18 November 2012

Clear-sighted no more?

In a land which used to contain the Frankish-ruled Principality of Antioch and County of Tripoli, allied with the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem (with said Franks then having fought to defend the rights of Christians in said land), the Church’s wayward first daughter is now regrettably supporting the ‘Free Syrian Army’, which is none of the above and whose battle-cry has long been ‘Christians to Beirut and Alawites into the sea’, as the sole legitimate voice of the Syrian people against their president Bashar al-Assad, and now more clearly than ever taking the wrong side in a civil war in which it had little business to begin with – right alongside such leading lights of human rights and religious tolerance in the Middle East as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Lovely.

One of GK Chesterton’s more remarkable journalistic insights was that, as outright brutal as imperialism may be in other countries, the more troubling and insidious aspect of imperialism is the effect it has on the people within the empire. In Tremendous Trifles, he recounted a conversation with two Belgians of his passing acquaintance, a country which, though they were members of a country in which speakers of one language neither understood nor respected the speakers of the other, still aspired to imperial glory and all the trappings of a modern, European state. Chesterton noted that the humanistic optimism of the bearded Little Belgian (meant in the same way he would speak of a Little Englander) and the hubristic grand sweeps of the bewhiskered Belgian Imperialist, were both quintessentially French, though in different ways. To the one, an intellectual notion of human justice must triumph, and to the other, education and science must transcend all the boundaries of humanity, including religion and death (and the enlightened European must force himself upon the ‘savage’ who still holds to religion). Though the Little Belgian and the Belgian Imperialist discussed humanity in such broad, sweeping terms, Chesterton juxtaposes their conversation with a vignette in which he loses his way in the Belgian countryside, only to have the way pointed out to him by a Flemish farming family which cannot speak any English or French. It is here he finds the greater expression of Humanity-with-a-capital-‘H’. Imperialism has a similar destructive effect in America – we who, while aspiring to this abstract ideal of Freedom-with-a-capital-‘F’ for ourselves, tend to see no inherent problem in trammeling freedoms in the concrete down for everyone else in the process.

The truly disheartening thing is this. Chesterton still very deeply respected the French for being clear-minded about what it is they speak. It was the case, so he said (also in Tremendous Trifles), that in France Catholicism was attacked for being Catholic and defended for being Catholic; in France Republicanism was attacked for being republican and defended for being republican – he juxtaposed this unfavourably with the state of England, where the experts on poverty were all amongst the elite, and where the experts on democracy were all in the House of Lords. Is that true anymore (in France)? Why should President Hollande claim that the Free Syrian Army – which, I must again note, is not an army, not Syrian, and certainly does not seek freedom for anyone who is not a Sunni – is the ‘sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people’? In the spirit of democratic self-determination, should it not be perhaps considered – if I may be so bold – that the Syrian people might make that call? Perhaps a group in which both Syrian Christians and Shiites are not only adequately represented, but also protected? Even William Hague seemingly felt that this announcement by Hollande was more than a bit presumptuous.

Let us hope that Chesterton was ultimately right about the French penchant for taking things as they are – and further, that they continue in their role as the first daughter of the Church in their support of the truly downtrodden, both in Syria and elsewhere.

EDIT: I wrote this article on the 17th, when my VPN was still AWOL. Since then, France has been joined in their folly, unsurprisingly by the likes of Albania and Egypt, but more unfortunately by Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

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