Sunday, January 10, 2010
This week David Brooks has a column up on the messianic variant of the "Mighty Whitey" motif. Steve points out that this is a relatively old genre, with roots back to the Victorian period. And, it also has basis in fact. Consider the White Rajahs of Sarawak. But Mighty Whitey highlights something more general, and much older.
In some cases Mighty Whitey is not particularly mysterious. The Europeans had modest organizational and technological advantages over the indigenes of the New World, but their biggest advantage was biological. This biological advantage easily became an ideological one, in the pre-modern world disease had a strongly supernatural cast and served as an indicator of the gods' favor. The emergence of the White Rajahs of Sarawak relies on more straightforward social and historical processes; the period around 1900 was arguably the one where there was maximal technological and organizational disjunction between Europe and the rest of the world. Non-European populations theoretically had access to European technology and organizational techniques (e.g., the Japanese), but it is also likely that a European was particularly well-placed to leverage the wider network of information and materiel which had spread across the world during the high tide of the imperial & colonial moment.
The reason for an individual "going native" can be conceived of in a relative-status sense; being a king among the barbarians sounds much more fun than being an obscure civilized burgher. In the process these individuals serve as the vectors for cultural diffusion of ideas. One can also model this as a tension between within-group vs. between-group dynamics; traitors can often secure for themselves great wealth and status, at the expense of the group from which they defected. From their own perspective a traitor is just engaging in self-interested cultural arbitrage. But as I said above the motif is an old one, and its factual basis is ancient and likely general. Consider Samo:
Samo (died 658) was a Frankish merchant from the "Senonian country" (Senonago), probably modern Sens, France. He was the first ruler of the Slavs (623-658) whose name is known, and established one of the earliest Slav states, a supra-tribal union usually called (King) Samo's empire, realm, kingdom, or tribal union.
If the accounts are correct the historical Samo traded a life as a merchant in Post-Roman Francia for that of the paramount chief of a federation of pagan Slavs in a fully re-barbarized margin of the post-Roman world. Though a product of Christian post-Roman Western European civilization Samo ended his life as a pagan warlord. He is notable because of the critical role he reputedly played in the ethnogenesis of the Wends, a group of Slavs who were forcibly Christianized and Germanized in the 13th century, five to six hundred years after Samo's time.
Over the long arc of history Europeans became a Christian meta-ethnicity, influenced by the long shadow of Romanitas. After the fall of Rome this often occurred through a mix of processes, but generally it involved the conversion of the elite or the king, and then a slow gradual shift among the populace. What became Christendom was the end product of the process. But this was not the only process. On a specific individual level there were likely many Samos, who profited by tacking against the winds of history in their own lives (though the post-Roman nations which arose in Gaul, Iberia and Italy generally assimilated the German barbarians who settled amongst them, in the first few generations there were many instances of local Roman nobility "going barbarian" for personal advantage, with several cultural traits such as trousers persisting as the common heritage of both Germans and Romans).
Samo's life may also illustrate the power of marginal advantages in the pre-modern world. It is not as if he brought significant technological advantages to the Slavs. Additionally, this was a world where median differences in wealth between societies which were the richest and poorest was on the order of 25%. Everyone was poor. And as a merchant he was likely somewhat worldly, but he likely lacked connections to the power elites of the post-Roman world. But he was a Christian, at least by origin, and was fluent in post-Roman civilization. His cultural background included within its memory the concept of powerful autocrats tying together disparate peoples. Concepts which might have seemed obvious to anyone who matured within post-Roman civilization might have been alien and novel to those who were purely barbarian, as the Slavs were (i.e., the Slavs were not barbarized after the fall of Rome, they were the barbarians who had never known Roman rule or influence). To the Slavic elite Samo may have been both worldly and organizationally confident. Or, more prosaically he might have been perceived as a compromise candidate who did not put at risk the relative status and position of any of the contemporary elite lineages. After all, it recorded that Samo's sons did not inherit his power.
If you conceive of cultures as phenomena of interest which are subject to dynamics, it is important to fix upon the individual elements which allow for them to evolve over time. The role of indigenous cultural vanguards, what might be colloquially termed "sell outs," is well known. But outsiders who "go native," and so transform the natives profoundly, has been less well emphasized and clarified, in part because the outsiders become a seamless part of the natives' heritage, and also because the outsiders may only delay the inevitable. But in the end, only death is inevitable.