Thursday, July 14, 2011

Susan K. Harris's "God’s Arbiters"

Susan K. Harris is the Hall Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of Kansas. She has written on both Mark Twain and on 19th-century American women’s writing, including The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain and 19th-Century American Women’s Novels: Interpretive Strategies. She is currently working on the culture of uplift and American attitudes towards immigration.

Harris applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, God's Arbiters: Americans and the Philippines, 1898-1902, and reported the following:
I never imagined I’d write a book about the Philippine-American War. I didn’t even know there was one. God’s Arbiters originated when I found myself teaching a Mark Twain course the semester the U.S. invaded Iraq. Suddenly Twain’s anti-imperialist writings made new sense to me—and I began investigating U.S. intervention in Cuba (which Twain approved) and in the Philippines (which he did not). The project turned into a full-scale exploration of the national conversation about the U.S.’s first overseas experiment in nation-building—a venture President McKinley called “civilizing and Christianizing” and Mark Twain called “pious hypocrisy.” Twain is the book’s major spokesman.

Historians rediscover the P/A War every time the U.S. finds itself entangled abroad. Not surprisingly, recent books have focused on race and/or gender. I bring religion into the mix. In 1899 most Americans believed that only a homogeneous people—the homogeneity that, they maintained, characterized the white, Protestant, normative American--were capable of practicing self-government. When the U.S. decided to prepare the Filipinos for independence by exporting American civilization, arguments erupted about the likelihood of such a heterogeneous population ever becoming capable of governing itself. The Americans considered the Filipinos both racially and religiously inferior, yet still felt a duty to bring them the “blessings” of American civilization. The conversation spread beyond U.S. geopolitical borders: to England (Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden,”), Latin America (Rubén Darío’s “Á Roosevelt”), and of course to the Philippines (Apolinario Mabini’s refutations of American policies).

The chapter in which pg 99 appears brings together Twain’s Connecticut Yankee with textbooks the Americans wrote in their effort to educate Filipino schoolchildren. I compare the uplift strategies of Twain’s Hank Morgan and textbook author Prescott Jernegan. Hank tried to modernize Arthurian England by introducing Protestantism, literacy, and technology. He failed. The Americans used the same strategy in the Philippines, with similar results. This should have taught us something about the dangers of exporting our form of modernity, but it doesn’t seem to have done so. My epilogue is titled “Bush, Obama, Ahmadinejad.” I think the conversation about the Philippines helps us understand how the “normative American” still plays, both at home and abroad.

From pg. 99 (and a bit from 100):
…Jernegan’s History insists that only a homogeneous population can be self-governing. His discussion of Filipino racial and cultural landscapes suggests that the entire archipelago is hopelessly heterogeneous, a situation that will require centuries, rather than years, to remedy. … The flip side to teaching Filipinos how to become citizens of a republic is teaching them to devalue any sign of cultural difference.

Jernegan’s texts rarely mention religion directly, largely because the Education Act had forbidden religious teaching in the public schools. It was, however, very much an underlying theme. The uneasy balance between demands for homogeneity and order, on the one hand, and the celebration of individualism, on the other, was especially evident in nineteenth-century discussions of the differences between Protestant and Catholic sensibilities, at least as portrayed by the mainstream. For Protestants, as [Twain’s] Hank Morgan made abundantly clear, multiple sects were to be valued because they gave individuals choice (Free Trade) and also prevented the development of a centralized power (anti-monopoly). In this reading, the Catholic Church was a monopoly, dangerous because centralized and univocal. At the same time, Protestants also saw Catholicism as philosophically unruly, with too many kinds of deities and too many options. … For Americans, to civilize meant to put everything in order … including a religion in which all parts fit together…. [and] facilitated progress. “The most important fact about any people is its religion. The religion of a people tells us what they value most, and how well they can think,” [Jernegan] tells his readers (J, 1905, 47).
Learn more about God’s Arbiters at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue