Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Down by the Cultural Borderlands

Greece has been much in the news recently, for the stance of its recently-elected government, rejecting the terms of a European Union bailout. 

Copyright 2010 Alison Cornford-Matheson. All rights reserved.

Though it appears that the Greek government has softened its stance, it shouldn't be any surprise that the Greeks should be standing alone amongst other European nations.

For, ethno-linguistically, the Greeks are one of a kind in Europe. All the other Western nations come in families: Italians, Spanish, Portugese, Roumanians and French, are Latin kin; Dutch, Germans, English and Scandinavians, all have Gothic origins; and the Slavs are several varieties called Russian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Bulgarian, and so on. 

But there are no nations related to Greece; what is more, they are known by everyone else not by the name they call themselves (Hellenes), but by the name the Latins gave them: “Greco.” 

Yet, Hellenic civilization has bordered what is probably many more cultures than even the Latinate (who were, in turn, greatly influenced by the Greeks). Perhaps only Chinese or Arabic cultures have affected so many other discrete societies, as have the Hellenes. 

Dating back before Classical times, colonization from the Hellas spread Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean. Courtesy the invasions of Alexander the Great, Hellenic civilization spread throughout the near east, all the way to India. 

Classicists have speculated as to how history might have progressed if Alexander lived to be elderly, or even middle-aged. Would Greek civilization have fused more certainly with the cultures of Persia and further east, meaning that the rent between Eastern and Western civilization would be minimal or non-existent afterward?

Before I read Nicholas Ostler’s Language History of the World a few years ago, I didn’t realize how long-lived were the dynasties that succeeded Alexander, in the near and middle east, as well as in northern Africa. 

Many of them persisted, in fact, until they were conquered by Arab jihadi following the collapse of Rome in the fifth century AD. Unlike with the Romans in Europe, however, Greek civilization apparently remained an elite affair in western Asia, such that when the Hellenic dynasts were overthrown, little of its influence remained on the general society. 

Or it could be that the Greek influence was less extirpated, than almost literally effaced? As is well known, Hellenic philosophy was preserved in Islamic lands, even as these writings were lost to the medieval Occident. Greek thought affected Islam as a systemic code, as well as Muslim scholarship generally. 

But Hellenic-style science and philosophy during the Islamic golden age was conducted in Arabic, and so the Greek language and alphabet itself, were marginalized as scholarly-media there. They played a much more important role in the Byzantine empire, which wasn’t conquered by Muslims until the fifteenth century. 

The Byzantine clerisy was, however, determined to refute the pagan free-thinking of the Classical age, which suffered neglect thereby. Scholarly Greek became, too, the rarefied and refined preserve of the Orthodox priesthood, largely incomprehensible to the average Greek-speaking person of Byzantium (let alone the majority who did not speak in the Hellenic tongue at all). 

The Orthodox Church was successful in converting the Slavic barbarians to the north (just as the Roman Church brought nordic Europeans into Christianity). After the Turks overran Constantinople, Orthodoxy decamped to Muscovy, such that it became effectively a Slavic church. 

Adopting Old Church Slavonic as the “father tongue” of Russian Orthodoxy, the priesthood wrote it down in the Cyrillic modification of the Greek alphabet. With the Greek-speaking Orthodox Church under the rule of Islam, Hellenic speech and script — the language of the founding work of Christianity — was marginalized throughout the rival sects of the Church. 

Western Christianity’s use of the Latin alphabet (a borrowing at second-hand by the Etruscans from the Greeks) rendered the Hellenic language “all Greek” to most Europeans. 

By collecting the New Testament stories in Greek, the Jewish founders of Christianity intended to influence the educated Roman. It was only later, when Christianity became established, that the Gospels were translated into Latin for a popular audience (which ultimately became of the father tongue of the medieval church). 

Thus it is that, in spite of its vast contribution to Western civilization, the Greek tongue and alphabet are nowadays completely parochial. 

I live directly upon a cultural borderland, between French- and English-speaking Canada. The interprovincial border, just a few hundred yards from my door on the Ottawa river, is the remnant of a skirmish line from the Seven-Years’ world-war that occurred more than two-and-a-half centuries ago. 

This was another permutation in the rivalry between English and French royalty going back centuries before that, to the conquest of 1066 and earlier. 

Overshadowed by later conflicts, the “French and Indian war”, as it was called by the Thirteen-Colonists, it was the background for the American-independence rebellion that broke out just over a decade after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. 

The Colonists’ final break from the Crown, came with the passage of the Quebec act in 1774, which restored religious rights and seigneurial duties to the French-speaking population of Canada. 

This was viewed by the British Americans as a betrayal of the hard-fought gains of the Seven-Years’ war. Many of the American revolutionaries were veterans of that conflict, and the War of Independence was in fact a minor skirmish compared to it: whereas only seven-thousand Americans actually died between 1775-1783, the death-toll of the Seven-Years’ war could well have been one-and-half million in all sides

Whatever the case, a side-effect of the American revolution was the swelling of the anglophone population of Loyalist or Tory refugees north of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence river. 

These settlers eventually helped found the Dominion of Canada. But Confederation was not intended to be an equal partnership between the French and English. 

The latter were happy to allow francophones to exist in their provincial redoubt. Decades before it turned to secession, Quebec nationalism strove for equal partnership with the English elite. 

But the latter, viewing themselves as part of a global empire, instead sought anglo-supremacy. Quebec separatism, emerging during the 1960s, was directed toward erasing the anomaly of cultural borderlands not being coincident with political sovereignty. 

The United States has been the only advanced, industrialized democracy to border a peasant-based economy of primary industry, Mexico. Unlike with Canada, however, until recently the cultural borders of the continental U.S. at least, were relatively coterminous with its political territory. 

Or rather, it has always been more significant for Canadians that the Anglo-American nation’s frontiers extends both far north and south of the 49th parallel. In recent decades, with legal and illicit immigration from Asia and especially Latin America, the U.S. has encountered cultural schism not unlike seen throughout the history of Canada, between an anglophone majority with broadly Protestant values, and a Catholic Latin-language minority, who themselves consist of a majority or nearly so of people within specified province or region.

After the conquest of the western states from Mexico in the war of 1848, U.S. anglos were determined that their values would remain superior over the remnant Latin culture there (as were English Canadians with the French). 

But as the great prosperity of the U.S. economy was accompanied by the persistent lack of development in most of Spanish America, migratory pressure in the labour market was irresistible. The Mexican-U.S. border at the Rio Grande became in effect a legal fiction, simply because there was every economic incentive — on the part of Mexicans and other Latin Americans, as well as Americans themselves — to treat it as such. 

In many ways, Confederation (which came into being 148 years ago today) was an expression of anti-Americanism. But the process was greatly influenced by the U.S. example. In particular, the founding of the Dominion of Canada based on a constitution, which specified powers divided between different legislatures and levels of government, is directly copied from the American polity, since famously, Britain has no constitution. But now the cultural borderlands of the continental U.S. at least, are no longer coterminous with its political borders, the Americans may have to look to Canada to peaceably guide them to the future.

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