In the winter of 1916, Colonel Edward M. House, one of the closest advisers to President Woodrow Wilson, learned about the field guns that sent artillery shells whistling through the smoke-filled air and the shells that smashed into the ground before sending shrapnel ripping through human flesh. He listened to reports of officers who shouted over explosions that could not drown out the screams of their wounded men. He heard the apocalypse. “Western Civilization,” House warned German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, was in trouble. “[It] had broken down, and there was not a market-place or a mosque in the East where the West of to-day was not derided.”
House was right save for one detail—much of the derision came from within. In the midst of World War I, Charles Stewart, the journalist better-known as Charles E. Stump or “the press agent of the Negro race,” wrote a column for the Chicago-based black newspaper the Broad Ax. “I am told,” Stewart announced to his readers, “that this country of ours represent (sic) civilization in the highest, and if it is true, then I have been misinformed as to what civilization is.” Stump was not thinking about the reported sounds produced an ocean away. Rather, while traveling in the Jim Crow South, his ear was drawn to testimonies about the white crowds who cheered as bones snapped, the flames that crackled while searing black flesh, and the moans that escaped from dying men. In them, he heard the truth. Western civilization, Stewart told his readers, was not what House imagined it to be. Instead, it was a lie in a land where lynch mobs “kill and cook human beings.” It was a myth that raised the question, “What is civilization?”
Civilization. Western Civilization. These terms were a part of the American lexicon long before House predicted their extinction and Stewart condemned their misuse. In fact, their intended meaning was widely understood by champions and critics alike. Civilization was whiteness and whiteness was civilization. Everything else—anybody or anything that differed from the religious, political, and cultural norms of the white people of Europe and the Americas—was barbaric and inferior.
Or were they? During World War I, the answer to that question suddenly did not seem so clear even to those who wished it was. Corpses lay strewn across the battlefields of Europe. The futures of Great Britain, France, and Germany were far from certain. The West was eating its own. Amidst the chaos, the United States saw an opportunity for greatness and the possibility of its own demise. Woodrow Wilson, having enforced racial segregation at home, now admitted that he feared that the fighting in Europe and the parallel rise of the Empire of Japan foreshadowed the end of “white supremacy on this planet” unless the United States saved it. “I am thinking now,” Wilson assured a Democratic senator while negotiating terms of the armistice in 1918, “only of putting the United States into a position of strength and justice. I am now playing for 100 years hence.”
That is, for today. A century after World War I helped transform the United States into the world’s economic and military superpower, Wilson’s vision of U.S. exceptionalism is cloudy. At best. The Middle East is less secure than when the United States began its most recent crusade in the region. By one measure China has a larger economy than the United States. India might soon , too. As the “American Century” lurches to its end, it is probable that there is “not a market-place or a mosque in the East where the West of to-day [is] not derided.”
In the face of uncertainty, U.S. authorities have again encouraged sectarianism not introspection. Speaking in Poland, President Donald Trump praised Polish and U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, “combating the enemies of all civilization.” He cheered Poland as a model for those “who wish to summon the courage and the will to defend our civilization.” He asked whether “we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it.” Throughout the speech, Trump made ten references to “the West” and five more to “our civilization.” In renewing his promise to put the United States back “into a position of strength” if not justice, Trump channeled Wilson. He sounded like House.
Since returning home from his travels abroad, Trump has continued to sound the alarm on the apocalypse to come. At a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, he railed against immigrants, “predators and criminal aliens . . . animals . . . [who]’ll take a young beautiful girl . . . and they slice them and dice them with a knife.” His administration, Trump continued, would stamp out that barbarism rising from the Global South. It would do the same on Chicago’s South Side. Declaring that his administration has “the backs of our ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] officers, our border patrol agents, and, yes, our great police officers,” Trump reminded the nearly all-white crowd about a campaign where he “talked about the inner city . . . about the crime and the problems and the lack of education.” The crowd listened. And roared. It praised Trump’s derisive talk of “the Hispanic, the African-American, the inner cities” just as loudly as it encouraged his effusive praise of the “proud Americans who believe in defending our values, our culture, our borders, our civilization, and our great American way of life.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in the northwestern corner of Mississippi, a series of gunshots rent the air. The dull thud of a brown body hitting the ground and the piercing cry of a now-widowed woman followed. Those sounds, the final gasps in the life of Ismael Lopez, resulted from the actions of “our great police officers” who kill at the same rate that their forefathers lynched. They stemmed from the inaction of their apologists who scream about the need for law and order, shudder at the mere mention of Chicago or immigrant or Muslim or queer, and suggest “that this country of ours represent civilization in the highest.” They raise a question: What is civilization?