Of National Characters and Shooting Sprees

By Bill the Butcher

Back in the nineteen-seventies, when dinosaurs roamed the swamps, there used to be a genre of Bollywood films, more often than not starring an actor I like to mock as Vomitup Bachpan, which is not quite his real name.

These films used to follow a predictable formula. A man, usually young (from which this genre got its name, the “angry young man” film) rises up in wrath against corruption and evil in society, and ends up wiping out said corruption and evil but liquidating the big landowner, sleazy politician, crooked cop or whoever the evildoer might be. (Fairly often, the angry young man ended up dying heroically at the end of the film, so he didn’t even always get the girl, but that isn’t the point.)

The point is that, despite their extreme popularity, these films never actually incited anyone to get off their fat or thin ass and take apart the corrupt system which, even then, was shoving the country down the sewer. Nobody, after watching Vomitup exterminate the tyrannical landlord, rose up in rebellion against the actual tyrannical landlords. Nobody, no matter what they felt about the necessity of eliminating social evils at the point of a gun, did anything to eliminate social evils at the point of a gun or otherwise.

Today, we have what’s almost certainly the worst government ever to sit in power over us, controlled by shadowy businessmen and a monarchical family dictatorship, which fairly openly pull the strings to manipulate a so-called “prime minister” who has never won an election. Corruption is so pervasive that the state is now a kleptocracy; the amounts stolen are so mind-boggling they fail to make sense. Actual and relative unemployment are at staggering levels, and the government tries to hide the number of poor people by arbitrarily declaring even the indigent as being “above the poverty line”. As prices climb through the roof, the government signs away the nation’s mineral resources to crony capitalists for a song, and declares war on its own forest tribes in order to hand over their lands to mining concerns. And if there’s anything the last few years have taught us all, it’s this: our vote makes no difference. Whoever comes to power will do exactly what the last lot did, and outdo them if at all possible.

Now don’t you think this would have been a perfect situation for a mass rebellion, if not a country-wide revolution? Governments have been overthrown for less. As I write, Tunisia has thrown off a dictatorship which, while extremely nasty, was (from what I read) not in most respects any worse than what we have here. A single suicide sparked off the revolution there. Here, we have the government throwing people off the land at gunpoint to make dams and car factories, and we still don’t have a revolution.

Once upon a time, a few years ago, an Irish friend on Orkut asked me a very pertinent question: how come a few measly thousand British civil servants and soldiers managed to control well over a hundred million Indians for well over a hundred years? How was it that the Indians, given their maltreatment at the hands of the British, didn’t simply rise up and tear the Union Jack off the flagpoles, like the Irish did with far less excuse? Why was it that India had to wait until the British, eviscerated by the Second World War, had to quit simply because they could no longer afford an Empire?

I told him basically the same thing I’ve repeated over and over here on this site and elsewhere: India is a feudal nation and a feudal society. In this society, the dispensation and receiving of patronage is all that matters. It doesn’t matter if the man handing out sops to you is evil to the bone; all that matters is that he’s in a position to dish out patronage. So, all the Brits had to do was get the princelings and landowners on their side, and the people would never rebel; the few small attempts at a genuine rebellion were swiftly betrayed or petered out due to lack of support.

And, by the same token, corruption matters not at all, except that it gives a delicious tinge of scandal to Muddle Class conversation and gives the media something to talk about. It doesn’t matter to the desperately poor who are intent on simply surviving, and it certainly doesn’t matter to the upper-class elite, who are its primary beneficiaries.

Feudalism is, in this case, the national character.

I am, as I said elsewhere, no economist. Nor am I a social scientist. But it seems to me abundantly clear that nations have characters, just as individuals have characters, and for the simple reason that nations are made up of individuals. Comes a point where the collective mass of individuals, their tastes and habits, form the nation; but further on there’s an inevitable point where the nation, having now acquired a character of its own, goes to impress that on the individual from a very early age. Once enough people are indoctrinated, you can usually fairly accurately predict what they are going to do under particular circumstances.

As an illustration of national characters, I’m always faintly amused by the Sinophobes who keep pushing the idea of an aggressive, militarily expansionist China. It’s absolutely not surprising that the Chinese are apparently out to win over the world by economic means rather than military prowess; they have always been an inward-looking nation, far more given to commerce than conquest. At the same time, the Japanese (though on the face of it commerce-oriented), were always a militarist society, and so still honour Second World War criminals at Yasukuni; and if Prussia still existed, modern Germany would have been a far more aggressive nation than it is.

Allied to this national character, of course, is an organised myth-making. Indians, for instance, have this tale going around about how “India has never invaded another nation in its last ten thousand years of history.” Elsewhere, I’ve classed this as one of my favourite jokes, and anyone who has an idea of the subcontinent’s blood-soaked history will probably concur. These myths aren’t only jokes; sometimes they can be lethal.

Now, as we all know, the recent past has seen a lot of discussion about the actions of a certain young man in the US who took a gun and shot several people, killing six, and critically wounding a major political figure. So much has been written about the killer’s motivations that a couple of things tended to slip under the radar.

The first, is of course, the fact that the US is a society awash with guns. One of the justifications for this love affair is the idea that guns don’t necessarily equal violence, since other nations with a lot of guns, like Switzerland for instance, don’t have much gun crime. But the Swiss national character is rather different from that of the US.

The Swiss don’t, generally speaking, think of themselves as a frontier nation, one constantly in search of enemies to fight, or a global policeman forever in search of a bad guy. The United States was a nation forged in violence, and furthered by violence; its entire point of existence today seems to be to inflict violence on people halfway round the planet. Its movies, its novels, its video games, glorify violence; even its cartoons are violent. If the Angry Young Man of Bollywood has a home then, it’s in the US, where violence has seeped into the national character just as completely as feudalism has into India’s.

Is it so surprising, then, that the US suffers regular shooting sprees? Is it so very amazing that the poison in the walls seeps out through the cracks? Once you think of violence as right and justified at a national level, how long before violence on an individual level becomes the natural reaction?

National characters can change of course; but very, very slowly. It takes hundreds of years. Unless there’s a catastrophe, as was Prussia’s disappearance after the Second World War. And after a catastrophe, there’s really no telling exactly how the character will change; just that it will.

When the Empire collapses, that moment of catastrophe may be at hand.

I’ll leave you with that thought.