“You can’t commit atrocities with enlightened people, you need hatred, blindness and a knee-jerk xenophobia.”-Boualem Sansal, The German Mujahid
The original manuscript of my forthcoming book Oscar’s Ghost was three times as long as my publisher wanted. In order to make it an acceptable length, I had to cut 100,000 words from it, a book’s worth of material. In places, I am sure the tightening was an improvement, but there was also a great deal of material that I regret losing. Much of this fell into the category of cultural and social context. One aspect of the story of that time period was a growing anxiety about the loss of national identities and a fear of enemies within– those who lived as citizens but who could not, or were not allowed to, fully assimilate. The discourse these anxieties produced colored the worldviews and attitudes of everyone who lived through the era and thus are important to understand if you want to contextualize some of the behavior of the book’s main characters.
Oscar Wilde spent his last years in France, and while he was there the nation was gripped in a controversy that was tearing society apart. Everyone had an opinion on The Dreyfus Affair. It created what we might now call “a hyper-partisan environment.”
Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer on the general staff of the French army had been a convenient patsy when it became clear that military secrets had been passed to the German military attache in Paris. The only physical evidence in the case was a memorandum, in French bordereau, found by a woman who emptied the wastebaskets of the German embassy.
Dreyfus was found guilty on the evidence of a handwriting expert and, before a howling mob shouting anti-semitic epithets, exiled to the Devil’s Island penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. He was kept in solitary confinement, manacled to his bed at night. By the time Emile Zola took up his cause in 1898, he was losing his teeth and hair and was unable to speak. But he was not guilty.
In the wake of Zola’s article, J’Accuse, the French public became divided along familiar fault lines. On the right were those who believed the verdict had been just. This group included nationalists, the military and the Catholic church. On the left were the Dreyfusards, mostly Protestant, Socialists, Freemasons and intellectuals. In fact, the word “intellectual” was coined by Georges Clemenceau, the politician who published Zola’s letter, to describe the Dreyfus supporters.
The underlying philosophical question had little to do with the guilt or innocence of Dreyfus, and much more to do with whether to be one nation a people needed to be culturally and socially similar. What was a “real Frenchman?” Religious and sexual difference both threatened social cohesion. In France this meant protestants were suspect. In Anglican England it was Catholics. In both nations Jews and homosexuals were “other.”
Oscar Wilde, perhaps surprisingly, did not take up the Dreyfus cause and instead befriended the real culprit Esterhazy. There were a number of reasons for this, which go beyond the scope of this article. My point is, that this era we are now in, in which fear and “othering” play such prominent roles is not unique.
Panics erupt from time to time like a virus. Societies come down with a kind of sickness, fear of outsiders bubbles to the surface and good people get swept up. Dark impulses, stereotyping, dehumanizing language, separating the superior from the inferior become part of polite discourse.
The fear and anger may be stoked by political actors with something to gain, but what I find more disturbing is not the evil actor. There are surprisingly few of them. It is that so many good, ordinary people go along. They try to associate themselves with the in-group and blame all of the problems of the world on the out-group.
One of my Facebook friends, a nice church-going lady, posted this meme on her wall.
Before I get to the overall message: that white Christians are superior to others, there are a number of facts that need to be dispensed with. To claim that “European Christians built America” you need to overlook a great many things.
Let’s begin with the first European settlers. I am quoting from my book Blame it on the Rain:
The New World was not the vast, sparsely populated wilderness that some history texts would have you believe. In fact, historian William McNeil estimates the indigenous population of the land we now call America was 100 million in 1492– when Columbus sailed the ocean blue– while the European population numbered only 70 million.
The natives of what is now New England were not nomads. They lived in towns and villages. They were farmers and skilled craftspersons and had technology that many historians believe rivaled that of the English. So how were the Europeans able to colonize this “new” continent so rapidly and completely?…
Although the Europeans had a slight technological advantage in the form of steel weapons and guns, it was a secret weapon that allowed them to dominate the Americas, a weapon the Europeans did not even know they possessed—germs.
In the 1600s, before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, British and French fishermen started fishing the New England coast. Occasionally they would come to shore and interact with the natives. These unremarkable encounters would prove deadly. Within three years, a plague had wiped out between 90 and 96 percent of the inhabitants of costal New England. By comparison, the Black Plague killed perhaps 30 percent of the population of Europe. Whole cities lay in waste. There were so many dead that there was no way to bury them all. The disease-ravaged mourners were in no position to fight off European invaders. In fact, one of the reasons the Wampanoags were so warm to the Pilgrims at Plymouth was that their tribe was so weakened by illness that they were afraid of being attacked by neighboring tribes to the West and they sought allies to protect them. European colonization was swift because the settlers, in many cases, simply moved into abandoned Native American villages and farms.
The Mexicans speak Spanish today largely due to this same effect. When the Spanish marched into what is now Mexico City, they found an Aztec population ravaged by smallpox. There were so many bodies that the soldiers had to walk on them. The Spanish were largely immune to the disease…
As the Europeans settled in, they brought even more disease. They settled their farms with domesticated animals that were not native to the region—sheep, goats, cows, pigs. The animals carried streptococcis, ringworm, anthrax and tuberculosis, all of which could be passed on to humans.
Between 1520 and 1918, historians have recorded as many as 93 epidemics among native populations including bubonic plague, measles, influenza, tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhus, cholera and small pox.
The first Europeans on the continent did not need to build anything. They moved into already constructed cities which had been abandoned.
To say that the Europeans “built” America is also to ignore the labor of slaves. The plantation owner may have overseen the operation but the actual hands-on creation of value was done by the laborers, the slaves.
It ignores the fact that Jews are disproportionately prominent in American society. They have built so much of America that even though they represent only 2% of our population, in polls people consistently rank their presence much higher– around 30%.
It ignores the wave of Chinese immigration in the 1800s. If you didn’t learn about this in school (I did not), I recommend Ken Burns excellent documentary The West. In episode seven it tells the story of this group of non-European, non-Christian settlers. People like Chung Sun, who arrived here “with $600 and dreams of becoming a wealthy tea planter in Southern California.” What the Chinese encountered instead was racism. Although most of the white settlers and prospectors were also recent immigrants they accused the Chinese of taking “their” jobs. There was no such thing as “illegal immigration” in those days. There were no passports, no quotas, and if you could get here you could settle here. This began to change when non-Europeans started to arrive.
“For the first time in the history of the United States, the government decided to exclude a group of immigrants on the basis of race,” said Ronald Takaki in The West, “And it set a precedent … because for the first time you have this new thinking introduced … We can not only determine who could become citizens in this country, but we could determine who could come to this country.”
It also ignores the fact that large swaths of what are now the U.S. were built and inhabited by Hispanic people before Europeans got there.
As for the Christian European settlers, they did not all come to participate in the “American Dream.” There were also those who were forced out of their own countries. Quite a few of my European ancestors, for example, were victims of religious persecution, considered heretics at home. They were refugees.
Some of the Europeans were also convicts. According to The American Historical Review:
In 1769 Dr. Johnson, speaking of Americans, said to a friend, “Sir, they are a race of convicts and ought to be content with anything we may allow them short of hanging.” In the latest edition of Boswell, who chronicled this saying, it is explained by the following footnote: “Convicts were sent to nine of the American settlements. According to one estimate, about 2000 had been sent for many years annually. Dr. Lang, after comparing various estimates, concludes that the number sent might be about 50,000 altogether.”
And did they not bitch? Consider what historian Stephen Budiansky has to say about the first Thanksgiving:
…the colonies were organized and backed by joint-stock companies of wealthy English merchants — and the settlers worked for the company.
The real problem, though, was that the men recruited for Jamestown and Plymouth were expecting quick and easy riches without having to work at all.
Most of the participants of the debacle at Jamestown listed their occupation as “Gentleman,” which was defined at the time as, “Whosoever can live without manual labor.” John Smith kept desperately requesting that the company send men who possessed some actual skills and who were willing to get off their rear ends and work, but to no avail: “When you sende againe I intreat you rather send but thirty Carpenters, husbandmen, Gardiners, fishermen, blacksmiths . . . than a thousand such as we have.” Likewise he advised the Puritans, planning their colony in Massachusetts, “One hundred good labourers better than a thousand such Gallants as were sent to me, that would do nothing but complaine, curse, and despaire, when they saw all things clean contrary to the report in England.”
The “report in England” had promised nothing so much as a get-rich-quick scheme…So here’s an alternative interpretation of the Thanksgiving story:
A bunch of overprivileged toffs, backed by off-shore capitalist speculators, expected to live idly off the work of others (when they weren’t simply plundering treasure off the natives), and nearly starved to death from their own greed and idleness. (In Jamestown, they did starve to death.) Only when they faced up to the fact that they were going to have to work for a living, and threw off their foreign corporate masters, did they begin to prosper. And that is why we celebrate Thanksgiving today. The end.
Did they come to practice sharia law? No, of course not. But the Puritans did not sail to the New World to uphold the Constitution or to keep a separation of church and state. They were at odds with the Church of England and wanted their own land where they could set up their own official religion. They established religious law. Early on in Massachusetts the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and the celebration of Christmas were outlawed. Only members of the Congregational Church were allowed to vote. It was illegal to question church doctrine and church attendance was mandatory.
Christian Europeans came to America for various reasons. They built some things, appropriated others, took credit for still others and dominated other groups with military force. That’s how this nation was built.
Lets go back and talk about the wave of Chinese immigration in the 1800s for a moment. One of the insidious things about defining groups of our neighbors as “not us” is that we become blind to the harm that is done to them. There was no logical reason to call a recent Italian immigrant to California “American” and a recent Chinese immigrant “not American.” If we think of them as our fellow citizens, then any harm to them is harm to the body of our nation. The violence against Chinese immigrants was violence to our residents, even though the violence came at the hands of others of our residents. If we do not count them as us, then we are blinded to their pain, including the harm we do to them in the name of our fear. We recoil from guilt, and look for justifications.
I have been reading Boualem Sansal’s The German Mujahid
. Sansal is an Algerian author and the novel is billed as “The first Arab novel to confront the Holocaust.” It is the story of two brothers born in Algeria to a German father and an Algerian mother. They have lived most of their lives in the projects in France. After their parents are killed in an Islamist massacre, the older brother, now an educated professional goes home and discovers his father’s secret past as an officer in the death camps in Nazi Germany. The older brother Rachel is so overwhelmed by what he learns that he commits suicide and leaves his diary, with the story of his attempts to make sense of it all, to his teenaged brother Malrich. Malrich finds parallels between the Nazi regime and the Islamists who run things in the projects. He becomes determined to find a way to break the cycle. Sansal said he wrote the novel, “to ask what it might mean to take responsibility for ensuring that such crimes are never repeated.”
Rachel is haunted by the question of where responsibility for the crime ends. Is he guilty of his father’s sins? Are we blameless if we accept the benefits of our ancestor’s misdeeds? Do we, for example, look at the fortune inherited from a large plantation once run on slave labor and say, “Europeans built that.”
It is not the question of guilt or blame that haunts me as much as another. Once these forces of fear are unleashed, where do they go?