In 1850, the American Republic takes a wrong turn

By J.S. Porter

Evil is a much overworked word in the Bush White house. An ex-cheerleader and one in whom a tiny vocabulary resides, Dubya wields the word like a sorcerer casting spells. Iraq is evil. Iran is evil. North Korea is evil. China is sometimes evil, especially when she shoots down American spy planes.

The corollary to Bush’s theorem of evil is: America is good, very good. Uncle Sam is the genuine article. He is pure, he is innocent, he intends good in the world. He’s a good man in a house of sin. His job is to get rid of the sin, or, if pushed, the house.

No doubt George Dubya went to Sunday school. Somehow he missed the lesson about taking the big speck out of your own eye before you attempt to take the little speck out of your brother’s eye.

Evil, in Dubya’s simplistic mind, is the Other. Someone, or some country, that doesn’t seem to understand that what’s good for America is good for the world. And what’s good for America is business, the unimpeded flow of profit for American corporations. Saddam Hussein, a nasty man, was a perfectly decent chap until he took over the Kuwaiti oilfields. That was his real crime. He didn’t know his place in the new world order — and still doesn’t. Apparently, he continues to threaten the information-military complex of the U.S.A.

When did the dream of the American Republic take a wrong turn? When did she fail to recogonize her own shadow and project it onto the world? My guess is 1850, the year Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter, or, if you prefer, 1851, the year of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

A few years earlier, Ralph Waldo Emerson had written his sunny essays and a few years later his protege, Walt Whitman, was to write his all-sun-and-no-shadow poems, Leaves of Grass. Whitman & Emerson belong to one New England tradition. Hawthorne & Melville belong to another.

For Emerson and Whitman, evil consists of the inadequacy of the perceiver to perceive the whole picture of the universe. Evil is partial sight, incomplete thought, mistaking the part for the whole. If you see all, you see that evil is just a temporary blip on the screen of unlimited goodness and progress.

Melville and Hawthorne, from that other New England tradition, believed that evil was bred deep in the human bone. It was part of what Philip Roth calls “the human stain.” It wasn’t temporary; it was permanent. It wasn’t a part; it was a whole. What made evil more destructive than it would be otherwise was if the person, or the nation, didn’t struggle with it within himself but projected it onto someone else.

In the battle of the books — sunny Emerson versus dark Hawthorne — guess which book won? The Scarlet Letter sold modestly. Emerson’s essays sold spectacularly. It’s easy to see what New England tradition George Dubya and the Texas oilmen come from. To Emerson’s optimism, his Trancendentalism, Dubya and the American Republic since 1850 have added a few wrinkles of their own.

Evil is the other guy. Never oneself. Evil is out there. Never in here. As in Hawthrone’s Scarlet Letter where Hester Prynne wears a capital A for adultery emblazoned on her dress so that her community can walk around pure and unsullied, the world’s bad guys have a hidden capital E on their foreheads in order that Americans can be free from self-examination.

If you externalize evil, you never have to face it within yourself. If you don’t own up to your shadow — that nest of personal vipers you’d sooner not look at — you can slough it off on somebody else and they can be stuck with the burden. Predictably, one of America’s great contributions to world civilization is the American Standard flush toilet. Mr. Clean is more than the man in white in a TV commercial. He’s one of America’s central icons. Good ol’ American boys don’t like looking at their own dirt; they flush or scrub it away.

Hawthorne and Melville knew better. In Hawthorne, a town and a minister fall apart because of not owning up to what is theirs. In Melville, Captain Ahab ends up killing himself and all but one of his crew by a senseless pursuit of a whale. The whale for Ahab is the embodiment of evil and must be stamped out at any price. His little boat is the world on water, full of brown and black faces, and in his mad pursuit to clense the world of evil he does to the crew what America history has in the past done to non-whites: thrown them overboard.

I sometimes wonder what American foreign policy would be like now if, in 1850, America had turned towards Hawthorne instead of Emerson. Suppose America had started to look at its own dirt instead of scattering it on the rest of the world.


J.S. Porter teaches literature at Mohawk College and hte history of the essay in McMaster University’s writers’ certificate program.

  • Originally printed in The Hamilton Spectator, Wednesday, April 10, 2002.

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