What the senator said on the campaign trail speaks volumes about cultural eclipse
About that Fred Thompson crack
What the senator said on the campaign trail speaks volumes about cultural eclipse
What’s the difference between Fred Thompson, actor and presidential candidate, and people fluent in the Amurdag language?
Well, let’s start with what they have in common: they both turned up in the news cycle a few days ago. National Geographic made the headlines with a report that half the world’s 7,000 languages will disappear by the end of the century. Languages are vanishing faster than at any time in human history. In Australia alone, researchers for the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Oregon could find only three speakers each of Yawaru and Magati Ke. As for the Amurdag tongue, I use the singular advisedly: they were able to find just one man with rudimentary knowledge of the language. On the other hand, given that Amurdag was already thought to be extinct, his lone tongue may portend a stunning comeback for the lingo, the first shoots of a new Amurdag spring.
For National Geographic types, the tragedy is “the loss of knowledge about the natural world.” “Most of what we know about species and ecosystems is not written down anywhere,” says professor David Harrison of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. “It’s only in people’s heads.”
Big deal. The species and the ecosystem will, despite the sterling efforts of SUV drivers, still just about be around for folks to figure out. The real loss is more elusive and more profound. For generations there have been Yawaru and Magati Ke songs: no one will sing them ever again. There are stories of Yawaru and Magati Ke heroes and scoundrels: no one will know them, no one will
tell them. And no one will care, because only a handful of anthropologists will be aware they ever existed. The extinction of Yawaru and Magati Ke not only obliterates their future but their past. The death of even the smallest, meanest culture is a humbling event.
Which brings us to Fred Thompson. The other day, Senator Thompson was on the campaign trail and told his audience: “This country has shed more blood for the liberty of other countries than all other countries put together.”
More than “all other countries put together”? As I told our friends to the south, I’m the most pro-American non-American on the planet, but, if that’s the new default
braggadocio, include me out. The Washington Post’s attempt to refute Thompson by championing the Soviets was as predictable as it was absurd—the Reds certainly shed a lot of blood but not obviously in the cause of liberty. Yet slightly more startling was the number of pro-Fred American conservatives who sent me scornful emails belittling the efforts of the Commonwealth.
As old-timers will tell you at Royal Canadian Legion halls, the Dominion “shed more blood” proportionately than the United States in the Second World War. Newfoundland—not yet part of Canada—had a higher per capita casualty rate than America. No surprise about that: Newfs and Canucks sailed off to battle two years ahead of the Yanks. And, if we’re talking hard numbers,
I’M THE MOST PRO-AMERICAN NON-AMERICAN ON THE PLANET, BUT IF THAT’S THE NEW DEFAULT BRAGGADOCIO INCLUDE ME OUT
almost as many Britons died in the war as Americans, despite the latter having thrice the population.
To this, my U.S. correspondents responded that that was all very well but these chaps were defending their territory and empire rather than engaging in a selfless campaign of global liberation for noble reasons. Arguing the respective motivations of a dead Canuck on Juno beach and a dead Yank at Omaha is a shrill and unworthy argument, and anyway I generally incline to Patton’s line that the object isn’t to die for your country but to make the other sonofabitch die for his. But imagine what the state of liberty in the world would be like had the British Empire not decided to soldier on alone, against all the odds and all the expert advice, after the fall of France in 1940.
Here’s another thought experiment: imagine no Pearl Harbor, no casus belli to draw in the Americans. And yet somehow the mangy old British lion and its loyal cubs in the dominions managed to win all by themselves, and at all those war cemeteries on the Continent there was no Old Glory, just Union Jacks and Red Ensigns. Fred Thompson would not be able to make his claims to American über-exceptionalism über alles because the romance of America the Liberator would not exist. Saving Private Ryan would be about some bloke from the Cheshire Regiment, or maybe even the Princess Patricia’s. Hollywood would be forced to do as it did up to the thirties: its tales of derring-do on far-flung shores would be mostly British—the Bengal Lancers et al.
Instead, by 1945 Hollywood was making films like Objective: Burma, in which what was in real life an Anglo-Aussie campaign became onscreen an all-American one. Brit-
ish public opinion resented that enough to chase the movie out of the country. Fifty-five years later, the film U-571 told the story of a critical episode in the Battle of the Atlantic— the capture of a German submarine’s Enigma cipher machine by the Allies. In humdrum reality, it was a British operation. In Hollywood, it was left to... well, guess who? By this stage, British public opinion just gave a shrug, and left the picture to flop all on its ownsome.
The Americans entered the war, and they won it, and they won big, unlike the Brits and Canadians. So it’s theirs to mythologize, as Senator Thompson did. And there’s no point anybody complaining about it. The rest of us are not quite in the designated Magati Ke role, but we’re almost there. The Thompson crack and the National Geographic line are both about cultural victory and cultural eclipse.
A year ago I gave a speech down under at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Sellout audience, standing room only. So many folks that, blinking out across the footlights, I couldn’t really discern midst the great tide of humanity any particular demographic characteristics. But the excitable Aussie pundit Antony Loewenstein did. Evidently he felt like a hip-hopper at a tea-dance: “The crowd largely consisted of old, white males,” he wrote. “Steyn and his fellow travellers speak eloquently about Western civilization on the verge of collapse, but the kind of world they imagine is not one that I either recognize or want. Thankfully, his ‘vision’ is likely to die with the Bush administration. Likewise the elderly types at last night’s event probably still fondly remember the White Australia [immigration] policy. They’ll be dead soon enough.”
Oh, I don’t know. Leaving aside the question of whether the bloom of youth has faded from my own cheeks, I was introduced on stage by Dr. Janet Albrechtsen, who’s a brainy gal but also quite a hottie. At the end of the evening, I posed for photographs with sev-
eral gorgeous young sheilas, even if too many of them did tend to offer the somewhat dispiriting line that their mothers are really big fans of mine. Greg Lindsay, of the Centre for Independent Studies, which organized the event, responded that 10 per cent of the audience were students, another third were under 40, a third were female, etc.
But that’s not really what Loewenstein means. When someone deploys the “old white men” crack, they’re saying you are the past, and your bitterness and prejudice is little more than a side effect of your decrepitude. Whereas we are the forces of progress, and therefore by definition we’re young and healthy and full of vigour. So many of the most deeply ingrained assumptions about a culture are predicated on a youthful dynamism. We love the young because the young are the future—not just in pop songs and movies but in everything. As the blond blueeyed Aryan boy sings in Cabaret, “Tomorrow belongs to me.” It’s his youth that makes the scene seductive and dangerous. If he were an “old, white male” like me or Noam Chomsky or Neil Young or Gloria Steinern, it would be merely pathetic.
I may, indeed, be “dead soon enough,” as Mr. Loewenstein devoutly wishes. But so will the greying sixties boomers whose ancient pieties provide so much of his cobwebbed progressivism. And to whom then will tomorrow belong? On my Australian tour, I was speaking mainly on demographic decline—on the failure of Spaniards, Italians, Russians, Japanese and, yes, Canadians to have enough children to sustain not just their welfare programs but their societies and culture. That blond blue-eyed Aryan from Cabaret is now an elderly Berliner wondering why he hasn’t got any grandchildren. By the end of this century, the Yawaru and Magati Ke languages will be extinct. But there’ll be little reason to learn German or Japanese either.
And the last Belgians and Italians, like the Kallawayan people of Bolivia, will make their
accommodations with the future. “Children are little barometers of social prestige,” says professor David Harrison. “They understand implicitly that if they live in an environment where two languages are spoken, one of them is less valued than the other, and they will speak the more valued language.”
That applies to broader cultural choices, too. If you’re Nada Farooq, raised by moderate Muslim immigrants in Mississauga, Ont., educated at Meadowvale Secondary School, what’s “more valued”? Your fellow Canadians who gave their lives at Normandy? Or the fallen Chechen jihadist for whom you named your newborn son? In much of the West, “cultural eclipse” would seem to be a given. The only question is what comes next. M
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