Sunday, May 27, 2012

Niall Ferguson is Still a Kneebiter

The fourth chapter of Niall Campbell Douglas Elizabeth Ferguson's (More) Civilization (Than You Deserve) is allegedly a discussion of the fourth "killer app" of Western civilization, medicine.  An unwary reader might expect this to be an essay on medical science, focusing on breakthroughs like Jenner's smallpox vaccine. Those familiar with Professor Ferguson's style and beliefs will not be surprised to learn that it is instead a defense of European imperialism, with particular emphasis on its French variant, bookended by a gratuitous denunciation of the French Revolution* and an account of the First World War (about which Ferg says, with admirable originality, "War is Hell" [p. 187]). On the main subject of his chapter, Niall-o declares that French colonial public-health policy is a good answer to "those like Gandhi who maintained that the European empires had no redeeming features" (171). Through mandatory smallpox vaccination, the development of a yellow-fever vaccine, and the draining of malarial swamps, French officials significantly increased life expectancy in their African and Indochinese colonies, nearly doubling life-expectancy in the latter region between 1930 and 1960. There was certainly a downside to French health policy, Ferg admits, insofar as French officials used disease control as an excuse to segregate French colonists from the indigenes, thereby undermining the racial egalitarianism of their imperial vision. On the whole, however, the French imperium was the model of a good European empire, while the German empire in sub-Saharan Africa, with its draconian laws and exterminationist wars, was the model of a bad empire.

One must offer Ferguson some light praise for resisting the urge to write about one of his most favorite subjects, the British Empire, light of the world and land of the palm and the pine. One may then damn him for implying that there is such a thing as "good" imperialism. Every empire rests on the same original sin: the idea that there are certain races or ethnic groups or nations who are unfit to govern themselves, and who must therefore surrender their agency and destiny to another people. In theory, colonizers might be acting from benevolent intentions, such as the French "mission civilisatrice." In practice, imperial power attracts the cruel and the greedy, and empires therefore tend to become primarily instruments of exploitation. Ferguson acknowledges that European medical researchers weren't initially acting from benignly paternalistic motives: they were more interested in the survival of Europeans in tropical climates than in the well-being of colonial peoples. They focused their research on diseases that most affected Europeans, like malaria, rather than those that killed Africans, like "cholera and sleeping sickness" (174). Prof. Niall is less ready to acknowledge that colonial public health programs did not begin to affect colonized peoples' death rates until rather late in the colonial period - the 1930s and '40s - and that their primary goal, other than preventing the spread of disease to European settlers, was to ensure healthy workers for European mines and plantations and healthy soldiers for European armies.

Like other apologists for empire, Our Man Niall claims that policies intended to facilitate European exploitation were in fact enacted for the benefit of the "natives" - e.g. his observation that the French blessed Indochina with "20,000 miles of road and 2,000 miles of railways...coal, tin, and zinc mines, and...rubber plantations" (191), as if these were schools or cultural centers instead of money-making enterprises using cheap land and cheap labor. The positive effects of imperialism were fig leaves covering up the primary function of empire, which was to enrich a few Europeans, give the European lower and middle classes a false sense of racial superiority, and impoverish much of the world's population.**

Ferguson's imperialism is perhaps less obnoxious in this chapter than in his previous work about the British Empire (e.g. Empire, 2003) but it is still present, and one must wonder why. Partly, I think, Niall-o is still a British nationalist at heart, and longs for the days when Albion ruled 40 percent of the globe. There has also long been a strain of imperialism in Anglo-American conservatism that Ferg probably caught when he was a young Tory.  This strain manifested itself in James Burnham's Suicide of the West (1964), which mourned the breakup of the European empires as a loss of territory by the Free World to the Communists; more recently, it appeared in Dinesh D'Souza's and Newt Gingrich's denunciation of Barack Obama's father for his "anti-colonial" views, which both men viewed as somehow anti-American. Ferguson's celebration of empire is a necessary compliment to this anti-decolonizationism. Finally, I suspect Professor Ferguson embraces pro-imperial views as something of a posture, an effort to appear contrarian, cheeky, and clever. What he forgets is Scalzi's Law: "The failure mode of clever is asshole."

* Our Man Niall does argue, in contrast to scholars like Simon Schama,  that much of the violence of the French Revolution was a product of the French Revolutionary wars, not of the French Republicans' ideology.

** George Orwell observed that a penny was a common hourly wage in British India before the Second World War, and that an Indian laborer's leg was often thinner than a British person's arm.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Country Where I Quite Want to Be

Your humble narrator has just returned from Finland, where he attended the biennial Maple Leaf and Eagle Conference in North American Studies at the University of Helsinki.  As some of this weblog's readers may not have been to Finland, I will indulge in a few paragraphs' worth of travel writing, with the aim of wafting my readers off to that mysterious land of silks and spices (or at least of xylitol gum and reindeer).

There is much to like about Helsinki in early May.  The city is clean and pleasant, its buildings painted in bright pastel colors.  Helsinki's parks were green and free of snow, the trees just putting forth their first leaves.  The weather for most of my stay was clear and sunny, with temperatures in the 50s.  While chilly by Midwestern standards, this was warm enough that one could enjoy a beer or coffee out of doors at midday, and many of the locals did so. 

As one might expect, Helsinki's people were ethnically homogenous: nearly all white and Northern European, except for a few Somali immigrants, East Asian tourists, and Romanian street musicians playing "When the Saints Go Marching In." Outside of the conference (where everyone was as casually friendly as conference-goers usually are), the Finns with whom I spoke were polite but reserved, and generally avoided making direct eye contact.  Most spoke at least a little English, which is fortunate because the Finnish language was designed by aliens - it has 12 cases and virtually no cognates. (The Finnish word for "university," for instance, is "ylionpistu.")  Apart from "kiitos" ("thank you"), I did not pick up ay Finnish words on the trip.

I am not qualified to say much about Finnish culture and society, except that they have the same fondness for ice hockey that Kentuckians do for basketball (i.e. it is the state religion), that their educational system is quite good but on the verge of budget cutbacks, and that a notable minority are partial to drinking heavily and howling in the streets at 3 AM.  Just like college students, except they don't grow out of it.

Finland's national bird is, of course, an Angry one.

(The title of this post comes from this fine song by Monty Python.)

Thursday, May 03, 2012

The Rosy-Fingered Goddess Dawn

A Byzantine historian I know once told me he envied the wealth of primary sources that American historians have to work with, even in under-documented periods like the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Classical historians, he noted, have far fewer sources at their disposal, many of which are fragmentary, and they can assume that no "new" documents on their subject will be discovered in their lifetime.  Americanists, he concluded, can always write a book based on "new" documents, previously unseen by historians, whereas Classicists can only offer new interpretations. With respect to my friend, I must reply that interpretation is the heart of the historical profession, and that new interpretations of old stories are often much more interesting than new stories.

Take, for instance, the case of the Roman Emperor Caligula (12-43 CE), whom Anglo-Americans mainly know (thanks to Robert Graves and Bob Guccione) as an insane and sexually depraved tyrant who impregnated his own sister, then cut out and ate her fetus.  In a new biography (U. of California Press, 2011) of the third Julio-Claudian emperor, Aloys Winterling argues that much of Caligula's apparently crazed behavior was actually a form of political satire, intended to keep a dissembling and sycophantic Senate in check. Caligula famously made his horse a senator, for example, not because he was insane but as a critique of the Senate's self-aggrandizement. Similarly, when Caligula fell ill and a prominent senator offered his life to the gods in exchange for the emperor's, Caligula demanded his suicide, not because he was a crazed tyrant but in order to deter excessive flattery. Flattering the emperor, the author suggests, was the primary way that individual senators jockeyed for power in the early imperial era, but as a result of competition for previous emperors' favor the political "coin" of flattery had become badly inflated and debased, to the point where ambitious senators were offering their lives on the emperor's behalf; in calling the senator's bluff Caligula was trying to "deflate" the currency of flattery and make the surviving senators more reserved in their praise. It is an intriguing argument, and one which makes sense of Caligula's abuse of the Senate; one might add, as reviewer Mary Beard has done (see the link above), that there were no established rules of hereditary succession in the early empire, and that Caligula had reason to assume that the more ambitious senators might be aspiring to the throne. In any event, Caligula died at the hands of several senators, and later imperial historians, such as Suetonius, treated him unkindly in order to flatter his successors by comparison.

What of Caligula's sexual deviancy? Mostly this was made up by Graves, Pulman, and Guccione, of course, though the famous story about his staffing a brothel with noble Roman women appears to have been true. Whether this makes him a tyrant or just a misogynistic asshole I leave to the reader's judgment. Myself, I would like to think he once dressed up as the Goddess Dawn and danced for his uncle Claudius, but regrettably historical reality is not always more interesting than fiction.