GOING DARK, DISASTERS, ARISTOCRACY, INDIANS
The other day, PBS news had an unusual feature: the remains of the Spanish dictator, Franco, buried in a conspicuous part of Madrid, were going to be exhumed. They were going to be reburied in a more insignificant place, where people were less likely to make pilgrimages to it. Because Spain was expecting that, like the rest of the world, a far-right government was a likely prospect.
There are now far-right governments in the US, Brazil, the Philippines, and in many European states. I asked my luncheon companions, a woman from England and one from Oregon, why they think the world is turning far right. Their answer was to ask me why Hungary has been far right for so long already?
I answer that that is not hard to answer. Hungary is a small country, about the size of Rhode Island, with a population of about ten million. They speak an exotic language that is in danger of disappearance among the surrounding Slavic speakers and English, the international language. They have been dominated by Turks, Austrians, and most recently Russians, for hundreds of years. After the two world wars, they lost two-thirds of their territory. They finally got their independence in 1989 and could be a “Hungarian” national state for the first time since the Middle Ages. Then, with the arrival of migrants from Africa and Asia after 2000, the European Union demanded of them that they should accept large numbers of foreign refugees. The Hungarian prime minister (dictator?) put up a fence against what were seen as invaders. Hungary did not want to be swamped by foreigners again.
There is more to the growing far-right agenda than the immigration crisis, but the immigration crisis is at the core of it. The crux of it is that the “migrants” are largely “different” in skin color and come from Africa, Asia, Latin America. At the most visceral level, they threaten the dominance of, “white,” “Caucasian” “race” or, as said in the past ,“blood.” On the cultural level, they threaten established government and social norms with non-Western habits. In either case, they appear to water down the quality of Western life, if not destroy it entirely. The various far-right movements try to stop what they call “invasions” — using fences, military force, and as much mistreatment as they can get away with. Separating mothers and children. Unsanitary camps. Deportations. The far-right movements are attempts to put back walls of separation between peoples, in order to counter a feared new world of formlessness.
The West has only to look to itself for the causes of this “invasion.” Since the 15th century, Western ships have been plying the oceans to cajole and force other peoples to trade with them, from Africa to Japan. While in the beginning some of this trade may have been mutually beneficial, in a short time in many places it led to European conquest and exploitation. The New World was a pushover, eventually settled by polyglot populations, but even great empires like India were eventually conquered, and China was controlled. Europe’s control of most of the world was such that at the end of the 19th century each area was parceled out to a European power as a colony. Europe became rich and underwent a technical, industrial development as a consequence.
While outright conquest and colonization ended by the 20th century, commercial activity and the modernization of non-Western trading partners increased. Increased communications resulted in what has been called “globalization,” that is, all parts of the world to some extent participating in a global culture based in the West. While there were pockets of isolated cultures that, by around 1900, had never seen a Westerner, by 2000 hardly any place was isolated from world markets and events. That is the basic cause of the migrant phenomenon.
The migrants come to the West hoping to escape wars, famines, for a better life. These problems existed in the world from time immemorial. In the old days, people died, managed as best they could, but generally stayed put in their communities. They had no other choice. They were uneducated about the rest of the world, had no idea where it might be better, nor how to get somewhere else. Somehow they survived. Since the advent of the computer, social media, phones, most peoples know a lot about the world. Most importantly, they know that their situation is intolerable and that it is better elsewhere — especially in Europe and North America. (Hadn’t they always been told that Europe is paradise?) Rather than trying to transform their own lands into utopias, they set out towards the West to try to beg or force their way in. And who can blame them! In the attempt, they die in the deserts, they die in the oceans, and they keep coming. The West turns out to be a disappointment, but they keep on coming.
The idea of the overrunning of the white race by people of color may seem like a bad reality to some, but it’s not as bad as possible extinction. It is widely publicized that the birthrate is down in Western countries, partly because of feminism and contraception and women choosing not to have as many babies as in the past. Hence abortion is an issue, not just of a spiritual belief in “life,” but in the desire to ensure the birth of more white children. (Although the prohibition of abortion also ensures more children of color.) As a consequence of such a birth policy, women need to remain at home and men need to continue to be in power — both in the home and in the world. White men “need” to remain in power to protect their race from extinction.
Absurd as that may be, there is some truth to these dark fears. Nonwhite people are on the move, and women are looking to wrest power from men, and the birthrate is down. My woman friend from England and my woman friend from Oregon have concluded that far-right governments are the result of fear. Existential panic — about something that was created by the West and seems to the far-right impossible for the West to reverse, unless at some horrendous cost.
No civilization has ever lived with as many potential disasters as we face.
- Atomic annihilation since the 1940s — nobody really worries about that these days.
- Resistance to antibiotics and humanity dying from an epidemic — minor worry.
- Environmental catastrophe — global warming, polar ice melting, tropical forest cut down, deserts expanding, storms increasing in magnitude, sea level rising, coral reefs dying, plastics choking the ocean, etc. We may worry about it, but we don’t do much about it.
- Mass extinction of flora and fauna — we’re not really conscious of it. We’re tagging and photographing what is left.
- Meteor hitting the earth, the poles reversing, and the moon shrinking. We don’t think it is likely soon, so not to worry.
- AI — artificial intelligence — robots and computers becoming smarter than people and taking over, killing off humanity — hard to believe.
- In time, for certain, the sun cooling and unable to light the earth. For those who even know, it is too remote to worry about.
Although some of these potential disasters are manmade and could be solved by humanity, we aren’t doing anything much about them, and their threats remain. Our astronomical information is relatively new and not yet a part of popular culture. The major fact is that from our current astronomical knowledge we know that the earth and the sun are not eternal. In fact, neither our galaxy nor even the universe may be eternal. Whatever monuments we raise, ideas we have, sooner or later they will be destroyed. No previous generation has believed in such total destruction.
Various religions in the past and present believed in a sudden and dramatic end to the world, but they also believed in some heaven or eternal afterlife subsequent to it. Have we made anything of the above bleak vision philosophically?
The ancient Mesoamerican believed that the world had been created and destroyed several times, by floods, storms, lightning, and wild animals, and that they were living in a current world that would also be destroyed, probably by earthquake. Such a world view may have been inspired by the geological region of Mexico and Central America, beset by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and hurricanes. In ancient times, sacrifices were hoped to abate the anger of these various phenomena, embodied in spirits on an accessible level.
But how did a preindustrial people live with such threats psychologically? We only have information from the Aztecs, whose approach was carpe diem, seize the day. Enjoy the present, for life is short.
What do we do? Generally, we alternate between trying to do something, however little, on the one hand about atom bombs, carbon levels, disappearing lions, and on the other the fatalism that whatever we do is too little too late or useless. We feel we have no control over the powers that be. Sometimes we try, sometimes we don’t bother. We don’t expect much from human nature, whether rhino poachers for the Chinese market or politicians rattling A-bombs. Our idea of the potential of humans to avert catastrophe is low. Mostly, we are in denial. We are right there with the Aztecs, recommending living in the present and enjoying life. Or, “technology got us in this mess and technology will get us out of it.”
In view of the information we now have about the future of the earth and the solar system, we have yet to work it into a narrative about the meaning of life. Why are we here? Do we have a purpose? Can we think of a purpose other than the possibility of colonizing other planets? In the absence of an external purpose, can we develop an internal purpose? We live in a world of wealth and contested domination that not only does not provide answers, it increases anxieties. Traditional religions that faced smaller problems may answer these issues for some, but the rest of us could use suggestions for the larger questions.
Theoretically, aristocracy had been abolished in Hungary during communism. Aristocrats were moved to small country towns and, if possible, made to do manual work. The children of peasants and the proletariat were sent to university to become the new professional upper class. Many aristocrats left Hungary before communist rule solidified in 1948. You can make aristocrats shovel, but you can’t turn peasant boys into doctors and engineers by decree. All this upending of society, especially the creation of a new upper class of peasant origin, was going to take time, perhaps as much as a generation. In the meantime, life, politics, international meetings, had to go on. The doctors of the old regime continued to be needed. The communist elite was not always well educated or savvy in etiquette and, ironically, relied on the old upper class and the aristocracy to teach them the ways — of aristocracy itself. So, as a child in the 1950s, I knew something about aristocracy.
My childhood friend Edda’s stepfather was a count and made a living in the 1950s by teaching the communist elite what to wear and which fork to use when at fancy gatherings abroad. My own father, not an actual aristocrat, was asked to go with a communist minister to a Paris conference on reinforced concrete, partly because he spoke French. One of his other duties was to pick out dress fabrics and perfume for the minister’s wife that would be in “good taste,” which the low-born minister wouldn’t know. So even though aristocracy had been abolished under communism, it still existed, and we usually knew who was nobility and who was not.
Communist Hungary and the US did not have much in common, but they shared the dislike for an aristocracy. Oddly enough both believed in equality, although they went about it in different ways. Americans often admire foreign aristocrats, to say nothing of the English royal house, but have no lords or House of Lords in government of their own.
I came across the old Hungarian aristocracy after the revolution of 1956, when I came to live in the large Hungarian community in New York. Many had come in the 1940s, escaping Germans and Russians, Nazis and communists. A few had managed to bring some of their fortune out. A number were Jewish industrialists of the last century, whose parents had become counts and barons, still in the Austro-Hungarian empire.
But a large number were penniless. One count moonlighted as a handyman, who put up the curtains in my parents’ apartment for a bottle of gin. His day job was as superintendent. At the Hungarian balls, he appeared elegant in a frock coat with various colorful decorations pinned to his chest, including the cross of the Knights of Malta. All the counts and barons came out to the Hungarian balls, and people pointed them out to each other like rare birds. Hungary did not have the British rule that only the eldest son carried the title — there were many nobles and a large lesser nobility.
When we looked for a housekeeper/babysitter after my son was born, the first candidate was a sixtyish Hungarian lady (I am not very sure whether she was a countess or a baroness). She cooked and cleaned very well, like any other housekeeper. It was not strange to have a baroness as a housekeeper.
Who else did I know who was an aristocrat? There was a young woman, second cousin, living a rather bohemian life in Hungary. Cute and petite, she was a countess who pretended to be ordinary, while everyone knew she was a countess, which was a part of her allure to guys.
Being an aristocrat is different from having money. It is something you can only get by being born with it — or ennobled by someone like a king. It is something that does not show, yet everyone imagines they see something just a little bit special in you. It is perfectly OK to be an impoverished aristocrat — the allure is not tarnished. It was fashionable in 19th century England for various impoverished lords and dukes to marry American heiresses with no titles at all. The assumption was that a title, by itself, was worth a fortune. Because aristocracy has little actual power, it is easy to laugh at it or to be charmed by it.
An impoverished ex-millionaire has little glamour. The current power is the world is money, and that is neither funny nor charming. I really don’t know how to write about it. It is a constant topic of conversation, from the beggar in the street to the richest man in the world. The denominations have gone from the millions (How to Marry a Millionaire) to the billions of the tech magnates to the trillions of the national debt and the zillions beyond. Nations and governments compete for billions. Unlike a count, who could be created, money cannot be created at will (except with more money in the banks). It has to be taxed, earned, stolen. It has a grim, trajectory.
The current world of money is not a delight; it’s an anxiety. They may not be lords, but the handful of non-aristocratic men who own the one percent of the wealth of the US can buy and control politicians and elections, making a mockery of various democratic systems. Dressed innocuously in T-shirts and blue jeans, pretending to be ordinary, these men (and they are men) are at the top of a social pyramid whose lower ranks are frantically chasing money to become like them and to be one of them.
In the world of money, you can dream of being rich, although most likely you won’t in reality. In the world of aristocracy, you could not dream of becoming a lord or a count, because you had to be born to it. Democracy has therefore provided if not a better system at least better dreams. In the matter of dreams, the dreams of democracy seem alluringly realistic and achievable and keep millions content with their lot. After all, many aristocrats hogging wealth and the world’s stage were once beheaded as early as the French Revolution by the resentful have-nothings. (Beheading is the only way to get rid of them.) The modern billionaires who run the world will not be beheaded, because they will be envied and emulated, even if achieving such an exalted state is totally impossible. The apparent neutrality of money makes unfairness palatable.
Aristocracy once trumped nationality. The film La Grande Illusion by Jean Renoir, begins with a German colonel inviting two of his French prisoners of war to lunch, because as aristocrats they have more in common with each other, even at opposite sides, than with their own national people. They know that with the end of the First World War such supremacy will end too, and it will all be about money.
Where are the Indians? I knew all about the American Indians from a childhood book in Hungary. Most Europeans know about the Indians. The idea of the Noble Savage was created in Europe in the 18th century, based on the American Indian. Arriving in America, there were no Indians to be seen anywhere. No one talked about Indians. No teacher mentioned them in high school. There were no courses about them in college. Indians emerged for me only in the exotic recesses of graduate school. I then saw a map of North America with the names of hundreds of tribes superposed on it. There wasn’t a space without a tribal name. There had once been a lot of Indians.
In the official myth recounted at Thanksgiving for children and adults alike, Indians (the Wampanoag) welcome the first English boatload of settlers in the 16th century. They give them food, teach them how to survive in the forest, teach them about the need for fertilizer in agriculture (a fish placed with corn seed in the ground), and get them through the winter. We know that this bedtime story ends in conflict and in mutual massacres that go on and on.
Whoever their allies and enemies might be, treaties signed or betrayed, the Indians were steadily losing their land to the onslaught of white immigrants who came to settle. In this the settlers were helped by European diseases the natives were not immune to and died from in their millions. Their story over centuries is one of being progressively pushed to the west. Even Indian tribes like the Cherokee, who had adopted American ways, were moved out West for their land. The lands out West were usually less good for agriculture or hunting than the ones they had to leave. Indians fought back as viciously as they could, leaving the settlers with little sympathy towards them. The line, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” seems to have been common in the Colonial period and is also attributed to presidents such as Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and to General Philip Sheridan and characters in Western movies. Small towns like Milford, Pennsylvania, near my vacation home, had monuments to local “Indian killers.” Not said out loud or politically, historians often use the g-word for what had happened — genocide.
Once the white settlers reached the Pacific, it was not possible to push the Indians further, and reservations were created for the ones that survived. Most Indians were remaining in the West, and most large reservations are therefore found there. There are few reservations in the East, because there were few Indians left. There are just many place names of Indian derivation, such as Massachusetts and Narragansett. Many of the children of the remaining Indians were separated from their parents and placed in foster care or at Indian boarding schools, where they were forced to disregard their languages and traditions.
Given this history of violence and guilt, it is not surprising that Americans did not really subscribe to the concept of the Noble Savage and the romanticized European view I grew up with. It was not all that long ago that they had cleared the US of native inhabitants. Eventually, the American attitude was one of denial that the Indians were ever there in significant numbers or mattered. They imagined that their newly won land had been a wilderness, that the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls were theirs by a kind of divine right.
Although the framers of the Constitution were aware of Indian social and political organization and emulated some of its aspects in their time, and the builders of the Capitol at first thought of putting it in the shape of a teepee, in the end Americans did not wish to be associated with Indians. They wanted to model themselves on Greece and Rome, and the Capitol got a dome with classical columns.
Modern Indians on and off the reservations need to blend into American life, while at the same time holding on to their traditions passed down in their families and codified in the many books of anthropologists who once studied them. Only rarely do they come in contact with most Americans. For example, my immigrant architect father noted with some fascination that work on the higher parts of skyscrapers in New York was often done by American Indians, because they had a reputation of no fear of heights. American Indian presence in the US is strange and unexpected, here and there.
Recently, there has been a movement to give the Indians some place in the calendar of holidays. St. Patrick’s day for the Irish, Martin Luther King Day, why not an Indigenous People’s Day for Native Americans instead of Columbus Day? This is finally happening across the States.
My comments are those from someone coming from outside the US. Although African Americans have their own serious issues and things are far from well, at least the issues are known and, in so far as possible, part of the national conversation. The Native American issues are not even on the agenda. I think America would be a happier place if it acknowledged frankly the American Indian as its antecedent. These are my recommendations.
Ownership of the land. I think the US needs to say quite matter-of-factly that this land once belonged to Native Americans for thousands of years. Through conquest and settlement, it now belongs to the US. Actually, it does not “belong” to any people; all are custodians.
The American Indians cannot be compensated for their losses, however unfair. They can only be recognized for their former accomplishments by their successors. American high school students everywhere should learn a few basic facts about American Indians, as they learn basic facts of American history. These facts should focus on the larger picture of how and why things happened as they did.
The migration of Asiatic people to the Americas from North and East Asia 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. Hunting the great ancient fauna, such as mammoths, and spreading out in the Americas. The richness of the land. The eventual domestication of many edible plants. The lack of suitable animals for domestication.
The growth of cities with elaborate architecture and sculpture, primarily in Mesoamerica and the Andes, but also along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The development of metallurgy, recording and writing systems, astronomy and calendar. Distinct cultures such as the Maya, Aztec and Inca creating complex colossal monuments. The amazing fact that these were created with only stone tools.
Outside of the areas of “high civilization,” in most of North and South America, the richness of the land allowed native peoples to live a successful seminomadic life with only a small investment in agriculture or permanent monuments.
This can be contrasted with the Old World, the continent of Eurasia, that was populated millennia earlier by homo sapiens and their antecedents in migrations from Africa. The Eurasian situation was one of conflict, competition and intermarriage of peoples that encouraged invention. There were four major foci of civilization that interacted: Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China. Stone tools were quickly overtaken by the invention of bronze, iron, and steel tools. Interaction between distant places further stimulated invention. The Chinese discovery of gunpowder, used there for wireworks, for example, was quickly turned to cannon and muskets in Europe and shortly thereafter faced the Native Americans. (It is noteworthy how many Old World inventions and science were stimulated by war — WWII and then the atom bomb or even Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for war machines.)
European civilization was populous and mercantile, looking for goods to trade in far parts of the world to make money. While the spices Columbus was looking for did not pan out, he encountered gold in the Caribbean and sealed the fate of the exploration of the New World. Europe had a large population, including many landless poor, lesser nobility, as well as groups persecuted for religion, many eager to settle in a new “open” land. Immigrants of various sorts literally swamped the New World in the next few centuries, by sheer numbers.
Invention in the New World had been slowed down by isolation — there were only two foci of civilization, Mesoamerica and the Andes, and they were not directly in contact or at war. Their ideas did not cross-fertilize one another, except for a very limited extent. Everyone used stone tools, and they were deemed adequate for practical and military purposes. Compared to Eurasia with its terrifying invasions of horse-nomads, constant wars and increasingly sophisticated weapons with bronze and steel, Native Americans were more secure, their wars were on a smaller scale and did not lead to escalating weapons.
Instead, the Indians of the Andes and especially Mesoamerica, practiced human sacrifice, which is a symbolic form of violence (rather than war, which is actual and pragmatic). The Aztecs were interested in taking prisoners alive in war and sacrificing them later, ceremoniously rather than leaving significant body counts on the battlefield. The body counts of our wars and genocides, in the tens of millions, would have been unimaginable to them.
Historical conditions, rather than innate intelligence, determined why Europe conquered the New World and not the other way around. What can be assessed is that using stone tools, Indians of both North and South America created civilizations comparable to Bronze Age Europe, built fascinating monuments and proved that, up to a point, technology is not everything.
At the current time there is new conflict and uncertainty among Indian and US relations. Indians on the reservations desire more independence and sovereignty from the American government. Many US lawmakers want the abolishment of the reservations altogether, think Indians should assimilate and the lands revert to US interests. However this conflict turns out, all the American public — Indian and non-Indian — could only gain from knowing something about the Indian past and the overall circumstances of contact.