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William the Gaijin Shōgun
An attempt to reconcile the red tide of history with the pursuit of enlightenment through the lens of heritage.
Those who follow my writing in short form or long probably know that I have come to enjoy treading through history with a satchel of heritage in my stride. I make quite public my own about that, and I often try to ponder moral questions against the unforgiving tide of history in this light. History makes it clear that humans have come to distinguish themselves from one another through their worldview as much as happenstances of birth. It additionally makes it clear of the immense qualitative differences of outcome between those different choices, as it enumerates the winners and the losers of the story of history to be told.
No surprise then, it piqued my interest much to come along an article linked by Razib Khan on Twitter late one night, substantiating an ‘obscure’ fact that the Normans had, within a generation, all but eradicated the practise of the domestic slave trade in the British Isles.
Contemporary chronicler William of Malmesbury recounts it most rendingly in the 1120s:
They would purchase people from all over England and sell them off to Ireland in the hope of profit; and put up for sale maidservants after toying with them in bed and making them pregnant. You would have groaned to see the files of the wretches of people roped together, young people of both sexes, whose youth and beauty would have aroused the pity of barbarians, being put up for sale every day.
This changed as a consequence of William’s eponymous Conquest, as Norman culture had shedded the practise of war-slavery as part of a broader self-domestication away from their Norsemen roots.
I can’t fully articulate the visceral sadness such paragraphs from chronicles like the above leave me with. My main pain is in that being to an overwhelming extent my own genetic heritage, as far as I have come to know; so, much in the same way, I feel the same pull of my soul staring into photographs of Appalachian families or coal kids from a century past. It hurts because they are, in part, me.
So then I have to admit an incrementing of my own respect and grand deference towards the Franks and the carriers of their heritage, the French, whom I already hold a particular amount of esteem towards for many other things I have learned about them. This is yet more of what qualitatively makes them who they are, which is laudable to a historically unusual extent.
All the same I had come to read more history about General Douglas MacArthur that night, for reasons I can’t remember, and I did dive deeper into the many details of his history, train hijinks and all.
The postwar occupation of Japan has continued to fascinate me over the years for how extraordinarily successful it was in many regards. It might be called the only successful instance of a forcible exportation of American values onto another nation. Controversial yet also seemingly just as key to the mission’s success was MacArthur’s approach to the Chrysanthemum throne – he chose to keep the Japanese state intact and personally transform it into the democratic form it holds today.
Most contemporary exponents of statecraft would regard his actions as foolhardy and stupid, but the power of hindsight makes it border on mythical. The infamous photograph of him and his first visit rests on no rationale from any faction, Japanese or Western, beyond his own reasoning about the task, and yet it perfectly explained the kind of change the nation was to undergo.
Also notable were the far freer hand Americans had in shaping themselves to approach the Japanese people – instructional videos prepared by the Army for soldiers being deployed to occupied Japan had all sorts of narrative overtures about the Japanese being “good at heart yet filled with ‘evil’ ideas [from the imperial state]” – Americans were wholeheartedly embracing their own Universalist philosophy of compassion in Japanese reconstruction. This might not be as notable if it weren’t for its complete and total absence from equivalent instructional videos meant for soldiers being deployed to occupied Europe; those videos glibly instructed soldiers to follow orders, don’t ask questions, and don’t engage with civilians.
It’s hard to agree with Truman’s opinion that MacArthur was a “dumb son of a bitch” looking back from today. He might’ve acted the part, but his actions say otherwise. It makes a lot of sense to see him posthumously referred to as the Gaijin Shōgun – him towering over the Emperor in plain clothes sent a shocking yet unmistakable message to the Japanese people of who he was and what he was there to do.
It then occurred to me quite easily that these are not so different experiences of a conqueror and the conquered. Of course, there is no misplacing the account of the bloodshed. The Harrying of the North was a theretofore unprecedented extinction, which the contemporary Domesday Book cites as having 75% of the population either dead or exiled. Likewise was the first use of nuclear weapons in war in human history – in an instant, hundreds of thousands of people were either vaporised or physically condemned to death.
These things said, history is hardly an account of morals alone. It is actually a story of pluralities and multitudes, taking on higher dimensions than give-and-take, or good-and-evil, and despite the suffering there are immense thanks to be had for these consequences of history. As was said by the monk Lawrence of Durham:
After England began to have Norman lords, the English no longer suffered from outsiders that which they had suffered at their own hands. In this respect they found that foreigners treated them better than they had treated themselves.
To the extent Japanese today have come to value the notion of democratic process, representation, and even liberty and equality, I think they would concur with me in this counting of blessings, regardless of the names of Williams or Douglasses that denote them in books. We want to be better for our own sake. We want to suffer less at our own hands. This desire and the greatness of this moral is self-evident to us. I hope it will continue to light the way for us for millennia to come.
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