blogenlust
1.30.2005

Civilized vs Uncivilized: 100 Years Later


Tom Wolfe has an interesting op-ed in Sunday's Times, in which he compares President Bush's second Inaugural Address to Teddy Roosevelt's Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. What's interesting to Wolfe is that nobody at the Council on Foreign Relations was able to connect President Bush's:
"The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands",
with President Roosevelt's:
"We would interfere with them only in the last resort, and then only if it became evident that their inability or unwillingness to do justice at home and abroad had violated the rights of the United States or had invited foreign aggression to the detriment of the entire body of American nations."
After reading both speeches, I think Wolfe is correct to draw this analogy. However, I'm surprised and disappointed at what he chose to leave out of the comparison. The underlying theme of TR's corollary is that the people of the United States (and it's Anglo-Saxon culture) are more civilized and superior to peoples that are not as politically or culturally advanced. For instance:
"Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may lead the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power."
It can basically be boiled down to race, and this becomes more clear when you undersand that TR was talking about expanding America's sphere of influence into the Far East. In this sense, Roosevelt was framing America's growing Imperialism in a charitable way-- the "civilized" Americans would be helping their "uncivilized" brethern. I can't help but detect a similar trace of cultural arrogance in Bush's foreign policy, whose ideological framework was laid out in the second Inaugural. The way Bush talks to the Middle East about bringing freedom and democracy to that region is not unlike Roosevelt's way of talking to the people of the Far East. In fact, the rhetoric of freedom is used to gift wrap the War on Terrorism in much the same way that helping the uncivilized was used to garnish American Imperialism. One hundred years later we realize that notions of cultural superiority should have no role in dictating our foreign policy (didn't the whole world say, "Never Again!" at Auschwitz this week?). I'm disappointed that Wolfe could write such an endearing piece comparing TR's rhetoric with W's without noting their most abhorrent similarities.