Column: Historical curiosities (Part I)
“And the human race just kept rollin’ on.
Rolling through the fighting,
rolling through the religious wars,
rolling through the temple walls,
and the churches’ exposed sores.” (Neil Young, Looking for a Leader, Greendale lp)
Free-association historical ramble
Some curiosities of the past surface through this column, with varied degrees of relatedness. Power, culture, change, are the coherent themes.
One sentence recurs here: “It is effortful to learn history.” The reward is worth it.
Americans and Canadians: our moral superiority, assumed
Contrary to some strong negative opinion of the USA among Canadians — a good friend, a cousin, to cite two people I have heard from recently – the USA is not universally scorned. It has been a beacon to millions for three centuries.
History documents that America has been admired, longed for, held up for imitation, respected for its dream of freedom, seen as a land of precious opportunity. The English, Irish and other West Europeans have held America in high esteem since the eighteenth century, right up to times recent. Americans know this history, and feel pride in their country’s reputation. America the Beautiful, home of the free.
Canadians of the boomer generation – born 1945 – 64 — might think such ideas completely delusional from our perspective, growing up where and when we did. For us, reaching maturity in the era of the Viet Nam war and civil rights riots and assassinations, the US will never seem apt for idealism. There has been a strong tradition of anti-Americanism among Canadians along the political spectrum.
But a very dear American friend, who lived in Nelson a few years before her homesickness drew her back to California, isn’t wrong to feel proud of her homeland: “I know my country has huge problems. I know many people hate it. I still love it. I love the idea of America. People still believe in the best of it.”
And for certain, the history of “the great republic”, the United States of America, is fascinatingly varied and reveals as many inspiring ingredients as things that repel. The sum contribution of Americans to modern human history is not trivial, whether good, bad, or ugly. One could say the Americans invented modernity. Their cultural footprint across the globe is unprecedented. They set style in myriad spheres.
Many people have lived and thrived there, though personally I would not ever want the life of an upper-middle-class American professional person. Such as they have made lives they cherish. With high income, the “right” education, employment, place of residence, cultural assets… well, I am sure many readers have met American liberals of your class whom you have liked and befriended, as I have.
I am setting out a boundary here, asking Canadians to be thoughtful and informed before spouting off our typical condemnations of the entire American people for miserable words and deeds observed in history. It is not all of the people, nor always the majority, that are to be held accountable for the manifest defects of that society.
Presiding over the superpower
It is easy to make a president the symbol of a people. I detest symbolism of this sort. Presidents are ephemeral. Horrid ones, brilliant ones, mediocre ones – all have been witnessed. Historians have had a long time to write about the early ones, and up to the end of WWII, the evaluations of presidents by historians have evolved into a consensus. Since Truman there has been less congruence of opinion over legacies.
From Eisenhower through Clinton, historians still debate a consensus for some appropriate labels. I know this as someone born during the Eisenhower era – who remembers the deaths of JFK, his brother Bobby, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, an immoral war, race riots, Chicago in 1968. The daily news is testament to the present-day recipe of repellent American politics and social-cultural unravelling. I also remember the moon landing and the Woodstock Nation, student rebellion, rock ‘n’ roll, fabulous films, sexual revolution. Those are things that I value and esteem.
The present holder of the presidential office excites more passion than reason in any discussion of his performance. But this egregiously-awful specimen of the breed presidentius americanus cannot by itself negate the merits of an entire nation.
To me the truth of Trump’s significance, most succinctly stated, is a metaphor: he is a symptom, not a virus; the eruption of this repulsive presidential performance upon the political surface of America is one visible sign of a society and a people deeply unwholesome. He’s not causing America to unravel; he’s an effect of a process. The repulsive orange rash on the skin of the body politic is due to infections deep within it, developed over time and not effectively addressed though often diagnosed.
Canada and America, mouse and elephant
Pierre Trudeau remarked memorably that sharing a continent with the USA is, for Canada, like sleeping with an elephant: Every twitch of the giant beast disturbs its smaller neighbour in the bed. Mexicans have a different proverb about the rabid superpower on their border: “Poor Mexico. So far from God, so close to America.”
One would be blinded by prejudice if you did not admit the US has at times been a political asset to liberty in Canada as a progressive model strengthening democratic aspirations within Canada, against domestic conservatives and the British Empire’s agencies who worked against colonists’ democratic aspirations. This too is a matter of historical record; our feeble colony was fortunate to have the US democracy on our one extensive land border, powerful, affluent, inventive, and liberal. We said no to the American Revolution in 1776, yet we too evolved the political will to liberate our colonies, freed from domination by aristocrats and capitalist magnates ruling Canada from the imperial metropolis.
Our liberties weren’t won only by the good will of British powers condescending to bestow rights and freedoms upon us; we fought for them. We should remember this more than we do. Labour unions try to remind us, but: it’s effortful to learn history.
Dragging Canada backward
I know too that our neighbour has been a regressive drag on us in areas I wish to see progress, since our economy is so inextricably enmeshed with theirs, our dependence on them for markets and investment so profound. I am convinced that, were Canada closer to Europe, with ocean between us and America, we would have evolved more toward north-European models of social democracy.
Our healthcare system, which American liberals hold in high regard, would be far more progressive were we less influenced by retrograde opinions that bias our politics against public-sector spending. We should have had pharmaceutical costs, dentistry, mental health, and other therapies covered in our publicly-funded system long ago, as Europeans enjoy. That we do not, I blame on American influence in our politics, as I blame our dependence on fossil-fuel energy rather than using greener technologies like progressive Europeans.
Our economic dependence on the US is our doing. Geography and history exerted immense weight to reinforce the dependence. Still, Canadians have possessed the capacity to insulate ourselves from the deleterious effects of dependence, so long as we wanted to, but the public will to follow European norms and ways has simply been too feeble. The American way is so very seductive and we are apparently quite vulnerable to it. That we have a vibrant independent culture is worthy of esteem.
Canada’s societal defects belong to us and cannot be blamed on America ruling us.
Canada: never an empire, but not because we’re too virtuous to want one
Canada’s apparently-high rating internationally as a country that has not exerted destructive influence outside our borders is not earned by our high moral standards of behaviour. We are not innately better than Americans just by our birth here.
We have the virtue of weakness. Canada never has been, nor is unlikely to be, a global superpower, unlike the USA, USSR, China, or the British and Spanish colonial Empires. Does this fact mean we exercise higher morality? Not at all.
Since we never had the responsibilities of imperial power, no one can credibly claim Canadians would by our nature have exercised such power in a manner superior to those geopolitical giants. We would be so benevolent, beneficient, a blessing to the
people over whom we have dominion, yes?. We could be trusted with global power, if we had to exercise it, right? Please, a little humility is called for where power is concerned. Bad parents do not know their power demands profound humility.
What parent would accept criticism of their parenting record from someone who never parented? Not I. If you don’t do, do not assume you know what the doers know. Canadians don’t know what it feels like to be imperial.
So, Canadians are well-advised to be very sparing of claiming superiority over Americans because they have an empire and we do not. We never had the opportunity to rule an empire. But we have surely cooperated with Empires, as clients and allies of imperial powers. We fought in Afghanistan, where we had no right to be, as America’s NATO ally, and we fought African Boers as Britain’s colonial client, and again for Britain in WWI. Our prime ministers can mouth fatuous moral superiority over “enemies” — witness Harper blustering against Putin. Prime Ministers will be silent when our weakness dictates we ought not anger China for fear of economic consequences. The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must, as a Greek observed 2400 years ago. Canada is weak.
The unbearable niceness of being Canadian
It might have made you feel good when Obama said “the world needs more Canada” — it depends whether his opinion matters to you. I would say, “Canada needs to know more about the world” before we assume our moral superiority.
Morally, we are not the world’s pastor. We are not free to reject alignment in geopolitics, so today we are inextricably and very uncomfortably on the horns of the dilemma presented by the US-China cold war; Canada is a US client within this global pattern. Europe is not truly an option for us to line up with. The opting-out of the UK from the European community is not a good thing for Canada. Our former “mother country” with whom we share so much, has weakened itself by withdrawal from Europe, and if England is out, Canada has lost an important portal to the EU.
The American republic is so many things, not just its failed ideals and manifest hypocrisies. There are three hundred million Americans. This is more than the population of Western Europe. It is possible, if somewhat grandiose, to speak of an American civilization, with all the subtleties and nuances of the meaning in that word, “civilization.” One does not dismiss a civilization with minimal study of it. Before mouthing off with simple condemnation of that nation, study its history and its present. I say the same about any nation — and any religion: I have zero patience with the hordes of people who denigrate Christianity and know a mere iota of its history, its meaning, its influence on humanity. It is effortful to learn history.
In summary, I am saying what Eisenstein says so often. When you consider the acts of other people, other individuals, ask yourself — “What does it feel like to be that person?” How does it feel to be … you? Believe in commonality over difference. Know that whatever apparent nice qualities Canadians can claim in the eyes of people abroad, we have no right to act or speak as superior to the Others who are not us.
Individual Leader and Support Base: does one person mould many?
I often contemplate the deeply inconclusive conundrum of how leader and followers relate. Meaning: do individual personalities have profound power to make society move swiftly in directions ‘the public’ could not move itself, perhaps against what large masses of population want? Do leaders decide how history is made?
Or, do citizens choose leaders who amplify and enforce qualities society as the collective evolves within itself – that ‘society’ moves toward collective desires by means of choosing leaders who grasp what the masses want? And what happens to minority opinion in the process of a majority achieving societal desires?
What am I asking? Historical precedents are needed. For example, did Hitler, or Napoleon, or Gandhi, or Castro, meaningfully shape their peoples? At the conclusion of my most-recent Arc, I asserted that leaders like Alexander or Adolf did more harm than good; the history they made always involved the deaths of millions in wars that lasted years and had long-trailing effects on civilians as well as soldiers. I stand by that declaration. Vast historical change effected by the leadership of men who led their followers to war is change that would be better never to happened at all, or to have happened in a manner slower, without mass death, minus such a leader.
A leader cannot lead without the compliance of the followers. Compliance, cultural conformity, and passively not-resisting, is permission for the leader to act on plans decided only by his ego, his thought, his motives, his emotions. I say “he” quite deliberately, explicitly excusing the female gender from my conclusions because the sample size from history of women who led in war is simply too small for drawing conclusions. Men are the gender of our species who exemplify leadership of mass violence, which is what war is.
It is also a truth, to my mind, that the power of the mass to terminate the leadership of an individual who loses the permission of the mass to lead them, is a different power than their power to elevate him in the first place.
Consider: the leader gains power in a condition of people not knowing him, but believing he will do well for them; he loses power in a condition of having acted, and the people knowing him in a way they did not know him before.
Leadership and Force
Overthrowing a leader is harder than raising him up, for men with power do not surrender leadership without using their power to resist being overthrown. They fight not to lose power: civil war such as Syria today, Russia and England in the past, witnessed in their revolutions, result. Dictators, tsars, and kings do not go quietly into exile. If the army is the undeniable base for a leader’s power, the army’s desertion of him ends his power: Caligula, the Shah, the Kaiser, Juan Peron, Sukarno, Santa Anna, are examples. No woman can be named as an historical example of a leader raised by the military to supreme power and dismissed from power by the same.
When a man ascends to power with the force of the military and never loses army support, such as Ataturk, Franco, Pinochet, Castro, or Oliver Cromwell, he can die peacefully still commanding supreme authority over a state. The military can rule a nation with force if it has the will to commit atrocious violence. We know armies can do that. A failed coup against a leader who is the army’s choice will lead to horrid results, as seen when Hitler did not die in July 1944. Turkish president Erdogan a few years back put down an attempted coup, and his Muslim people have suffered passively as he imposes Islamic authoritarian rule upon them ever since. Egypt is another Muslim land where the military is still the base of presidential power.
Leaders do fall, and their followers can oust them, with or without violence. But it seems to me indisputable that leaders do not attain power without passive societal complicity. Blaming a bad leader for our collective flaws is mistaken. Rising against the military and its chosen supremo will unleash horror, we know from Syria. Not rising is a popular choice for long periods. Eventually, it becomes intolerable.
The Allies for awhile pinned hope on an overthrow of Hitler by a combined uprising of suffering, war-shattered civilians and brilliantly-effective yet insanely-utilized military. It never happened, despite Germany being bombed without mercy or morality. After a victory of Pyrrhic dimensions, the Allies decided rightly or wrongly to treat the Germans as a people with flawed national character, a people mutated by Nazi cultural and social engineering to be inhumane against certain other human groups. The Nazis had some people of genius like Goebbels, Speer, and Riefenstahl, working to erase the traditional moral compass of Germans with new tools like the radio, film, mass spectacle – see the film Triumph of the Will if you wonder about this. The German mind was subjected to a plan of education, law, entertainment, and brutality, all prepared by Germany’s particular recent history, to become Nazified. It worked too well. The Bolsheviks in Russia tried a similar strategy with a different ideology, not racialist but just as virulently inhumane, on their people.
The Allies blamed the Germans for following Hitler, not just because the Nazi machinery was so potent but because the nation failed its moral duty to evict this monstrous phenomenon from their society. This is was the reasoning behind how the Big Three made decisions for Germany in its utterly nihilistic defeat. German war guilt, invented in 1918, was back again but with a more sophisticated plan. The Nuremberg Trials for war crimes were, I think, a plausible attempt to find justice.
I am not inclined to second-guess diagnosis by people who suffered Hitler’s crimes; I accept that de-Nazification of the Germans’ public consciousness was a reasonable strategic template, though it can be criticized in details of its application as a policy for postwar Germany. The progressive Germany of today owes something to the fact that the Allies, at least in the West, pursued an enlightened blueprint after 1946.
Here ends Part I. Part II will follow next week.