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Purposes in America, Once & Now

From The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, no. 1497, December 12, 2001

By Ellen Reiss
February 2002

Dear Unknown Friends:

It is often hard to see clearly something that we are in the midst of, something that is very close to us. Yet we need to try, or we may make mistakes of a huge kind. And the United States now is surely in the midst of something very big, having been viciously attacked and now taking various actions ourselves.

It has been said that the world is different since September 11, and that is so. But in keeping with Aesthetic Realism's showing that "the permanent opposites in reality" are in every instance of it, our post-September-11 world is not only different. To understand the feelings and actions of America now, we have to see how they are particular yet also related to those of other times. Where can we be both right and also dangerously wrong?

I think it is useful, in fact necessary, to look at America of another time and another war, a war that can seem so far-off and even quaint: the Spanish-American War of 1898.

There is a huge difference between America of 1898 and 2001. In 2001 we truly have been attacked, on the US mainland, with nearly 4,000 men and women killed in one September morning. There certainly is, as there was not in 1898, a real need to protect ourselves and to stop firmly that which attacked us.

The big question is how to do it -- something I have written about in previous TROs. With it is the question: Along with the protection of our land and people, is there any other purpose behind America's military plans? That is where it is important to look at a war which seems so far away. In doing so, I quote from two sources as orthodox as one can get: the Columbia Encyclopedia, 2nd ed.; and Brief Review in United States History and Government, by Briggs and Petersen (Prentice Hall, 1997), a guide to the New York State Regents exam.

America, 1898

America in the winter of 1898 had the two ways of seeing -- one beautiful, one ugly -- which Aesthetic Realism shows are fighting in every individual person. Eli Siegel is the philosopher who explained:

"The large fight ... in every mind, every mind of once, every mind of now, ... is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality."

In that island so near to us, Cuba, a revolution was taking place. Cubans wanted freedom from Spain. The Columbia Encyclopedia tells us: "Many in the United States" felt a deep "sympathy for the rebellious seekers of freedom." That sympathy was respect. It was the feeling: Another human being, different from me, is real, as I am real, and deserves justice. Meanwhile, there was another purpose in America as to this revolt in Cuba. The encyclopedia puts it delicately:

"The U.S. government was also moved by ... American investments in Cuba, ... and a growing sense of U.S. power .... Plans for annexing the island to the United States had appeared since before the Ostend Manifesto [of 1854]."

In a Cuba in which the people were oppressed by Spain, American businesses were able to make a lot of money, from plantations, mines, and other enterprises -- from the resources of the Cuban earth and the labor of the obscenely paid Cuban people. The revolt had begun in 1895; by 1898 it looked as though the rebels might actually win. Owners of US companies and their friends in government felt a need to make sure Cuba didn't fall into the wrong hands: the hands of the Cuban people. And with the American army entering in the last phases of the revolution, there would be a chance for American businesses to own even more of Cuba than they already did.

This seeing of humanity and earth as existing to supply profit for oneself and a few others, is a form of contempt that has caused massive suffering through the centuries.

It is related, Mr. Siegel showed, to ways people have in ordinary life. A wife can see her husband as existing to make her important, not as a whole person born to care for the world in its fullness. This wife has a resemblance to the businessmen and their governmental friends of 1898, who looked at Cuba -- and Puerto Rico -- and the Philippines -- and thought in terms of what Mr. Siegel once called "a four-letter word, ...GRAB."

Two Kinds of Feeling Then and Now

So while many Americans, as the Regents guide puts it, "sympathized with the Cuban revolution and were appalled by the (cruel) tactics of the Spanish," a different kind of feeling was had by those whom the guide describes as "U.S. business interests." They felt that a US war with Spain, seemingly to help the suffering Cubans, would get the support of the American people, and would be a way to grab the wealth of Cuba and other lands held by Spain. Respect and contempt, feeling for humanity and ruthless mercenary selfishness, were in a whirl as the spring of 1898 came to America.

In autumn 2001, is a similar combination of purposes around? Respect for the world and people is certainly in the desire of Americans to stop the Al Qaeda terrorists and have our nation safe. Meanwhile, as in 1898 -- is there any feeling in various persons that the present situation provides a wonderful opportunity: the opportunity to ensure that the earth and its people exist to supply money for US companies, and that any impediment to the profit system can be eradicated with American weapons?

I want to be clear: the Taliban and Al Qaeda are some of the filthiest brutes in history, and should be rendered ineffectual. But just as in 1898 "helping the Cuban people" came to mean, as I'll soon describe, subjugating them and grabbing Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines -- is there the following feeling in various quarters now: "The American people are so het up and so worried, they'll let us do anything. All we have to do is say, There's a danger here, or here, or here, and they'll be for us invading anyplace, bombing anyone. All we have to do is say, It's to stop terrorists, and they'll let us take away any Constitutional guarantees we want!" Is there a whirl between a desire in Americans for honest, kind defense, and some people's desire to subjugate the world to their wishes, particularly wishes for profit?

Let us take Iraq. Our gigantic bombing of that nation ten years ago, our frequent bombing ever since, and the embargo we imposed, have wrecked the country's infrastructure and brought disease and agonizing death to hundreds of thousands of children.

Politicians and press in recent weeks have been campaigning to have us invade Iraq and use even more massive force against that nation so as to topple its government. I am certainly not praising Saddam Hussein. However, the terrorists who attacked us are being financed not by Iraq but, we know, by prominent citizens of our "ally" Saudi Arabia -- which we have no intention of invading or even severely criticizing. (Saudi Arabia is a dictatorship, hated by its citizens, in which women are treated as subhuman.)

Different from Safety

Under the guise of making Americans safe, do various persons want to use war to achieve something that is not the same as safety -- which in fact is opposed to safety? One aspect of that something is to make sure the world's oil is possessed in a way that financially benefits the owners of US companies. Is that the real reason for wanting to grind Iraq to the earth, while we consider some of the most abusive nations of this globe our buddies?

In the December 1 New York Times, the US Deputy Secretary of State is quoted as saying: "If anyone ... can find the evidence of an Al Qaeda connection with Saddam Hussein, no one in this administration would be disappointed at all." That statement is indicative of a purpose: there is no evidence of such a connection, but the Deputy Secretary wants Iraq to be connected with Al Qaeda so he and his colleagues can go at that country any way they please. As is known in barrooms: a person can hope some guy insulted him who really didn't, and he'll even make up the "evidence," so he can punch the guy in the nose.

Meanwhile, America's treatment of Iraq these ten years has been a reason why millions of Muslims and Arabs see the United States as a cruel, monumental bully. If we do more to that tormented land, kill more Iraqis, millions of Muslims and Arabs will be even more furious at us. Millions of people who are not terrorists will -- wrongly -- sympathize some with the horrific actions of Al Qaeda, for they will feel we deserve to be punished. To batter Iraq is to create support for the very people we want to undo. It would endanger not only a trembling child near the Euphrates, but Americans near the Hudson, the Mississippi, the Potomac, and San Francisco Bay.

The Press and Jingoism

The Regents guide tells New York students that one of the "Immediate Causes of the (Spanish-American) War" was "yellow journalism." It says the press was stirring up in the American people "jingoism -- an aggressive, threatening patriotism." The press 103 years ago wanted war, saw it as a chance to make money, to have Americans avidly read newspapers.

The news media of now are also working to have the American people fervently pro-war. They're not just after more readers or viewers. The press and networks are owned by big corporations, like White Westinghouse and GE, which want the whole world turned into a means for US corporate profitability -- want, at least, anything interfering with those profits to be crushed.

And a nation can welcome "war fever," because people want to feel powerful and sure without having to think. That was so in 1898.

In February 1898, in Havana harbor, the US battleship Maine exploded and sank. 268 men died.

The cause of the explosion was never ascertained. But the Spanish were blamed. Encouraged by press and politicians, Americans' war fever mounted. The Regents guide states: "In April 1898, despite Spain's agreement to an armistice with Cuba, McKinley asked Congress to declare war" (p. 162).

Ever so much war has been waged in behalf of profit --in behalf of using earth and humanity with contempt, for some individuals' financial gain. Through the Spanish-American War, supposedly to aid the Cuban people, we grabbed Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines. Cuba became independent in name only. Occupied by US troops, she was forced to adopt into her constitution the infamous Platt Amendment, which turned her into a virtual US protectorate, subject to the desires of her big neighbor and its "business interests." Soon most of the resources of Cuba -- sugar, minerals, tobacco, railroads -- were owned by US companies, like United Fruit and American Tobacco.

When the Philippines tried to become independent, the U.S. put down the attempt in the most savage way. Didn't the wealth of those islands too -- with their coffee, rice, sugar, tobacco, lumber -- belong in the hands of American companies?

We are with those two fighting purposes in the human self: respect and contempt. Many Americans who had thought the 1898 war was to help an oppressed people, came to feel they had been duped, or that some beginning just cause had been exploited horribly. One of those Americans was Mark Twain. He wrote about our dealing with the Filipinos:

"We have ... destroyed their fields; burned their villages, and turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors ... I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning... (from) the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle, and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies."*

We are not in 1898, and there was not then an Al Qaeda, which had attacked our land and people and deserved to be demolished. We should be protected. But Americans need to ask: under cover of protecting us, can things be done that don't stand for the true America at all?

Part of real patriotism now is for Americans to say: We want to be safe -- and we want to be just. As we show we won't let anyone hurt us, we also want to be exact: we want to think about people everywhere with depth and honesty. That's not only just -- it's the one way for us to be safe. And it's the way to be true to our Declaration of Independence, our beautiful earth, a baby being born in America today.

Two Poems Fair to America

It is an honor to reprint here two short poems by Eli Siegel from his Hail, American Development (Definition Press, 1968). The first concerns another war, the American Civil War. Mr. Siegel wrote it in 1967, and we include part of his note to it in Hail, American Development. The second poem was written in 1961; and with it too is Mr. Siegel's note.

No scholar loved America more than Eli Siegel did; no one understood her history better. He was America's, and humanity's, greatest critic and friend. In these clear poems with their deep music -- history and ethics, earth and ethics join.

Two Poems by Eli Siegel

On American Boys Dying in 1863 in Virginia, and Later Elsewhere

The uniform is gray
Of bodies lying still.
The battle of that day
Is Chancellorsville.
Americans lie dead
An evening of May.
It hasn't yet been said
They all were right that day.
Author's note: Some Americans, this poem says, must have been wrong at Chancellorsville, for only Americans fought there. This deeply questions the statement: America is fighting -- this is all we need to know. How Americans disagreed with Americans in May 1863! The quatrains of the poem cannot conceal this at all.
The Waving of the Grain
In summer, the waving of the grain
In the western United States,
Is a sight, tinged with economics,
And prevailing for acres, miles.
Author's note: This summer grain will wave again -- much of it tall -- in the United States. However beautiful wheat, corn, barley are, they are commodities. The sun is concerned with them, but so is the Stock Exchange or a Board of Trade. Labor and machinery are concerned also with the proud grain, bending and rising at various heights in United States fields. The western United States has most of the tallest grain: acres, miles, many of them, have grain, waving, dominant in them. Grain prevails in millions of square feet of western land beyond the Mississippi. The economics and the beauty are inseparable there. These should be in the best possible junction with each other and indivisibility about each other.

*Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography, chap. 220; NY Herald, 30 Dec. 1900.

Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

1.The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.

2.The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.

3.All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

This article originally appeared in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, a weekly international periodical published by the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, a not-for-profit educational foundation in New York City. Ellen Reiss, editor of The Right Of, is the Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Aesthetic Realism, and teaches the professional classes for Consultants and Associates at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation. She is also a critic, poet, and teacher of the Aesthetic Realism Explanation of Poetry. For information, call (212) 777-4490.
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