Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Empires on the go

When I was a boy in Australia, all our world maps showed the British Empire in red. It covered the world, pretty much; the sun never set on it. We felt lucky to be a part of it, and we pitied those nations that weren’t. It’s a measure of how narrow our world-view was, that we had no notion that the American Empire was on the way up, and the British on the way down.

A few years ago a well-travelled American friend of mine protested indignantly, “We don’t do empires”. He’s changed his mind, since. He could hardly not do. Today, the new Empire announces its presence with all the fanfare and arrogance of every past empire – the Roman, the Persian, the Mongol, the Turkish, the Spanish, the British, and so on. To outsiders, though,too many American citizens seem to be unaware of the historical context of their empire. 

From the time of the earliest foreign settlements in North America, the British and (later) Americans expanded their realms inexorably – sometimes in small increments, sometimes in large. The “Louisiana Purchase” from France in 1803 of nearly a million square miles was a false bill of goods, since the vendor didn’t own the territory and the buyer knew it. What was bought and sold was the exclusive right to steal it from the people in possession. Well, that’s how empires expand; they don’t ask permission from the conquered.

The forced transfer of half of Mexico in 1848 – also nearly a million square miles – was the same kind of acquisition. So was the purchase of Russian America in 1867 – only half a million square miles, this time. Several of Spain’s overseas possessions were added to the empire by force of arms in 1898: Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico...

Since then, America’s expansion has followed the broad method of the European trading nations between the 16th and 20th Centuries, with businessmen and troops moving more or less in lock-step. The military occupation of the Middle East was predictable. It’s what the British did in India. Local satraps can’t be relied on to provide the raw materials necessary for the prosperity of the imperial homeland – not without the presence of imperial troops to remind them of their duties.

Brutality is a natural part of the reminding-process, and psychopaths are hired to do the reminding. Human-rights have no part to play in the administration of empires, and are pretty much a dead letter in any imperial context. 

Non-Americans have no excuse for not recognising this truth. Europe remembers the excesses of Germany and Russia. Asia remembers China’s “Great Leap Forward”, Japan’s invasions, and the more recent holocausts in Cambodia and Vietnam. Latin America remembers its genocides of aboriginal peoples. Africa’s history is cluttered with similar savagery. 

Non-Americans in general are inclined to sympathize more with local resistance movements that pit themselves against foreign occupiers. We are more aware of history. The French civilians who resisted the German occupation were called terrorists. The local heroes who made the American Revolution were called terrorists by the British. Non-American politicians tend to condone their US colleagues’ use of terror-tactics to counter the resistance of the conquered – but not their constituents, in general.  

The bogey-man of worldwide Islamic terrorism is a conspiracy theory too far for most of us. We know that the entire Islamic community isn’t savage. Religious crusades are frowned on by most educated observers, today.

Nevertheless, we don’t doubt that the Oceania envisioned by George Orwell in “1984”, of America (and Israel, its Airstrip One), will endure for the foreseeable future – or at least as long as its currency can bear the expense. Empires’ lives are measured in centuries. There is nothing new under the sun.

This essay was originally posted a couple of years ago. Somehow, it has appeared again now, with the date 29 July 2015. I've no idea how this happened, and the Blogger website can't explain it. So... The content is still valid, but I do apologise for anybody irritated by the apparent double-post!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Norwegian Wood

Ross gave me a glowing report on the property he was intending to buy – and eventually did buy with the help of his Norwegian bank. “And – listen to this, Dad – there’s a river runs through it!” Wow. I’ve never actually read the book of that title, or seen the movie, and I’m not sure he has. But I recognized the romance in the reference, and gave it the nod.

Actually, the “river” was – is – a downhill trickle from a natural mountain spring, but it made a satisfactory river-ish noise all the way down. It rained most of the time we visited (earlier this month), and the wet grass and undergrowth put us off exploring for the source further up the mountain in the forest. Next time…

So. The Barlow Family’s property empire now includes sixty acres of harvestable Norwegian trees in that nation’s wild, wild, west, to augment the forest cabin’s half-acre in the east. It hardly seems worth while listing our two little suburban blocks in the Caribbean. Yee-hah, though, eh?

The idea (not a plan, as such…) is to convert some of the rickety shacks into basic accommodation for the hostel trade. There’s a lot of conversion to do, and very little capital to do it with. Dreams and romance don’t transform easily into practicality, do they? We parents will give what encouragement we can – short of committing our retirement fund to the project. That would need a serious plan.

He bought it for the view, which is magnificent: two or three thousand feet above a valley with a real river and a very cute town. Snow-capped mountains in the far distance, even in the summer. In the winter it’s ski-territory, and by gosh it must be cold then. Linda and I huddled in Ross’s coats and woolly hats, on top of our own – while the young Norskie grandchildren cavorted (yes they did – they cavorted, shamelessly) in short-shorts and T-shirts, and bare feet. Madness.

The place came on the basis of “as is, where is”. Electricity, but no hot-water tank or pipes; a little stove and fridge (!), lights and a heater, but no sink or shower or washing machine, or TV. Oh, and the toilet facilities were – uh, as simple as you can get, pretty much. I hadn’t used one of those places since 1955 when we left Hannaford; I’m not sure Linda had ever used one, at least in a Western country. The only good thing about it is that the seat was warm. I’m guessing it will need to be upgraded before the local authorities grant any licences.

Or maybe not. Norway is a surprisingly relaxed place: cheerful and friendly to a fault. Ross once ran across the Prime Minister of the day while waiting for a ferry. “Are you good for a selfie, squire?” “Well, why not?” Something like that. It’s a nice photo for his Facebook page – Ross’s, at least: maybe not the PM’s.

That PM has come down in the world since then, regrettably. Today he’s Secretary-General of NATO – doing the US’s bidding, and complicit in that organisation’s war crimes. Sigh. Oh well. He has publicly scoffed at the idea that Russia poses an imminent threat to Europe, so we must hope he can keep his idiotic generals from starting World War III. (One of them is actually called General Strangelove, for goodness sake. Well, Breedlove, which is even sillier.)

I’m always disgusted by double standards, and my heart breaks to note that Norway’s are as disgusting as anybody’s. In the exact same week in 2011 that Anders Breivik slaughtered 69 members of a youth camp on the island of Utoya, Norway’s air force was slaughtering an unrecorded number of civilians in Libya as part of NATO’s unprovoked attack on that nation. Nobody seems to have noticed the irony. (This was before Stoltenberg took over, by the way; some Danish politician was in charge.)

The hypocrisy of mourning the one event while celebrating the other is too much for me to stomach. Norwegians were themselves victims of an aggressive-war machine in the 1940s. Is there a qualitative difference? I can’t see it. Aren’t Libyans humans, too? If we bomb their legs off, do they not bleed? 

Running with the NATO dogs of war invites comparison with that old German aggression, and the comparison demeans Norway’s gentle image in the civilized world. Norway’s people are gentle, and well-mannered, and humane. They deserve a more moral leadership and representation. 

Sadly, all the peaceful forest in the world can’t cancel out the wickedness of crimes against humanity.