Thursday, 28 June 2012

Learning From Portugal: at the Lisbon Press Center

It is instructive to remember that Portugal was once a Super Power—in the sixteenth century, Europe’s first in fact, until Spain got the drop on her, doing a better job of milking her colonies. As we build up in fact, to a Columbian quinquecentennial frenzy, it is also salutary to deconstruct the Age of Discoveries.

Prince Henry the Navigator, the certified godfather of that “Great Age,” organized Europe’s first think tank, in Sagres, on the Southwest Atlantic coast of Portugal, to which he invited the best mapmakers, navigators, and shipbuilders, the better to consolidate his country’s lead in the race to amass the wealth of the Third World—long before it assumed that name to go with its perennial subordinate status. Price Henry, we’re now told, only got onto a ship once himself, and he got so seasick he never set foot off land again. Heh, nobody ever said a thinker had to get his feet wet.

On Madeira, which has two Christopher Columbus museums—one in a wine cellar on the main drag of the capital Funchal, the other off shore on Porto Santo, memorializes its “discover” by Portuguese sailors in 1419 with a humungous statue to Prince Henry. It also concedes recently and openly in its scholarly quarterly review that the islands were already shown on fourteenth century Italian maps, and that in any case the seafaring Arabs knew about them since the eighth century. 

But Imperiums need grand beginnings, and filiopietistic historians down the ages have been only to willing to write what was deemed needed for the national honor. By the way, Christopher Columbus first enters the historical record in Funchal in 1476, as the defendant in a law suit. He came to Porto Santo to cash in on the sugar boom, married the daughter of the island’s governor, but then got involved in the wrong end of some litigation questioning his probity as a sugar factor.

But on my third visit to Portugal over the past ten years, something else has attracted my attention: the near unanimity among Portuguese intellectuals questioning the U.S. use of force in the Gulf War. I know such minor powers’ quibbles don’t play well during the post-Victory euphoria. (But remember how unexpectedly short the post-Berlin Wall fall euphoria was: we seem to be measuring our manic depressive national moods in nanoseconds these days.)

British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd expressed his solidarity with Bush and Baker recently by snooting Portuguese President Mario Soares on his official visit here for his having the temerity to sign a manifesto devised by the leading Portuguese intellectuals deploring American behavior in the Gulf. Hurd rather herdishly cancelled a long-planned meeting with Soares at the last minute. Tacky geopolitics, if you ask me.

I interviewed the editor of Jornal Letras (very Americanly known as JL) because this week the 25,000 circulation weekly of ideas was celebrating the tenth anniversary of its post-Revolution (1974) existence. I asked him about the Soares incident, and he explained that the horrors of the decolonizing wars in Angola, Mozambique, and lesser territories like Cape Verde, and Sao Tomas between 1961 and 1974 had given the Portuguese an unforgettable memory of what war is really like, and how you ought to move heaven and earth before succumbing to the temptation to simply exercise devastating superior power.

These intellectuals, and not a few Portuguese businessmen and public policymakers as well, are scared out of their shoes at how complacently Americans, from Bush to the lowliest G.I., regard those 100,000 Iraqi casualties. The American “They asked for it, buster!” mentality is deeply disturbing to Europeans in general and Portuguese in particular. They regard it as a kind of culpable innocence capable of wreaking great damage in the world.

And of course they sense that the hubris of Bush’s victory will inevitably lead to more American tragedies. As our friends, they are strangely sad at their helplessness at explaining to us decent American cretins what surprises History has in store for us. And they know in their bones that American mistakes will do them harm as well. So they empathize with U.S. because their fate is inextricably tied in with ours.

The Portuguese have learned to live with the loss of their Superpowerhood with grace and dignity. It’s too bad for the larger world that we Americans are such insolent and slow learners.

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