Who are the Barbarians?
One thing people talk about a lot is values, and values are very interesting to me. In Europe of course, we have European values. When discussing this topic, people can be prejudiced. So to clarify, European values are not exclusively European, nor are they anything except an ideal, like any values. Rather, it is ideas and principles which, in some way or other, have shaped the history of our societies.
Hinduism is a good example of a value system, and how the Hindu religion has, for a very long time, shaped the nation of India as well as that of neighboring nations. Even the name itself, India, comes from this tradition.
So when I am talking about European values, then I am not talking about the European Union and its racist attempts to redefine Europe to mean Western Europe. Nor am I talking about the ridiculous caricature that the United States have made of European culture. I am talking about something that is found in history, and in the lives of ordinary people as opposed to the speeches of politicians.
And people often forget that there is a certain principle of oppression, which is that the more people are resisting, the more aggressive the doctrine becomes. People like to pretend that reactionary politics mean reactionary people, but this is nonsense. The people of the Philippines for instance are not people who hate democracy and human rights.
Quite the contrary, they have staged resistance efforts for several centuries, against just about anyone who attempts to exploit them. The reason why Philippine history is so familiar with military dictatorship is because that’s been the only way to control the people there.
And Europe is shaped no differently. It is often the regions that share borders with Asia and Africa, in the East and the South, who have experienced similar military dictatorship and repression. These places are in many ways the cradles of European philosophy, from the mythic history of the Slavic lands, to the forums of Athens. A lot of what defines Europe and its legends come from these places.
The west, on the other hand, the culprits if you will, is more isolated. Their history and character was defined by how on one end they had an endless sea, and on the other end they had rival and warlike societies who struggled to fight over difficult farmland that required a lot of labour and clearance in order to provide for the people. The cold climate combined with how most wild plants were inedible meant that expansion and war was imperative if one wished to build a kingdom.
So it is no wonder that these places that were scarce in resources and plentiful in war became the home of barbarian tribes. From the Visigoths to the Vikings.
Britain in particular has been a very contested place of sorts. Shaped both by the barbarian influences of the Normans as well as that of the Romans from the South. It is no wonder that it became such a cultural hub for paganry of every sort.
And even in modern times we witness this contradiction. Britain is characterised by eccentricities, peculiarities and oddness. It is a place where one is expected to be ordinary, and yet one is encouraged to be odd.
Where comedy and tragedy walk hand in hand. Where literature, theatre and satire thrive on nuance, deadpan deliveries and dry wit. Where the best jokes are those made up of words that are unspoken.
With gray weather and stoic dispositions. Where legends include knights, spies, pirates, detectives and some of the foulest murderers literature has ever known. Where patriotism can be anything from republican insurrection, to football hooliganism, to poppy wearing sycophants.
A place where people are more likely to appreciate a complaint over a compliment, where rebellion begins with the unwritten rules, and where it is only conventional to break convention.
In other words, Britain is an island, a place closed off from the rest of Europe, and her isolated people have made great efforts to think of ways to amuse themselves.
On the surface it seems rather stuffy and unfamiliar, reminiscent of Germany. But truth is that Britain is more like an inverted France. The French are passionate republicans, and the British are repressed monarchists. Like two brothers separated at birth. One an extrovert and the other an introvert, but both of them bubbling with great and tremulous emotion.
And France is just as curious as Britain, with its most fatal flaw being that it is far too charming. To the point of where it begins to get sort of tiresome. There is a reason why nonchalance is a loanword in so many languages, and it is because the French are not makers of their own history, but rather observers of it. This is evident in their saying “Bon chance.” The French word for chance and luck is synonymous. Things just sort of happen, and when they do, you may just shrug and say “C’est la vie.”
And just like with Britain, we quickly see the paradox once more. Because how can a nation which is seen by the rest of the world as a land of great passion somehow be so quick to express detachment? And the answer to that is simple, in France, you only care about the things you do. The things others do, and the things that happen to you, are of little relevance. They are just things. That is precisely how Britain and France both became empires.
Because this detachment results in the same self-aggrandising monologue. It’s just that one side says the quiet part out loud, and the other says the loud part out quietly. The English in particular are masters of this, and remain the only people I know of who are able to swear with the use of silence.
The French and the British do of course enjoy telling people that they are enemies, but they prove a good point about enemies. Which is that it is often the people who are the most similar to you that is likely to compete with your interests. Rivals are generally friends in tight quarters.
And the comedy is just as rich in France as it is in Britain, but once again in great inverse. French comedy is loud, fast and on the nose. The jokes are delivered with authority and confidence, and often involve direct and visual punchlines. Britain on the other hand greatly enjoys the subtle and the dry, where jokes can be set up in ways that are elaborate to the point of where the ridiculousness of the joke becomes its own comedy.
So from Sir Lancelot to King Arthur, we see two places that, like a mirror image, are strikingly similar opposites.
Then of course you have the Germans. They show how there is more than just one way in which to be the opposite of France. Where the French enjoy contractions, Germans enjoy compound words. I think it might be an open secret that Germany is the only country that is so foreign that even the locals feel estranged. Because that is precisely what makes continental philosophy so unique, it is how it treats even the most familiar thing as an object of foreign observation.
And it is also why Germans find comfort in homeliness and kitsch, because it is the only place in the world where you need to make yourself at home even when you’re inside your own home.
The Germans are always analytical, and that is why they will, with some irony, only write coherently in situations where they don’t understand something.
Because the German’s worst enemy is himself. Every time Germany is confident in its worldview, they rise and fall as an empire. This is why Germany is also the home of psychoanalysis, because no other nation has been the author of its own traumas quite like Germany.
There is also a misconception that Germans do not have a sense of humour, and this is a blatant falsehood. In fact, Germans have an excellent sense of humour, that is why they don’t need comedians. They can spend hours laughing at their own jokes.
And this is because when you speak to a German, you don’t speak to one person, you speak to two people. You speak to him, and the man he is talking to in his head. Every German is his own supervisor, and that is precisely why they are so strict about rules.
This leads to an unfair prejudice that Germans are somehow oppressive or tyrannical, but that is far from true. They are just as passionate about human rights and democracy as any other people, provided it is done through the proper procedure.
And I think this comes from the Hansa. Because at one point in history, Germany was like the administrative branch of the world. They didn’t have power over the world, but they did manage all the paperwork. As a result, Germans have no interest in telling you what to do, they simply want to tell you how to do it.
And if you’ve ever asked yourself how on earth these three places could once be the host of world spanning empires, these strange and dysfunctional characters, then the answer is quite simple. Only those who are missing something will decide to become pirates.
The chauvinism, the supremacy, the messianic doctrines and the self-aggrandisment comes from a great source of insecurity. How, while other civilisations in Asia, Latin America, Africa and Australia were building great cities and discovering vital inventions, these three were living in caves.
So I would propose we all be a bit optimistic about these former empires. I think they have a lot more potential than meets the eye, they just need to work through some stuff first.