11 November 2010

Looking Back to See Forward

There are so many pressures in the world today - economic, cultural, perhaps even spiritual pressures - that invite Americans to forget they ever came from somewhere, that they were ever European, and Europeans to forget they've ever gone anywhere, that they were ever colonizers. And these pressures make a good deal of sense, if we assume that (1) up until very recent times, Europe has been largely if not entirely a very bad place; (2) on the other hand, Europeans are most unlikely to do much of anything really bad in the future.

But I suspect neither of these are very wise assumptions. And so it seems to me that today more than ever Americans and Europeans both need the Atlantic Alliance, or else something very much like it. Regardless of what precise form it may take, some sort of Atlantic compact, or fraternity, or commonwealth is a thing they will always have need to maintain; and if they ever dispense with it altogether, they will sorely wish they'd kept it. The Americans need it because they need to keep looking eastwards, to remember where they've come from, and to recollect that the stupendous fact of being American can never make them more than human, or better than sinners. The Europeans need it because they need to continue looking westwards, to remember where they've gone to, and to recollect that the stupendous fact of being post-colonial will never make them cease to be political, or incapable of exploitation. In short, they both need to keep facing each other, if they're ever to get some semblance of a handle on their present mutual contempt, on their current mutual superiority complexes. Above all, both need to accept that even they do not stand outside of history, even now; and that they can never escape it.

Which is all the more reason, I think, for them both carefully and quietly to recall, and to ruminate on - and to teach their children (of whatever ethnic origin) to reflect on - everything that has passed between them from then until now. And also everything that has passed between them both and the rest of the world. Because so much evil - as well as much good - has taken place in that long intervening period. Which is to say we have so much to learn from, and be heedful of, and humble about. And of course there have been other exploiters in the world besides us Westerners, and some of them much worse. And others worse yet will surely follow. But I defy anyone to show me a civilization that has thought more about what it is to exploit, and that knows better what it means to be an exploiter - how it corrupts not just the "city" of Man but the soul - than we very first unifiers of the globe.

Naturally, too, the "inexorable" economic laws of Mexican labor and Chinese capital will go on beckoning Americans, just as they did President Polk and the first Anglo-Californians. And the "inestimable" economic opportunities promised by Russian and Caucasian and Central Asian resources will continue to draw Europeans, much as they did the likes of Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler. All the more reason, again, for us to keep somewhere near the forefront of our minds the memory of our mutual pasts, and not just the anticipation of possibly opposite futures. Nobody - not even globally enlightened Americans and Europeans! - has so thoroughly recovered from the Addiction of Exploitation that he's in no danger of becoming an exploiter all over again, in new pastures and fresh fields. And nothing better justifies a further, deeper, more unashamed exploitation than the feeling that you are, after all, being counter-exploited in your turn (and perhaps even by Mexicans and Chinese). And all the more so when that feeling is true.

To forget is only to repeat. And neither of us has any hope of of understanding - of remembering - either the ongoing nature of the World, or how low our own human natures have fallen, except as we continue to embrace the humility of standing face to face, and resist the temptation to turn completely back to back.

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