An American Hero

William James
William James; drawing by David Levine

William James foresaw all aspects of our Iraq war more than a hundred years before it began:

The transformation of native friendliness to execration; the demoralization of our army, from the war office down—forgery decorated, torture whitewashed, massacre condoned; the creation of a chronic anarchy…the deliberate reinflaming on our part of ancient tribal animosities…. These things, I say, or things like them, were… clearly foretold.

He was writing in 1903 about the American invasion of the Philippines. James, a philosopher who had been a medical doctor, used his scientific knowledge on a political matter:

In the physiologies which I studied when I was young, the function of incorporating foreign bodies into one’s organism was divided into four stages—prehension, deglutition, digestion and assimilation. We prehended our prey, or took it into our mouth, when President McKinley posted his annexation edict, and insalivated with pious phrases the alternative he offered to our late allies of instant obedience or death.

The morsel thus lubricated, deglutition went on slowly during those three years and more when our army was slaughtering and burning, and famine, fire, disease and depopulation were the new allies we invoked. But if the swallowing took three years, how long ought the process of digestion, that teaching of the Filipinos to be “fit” for rule, that solution of recalcitrant lumps into a smooth “chyle,” with which our civil commission is charged—how long ought that to take? It will take a decade, at least. As for assimilation, that is altogether an affair of the day after tomorrow.1

When in 1896 Theodore Roosevelt, then a commissioner of police in New York, questioned the patriotism of anyone who criticized President Cleveland’s belligerent policy in Venezuela, James deftly skewered this early form of Cheneyism. “May I express a hope,” he wrote in a public letter,

that in this university…we shall be patriotic enough not to remain passive while the destinies of our country are being settled by surprise.

James was prescient on many things. Randolph Bourne said that “war is the health of the state,” but James said it first. George Orwell said that in the new state peace will mean war, but James said it earlier. Clifford Geertz would make “thick description” famous, but James anticipated him by many years. In the twentieth century, “stream of consciousness” would be used by critics around the work of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, but James invented the term in 1884.2

Who was this man who was out ahead of so many others? Well, he was behind or beside or above them, too. He was a weird son of an even weirder father, Henry James Senior. The father inherited so much money that he did not need to do anything to make a living, so he spent his time chasing spiritual epiphanies, a quest he handed down to his…

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