Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Imperial Historicism and American Military Rule in the Philippines' Muslim South

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Imperial Historicism and American Military Rule in the Philippines' Muslim South

Article excerpt

Introduction

When American imperialists seized the Philippines at the dawning of the twentieth century, their guiding philosophy was predicated upon broadly conceived notions of cultural and political historicism. The unwavering self-assurance required to rule over millions of unfamiliar imperial subjects derived its potency from an unquestioned panoptic view of history. This concept of 'transcendent progress', which John Schrecker so aptly described, 'asserted that the west was freeing itself from history, transcending it, and was entering an entirely new stage of human development, one that would be totally unencumbered by the problems and evils of the past'. (1) From this elevated position of ahistorical modernity, western societies confidently assessed the aggregate of world history and promptly declared non-western cultures to be relics 'of a discredited past'. (2) The inconsistency, however, in this transcendent narrative was that the modern west was still surrounded by a great number of 'discredited' societies, and therefore, was still a participant in the archaic ebb and flow of transitional histories. It is precisely this tension and anxiety that underpinned the imperial projects of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As Dipesh Chakrabarty observed, 'historicism enabled European [and American] domination of the world in the nineteenth century' by positing 'historical time as a measure of the cultural distance (at least in institutional development) that was assumed to exist between the West and the non-West. In the colonies, it legitimated the ideas of civilization'. (3)

From an American perspective, this bifurcation of the world into modern and non-modern spheres would find its absolution in the inevitable and consuming march of modernity and history itself. Take for example David Prescott Barrows' (4) declaration concerning the inevitability of an all-inclusive and homogenising modern historical narrative. 'History', he wrote, 'which up to modern times is the story of the white man has now become the record of the fortunes of all races. For good or ill, all mankind has been drawn together into a common life and movement.' (5) Barrows' comment reveals a number of interesting insights indicative of the United States' larger imperial philosophy. Though he clearly articulates a racially exclusive sense of history, Barrows simultaneously acknowledges the homogenising force of modern history, which is certain to incorporate the world's disparate populations while blurring or even extinguishing former notions of difference upholding structures of cultural and historical segregation. Barrows' statement also reveals an acknowledged position of privilege at the 'end' (or perhaps forefront) of history. His historicist concept of nonwestern societies is both perceived and interpreted from the supposedly instantaneous motionlessness of his present, and is infused with a compelling teleology of modernity.

Similar rhetoric pervades much of the discourse concerning America's colonial legitimacy in the Philippines. Indeed, such sentiments are enshrined in President McKinley's 'Benevolent Assimilation Proclamation', which declared that the post-Enlightenment universals of 'individual rights and liberties' were the 'heritage of free peoples' regardless of race or colour. (6) These 'fundamental modern ideas', wrote another colonial official, 'are not merely American or English, but are common to the modern civilized world'. (7) The philosophical acrobatics of declaring the inevitability of universal principles while carefully maintaining racially exclusive access to these ideals is one of the most interesting and telling aspects of American imperialism.

While such radical historical realisations might have given cause to cultural insecurities and reactionary isolationism (and indeed they did in many well-known xenophobic and racist episodes in American history), American imperialists responded overwhelmingly with an optimistic and steadfastly confident crusading spirit. …

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