanish war; and, according to figures, its prosperity has multiplied many times over. Its import and export trade has almost doubled in the past four years, being $79,509,549 in 1914 and $137,683,304 in 1918; and yet, the condition of the natives has grown steadily worse. The natives are poorer to-day than they were four years ago.
Things have come to such a pass that a resolution has been introduced into the Porto Rico legislature calling upon the United States Congress for remedial legislation. This resolution declares: “The American people are completely ignorant of the true, deplorable position and condition of the people of Porto Rico which have been caused by economic financial organization imposed by an illegal system of land ownership and absent and resident corporations and individuals combined.”
What happened to Porto Rico will happen to Haiti. Railroads and factories will be built, the custom figures will be increased, and the Haitian who once cultivated his little plot of ground for his own benefit will find himself a wage slave working for the benefit of stockholders who do not live on his island. And he will no doubt seriously question whether he has gained anything, even if he has learned to wear shoes, derby hats and stiff collars.
If the choice were put before me, I would much prefer to be robbed and enslaved under the sign of the skull and cross bones of a pirate than under the principle of ‘spreading civilization.’
If you want to hear more about James Weldon Johnson’s radicalism, come to my talk at Historical Materialism 2010 on November 13th!