Monday, May 14, 2012

Fun with Free Domain Books Vol 1: Walter Hines Page, shooting men into self-government!

He made no effort to conceal his violently pro-English
attitude. He even arrogated to himself, public servant
though he was, the right to pass upon the legitimacy
of American neutrality.  
C. Harley Grattan, "The Walter Hines Page Legend"

The great tide of the world will, by reason of the war,
now flow toward democracy- at present, alas! a tide of 
blood. For a century democracies and Liberal govern- 
ments have kept themselves too much isolated, trusting 
prematurely and too simply to international law and
treaties and Hague conventions. 
 Walter Hines Page, letter to President Wilson, Nov 24, 1916

Resources like Google Books, Project Gutenberg, Hathi Trust, and have changed the way the public utilizes older books and library research, further democratizing the inquiry into knowledge. While there will always be obscure materials, particularly archival materials, that will never be digitized, or not digitized for decades, the easy accessibility of materials from the 19th and early 20th centuries should encourage the greater use of primary materials instead of secondary interpretations or edited abstracts. 

Having such readily available access to older materials can teach you that, sadly, sometimes there is nothing new under the sun and nations do not learn from prior mistakes. I learned this by perusing the 3 volume collection of letters by Walter Hines Page. The volumes are available on since they were published before the Mickey Mouse Protection Act (I shit you not about the name) 1923 copyright cutoff date. Page's letters are the sort of stuff that makes you grind your teeth, scream "Page, you idiot" at the computer monitor, and feel really angry at a schmuck who died more than 9 decades ago. Basically, it's the reaction many a non-interventionist has when reading contemporary materials online; just change the author's name to bring it up to date.

Perhaps one might describe the history of 20th-Century American Exceptionalism and Foreign Policy as a series of grandiose fractals, that often fail their promise. Reading a letter, dated Nov 24, 1916, from Walter Hines Page to President Wilson was like perusing the inane scribblings that litter GOP and Democrat websites like so many peacock excremental offerings. Anyone who has seen the amount of poop coverage a single peacock is capable of producing will get my metaphor. Maybe our peacock had diarrhea; I'm not sure.

Walter Hines Page is one of those names that is stuffed somewhere in the back of your head. You know he did something, but you aren't sure if it involved ketchup or books about belles, kindly mammies, Nordic gallants and plantations. Walter Page's fellow Southerner, contemporary, and maybe relative or not (I could find no evidence linking them), was Thomas Nelson Page, adding to the confusion.

Thomas Nelson Page was the guy to go to for Moonlight and Magnolias. He was everything Mark Twain wasn't, and it's a good thing he died before Faulkner or Erskine Caldwell got famous. He might have challenged them to a duel for their abominations. Nobody would have been hurt, mind, if any of those desperadoes fought it out, but the lack of decent fighting skills would have been embarrassing for all concerned. TNP also worked for Woodrow Wilson as an ambassador. If you are not a Millennial, you probably encountered his "Marse Chan'" in American lit. Depending on your age and location, the material was taken seriously or was regarded with horror by your hippie Lit teacher. Be warned, though, if you read Marse Chan', you might cry big ole syrupy tears that'll gwine doan your face like 'lasses. Walter was also maudlin, he just wasn't maudlin like Thomas.

Walter Hines Page (1855-1918), journalist, cultural critic, and diplomat was a famous New South Progressive. Page is also credited with, along with the Dulles brothers' Anglophile Uncle Bob, he of the tweed and British elocution lessons, as being influential in getting the US to enter WW1 on the Allied side. Page was an Anglophile, or to quote H.L. Mencken, "the most maudlin Anglomaniac ever heard of."  

Page was certainly grandiose, and his letters show that his humor was of the non-ironic, non-original, campy and "safe" sort that people of action tend to prefer. George Jean Nathan captured Page's very American, very Progressive prose and grandiosity admirably when he wrote:

It is an outstanding mark of the democratic man that he puts trust in and believes not serious and profound ideas but rather hollow and superficial ideas seriously and profoundly expressed. It is not the content but the manner of articulation that wooes [sic] and fetches him. This is a secret sufficiently known, of course, to professors of the public emotion, and by its sedulous exercise they profit and prevail in the democratic community. It is as impossible to imagine the flourishing of a Disraeli in a democracy as it is to imagine a democracy without a Walter Hines Page.

This hasn't changed too much. Many Americans, even those of a self-depreciating, "laid back" humorous character, manifested so well by George W. Bush's political cowboy persona, can't deal with the sort of caustic, socially conscious, and profound wit of Mencken and his ilk. If they do accept it, it is only after it has been suitably tamed.

If you think Page is being unfairly treated, by all means peruse his materials. What you'll encounter is a sprightly personality, thoroughly infatuated with the British and flippant towards his fellow Americans and other poor souls trying to stop the Europeans from butchering each other. Page called those folks cranks, his spiritual descendants would call the same people crackpots.

The cranks were annoying, but minor obstacles to the world Page envisioned, a world dominated by the Anglo-Saxon nations, who, as allies, could impose their will on everyone (Vol 1, pg. 283):

Anything we'd say would go, whether we should say, "Come in out of the wet," or "Disarm." That might be the beginning of a real world-alliance and union to accomplish certain large results- disarmament, for instance, or arbitration- dozens of good things.  Of course, we'd have to draw and quarter the O'Gormans. But that ought to be done anyhow in the general interest of good sense in the world. We could force any nation into this "trust" that we wanted in it. [bold mine]

Dang those pesky Irish, holding up Page's plans for the world and the dozens of good things he wanted to be accomplished!

Page was remarkably prescient, his command to "come in out of the wet" is a basic part of the coercive international relation theory that informs contemporary US thought. Everyone must be a "responsible member" of the "international community." And listen up paleoconservatives, Page is generations before the rise of Jewish neoconservatives or Feminist politicians and bureaucrats, and Page was a white Southerner. As Paul Gottfried has written, an interventionist, messianic impulse is firmly grounded in Anglo-Saxon Protestantism.

If Page were alive today, he'd be all over Syria, R2P, and global inter-connectedness, totally Lindsay Graham style. In a manner reminiscent of contemporary American politicians and pundits, Page expressed his willingness to invade nations repeatedly to make sure they learned to practice democracy. Page, recounting a conversation with Sir Edward Grey, stated: (Vol 3, pg. 188):

The United States will be here two hundred years and it can continue to shoot men for that little space till they learn to vote and to rule themselves. I have never seen him laugh so heartily. Shooting men into self-government! [bold mine]

And the US is still doing it, and will continue to shoot men into self-government as long as it is profitable and politically advantageous. Another example of Page's puerile idiocy and lack of wit is his letter (Vol. 1, pgs. 13-14) to Edward M. House, or simply "House" as "Page" called him:

 Never mind about Bryan. Send him over here if you wish to get rid of him. He'll cut no more figure than a tar-baby at a Negro camp-meeting. If he had come while he was Secretary, I should have jumped off London Bridge and the country would have had one ambassador less [blogger note- if only!]. But I shall enjoy him now. You see some peace crank from the United States comes along every week- some crank or some gang of cranks. There've [sic] been two this week. Ever since the Daughters of the Dove of Peace met at The Hague, the game has become popular in America; and I haven't yet heard that a single one has been shot- so far. I think that some of them are likely soon to be hanged, however, because there are signs that they may come also from Germany. The same crowd that supplies money to buy labour-leaders and the press and to blow up factories in the United States keeps a good supply of peace-liars on tap. It'll be fun to watch Bryan perform and never suspect that anybody is lying to him or laughing at him; and he'll go home convinced that he's done the job and he'll let loose doves all over the land till they are as thick as English sparrows. Not even the President could teach him anything permanently. He can do no harm on this side of the world. It's only your side that's in any possible danger; and, if I read the signs right, there's a diminishing danger there. No, there's never yet come a moment when there was the slightest chance of peace. Did the Emperor not say last year that peace would come in October, and again this year in October? Since he said it, how can it come?

So a man trying to stop a war was a danger? Page was capable of this paradox because of his one-sided affinity with the British and demonization of the Germans. Page was far from being the objective, dispassionate observer his post and oath demanded. Page rationalized his abandonment of objectivity with grandiose schemes of Anglo-American imperial partnerships, with the US as equal partner (Vol. 2, 105-106). Just as with his idea of a coercive "trust" of nations, dominated by Anglophone countries, Page was prescient, but at what cost, and American hegemony was only achieved after WW2. So were two world wars and the rise of the USSR worth the price of Anglo-Saxon global hegemony?

To return to the letter, and to stress its contemporary appeal, let's make sure we have all the Fox and Friends bases covered: inane banter, hints that naive, ludicrous cranks (crackpots in today-speak) and pacifists have connections with unsavory foreigners, and a rude dismissal of persons of greater character and talent than the commentator who might threaten a lovely war. Henry Ford, despite his accomplishments, was just another crank to Page (Vol. 1, pg. 110) 

You might be expecting the further details to involve a discussion of the Jonas brothers, or whatever dreamy British gentleman Page had a crush on, but keep in mind this letter was written by a man around 60 years of age. The rest of the letter is more of the same, along with Page's theory of history. It was a "dark time" according to Page, but he still had "fun."

Certainly, the Germans did have domestic operatives at work in the US. But it was not a foregone conclusion that the US had to engage in hostilities with the Germans. And to cast aspersions on peace-makers, and belittle statesmen like William Jennings Bryan, was a sign of what a war-mongering little weasel Page was. Bryan was certainly on the wrong side at the Scopes Trial, but it is unfortunate that final incident overshadows his career. Particularly, in the run up to America's entry to WW1, Bryan was on the side of the angels.

As always, other people suffer when "big ideas" idiots filled with their own sense of self-importance wield too much power. Let's recall the century of needless suffering brought on by what Page thought was going to be a glorious war in the furtherance of Democracy. Feeling a little geopolitical deja vu?

For a contemporary, and deservedly unkind, analysis of Page's somewhat polished, but still Ransy Sniffle like role in egging the US to war, see C. Hartley Grattan's "The Walter Hines Page Legend" from the American Mercury, available on Google Books.  Perhaps this post wasn't objective, but primary sources are there to determine for yourself. In any event, in a nation dominated by the smug and self-righteous, who continually lead us into useless wars, prudish relativism is not an option. Page was evil, whatever his intentions.

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