Democratic Cheese

Posted on July 8, 2008

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It’s really too delicious. I look around to find a starting point for this, the first substantive entry in my blog project, and there in the daily newssheet is a metaphor so perfect that the gods of irony would’ve struck me down for making it up.

For the 4th of July celebrations in the United States, a cheese company had commissioned an artist to carve a piece of history: the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.  There it is, in splendour and glory, Benjamin Franklin and company fashioned out of a one ton block of cheese, on display in Times Square in New York.

They had to have done it just for me.

Speaking from the point of view of a Canadian who has dined on American iconography all his life, American history has always been served up with generous portions of cheese, cheese which over time inevitably begins to sweat and crack and grow greasy in the sun.  (Yes, friends, American patriotism does play differently in Moose Jaw.)

An example that occurs to me—more or less randomly—is the president’s battle-cry speech in the alien invasion flick Independence Day, Bill Pullman evoking utterly illogical and inapplicable 4th of July sentiments in regard to an alien enemy who had only come calling earlier that day.  The fictional president’s speech is no more than a typical example of American historical cheese.  It’s the sort of faux patriotism that sells movies, I suppose, but unfortunately iconography is no substitute for an actual working understanding of history.

And iconography is too often all that we get.

George Washington did not chop down the cherry tree.

Columbus did not prove the world was round.

Betsy Ross had nothing to do with the designing, and probably little to do with the actual sewing, of the first American flag.

The American Revolution itself can be characterized as a revolt led by the American homegrown aristocracy against rule by the British aristocracy, using the rhetoric of freedom to achieve popular support.  If some measure of freedom and democracy eventually found its way into the structure of American society, I suspect that it is at least partially because it is inherently risky for any aristocracy to use the rhetoric of freedom.  The people who have been sold that particular line of goods will eventually expect some of the promised goods to be delivered to the door.

When large numbers of people start to feel entitled to freedom—and they mumble and grumble and begin demanding a little freedom with their ‘independence’—it becomes increasing difficult for a minority faction—even a powerful minority—to deny it to them.

Thus the rhetoric of freedom blew up in the face of the American aristocracy by becoming a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the ongoing popular discourse concerning the American Revolution, we hear about the Boston Tea Party, an incident where Bostonians dressed up in Amerindian costume and engaged in acts of civil disobedience and mayhem, dumping a load of British tea into Boston harbour.

We are sometimes told about the rebels’ choice of costuming, but almost no attention is given to the why, which is that the first peoples of the Americas were ready-made symbols of freedom.  The original inhabitants of the Atlantic seaboard lived in societies that were libertarian and democratic, without kings or hangmen or taxes, a fact that could hardly have escaped the notice of their British immigrant neighbours in the 13 colonies.

The people they called savages lived free, while the ‘civilized’ Whites lived in authoritarian, patriarchal societies arbitrarily ruled over by inherited wealth and power.

To many of European descent—those who gave the matter a thought—the original American peoples had been symbols of freedom ever since Columbus encountered the Tainos of the Caribbean, whose state of freedom seemed as strikingly alien and exceptional as their clothing-optional lifestyle.  The Boston rebels were merely utilizing a well-established cultural symbolism, and using it pointedly, when they donned their Aboriginal costumes and went down to Boston harbour to brew their salty tea.

Some historians have asserted, and I tend to agree, that in fact the impulse to democracy in the modern world originated in the encounter between the free peoples of the Americas and the Europeans.  The Greeks are given credit in traditional histories—and generally in European iconography—but the evidence seems to argue against this.  Two millennia passed after the era of Periclean Athens with hardly even a suggestion of democracy in Europe or the Mediterranean world.

Democracy on that side of the Atlantic was as the wheeled toys of the Maya are to practical wagons and vehicles:  the idea was there, but it had not yet been considered for practical everyday use.  It was a philosophic confection. Democracy only began to get a grip on the European imagination after actual operational democracies were encountered in the Americas.  Read Rousseau and you will find that the peoples of the Americas were at the core of his discussion.  Hobbes talked about these people too, but being an authoritarian, he tried to dismiss them.  One way or another, these people represented a challenge to European thought and European concepts of government, and their existence stimulated a discussion about democracy which has never ceased.

Hey, nobody seriously says that we drive around in wheeled vehicles today because of the Mayan wheeled toys.  Why then should we assert that we live in democracies today because of the Greeks?  With two thousand years of supposed Greek influence to put it together, the Europeans failed to found a democracy.  As a viable notion of government, democracy made no headway in Europe at all until after Columbus, and it is not a coincidence that the idea first began to flourish in those European societies–the 13 colonies being a prime example–having considerable contact with American democratic peoples.

(And not particularly among the Spanish, for instance, whose trans-Atlantic contacts were dominated by the Aztec, Maya and Inca–peoples who were not democratic.)

The supposed Greek origin of our modern democracies has been often asserted, or simply accepted as a truism, but it is a long way from proven.

Of course, iconography represents history in the official view.  It is That Which Must Not Be Doubted.  On the other hand, serious history is a scholarly discipline, which like all disciplines must be approached with intellectual rigour. The two don’t mix. Iconography is anathema to real history.

Why aren’t the original Americans given credit, then, for helping sow the idea of democracy? The answer to that is obvious if you consider historical attitudes, not only toward Greek civilization but toward Aboriginal people. It couldn’t be anything but difficult, then and now, for Europeans to give credit to peoples they regarded—and sometimes still regard—as savages. The modern version of racism was born in America. It would represent a blow to European ‘racial’ pride to admit that they had adapted the idea from a living example, from ‘inferior’ people.

I myself see no shame in learning things from others, because one is, after all, learning, and that is hardly something to be ashamed of.

But, you know, that’s me.

Posted in: history, politics