Wednesday, November 25, 2015

... .-

Sometimes I am pedantic for the sake of being pedantic, but I don't think this is one of those times. Probably. 

I have seen in the newspapers in the past little while more than once that the recent attacks in Paris were the ‘worst attacks on French soil since World War II’, ‘the deadliest violence to strike France since World War II’, etc

Unless these statements are very narrowly and pedantically qualified, they are not true.

On August 20th, 1955, the non-Saharan bits of Algeria were départements of France. This means they were not colonies or protectorates, like Vietnam or Djibouti, but were formally just as much ‘French soil’ or ‘France’ as Martinique, La Réunion, or Corsica are today. On that day occurred a number of separate murderous attacks on civilians for political reasons - that is, terrorist attacks - in the neighbourhood of the city of Constantine. If you have a mind to, go and google ‘Philippeville Massacre’.  I won’t blame you if you don’t; what you will find will be really ghastly and make you turn to the modern news with a sigh of relief. English Wikipedia only has the death toll in Philippeville itself, where 123 Europeans and loyalist Arabs were killed, but states that 37 Europeans were killed in the nearby town of El-Halla. French Wikipedia suggests a total death toll of about 170. Thus in aggregate these attacks caused more deaths than the aggregate death toll of the recent co-ordinated attacks in Paris.

But those attacks aren’t what I’m talking about. The worst acts of terrorism since World War II on French soil were not those massacres, but the reprisals afterwards, extra-judicial executions carried out over the next few days of August 1955 by French military, paramilitary, and civilian vigilantes, in which something between 1200 and 20,000 Arabs were killed. Feel free to google them as well if you aren’t sickened enough. The tiresome warnings about an ‘islamophobic backlash’ are a bit less tiresome in the context of these things that happened within living memory on French soil.

As for political violence in mainland France, it is true that there are no single incidents as bad since World War II. But the ‘cafe wars’ – the struggle between rival Algerian rebel groups among Algerian expatriates in France – killed at least 3975 people during the years of Algerian War. That might not sound so bad to readers from Juarez or Baghdad, but that is a pretty serious level of violence for Western Europe. But it was beur on beur, so who remembers?

I remember being struck, back when I was an undergraduate, on how the modern history section of my university had shelves and shelves about the Vietnam War, but only one book on the Algerian War. ‘What anglocentrism!’ I thought. ‘What a parochial country we are! I bet it would be very different in France.’ A few years ago I brought this up with a French colleague – how nobody in the English-speaking world seemed to remember or care about the Algerian War – and he said it was actually much the same in France. De Gaulle wanted to forget about it; the establishment wanted to forget about it; and for many years afterward journalists were actively discouraged from mentioning it.

So we forget. Not that long ago Algiers, Oran, and Constantine were cities with Arab minorities. A million people fled in 1962, to France and Spain and Israel. The vibrant cosmopolitan cultural mix of Marseilles, say, has been tried before, on the other side of the Mediterranean.

So maybe this isn’t one of those times I am being pedantic for the sake of being pedantic. I dunno.

From the 1911 Encylopaedia Brittanica, BTW:

CONSTANTINE, a city of Algeria, capital of the department of the same name, 54 m. by railway S. by W. of the port of Philippeville, in 36°22′ N., 6° 36′ E. Constantine is the residence of a general commanding a division, of a prefect and other high officials, is the seat of a bishop, and had a population in 1906 of 46,806, of whom 25,312 were Europeans.

...In 1906 the population of the commune of Algiers was 154,049; the population municipale, which excludes the garrison, prisoners, &c., was 145,280. Of this total 138,240 were living in the city proper or in Mustapha. Of the inhabitants 105,908 were Europeans. French residents numbered 50,996, naturalized Frenchmen 23,305, Spaniards 12,354, Italians 7368, Maltese 865, and other Europeans (chiefly British and Germans) 1652, besides 12,490 Jews. The remainder of the population—all Mahommedans—are Moors, Arabs, Berbers, Negroes, with a few Turks.

...In 1832 a census of the town showed that it had but 3800 inhabitants, of whom more than two-thirds were Jews. Under French rule Oran has regained its ancient commercial activity and has become the second city in Algeria. The population of the city in 1906 was 100,499, of whom 21,906 were French, and 23,071 Spanish. There were also 27,570 naturalized Frenchmen, mostly of Spanish origin. There is a negro colony in the city, numbering about 3000, included in the census in the native population of 16,296. Including the garrison and naval forces the total population of the commune was 106,517.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Sense of Proportion, 2015 Edition

It has been a while since I have written anything substantial here. There have been any number of embryonic blog posts kicking around in my head for months. I read Graham Richardson’s “Whatever it Takes”, for example. I wanted to write about how weird it was that he could come from a background in the Catholic Left and write about the years when all the important forward defences in the culture wars that were to come were abandoned, without mentioning them at all; but mostly I wanted to write about the renewed sense of gratitude and appreciation I had for the role of the Centre Left in winning the Cold War. Richardson’s memoir is devoid of moral content, beyond a sort of crude sentimental tribalism, but in terms of outcomes – which are what counts – it was incredibly important that this country had people like him occupying that Centre Left idea space and tenaciously defending it. This made a home for people who might otherwise have ended up further left, if that place was empty. Richo’s Labor Right faction, and even more so his arch-enemies of the non-Communist Labor Left, seems to me to have filled an absolutely essential role as the real frontline enemies of the Evil Empire in Australia. That is the critical theatre in the war for hearts and minds: that place in idea space where those who could go either way are. 

Then I have been meaning to write about a feeling that has been preying on me worse and worse this year, the feeling that I have trapped myself in the middle of nowhere, by setting up the perfect I have imagined as the enemy of the good that actually exists. Like Blake said: “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s”; but having done so I am in Lord Acton’s position: “absolutely alone in my essential moral position, and therefore useless.” Day by day Western Secular Culture – which I was quite comfortable in, c. 1990 - becomes more ridiculous and repulsive to me, driving me away. It has no sense of proportion at all, and it is in the thrall of a groupthink, a Grundyism as narrow and obsessive as the worst of the Victorian Age, the intellectual foundations of which make Scientology look like a respectable ideology. Then day by day Dar-al-Islam – which I was quite enamoured of, c. 2000 –brings forth some new horror. These things push me away, and make me long for the culture and ideology of my youth, the culture and ideology that created Western Civilisation: but then there is Laudato Si, and I am kicked away...

I want to belong; I do not want to be entirely alone and useless. But I cannot bow to be the slave of another man’s system. I cannot assert anything I do not truly hold to be true. Here I am, stuck.
So I give myself this command: seek a sense of proportion yourself, first. Take the beam out of your own eye. What does it mattter what happens to Western Civilisation? It has been fatally injured since 1914. It has done what it came into the world to do, it has spread its seeds, it has brought the Declaration of the Rights of Man to the shores of the Ubangi and the Summa Theologica to Vietnam, and there is no corner of the world where the ‘good bits’ of Western Civilisation are not ceaselessly alive, a vision in the minds of men. So it is dying, now, but it has been dying a long time, and every day it is a smaller proportion of the world’s population, the world’s wealth, the world’s knowledge. Remember, never have more people lived healthy and productive lives then right now, today. Never have we known more; never have we had more. Look at the world, and exult at it. What is happening in the parts of the world where most of us live? The Renegade Mainland Provinces have abandoned their profoundly anti-human One Child Policy; is this not the best piece of news of this century? Of course it is. Look at India: when you were young, remember how it was mired in unproductive economic policies, a hairsbreadth away from dictatorship? Remember a little more than a decade ago, the trains burning in Gujarat? See how Modi, the leader of the free world, is pursuing policies that lead to economic growth, is avoiding communalism. Look at Indonesia: a peaceful democratic change of government is not news anymore; remember what happened there, in the last years of the 20th century. Remember what East Timor was, and what it is now. Look at Nigeria: there has been an election, and a leader has stepped down, and a new one has stepped up; no tanks in the streets, no massacres. Look at Chile: how much better is it there now, then when you were young. Look at Myanmar! Look at Turkmenistan, even: is it not better there than it was, a decade ago, when the fruit loop was running the show? All across the world, there are places that were charnel houses when I was young – Cambodia, Mozambique, El Salvador, Uganda – where people like me go on holiday now, where the inhabitants are gainfully employed making things to sell me, where there is no-one with serious traction advocating policies leading to poverty and genocide. 

How crazily, unbelievably better of this world is then what we imagined when I was in grade school? The nightmare futures of overpopulation and nuclear war they scared us with? This is an awesome world.

I don’t need a system.  I don’t need to be enlaved to another man’s. I am useless, but I am one of seven and half billion. What cosmic arrogance and gall is it, for me to aspire to be anything other than useless! I will stay today in my lonely empty spot in idea space, and exult, for I have regained my sense of proportion.