Swans Commentary » swans.com July 17, 2006  



Imperial Residues And Resonances
In Amsterdam and Paris


by Fran Shor





(Swans - July 17, 2006)  Being a tourist almost always guarantees that surfaces will monopolize one's consciousness. Especially coming from the United States, a notoriously post-modern and anti-historical culture, the tourist visiting major European cities for the first time will invariably be drawn to those venerable monumental structures that predominate in former imperial capitols such as Amsterdam and Paris. Neglecting the history of how global capital emerged and is embedded in the physical landscapes of imperial cities, the vast majority of American tourists will transport their own imperial attitudes to their consumption of the dazzling architectural surfaces and cityscapes of European capitols.

Having been trained as an historian and immersed in a critical understanding of the roots of Western imperialism, I found my own provincialism and wonder often overcoming my ability to get beneath the seductive surfaces in Amsterdam, a city I had never visited before, and Paris, where I had last been over 20 years ago. Yet, both cities, awash in the splendor and detritus of their former imperial power and engaged in the multicultural present, demand some recognition of imperial residues and resonances. In my case, I was also fortunate to experience those serendipitous moments that often mark tourist travel and allow for modest epiphanies.

In arriving in Amsterdam for the first time I was amazed at how easily I was able to move through customs at the airport and board the train bound for the Central Station. However, out of the corner of my eye I noticed that some darker-skinned and possibly Arab visitors were encountering thorough searching of their belongings. This was the first of numerous reminders that the growing Arab and Muslim population in the Netherlands remains a contentious contemporary issue for the Dutch, as well as other Europeans.

On the other hand, as a leading colonial global power in the 17th century, the Dutch colonized parts of Asia and America, while being heavily involved in the slave trade. Hence, certain former colonized populations, especially those from Indonesia and Surinam, were still evident in the culinary and other scenes in Amsterdam. Indonesian restaurants, in particular, have provided for some time now exotic relief from the rather bland and heavy Dutch cuisine. But it was the exotic and remote Surinamese situation that caught my attention by accident.

After getting off the tram at the corner of Linnaeusstraat and Oosterpark in mid-afternoon, I heard the distinctive sounds of a marching band coming from behind the stately residential buildings lining the boulevard. Making my way around the main street to a little square, I saw several booths set up with a stage near the center of the square. Following my ears, I soon observed an aggregation of about fifteen black men with their dreams and brass instruments syncopating and blaring in the street. They were accompanied by brightly-clad individuals holding a flag that I had never seen but guessed correctly to be that of Surinam.

Since I was completely ignorant of anything beyond the elemental fact of the one-time existence of Dutch Surinam, I was forced to seek some explanation of what was transpiring. Fortunately, I found someone who could speak English and who promptly informed me that this was a celebration of the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Surinam, an abolition that occurred right around the time of our bloody civil war that had formally ended slavery in the United States. I also found out that there was a statue commemorating that event in Surinam in the nearby park.

Of course, the festive mood of this band and its entourage only punctuated the lack of memory of Dutch involvement in slavery and colonialism and its invisibility in those other parts of the city that often attract the tourist because of their picturesque and quaint characteristics. One such district, the Jordaan, had been transformed from a garden area to what are now prototypical Amsterdam 3- or 4-story narrow houses overlooking placid canals. These houses were built for an expanding bourgeoisie that prospered during the 17th century when the Dutch emerged as the hegemonic global capitalist power. For the Dutch of this time, and later for the French, beliefs in liberty and tolerance, as noted by Caribbean scholar/activist C. L. R. James, were "purchased" at the expense of the oppression of Africans and other colonized peoples.

To most tourists coming to Amsterdam, the only remnant of oppression that captures their attention is the Anne Frank house, also in the Jordaan district. Long lines often stretch around the entrance as tourists want to catch a glimpse of the hideaway where the Frank family tried in vain to evade their capture by the occupying Nazis. While not diminishing the dramatic and horribly representative plight of Dutch Jews such as the Franks, the Holocaust has seemed to obliterate the more bloody and shameful history of European colonialism, especially in the murder of millions of Africans. As Adam Hochschild reveals in his riveting study of that brutal European colonialism in the Congo, King Leopold's Ghost, over 10 million Africans perished in that region alone in a late 19th century version of totalitarian terror.

However, tourists to Amsterdam, if able to spare a few moments of sympathy and historical remembrance of the Nazi Holocaust, seem totally unaware of other vicious legacies of European colonialism, imperialism, and war. In fact, some tourists only compound that historical amnesia by using Amsterdam for sexual and psychotropic gratification. Hence, the historic center of the city, the Dam, contains a swarm of tourists either in search of the legalized prostitution and drugs of Amsterdam or satiated from having indulged in these guilty pleasures. Oblivious even to the surface surroundings of Amsterdam's glory days, these tourists find their own daze in the consumer carnival of present Dutch society.

On the other hand, even the most blitzed tourist would be hard pressed to ignore all of those monumental glories of the French imperial past that dominate the Paris cityscape. Reminders of French colonialism and Napoleon's imperial march across continents are evident from the booty exhibited in the Louvre to the variety of statues and architectural wonders distributed on both the left and right banks of the Seine. Moreover, France's extensive and more recent colonial history provides hundreds of options for the consuming tourist. Although major African neighborhoods are tucked away in remote Montmartre or the northern suburbs, no tourist using the Paris Metro in any part of the city can avoid contact with Africans from former French colonies. Even more conscientious tourists can find monuments, inside and outside the city, to colonial soldiers who fought for France in World War I, only to be denied national self-determination at Versailles. Neither French, European, nor that great proponent of national self-determination, Woodrow Wilson, was interested in self-determination for people of color since their new world order was still dedicated to the old order of white supremacy.

The real location of the residue of French imperialism is in the immigrant suburbs ringing, in particular, the northern edge of the city. It is there that the recent riots put France on notice that as much as its star soccer player, Zidane, is representative of a national commitment to an inclusive French society, any assimilation and anti-racism must still confront imperial legacies and the ongoing conflicts around the world. Although most Americans tend to see Paris and France, in general, as still somewhat effete and anti-American, American cultural imperialism still persists from music to the periodic McDonalds, mostly consumed by the immigrant masses. The grotesque effort to make the French out to be anti-American because of the Chirac government's initial resistance to the Bush war on Iraq is seen as laughable at best and misguided at worst. In fact, for those paying any attention, France and the U.S. were active co-sponsors of the coup against Aristide in Haiti.

So, affluent Americans in Paris these days need not fear any discomfort except the weak dollar. Yet, my own pleasant visit to Paris was bizarrely interrupted by an incident that reminded me that there are walking casualties of imperialism that haunt the streets of Paris. As I was leaving a friend's apartment in Montmartre, a young man, most likely of North African origin, verbally accosted me on the street in an initial friendly but hesitant manner. It was clear that after one sentence that he had a speech impediment and some other physical or psychological condition that made his speech somewhat slurred and halting. When I explained that I understood only a little French and that I was American, he switched to English and stuttered what sounded like a sorrowful lamentation about his parents being killed by imperialism. I immediately offered my sympathy and sought some graceful escape. However, he insisted upon knowing where I was from in the States. When I said Detroit, his sad demeanor changed and he kissed me on both cheeks after giving me a high-five. I'm not sure whether his joyful response to Detroit was based on his love of Motown, the Pistons, 313 techno or the Arab-American connection. Before I could find out, his elation had dissipated and he once again began wailing about his murdered mother and father. I hurriedly extricated myself with seemingly soothing references that everything would be okay.

Of course, for all the victims of imperialism, history does not offer an easy purging of the pain of victimization. Although the imperial privileges that we Americans carry with us as happy-go-lucky tourists may shield us from our own complicity in past and present suffering, we are never far from the residues and resonances of imperial degradations engendered by the West. But if we look with searching eyes and listen with open ears and hearts, we can find those hearts of darkness which will once again reveal the horror beneath all of the imperial glories.


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About the Author

Fran Shor, a Professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, teaches courses in the fields of historical and cultural studies. He is the author of two books, Utopianism and Radicalism in a Reforming America, 1888-1918 and Bush-League Spectacles: Empire, Politics, and Culture in Bushwhacked America, and scores of articles in academic journals. He has also published extensively on Websites such as Common Dreams, CounterPunch, and History News Network. A veteran activist in peace, justice, and international solidarity campaigns, he is a long-time board member of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights and Peace Action of Michigan.



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Published July 17, 2006