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"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

January 11, 2006

Come Over And Help Us!

You may have noticed I enjoy tracing weird throughlines in American history...certain alarming attitudes and even specific words that keep popping up over and over again, long after you think we'd driven a stake through their dark hearts. It's deeply and truly creepy. As William Faulkner famously said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Here's a relevant example. In George W. Bush biggest pre-war speech about Iraq and democracy, he explained:

America's interests in security, and America's belief in liberty, both lead in the same direction: to a free and peaceful Iraq...

[Iraqis'] lives and their freedom matter little to Saddam Hussein—but Iraqi lives and freedom matter greatly to us...

If we must use force, the United States and our coalition stand ready to help the citizens of a liberated Iraq.

For most Americans, this sounded pretty good. We're just being helpful! When you put it like that, we're almost obligated to invade!

It might have been useful if we'd remembered the first Great Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was part of the charter granted to British settlers in 1629 by Charles I. This was where America began—with Pilgrims, Thanksgiving, etc.

Now, look closely. Can you tell what the American Indian on the seal is saying?

That's right! He's asking the settlers to "come over and help us."

The settlers, of course, did help the be dead.

This formula recurs over and over again throughout American history. We go somewhere because we HAVE TO HELP PEOPLE. Then they all somehow—perhaps because of a 400-year streak of bad luck on our part?—end up dead. In 1966, the editor of U.S. News and World Report wrote:

What the United States is doing in Vietnam is the most significant example of philanthropy extended by one people to another that we have witessed in our times.

Now, none of this necessarily means exactly the same thing is happening in Iraq. Maybe this time we really are going to help! You never know!

But probably not. One of the (two) books on Bush's current reading list is Imperial Grunts by Robert Kaplan.

Kaplan's book explains that a) the War on Terror is very similar to America's Indian Wars; b) the WoT is "really about taming the frontier"; and c) most of the earth is now "Injun country."

Look at all those people out there saying, "come over and help us." How can we possibly refuse?

COMING UP: Previous appearances in U.S. history of "shock and awe."

Posted at January 11, 2006 04:28 PM | TrackBack

Is there any response to the information you offer in this post other than, "OY VEY!"??

Posted by: mk at January 12, 2006 01:16 AM

Well, that's why they hate us so. We're sooooo good. Doin' the Lord's work here on earth and the heathens hate us for it.
Or, as the academicians put, it's that good old American exceptionalism.
Except maybe in Trenton, NJ, Scranton, PA, Flint, MI, Elmira, NY...

Posted by: donescobar at January 12, 2006 08:34 AM

Love your blog. Glad to see Tom Tomorrow let you into the This Modern World Club. Hopefully it'll expand your readership, because your writings are hilarious and insightful.

Posted by: Bret at January 12, 2006 08:52 AM

Better read than dead -

Posted by: Jesus B. Ochoa at January 12, 2006 12:56 PM

Thought for sure that was a photoshop job, so I checked out the MA sec'y of state site, and sure enough -- "Come over and help us". A later seal had the motto "We seek peace by the sword, but only peace under liberty". Nothing is new.

Posted by: davedave at January 12, 2006 02:28 PM

So, we're like the McDonald's of liberatin' people, so we should add it to our flag, under the Stars, maybe: "500 Million Liberated*", or whatever the number is.

*liberated to death, actually

Posted by: Jeff (no, the other one) at January 12, 2006 02:43 PM

A couple of years ago, when beheadings were popular in Iraq I did a little research into King Philip's War in New England in the late 1600's. Were we truly facing an enemy "unlike any we've ever known?" Hardly. Those early Colonists faced what we call "terrorism" every day.

But what really struck me was the fact that the very FIRST beheading was carried out by Miles Standish and his Pilgrims in early 1623. To "strike terror in the hearts of the Indians," Chief Wittuwamet's severed head was "placed on the battlements of their block-house."

Of course, we were just trying to help! (-;

Posted by: kenny at January 12, 2006 02:48 PM

Re: writerly joke

It IS one. Bertolt Brecht:
"Erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral."

Translates to something like: "First a full stomach, then morality (or ethics)."

Posted by: donescobar at January 12, 2006 04:33 PM

I just read your first post at TMW. Nicely done. I think I love you. Too soon to say that?

"Come Help us?" I mean sweet lord, what were they thinking? I'm gonna have to pick up "Lies My Teacher Told Me." I think.

I like this post. It reminds me of Mars Attacks. Little green men running around with the translator saying, "Don't run, we are your friends!" as everything around is shot to pieces and people run screaming.

Posted by: hbot3000 at January 12, 2006 05:37 PM

Just to add to your historical instances... I believe a large part of justification for the Spanish-American War and the subsequent massacres in the Philipines of those opposing the US was to help our "little brown brothers."

We're always being helpful!

Posted by: Peter at January 12, 2006 06:00 PM

Is anyone here going to see "The New World"? That may be the only Pocahontas/Native American picture to get it right.

Posted by: En Ming Hee at January 12, 2006 08:58 PM

Historical analogies are most instructive when they are most accurate. So a couple of corrections/addendums.

part of the charter granted to British settlers in 1629 by Charles I. This was where America began — with Pilgrims, Thanksgiving, etc.

The charter in question, as you note, was for MassBay, i.e., Boston. The patent (not charter) for Plymouth - the place of the "Pilgrims, Thanksgiving, etc." - was issued by the Council for New England eight years earlier. They were two separate settlements, established by two separate groups, backed by two different (albeit partly overlapping) sets of investors, and even of two different minds about religious "reform." The "Puritans" of Boston wanted to "purify" the Church of England while the "separatists" of Plymouth had left it entirely; the former did not believe in separation of church and state, the latter did.

Ultimately, the much-bigger, much better financed, much better connected, and much more aggressive Boston colony absorbed Plymouth but that wasn't until, if memory serves, the 1670s or 1680s.

On top of all that, the first permanent English settlement - where, in an equally true sense, "American began" - wasn't Boston or Plymouth; it was Jamestown, which predated Plymouth by 13 years.

And Kenny, if by "the FIRST beheading," you mean the first beheading of a native in New England by an English settler, you're right. By virtually any other reading, I have no idea what you mean; by most of them you're wrong.

Some context is relevant here. First, let me give the Reader's Digest version of the tale.

Some natives had become angry at some English settled in the Mass Bay area (not Plymouth) and resolved to attack them. But they were concerned that if they did so, the Plymouth militia would help fellow English. So they tried to organize a conspiracy among all the local natives to attack all the English all at once.

The great sachem Massasoit ("chief" is an Anglo term) fell ill. Plymouth settler Edward Winslow tended to him and helped him recover. Massasoit said that those of Plymouth had thus proved their friendship to him, so he would now prove his friendship to them. He was the one who told them of the conspiracy and he was the one who named Witawamat and others and he "advised us to kill the men of Massachusetts, who were the authors of this intended mischief."

(Remember, too, that this took place a little more than a year after the Narragansetts threatened to make war on Plymouth precisely because they had allied themselves with Massasoit, who they regarded as an enemy.)

Witawamat and five other natives were killed as a result.

Footnote One: While Winslow was with Massasoit, Miles Standish was supposed to lead a trading voyage to the Mass Bay area but had to turn back because of contrary winds. The settlers learned later that Witawamet and the others had planned to kill Standish when he came. It was the second planned assassination of Standish that fell through.

Footnote Two: The minister of Plymouth's leaders, John Robinson, was still in Holland. He wrote to them after hearing of the incident, scolding them by saying something like "it had been better that you had converted some before you killed any."

Second, the severed head business, so often referred to, is wrenched seriously out of context. Yes, his head was publicly displayed and yes the idea was to strike fear into anyone else who might have similar thoughts. But it had nothing to do with his being a native. It had to do with his being considered an "enemy of the State."

Back in Europe, the same fate awaited anyone held guilty of treason or insurrection. In England, the heads were displayed along London Bridge and it was so common that shopkeepers on the bridge were known to say things like "Sure, you can find my place - it's by the fifth skull along the bridge."

Bottom line here is I've long held that what Europeans did to the native peoples of North America was appalling enough to require no embellishments in the retelling.

Posted by: LarryE at January 12, 2006 11:48 PM

I spent most of my work day printing up thousands and thousands of copies of the 'Agent Orange Review' tonight.

Volume 22 issue 1, had a cover date of Oct 2005 (it is the middle of January 2006 as I post this) and wanted to share the aftermath of the Vietnam war with you all.

First of all, the editor of the 'Agent Orange Review' did not proof-read the issue before sending it to the printers.

Second of all, the 'top story' is how 'everyone loved the last issue', half a page on how they got more positive mail about the publication than negative, nothing about Agent Orange and it's effects, just how "great" the publication was, geeez...

"Interesting" paragraphs include (I paraphrase) "being tested (apparantly for the effects of AO) isn't a disease", huh? I read that paragraph for hours, believe me, it makes no sence and that AO really does increase the chances of getting Type II diabetes, like the studies suggested decades before.

Did you know there is a freaking class action lawsuit still pending about Agent Orange, some 30 years later??? sure, and the gov was kind enough to provide web links etc to help you....

The best part of the latest issue of the Agent Orange Review, is the graphic description of the type of industrial-strength acne that Agent Orange can cause. (yes, I am using dry humor thoughout here, or I'd be weeping at the sheer patheticness of it all).

I wonder if there will be a 'gulf-war syndrome/depleted uranium sickness' Review ten years from now?

Posted by: Daz at January 13, 2006 02:02 AM

Larry E, I was familiar with most of that (though I couldn't have given all the details) since I read "Saints and Strangers" about a year ago. Short version--Miles Standish was a jerk, but not all the Plymouth people were. That's true in general.

As for the head on a stake thing, Francis Jennings in his books on bad behavior in colonial America makes a point of saying that the British atrocities in America weren't so different from the way they behaved back in GB. Heathens and traitors and criminals and rebels could expect to be treated badly, just as prisoners of some Indian tribes (notably the Iroquois) could expect the same.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 13, 2006 09:51 AM

MK, I'm thinking maybe you missed my point--mine was that the British behaved badly, both at home and abroad. The Injuns should very much have taken it personally, as should the people back in Great Britain (especially the Irish and the Scots).

Sometimes I wonder what people are thinking--if I say the English behaved badly at home and abroad does that sound like I'm leaping to their defense? Apparently so. Seems like a weird way of looking at things.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 13, 2006 01:39 PM

Donald, sorry. My comment was tongue-in-cheek. I always forget to remember to include some emoticons with dry (British? ha!) humor.

HEre's one:
i'm not sure whether there's a standard definition for it, but for me it now means 'oops!'.

Posted by: mk at January 13, 2006 03:44 PM

I'm sorry too, MK. I'm not sure why I overreacted.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 13, 2006 07:52 PM

hey Mk, the AO Review is a us gov publication,

you can download the entire archive in PDF format (except the one we just printed).

Posted by: Daz at January 14, 2006 12:32 AM

I was hoping to read something interesting but it soon decended into the usual Brit bashing from the Merkins. Well balanced this time; a chip on both shoulders.

I guess that most Merkins have forgotten that it wasn't just the Brits that invaded North America but also the Spanish, the French, the Vikings and even the "Native" Americans wandered over from Asia a few millenia ago but, what the fark, let's indulge in a bit of good old Brit bashing anyway.

Posted by: Eric Arthur Blair at January 14, 2006 12:26 PM

Brit-bashing, Eric? Good lord. Did it occur to you that those of us bashing the British would happily bash the Americans, the Spanish, the French, and every other breed of imperialist? I also said something unkind about the Iroquois, but you probably didn't notice since you only saw that Britain was being bashed. I probably wouldn't put the people who crossed the Bering Strait into the imperialist category, because at that time there weren't any people around to imperialize over. They did nasty things to the megafauna, though, so I'll bash them for that if it'll make you happy.

Brit-bashing came up naturally here, because, you know, those early white Massachusetts residents under discussion here were Brits. But cheer up--most of us here probably recognize that those nasty old British attitudes were eventually transformed into nasty old American attitudes, though I don't doubt for a second they also remained nasty British attitudes back in Britain.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 14, 2006 07:50 PM

Just the fact that this blog and so many like it exists, proves there's still hope for your nation.

'Come over and help us.'


'Thanks for the syphilis and the smallpox and for destroying our culture and erasing our future and enslaving us in penury and everything.'

Those lucky, lucky Iraqis.

'Stay home and leave us alone.'

Posted by: pjr at January 16, 2006 12:29 AM