Machiavelli, eh

December 5, 2017

 

 

Ha! I didn't get it right away, but now I do.

You know that feeling. Somebody tells a joke - could be a friend or comedian, it doesn't matter - the point is, everybody laughs. Except you. Or maybe you do force out a pathetically fake snicker of some kind because you're afraid that if you don't you'll look slow. Still,  everybody understands somehow that you don't get it, but they do. It probably takes you no longer than a few seconds, at best. Then you join in on the laughter, because it's really funny. When you understand, it's funny. 

What makes comedians amusing is often the opposite of funny. You must have noticed how we laugh hardest at the jokes that reflect what in reality is sad, incomprehensible, and most of all, true. 

 

I had that same feeling just last week, reading Machiavelli's The Prince. It took me until the fifth page until it dawned on me and I was, oh. Now I get.  Over five hundred years later, but now I understand. James Baldwin once said the problem with white Americans is they do not know their history. He also said that Europeans do not understand Americans. Not at all, he said. I think the same thing can be said about Canadians. I went to school here and can say with confidence we did not learn our history, so white Canadians do not understand our own past. And if we don't know, how can Europeans know?

 

But read Machiavelli's Prince, and you will understand. Now I understand you Canada. Now I understand how you did it. Quebec, the Prince has a plan for you too. Even more so! A Prince, a King, a Queen, the philosophy remains the same. Machiavelli may not have understood the American either, since America as such did not exist as such, but he did understand the formula. 

 

To which passages do I refer?

 

Machiavelli writes,

 

"Another excellent expedient is to send colonies into one or two places,  so that these may become, as it were, the keys of the Province; for you must either do this, or else keep up numerous force of men-at arms and foot soldiers. A Prince need not spend much on colonies. He can send them out and support them at little or no charge to himself, and the only persons to whom he gives offence are those he deprives of their fields and houses to bestow them on the new inhabitants. Those who are thus injured form but a small part of the community, and remaining scattered and poor can never become dangerous."

 


It's not hard to see how this philosophy was utilized in North America. A lot of mistakes were made in creating this colony.  A lot of wrongs committed and a lot of broken promises. What is funny, sad and true, is that people will argue that these wrongs were accidental. As if there was no political philosophy in 1615 when Champlain did his white water rafting up the Saint Lawrence. As if the plan was not always to make First Nations scattered and poor, so as not to become dangerous. But how?

 

Machiavelli has an explanation for that too: "The Prince who establishes himself in a Province whose laws and language differ from those of his own people, ought also to make himself the head and protector of his feebler neighbours, and endeavour to weaken the stronger, and must see that by no accident shall any other stranger as powerful as himself find an entrance there." 

 

First there were military alliances. The First Nations were strong, the European settlers were weak and divided among themselves - French and English primarily. Surely these European settlers knew the content of Machiavelli's Prince, whether they'd read the book or not. If not, what a coincidence they all seemed to have the same understanding;  to take land and bestow it on the new inhabitants, those who would give offence for such actions must be made weak. But how to weaken the stronger party? How was Machiavelli's formula to be implemented? 

 

If you have read through old treaty documents you will know that the father's milk was brought in barrels to treaty negotiations, until it was eventually "outlawed" through certain regulations, though some evidence of its use continued past those rules. What was 'Father's milk'? Rum, obviously, or some other kind of alcohol. Speaking of "Father", the language of those old documents reads a little like the following: "Your great father wants his children to know that if you give your white neighbours the right to use some of your land he will take care of you forever, as long as the sun shines and the grass grows green, and he will never take away your way of life. Your father loves you as he does all his children." Replace 'Father' with 'Mother' if you want. It went on, past the Kings to the Queens. 

 

How is any person or nation of persons taken down? Broken promises, or perhaps flat out lies. We cannot know that now. Taking without giving back. Taking without paying. Saying you will share, but not sharing. And then forgetting all about it. Forgetting, in a way, has been our biggest crime. 

 

On Mont Royal there is someone -  homeless or without much means to get by -  on every corner of each block the entire stretch leading to the metro, and then a few blocks past. There are a few aboriginal people on these streets. More than a few. I pass by and never fail to notice a certain resilience most of the well sheltered suits I pass by in the day fail to project. But Machiavelli wrote the Prince in 1513. Five hundred years has passed and the time has come for more than resilience. 

 

We can never know what this world would have been if our ancestors made better, more compassionate choices. But maybe, just maybe, we will see the day when the Prince takes off his hat, resigns his seat and a world Machiavelli never knew becomes the memory of our children's children. Ha. I know what you're thinking, don't make me laugh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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