November 19, 2003,
In our conversations about Iraq the dreaded I-word keeps barging its way in unwanted, like the drunken uncle at a wedding. Every time we think we have decisively smacked it down it just pops up again somewhere else, like [hold on tight, I'm going to switch similes here] one of the frogs in that frog-and-mallet fairground game. This thing we are trying to do in Iraq isn't it really...I mean, doesn't it amount to...shouldn't we just say it frankly...IMPERIALISM?
Well, maybe we have embarked on an imperial adventure, and maybe we haven't. If we have, though, we are in trouble, for one thing everyone seems to agree on is that we Yanks are no good at imperialism. The benchmark here, of course, is the Brits, who ran all of India with a smaller staff than our vice president's administrative assistant now has, while simultaneously running half of Africa with fewer soldiers than it takes to get Paul Wolfowitz from the Baghdad Hilton to the airport in one piece. Max Hastings, writing in the November 8 Spectator:
Americans should never be asked to do peacekeeping, because they are so bad at it...I have always argued that the Americans will not make headway in Iraq, any more than they did in Vietnam, until they commit people who possess a real interest in its welfare. It is no good sending Beltway types who perceive their sole responsibility in Baghdad as serving the national interests of the United States. The British, in the days of empire, were very good at this...Many British rulers displayed a passionate, even obsessive interest in the peoples among whom they served...Ah, yes, poor Carruthers gone native, you know. Now, there were not actually many cases of the Carruthers kind in the British empire. A far more typical specimen was George Orwell's grandmother, who "lived forty years in Burma and at the end could not speak a word of Burmese." There were probably enough Carrutherses to make a difference, though; and it is probably true that you can't do imperialism properly without some critical number of them.
In any case, Carruthers has been getting a pretty good press recently. Here is historian Niall Ferguson in the November 16 New York Times magazine.
The trouble is that if they do not undertake these interventions with conviction and commitment, they are unlikely to achieve their stated goals. Anyone who thinks Iraq can become a stable democracy in a matter of months whether 3, 6 or 24 is simply fantasizing....Of 927 recruits to the Colonial Service between 1927 and 1929, nearly half had been to Oxford or Cambridge. The proportion in the Indian Civil Service was even higher....In 1998/99 there were 47,689 undergraduate course registrations at Yale, of which just 335 (less than 1 percent) were for courses in Near Eastern languages and civilizations. There was just one, lone undergraduate senior majoring in the subject (compared with 17 doing film studies).In other words, Americans just don't like foreign places, and have no interest in them. As Max Hastings says: "I have yet to meet an American who regards Iraq as anything other than 'the asshole of the universe'."
Now, all of this is very thought-provoking. Yes, we probably do need more citizens who have, or can develop, a passionate interest in other cultures. (The so-called "multicultural" movement is of course a complete bust in this respect. You could probably attend every multicultural seminar currently being held in the United States without ever being required to learn more than two words of a foreign language.) I'm just going to leave that for you to discuss among yourselves, though, and just note one minor aspect of the Carruthers phenomenon.
If a thing moves from A to B, it may have been pulled by an attractive force, or pushed by a repulsive one; or there may be some combination of push and pull in play. I should like to suggest that one of our problems with practicing imperialism (supposing we decide to, or are obliged to) is that there is very little push. By that I mean that not enough Americans hate America.
For it is a simple fact about the British empire that some of those men (there were very few women) who bonded successfully with alien cultures, helping the imperial project thereby, were men who had left Britain because they loathed the place.
There were all sorts of reasons for this. Sex played a considerable part. Some of Britain's most successful imperialists were men like Lawrence of Arabia, homosexuals who felt oppressed by the anti-homosexual laws of the mother country. Others, like the explorer Sir Richard Burton, were fleeing from bourgeois respectability in general. More prosaically, there were people who simply couldn't stand the British weather people like Kipling's ten-year soldier:
I am sick o' wastin' leather on these gritty pavin'-stones.This wasn't just a phenomenon of the imperial age. All over the world, at least into the 1970s, you could find Carruthers characters Britons who had "gone native," driven mainly by dislike of the land that gave them birth.
I met a number of these types in my own wandering youth. There was one I particularly remember, a middle-aged Englishman living in Bangkok. He had been a highly skilled draftsman in England, making maps for the Ordnance Survey a very well-paid job. Then, on a random whim, he had gone for a vacation in Thailand...and stayed. Fifteen years on, when I met him, he was living in a ramshackle house up a klong with a local woman and making a meager living by giving English lessons. He was one of the happiest men I have ever met, in rosy good health, always chuckling and smiling. One of the few times I saw an unhappy expression on his face was when I asked him if he ever thought of going home. He turned dead white: "Good God, no!"
The problem is that not many Americans feel that way. We like our country. Climate is not a problem: If you don't like the "blasted English drizzle" of the northwest, move to Arizona. As for any need to flee from sexual repression please. The food is good and plentiful, the livin' is easy, fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high. America is such a darn nice place to live that half the world wants to come live here, and one of our most pressing problems is immigration.
Wait a minute, you say. Lots of Americans hate America. They write bestselling books to advertise their hatred. A couple of them are even running for president. Well, yes, I take your point; but these characters hate their country the wrong way. They don't hate her because she is too stiflingly unfree, but because she is too noisily free. Furthermore, they feel that the zeitgeist is running with them, that they can turn the country their way. These types are not going to go off in hopeless disgust to some imperial outpost to wear a sarong and eat biriyani with their fingers. Why should they? They think they are winning. The future, they believe perhaps correctly is theirs. They still have work to do here at home; and they feel that the work to be done expanding federal power, choking capitalism to death with regulations and taxes, stomping on religion, identifying ever more "minorities" to have favors legislated for them, ever more types of "hate" to be outlawed can actually be done, if they just keep pressing, pressing, pressing forward.
Perhaps they are right. Under the desk by my left elbow are three two-up filing cabinets six drawers filled with tax records, legal records, mutual-fund statements, expense claims, school-activity waivers, health-insurance forms, utility statements, credit-card statements, receipts and affidavits and avowals, all the masses of documentation you need in order to live an ordinary lower-middle-class life in the U.S.A. nowadays and protect yourself against predatory lawyers. As our society advances at an accelerating pace towards that state of legal-administrative despotism predicted by de Tocqueville, in which federal power "covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate," there are signs of rising discontent. It's getting to be too much: Yet still the laws, and regulations, and proscriptions, and demands, mount higher. You must do this; you may not do that; we shall require full supporting documentation; you did not complete line 21a; be advised that you are in violation of code 417b; unless we hear in 10 days....
One storm petrel here is Fred Reed, who has gone to live in Mexico. He is by no means alone; Americans, including many young Americans, are moving south of the border for "the quality of life I enjoy here, the friendships I have made and the peace of mind that I have living where people treat each other with respect and decency."
I'll pass on Mexico, having left it too late in life to start learning Spanish. There is a city in China I have my eye on, though. A nice place, by the sea; quiet, clean, and civilized, big enough to offer some interesting dinner companions, yet not so big as to be full of foreigners on the make. Pleasant maritime climate, great fresh seafood.
What's that? It's a Communist country? Oh, sure, the whole government system stinks. The place is awash with corruption, and if you tick off the wrong official, you could find yourself in court on an invented rap, looking at a ten-year jail term.
China is not totalitarian any more, though. You're not expected to memorize gibberish political formulas, not once you've got through with school anyway. You don't have to go to rallies and "political study" meetings any more. In the matter of everyday freedoms, it's probably close to the level of Mexico now. The thing about those places is, once you have mastered a few simple rules, the authorities pretty much leave you alone.
Which is increasingly not the case in these United States. Gibberish political formulas? Start practicing your diversity oath. "Political study" meetings? Big business in the Land of the Free. As for facing ten years in jail for having done nothing wrong well, the name Gerald Amirault mean anything? The way things are developing here, our ancient liberties will soon be just a disconnected archipelago of shrinking islands, separated by the rising waters of political correctness and patrolled by DAs and trial lawyers in full combat dress, armed with flame-throwers so they can zap any impertinent piece of vegetation that dares push up a green shoot through the baked dead soil.
I need to do some serious thinking about my future. I hold a lot of incorrect opinions about all sorts of things; and, having grown up in the age before PC, I have never internalized the necessary restraints nor mastered the necessary techniques of double-think. Looking at this new "hate-crimes" legislation coming up bipartisan, of course! I find myself wondering how much longer I shall be able to stay out of jail, much less be employable by any respectable organ of opinion.
I am perfectly serious. A friend of mine, a brilliant, well-educated, and civilized man with opinions very much like my own, is currently having his tax records demanded by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a federally funded organization dedicated to stamping out Bad Thoughts. My friends is suspected of having Bad Thoughts, you see. He is therefore obliged to forfeit several hundred hours of his time, unpaid, to the SPLC busybodies, and may very well end up forfeiting his property and freedom.
I myself have lots of Bad Thoughts. Maybe I should move to China, where, for all the systemic deficiences and officials with their hands out, the category of Bad Thoughts is better-defined and...smaller. And shrinking, not growing.
Or Iraq, perhaps....
Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,