American Exceptionalism and the Myth of the Frontiers – 11: Atrocity Literature as a Genre

Author: Rajiv Malhotra.

In each instance ( encounters with the Internal Frontier as well as External Frontier) there was extensive literature developed and disseminated about the atrocities committed by the “savage” cultures. More generally, the literature showed them to have frontier-like attributes of chaos, lack of morality, lack of aesthetics, and certainly the lack of rationality that was required to be civilized. In each case such literature got deployed to argue in favor of invasions and containment of those people, often with claims that it would be in their own best interests. One cannot help being reminded of the way Iraq was instantly demonized by the media, including CNN and other liberal media, the moment the U.S. authorities started to debate the merits of waging war.22 Pop media images served as the fifth column to support the case for invasion. A little later, the noble and oppressed Iraqi people, yearning to breathe free, were demonized when they failed to greet the American invaders with enough enthusiasm. Current debates about the future course of the United States in Iraq make heavy use of both sets of myth. 

Each of these historical encounters was prolonged, intense and exceptionally violent. What is particularly relevant to note is the critical role of popular and academic literature as weaponry in the form of denigration and demonology of the other culture in every single encounter. Once a given people could be deemed “dangerous savages” then it was considered okay and even mandatory to wage “savage war” against them, because this war was for Order against Chaos. Both the academy and media dished out images of “savagery” about the non-White cultures that America encountered. The systematic approach was repeated and the process became more sophisticated each time. 

As a result of America’s superiority complex, there has developed a genre of American literature that is known as “atrocity literature.” Over the past four centuries a corpus of academic and fictional writings that have been adapted into Broadway plays and Hollywood movies have portrayed American encounters with other cultures—such as Native Americans, Blacks, Mexicans, Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Haitians, Cubans, Vietnamese, and now Muslims—reinforcing the idea that the rest of the world is inferior to America and must be won over to its ways for their own good, no less. Only then can John Wayne fade peaceably into the sunset on his horse. 

“Atrocity literature” was integral to portraying other cultures’ strangeness and exotica by emphasizing the dangers it posed. The phenomenon may be briefly stated as follows: 

The mythmaking consisted of painting a vivid picture of the “other” as being “dangerously savage”—a people who were a threat to innocent God-fearing Christian folks. The imagery sometimes suggested that the biblical Eden (now home to Americans) was being violated and threatened by evil savages from the Frontier—the collective rest of the non-Christian, uncivilized world. Often this image of the “savage” was created by making associations. They were typically depicted in scenes of “idol worshipping” replete with grotesque and sundry divinities, as opposed to the one true God of the Christian Americans. These “others” were packaged to appear “primitive”—lacking in morals and ethics, “prone to violence,” whatever it would take to make them appear monstrous and threatening. This trio—lack of aesthetics, lack of morality, and lack of rationality—became a fixture that is found over and over again in “atrocity literature.” 

Historians have described how narratives about dangerous non- westerners were formulated to incite support for violence against any- one who could be portrayed as “savages.” When conflicts erupted, the good Americans were depicted as responding legitimately and dutifully to the actions of “savages.” Thus American brutalities were depicted as preemptive strikes against potentially threatening “savages” and seen as justified and reasonable measures. 

● The “savage” cultures were also shown to victimize their own women and children hence making the violent civilizing mission of the Americans seem to be in the best interest of the “savage” societies at large. 

● This kind of “atrocity literature” became a major genre that gave intellectual sustenance to the doctrine of America’s Manifest Destiny. In turn, Manifest Destiny fed even more of such literature. 

● This genre thrives on half-truths, on selecting items from here and there, and stitching themes together into a narrative that then plays on the readers’ psyche with preconceived stereotypes. The literature seeks to create a sense of heightened urgency in dealing with “savagery.” 

● The other cultures portrayed in this way may or may not have committed the alleged atrocities attributed to them. The truth, in all probability, is not one-sided. Typically, the bad behavior on the other side is exaggerated and sensationalized in order to make an ideological point, not to unveil the truth. 

● Americans are spared blame for their violent actions which are portrayed as being just and unavoidable—a “necessary evil” when dealing with an uncivilized and threatening world. 

● Once established in the popular mind, “atrocity literature” was often used to justify the harsh subjugation of the people in the Frontier because they did not deserve to be treated like “civilized” people. In many instances this led to genocide (Native Americans) or large-scale violence (the Vietnam War). 

● These mechanisms are important to study because they are not only in the past. 

Many scholars have naively participated in producing such “atrocity literature” either without realizing it, or without taking into consideration how the material would eventually be used. For example, Professor Dunning at Columbia University produced a large quantity of such “atrocity literature” aimed at Blacks in the early twentieth century. His writings helped justify the Ku Klux Klan’s ideology and buttressed White racial attitudes toward Blacks as inferior. These depictions would not get corrected until the civil rights movement and social reforms of the 1960s. 

Once a target culture was branded and marked in this way, it became the recipient of all sorts of untoward allegations. It became impossible for the leaders of any such branded culture to try to defend themselves against the false charges and depictions.

Anyone engaged in this criticism of America would be immediately put on to the list of suspected “dangerous savages” and stigmatized. The normal rules of providing evidence and the right to fair representation would be superseded by the swarm of negative allegations. The means justified the ends: Civilization had to be saved at any cost, and the applications of increasing amounts of violence proved effective; in fact, the more the better

To be continued …

Rajiv Malhotra is an Indian American researcher, author, speaker, thinker and public intellectual on contemporary issues as they relate to civilization, cross-cultural encounters, spirituality, and science.  He studied Physics at St. Stephens College in Delhi and did his post-graduate education in Physics, View More

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