As the Curiosity rover pulled off an improbably complex landing on Mars, I was having a laugh with a friend in the US. I pointed out that it’s the US President’s duty to welcome any extraterrestrial when and if he/she arrives. As I put it to her:
It’s America’s job to have any alien invasion land there. And your job to extend the hand of friendship, attempt to nuke em and then use geek ingenuity to whoop ET’s sorry ass. These are important tests of the CinC plus would you have a beer with him/her.
But as Montaigne wrote 50 years after the discovery of the New World, Europeans did a pretty lousy job of ‘constructive engagement’ when they landed in the Americas:
We have taken advantage of their ignorance and inexperience, with greater ease to incline them to treachery, luxury, avarice, and towards all sorts of inhumanity and cruelty, by the pattern and example of our manners.
So many cities levelled with the ground, so many nations exterminated, so many millions of people fallen by the edge of the sword, and the richest and most beautiful part of the world turned upside down, for the traffic of pearl and pepper?
Montaigne reckons the Ancients would have done it better:
Why did not so noble a conquest fall under Alexander, or the ancient Greeks and Romans; and so great a revolution and mutation of so many empires and nations, fall into hands that would have gently levelled, rooted up, and made plain and smooth whatever was rough and savage amongst them.
And that would have cherished and propagated the good seeds that nature had there produced; mixing not only with the culture of land and the ornament of cities, the arts of this part of the world, in what was necessary, but also the Greek and Roman virtues, with those that were original of the country?
I’m not so sure that ‘up close and personal’ the Greeks and Romans would’ve been quite that benign. But who knows.
A question arises. Having spent the week with my two kids arguing incessantly about fairness and equality, at what point do we give that up and go for dominance, acquisition and accumulation?
Lord Acton the Victorian historian, politician and moralist had a few ideas:
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
“Great men are almost always bad men.”
“There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”
And with remarkable prescience:
“The issue which has swept down the centuries and which will have to be fought sooner or later is the people versus the banks.”
Plus ça change…