News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Quick opening comments on Our Oldest Enemy: a History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France, John Miller (2004)

Reading this because of the more interesting ideological follies, provincial nationalist sympathies, and moony patriotic feelings that are apparently shared by French and Chinese part-time patriots, neither of which has genuine or substantial interest in their own history. Given my growing experience with this, I’d be happy to make the argument that a precondition of peacetime patriotism is willful ignorance, for knowledge of history breeds an inconvenient tolerance for human weakness and a vision of humanity as perennially flawed and dysfunctional and yet which progresses nonetheless, its personal failures and communal clusterfucks be damned. The history buff is doomed to note that even as nations we’re all too human to be gods for anyone else’s dog. Not that we can’t set flawed but useful examples.

Plus the more knowledgeable you get, the less hyperventilating you do over the issues, as you see world-threatening calamities resolved again and again in the past. With history repeating itself endlessly, the present takes on a sort of ennui, and the reader ends up with an attitude of ‘whatever, dude...’ With this easy come easy go attitude comes a distaste for red-blooded nationalism and the hearty low-brow maniac it attracts in herds; though with all movements there tend to be the occasionally vivid twinkling stars: the Marx’s and Trotsky’s, the Huey Longs and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s, the thoroughbreds of cant and rhetorical blah.

Either way, this sort of popular silliness appears in Paradise Betrayed where French officials show up in the Seychelles spouting tall talk of French glory regardless of having lost WWII without a fight and being irreverently shoved off the international stage by the US and USSR.
Former Seychelles president, James Manchan, writes (page 200): To these prejudiced [French] politicians, if you were pro-British, you were anti-French. It was they who had pushed the call to cry 'Vive Quebec Libre'. To them the policy of bilingualism was not enough. They wanted French to be the language. Nor did I realize at the time that they could be stupid enough to believe that the imposition of their language was far more important than the risk of throwing a democratic ally into the Soviet camp.

Sounds like the follies of the PRC which desires recognition and huzzahs for its stabilizing influence as a non-expansionist power while threatening Taiwan with invasion and recently staking claims on territory in North Korea; and applause for its non-hegemonic 'same bed slightly different dreams' scheme while pushing hard for the instruction of Chinese in Indonesia and crying traitor to the Vietnamese, Koreans, and Japanese who dared throw out the clumsy Chinese character system in favor of a limited or full phonetic alphabet.

But some of what's most interesting in Our Oldest Enemy lies in the hot details pumping up the reader’s blood. The author's narrative is like a fast-paced novel: though not to be confused with the near-infotainment of Bernard Goldberg’s Bias, with its gaping spaces on each page and the memorandum-like attention span given to each story. Like O’Reilly, Franken, and the Wicked Witch of the Right, one wonders if telebrities do much reading beyond the teleprompter.

In Our Oldest Enemy the same old human themes naturally crop up over and over as they must given the tabula rasa which dooms us to lives of reinventing a thousand fly-blown wheels; not that we don't swell with pride at the novel products of our ingenuity.

Page 27:
When an opening cannon shot decapitated Oswego's commanding officer, the [British and colonial] troops lost all hope and surrendered. Ever attentive to the military etiquette that ruled his life as a soldier in Europe, Montcalm determined that their resistance had been too brief to warrant generous surrender terms. (Sounds like the WWII Japanese military's view of Allied POWs) Rather than allowing the men of Oswego to march away with their colors, as Villiers had permitted Washington to do at Fort necessity, Montcalm decided to make them his prisoners of war.... His Indian compatriots, however, had different plans. Greedy for the spoils of victory, they ransacked a hospital, seized captives, and scalped the wounded - as many as a hundred soldiers and civilians were murdered. Ashamed of what he had allowed to happen, Montcalm arranged for ransoms for many of the captives...

As with rural Japanese soldiers mowing down WWII POWs as if still on the farm exterminating field mice and fruit-thieving macaques, and as with my ancestors burning virgins alive to spiritually fertilize the ground and up the harvest of haggis and mince-meat pies, barbarians all. And yet of course the same thing wouldn't happen today. One reason is the magnificence of the modern economy without which mass education and information access and expert opinion would be impossible. Without those we're back to being true believers in conspiracy theories, superstition, racialism and tribalism. With economic prosperity has also come the imposition of new taboos (on murder for sport, vendettas, vigilantism, ritual suicide, cultural and sexual chauvinism) while old taboos have been lifted (on forensic medicine, public education, sex gay and straight, religious heterodoxy, enthusiasm for foreign cultures).

With Ward Churchill in the news it's worth pointing out the behavior of some of his alleged ancestors during the French and Indian war of colonial times. Worth noting the nobility and righteousness of a simpler, less overwhelmed generation of mankind whose paragons gleam and beckon at us from a less corrupted, more human age: a time blissfully free of corporations assaulting third world sovereignty, farmer-bankrupting global trade, and the cruel cultural hegemonies of the information explosion which destroy ethnic identities and languages at a breakneck speed.

From page 28:
Bougainville was a brilliant man of high culture and intellectual distinction. Before traveling to the New World, he had written a book on calculus. After the war, he went on to fame as the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe. (The flowering bougainvillea plant and the largest of the Solomon Islands, in the Pacific Ocean, are named for him.) In a letter, the amateur ethnographer describes the indigenous allies his general was gathering for a renewed assault on Fort William Henry: "Indians, naked, black, red, howling, bellowing, dancing, singing the war song, getting drunk, yelling for 'broth,' that is to say, blood, drawn from 500 leagues away by the smell of fresh human blood and the chance to teach their young men how one carves up a human being destined for the pot. Behold our comrades who, night and day, are our shadows. I shiver at the frightful spectacles which they are preparing for us."

Indeed, Bougainville understood what it meant to make war with Indian allies. Here is how he put it in a letter to his godmother, sent just before Montcalm ordered his army south: your son shudders with horror at what he's going to be forced to witness. It is with great difficulty that we can restrain the Indians of the far west, the most ferocious of all men and cannibals by trade. Listen to what the chiefs came to tell M. de Montcalm three days ago: "Father, don't expect that we can easily give quarter to the English. We have some young warriors who have not yet drunk of this broth. Raw flesh has led them here from the ends of the earth; they must learn to wield the knife and to bury it in English hearts." Behold our comrades, dear mamma; what a crew, what a spectacle for civilized man.

For all of his private outpourings of disgust, the cultured Bougainville never shrank from the actual practice of unleashing Indian massacres upon British soldiers and American colonists. He may not have enjoyed it, but he was willing to overlook the carnage so long as it served French interests. In Bougainville's view, North America was a hopeless moral cesspool to be shunned rather than confronted and reformed: "The air one breathes here is contagious," he said of North America, "and I fear lest a long sojourn here make us acquire the vices of a people to whom we communicate no virtues."

So much for the French Enlightenment idealization of the Indian as a noble savage whose pristine innocence was contrasted with the stifling morality and corrupt civilization of Europe.

... Bougainville also had a more direct knowledge of human behavior in a state of nature than virtually any other member of Rousseau's nodding readership. It might even be said that he was the leading French authority on the subject. Had he challenged Rousseau, Bougainville would have performed an enormous service to European thought.... The failure to reconcile bad theories with undeniable realities would prove to be an enduring theme in French culture...

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog Archive