Saturday, August 5, 2017

English language and American solipsism




Several months ago Simon Kuper published what seemed to me a bizarre piece in the weekend edition of the Financial Times arguing that native English speakers are handicapped by the fact that the entire world (or to be more realistic, the global middle and ruling classes) are able to read or speak English. This gave to the latter the advantage of fully understanding English speakers, their opinions, prejudices and motivations, while taking away all incentive for the native English speakers to learn foreign languages (why bother, if everyone speaks your language) and thus to understand and influence other cultures that still conduct most of their bread-and-butter business using national languages.

What I found odd in Kuper’s piece was that it reversed the normal and long-standing view that having foreigners learn your language was always a mark of cultural or technological superiority, that it entrenched that superiority, and  was therefore a very desirable thing. Greece influenced Romans through their love and awe of the Greek language (what Gibbon called “the perfect idiom”), and thus transmitted its culture and way of thinking.  It is not for nothing that such diverse emperors as Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius and Julian were Hellenophiles, often more at ease in Greek than in the rather coarse Latin. (I am writing this some 200 meters from the Hadrian’s Gate in Athens.)

The advantage of having others speak your language was always taken as a fact: it helps your culture, religion or trade, as we see among the French-speaking elites in the Middle East, English-speaking elites in the Indian subcontinent, or most of Africa. World-wide expansions of Christianity and Islam are unthinkable without cosmopolitanism of, at first, Greek language, and then Latin, English and French; for Islam, Arabic. The US gains from foreigners speaking English are immense: domination in the popular culture, media and book worlds, easy propagation of American ideas in politics, philosophy, sciences or economics. Such advantages have led the philosopher Philippe van Parijs to argue that, as a matter of justice, native English speakers should compensate non-native English speakers for the “unearned” advantage they (the speakers) enjoy.

So, how can such obvious advantages become a handicap? While disagreeing with Kuper, there was, in my mind even then, a slight doubt, that perhaps in some cases he might be right. And I think that an argument can be made for it. “Cultural solipsism “ of  native English speakers is exacerbated by everybody’s speaking their language, tolerably well (as I do here). This then reinforces a very human tendency toward intellectual laziness where one communicates only with the people who speak English and learns everything about the country one travels to, or more seriously, on which she works or writes about from English-language sources or English-speaking natives. This is bound to give a very truncated view of reality.

I was struck by observing native English speakers', who actually do speak foreign languages, indifference to native-language media sources in the countries where they lived. Some of them might have spent a decade or more living in X, speaking even its language, without bothering much to read the news in local language or engaging in more demanding intellectual intercourse in that language.

It was brought to me again when a couple of days ago I watched, in my hotel room, a Russian political talk show where a clearly smart and somewhat insolent host discussed with a number of guests the current US-Russia relations.  The loquacious host dictated the structure of the show, and to represent the US point of view, he invited an American journalist working in Moscow. His Russian was passable and I even think that he could conduct a real conversation in Russian in a one-on-one setting. But in a fast-paced talk show where he did not control other speakers and people were interrupting each other, his attempts to make a point were nothing short of pathetic. (I vaguely thought that he might have been deliberately brought for that reason too.) Showing that he lived, even in Moscow, in an entirely Anglo world, he referred to Montenegro (in the context of NATO expansion) as “Montenegro”, not as “Cherna Gora” as it is called in Russian. That to me indicated that he was not reading or watching Russian media discussing NATO, but was probably learning about  Russia's reaction  from the reading of American papers and a few conversations with local English-speaking Russians. Exactly the thing that a foreign correspondent should not do.

I could go with such examples for a long time, since in my travels I have seen them aplenty. As for example, the discussion of the Russian revolution in Moscow where some of the most famous Western historians did not feel confident enough to speak in Russian in front of a 99% Russian audience (some of whom had to resort to listening to translation). I thought that it would be rather odd if a Frenchman who wrote a book on US Revolutionary War decided, at a conference on the topic held in the United States, to speak in…French. Or I remember a famous medieval Greek and Byzantine historian who asked for even ordinary information in Athens only in English. Or a Western ambassador who in the middle of the Bosnian civil war kept on pronouncing the name of a city where the battle then raged as it was (wrongly)  pronounced in Washington, not in Sarajevo. And I do not need to expand on people who know not a bit of the language of the country on which they write but nonetheless bravely pen compendia of common places which proceed to win prizes in the Anglo world.

Thus Kuper’s piece, while in some respects extreme, did contain some truth. The ubiquitousness of English language has stimulated intellectual laziness by making native English speakers less likely to make an effort to learn foreign languages. And even when they do learn them, to use them mostly to hire taxis and read restaurant menus, and not to engage with the language and culture of the country which they are supposed to know and to write about. It has led them to live, even in places thousands of miles far from the United States, and culturally entirely different, in a bubble of the ideas generated by the Anglo-American media, to believe only in such ideas, and to reinforce the solipsism which has always been strong in well integrated, big and geographically isolated nations like the United States.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Colonialism applied to Europe: review of Mazower’s “Hitler’s Empire”



Mark Mazower’s “Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis ruled Europe” is a magisterial book.

I read it on vacation, and it is not a book I would suggest you take with you to the beach. Unless you want to spoil your vacation. But once you have made such a choice, you cannot stop reading it and the book will stay with you throughout your stay (and I believe much longer).

This Summer I read, almost back-to-back Adam Tooze’s “The deluge” and Mazower’s book. The first covers the period 1916-31, the second, the Nazi rule of Europe 1936-45. They can be practically read as a continuum, but they are two very different books. Tooze’s is, despite all the carnage of World War I and Russian Civil War, an optimistic book in which sincere or feigned idealism is battling conservatism and militarism.  As I wrote in my review of Tooze’s book, the emphasis on the failed promise of liberal democracy (but a promise still it was) is a thread that runs through most of the book. Mazower’s book, on the other hand, is unfailingly grim and this is not only because the topic he writes about is much more sinister. The tone is bleaker. It is a book about the unremitting evil. It is the steady accumulation of murders, betrayals, massacres, retaliations, burned villages, conquests, and annihilation that makes for a despairing and yet compelling read. Europe was indeed, as another of Mazower’s book is titled, the dark continent.

Here I would like to discuss another aspect of Mazower’s book that is implicit throughout but is mentioned rather discreetly only in the concluding chapter. It concerns the place of the Second World War in global history. The conventional opinion is that the Second War should be regarded as a continuation of the First. While the First was produced by competing imperialisms, the Second was the outcome of the very imperfect settlement imposed at the end of the War, and the difference in interpretations as to how the War really ended (was it an armistice, or was it an unconditional surrender).

But that interpretation is (perhaps) faulty because it cannot account for the most distinctive character of the World War II, namely that it was the war of extermination in the East (including the Shoah).  That is  where Mazower’s placing of the War in a much longer European imperial context makes sense.

The key features of Nazi policies of “racial” superiority, colonization of land and conscious destruction of ethnic groups cannot be understood but as an extreme, or even extravagant, form of European colonialism, as it existed from the 15th century onward. If one thinks of the Soviet Russia as of Africa or indigenous American continent (as it seemed to the Nazis), then Nazi policy of mass extermination and (more liberally) enslavement of the Slavic population that would provide forced labor for the German aristocracy living in agro-towns dotted across the plains of Russia does not look much different from what happened for several centuries in the mines of Potasi, in the Congo, in the ante-bellum South of the United States, in the Dutch Java or indeed in German-ruled Namibia.

The creation of two ethically and racially distinct social classes, with no interaction and with one openly exploiting another is exactly how European colonialism presented itself to the rest of the world. As Aimė Cėsaire, quoted at the end of the book, wrote (I paraphrase) “Nazism was the application of colonialism to Europe”.

There were, however, some differences that made the realization of this dream of conquest and domination unrealizable for the Nazis.

The technological and military gap between the “master” class and the Untermenschen was much smaller, and at the end it got even overturned in the military sphere. By 1942, the Soviet Union was producing more airplanes and tanks than Germany with all her factories in conquered Europe. The technological gap was indeed much smaller than it seemed to the Germans, and than it objectively was between the European conquerors and the peoples of Africa or the Americas. Tiny forces of Spaniards or English could conquer huge spaces and rule many people because of enormous superiority of their military power. But this was not the case in Europe. In other words, when the technological (military) gap between two groups is small, a complete annihilation of one by another is impossible.

The Nazis were blinded to this, not only by their misjudgment about the technological development of Russia, but also by their belief in rigid racial hierarchy where the very fact that such hierarchy existed (as they believed) made it impossible to entertain the possibility that the lower classes might rise sufficiently to challenge the “masters”. The rigidity of self-created racial hierarchy blinded them to reality.

The second difference between the Nazis and classical European imperialism was that racial hierarchy, pushed to its extreme, and leading to the attempted annihilation of the entire ethnic groups (Holocaust) was not motivated by economic interests of the elite but took place, as it were, outside it. Mazower makes very clear the tension that existed throughout the Nazi rule between economic needs for more forced labor, both in European factories and in the fields in the conquered territories in Poland, the Ukraine and Belorussia, and the ideologically-motivated drive to exterminate the “inferior races”. The military and civilian administrations tended to prefer the former approach (exploitation to death through labor), the SS the latter (pure destruction). This single-minded pursuit of annihilation, regardless of, or even against, economic benefits, was not something that existed in European colonialism.

The rigidity of racial hierarchy was such that the same Nazi leaders were arguing for forced labor vs. annihilation for one group, and for the opposite for another group. This was the case of Hans Frank, the head of the General Government of rump Poland, who tried to protect Poles from some random killings because he needed them to deliver grain but was eager to kill as many Jews as possible. (Although even he balked at thousands of “new” Jews being pushed to his territories as the “death camps” were already working at capacity.)

It is this macabre and economically and politically irrational drive toward extermination that might have differentiated colonialism as applied to Europe from colonialism applied elsewhere. But establishing racial hierarchy, believing in eugenics, being indifferent to the death of the “lower races”, creating a system of forced labor, shooting or maiming people who do not deliver their quotas of produce was not exactly new. Aimė Cėsaire might have been right.