Mankind’s Collective Personalities

March 28, 2013

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Mankind’s Collective Personalities

Here is an old Soviet-era joke, from the subgenre in which dimwitted peasant Khruschev plays Costello to smart seminarian Stalin’s Abbott.

Stalin and Khruschev are touring the East European satellites in Stalin’s personal locomotive.

They are sitting in the carriage chugging along when Khruschev leans over to Stalin and says: “Comrade Yosif Vissarionovich, help me please. I never know which one of these countries is which. Where are we now?”

Stalin: “What time have you got?”

Khruschev, looking at his watch: “Ten AM.”

Stalin: “Well then, according to the schedule this must be Czechoslovakia.”

Time passes. Again they are back in the carriage chugging along. Again Khruschev asks Stalin: “Where are we now?”

Stalin: “What time have you got?”

Khruschev, looking at his watch: “Four PM.”

Stalin: “Then this is Hungary.”

More time passes. Again Khruschev leans over to Stalin: “I’m sorry to be a nuisance, Comrade, but I’ve lost track again. Which country are we in now?”

Stalin: “What time have you got?”

Khruschev pulls back his sleeve to check the time. “My watch! It’s gone!”

Stalin: “Ah, then this must be Romania.”

This joke is a slur on the noble Romanian people, whose hospitality I once briefly enjoyed. My wife also reminds me that her first dentist in the USA was Romanian, and a very fine dentist he was and apparently still is. The stereotype of Romanians as a nation of thieves is, ethnic Romanians are not shy to tell you, the fault of the Gypsies, who are especially numerous in that neck of the woods.

“The concept of national character may be making a comeback, at least in Europe.”

Here I must insert the usual disclaimer for the benefit of readers too feeble-minded to grasp sophisticated mathematical concepts such as “average” and “variation.” I am sure—I have no doubt whatsoever—that there are many worthy and talented persons of the Gypsy ethnicity.

Gypsies in the generality, however, are bad news, working as little as they can while stealing as much as they can. Romanian Gypsies seem to embody the negative side of Gypsyhood in a particularly concentrated form. In Britain, to which they have had some limited access since Romania joined the European Union in 2007, they have specialized in stealing entire houses while the homeowners were on vacation.

(“Anti-racist” hysteria has reached totalitarian levels over there, so the fact of the thieves being Gypsies is rarely mentioned. If you talk to British people, however, you will learn that, as the Brits say, “even the dogs in the street know it.”)

At the beginning of next year, just nine months from now, that limited access becomes unlimited. Romanian Gypsies will then be just as British as the British, or at least as British Gypsies.

Except that they won’t. I lived for 35 years in Britain and don’t recall any news stories about Britons—no, not even British Gypsies—stealing the houses of vacationing fellow citizens. The “squatting” phenomenon has been around for a while, but it targets abandoned or long-unoccupied buildings.

I am speaking here of human group characteristics at the ethnic or national level. Although a deeply unfashionable topic nowadays, peculiarities of national character used to supply much of our humor, from Shakespeare’s comic Welshmen to late-20th-century Polish jokes. National Lampoon did a fine compendium of the underlying stereotypes at about the last moment when it was possible to do so without being hauled off to the Ministry of Love for interrogation.

The concept of national character may be making a comeback, at least in Europe. One recurring theme in commentary on the troubles of the euro this past five years has been the difficulty of yoking the continent’s north and south in a single banking and fiscal system. This, it has been argued, made no more sense than the idea of Silvio Berlusconi being a conceivable Prime Minister of Denmark. A northern fiscal union might have had a chance, people say, with the currency of course named the neuro.

Veteran British commentator Max Hastings was working this theme just the other day, writing about the Cyprus crisis:

It always appeared absurd for the Germans, who — like the British — obey rules, pay taxes and tell the truth in financial documents, to form a financial union with the southern Europeans, who do none of those things, and are never likely to.

It may just be that big nations or unions are not a very good idea, except for purposes of self-assertion. Professor Bauer, in his fine book about the Chinese soul, passes the following remark:

Because of the unification of the empire [in 221 BC] and its division into provinces, the sense of intimacy due to the smallness of a single state gave place overnight to the feeling that one was living in a gigantic dominion governed by a distant capital.

The subsequent history of the Chinese Empire leaves one wondering whether developments might have been happier if East Asia, like post-Roman Europe, had remained a collection of competing small feudal states.

Prof. Bauer’s words might return an echo from the Britons of today, contemplating next January’s influx of Romanian and Bulgarian Gypsies, or from the Cypriots of today gathered forlorn outside their shuttered banks, perhaps even from the Americans of today….

But hold on there. I just used the phrase “the Chinese soul.” Do nations have souls, as different from one another as the individual human sort? Some distinguished people have thought so: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for example:

Nations are the wealth of mankind, its collective personalities; the very least of them wears its own special colors and bears within itself a special facet of divine intention.

Solzhenitsyn was not as wise as the leaders of the West today, who would have told him with weary patience that persons everywhere are perfectly fungible, while national borders are absurd relics of parochial nativism and misguided economic protection.

How fortunate we are to have such wise leaders!


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