Rants and Raves

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Musings on petty provincials and prideful sophisticates

A recent reader's comment got me thinking about the difference between European's knowledge of their neighbors and ours. It's true, Americans show a regretable lack of knowledge of even our closest neighbors' history and Europeans tend to scorn us for it.

For example, What was the metis uprising and who was Louis Real? What did the Treaty of Hildalgo establish? Important events in the respective histories of Canada and Mexico is what.

A Romanian professor of mine once commented on this in class with a question: What is the most significant thing that stands out about the history of Europe? The answer is of course - war. Europeans pay attention to their neighbors' histories because they have a vital interest in what goes on next door. It's where the next war may come from.

*And yet, is it their neighbors' history - or the history of their own interaction with their neighbors? There's a difference. Most Americans probably know something about Mexican history, at least that we've fought a war and took a lot of territory from them and they may be about to take it back demographically. But relations with Canada have been peaceful since the War of 1812, so we kind of ignore them, even though they are a major trading partner.

They however, do not ignore us. Pierre Trudeau once said that living next to America was like sleeping with an elephant. The elephant isn't aware of you, but you pay close attention to him when he turns over in its sleep. On a trip to Canada once, I was told that in Canadian high schools American history is compulsory but Canadian history is optional!

This has to be humiliating and infuriating - even if there are no recent great wrongs to resent.

*I saw a similar dynamic between Poles and Lithuanians. Once part of a confederated republic, Lithuanians grew to resent the domination of Polish language and culture and felt that their own was being slighted. (Their national poet Adam Mickiewicz chose to write in Polish for example.) This was in spite of the fact that the union was an entirely peaceful one under a Lithuanian dynasty. To this day they quite rightly resent the seizure of the majority Polish territory around their capitol in 1925 and are acutely aware that their capitol's population has more ethnic Poles and Russians than Lithuanians.

But what probably grates most is that while they often think about Poland, they know Poland hardly thinks of them at all.

*The English seem to know very little about the history of Ireland, right next door. I remember an English colleague who didn't know who Brian Boru was, for example. (The High King of Ireland who in 1014 defeated the Danes at the Battle of Clontarf and insured that Ireland remained in the hands of the Irish for a while longer. Also grandfather of one Lady MacBeth, whose given name Shakespear never mentioned. Possibly because it was "Gruoch.")

An Irish member of parliament once suggested that English-Irish relations would be immeasurably improved if Irish history were made compulsory in England - and banned altogether in Ireland!

*I suppose that Germans must be painfully aware that for most Americans, all of German history and culture is defined by twelve years of National Socialism. No matter how much they can point to German contributions to music, science, philosophy and yes, military organization (they invented the concept of staff command), an American or a Brit cannot think about "Germany" without at some time thinking "Hitler".

Nonetheless, they can be kind of clueless about the effect they have sometimes. When the Chancellor of Germany on a state visit to Russia said, "Russia is our most important neighbor" - Poland collectively freaked. That statement makes literal sense only if the German-Russian border runs through the middle of Poland. That's the kind of gaff that gets George Bush scornful laughs in the media for weeks.

*When I think of France and why anti-Americanism is so virulent there, I recall the movie 'Waterloo' when Rod Steiger as Napoleon, is agonizing that after his loss he will be imprisoned and "tortured with the memory of your glory."

Not so long ago, the ambition of the Western world, was to be French. Before the Second World War, the international languages were, French for culture and diplomacy and German for science and technology. Now it's English for both and most of that part of the world which votes with its feet wishes to be American. That's got to hurt.

*Germany and France have each had a respectable go at destroying European civilization in their time, in attempts to unite and rule it. Now Europe has had 60 years of peace under a Pax Americana, the longest peace ever in European history. I wonder how humiliating that is?

*I wonder what it's like to be Greek? Do you live with the feeling that in the eyes of the world, all your history after about the first century B.C. is an anticlimax?

*Spain once owned a chunk of the world about the size of the British Empire at its height, and for longer. The British Empire spawned America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc. Spain gave birth to... some very nice countries but few major players. And this after Spain started with lands that had massive amounts of gold and silver. What's worse, the remnant British Commonwealth still owns a piece of Spain!

*If I had to summarize what I thought I'd learned from extensive travel and study of history, it might be that periods of peace and amity between nations are fairly rare in history. Euro-America civilization has managed create 2-3 generations of peace over a fairly wide area. I fear our vacation from history may be drawing to a close though.


  • At 7:29 AM, Blogger Ed said…

    Thanks for casting an eye to the North at us Canucks. The point you make in the second paragraph would be a little sharper if you spelled the name Riel.

  • At 12:30 PM, Blogger Gilmoure said…

    ...if you spelled the name Riel.

    Heh, I thought he was making reference to some bit of New Mexican history I wasn't aware of, only reversing the 'e' and 'a' of 'Rael'.

  • At 8:59 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Ouch! However, it does kind of reinforce the point dont' you think?


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