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583. Treading (VI)



Richard Nixon had a little anecdote about how he heard that Germany had invaded Russia. He was on a cruise with his wife in the Caribbean when a waiter approached him and gave him the news. Nixon was very careful to say that he was a “distinguished, intelligent negro”—and this was because for Nixon this story was a political fable. Nixon went on to say that the waiter told him that Hitler would not succeed because he would become bogged down in the Russian winter wastes, just like Napoleon—the waiter quietly read about Napoleon in his humble cabin after work. After he related this anecdote, Nixon gave a large self-satisfied grin.


Did it really happen? I suspect that the waiter told Nixon and his wife that Hitler had invaded Russia. However, I doubt the second bit: I suspect that this was a little fable Nixon crafted to take round various Republican luncheons—he probably told the same story many times. The tale appeals to a very old trope in human storytelling: truth comes from the mouths of babes, very much like the Emperor’s New Clothes—a story in which it is a humble child who points out the unacceptable truth (sometimes he does). In the Western imaginary, especially the American imaginary, the black man—the wise old negro—plays the same role, albeit in an extremely sentimentalised way. Nixon knew this was so and played up to the expectations inherent in his audience as regards the role played by black people in American society.


The story is very nicely crafted, really. On the one hand you have Hitler, the loud and racially proud warlord who has embarked on his Russian campaign filled with hubris after victory over France. On the other, you have the quiet and distinguished old negro waiter who studies military history in his precious spare time—and, sure enough, the humble man sees the truth. Hallelujah. The mighty are humbled—indeed, there is a certain Christian ethic at work in the story; the smugness and unctuous moral superiority are recognisably Christian.


The observation was a commonplace—a great many people made the observation at the time, even if the waiter never said it. The problem with the anecdote is that Hitler knew perfectly well about what happened to Napoleon in Russia: his difficulty was that he knew the Americans were about to enter the war, knew that he had failed to knock out Britain, and knew that if the Americans entered the war he would face a war on two fronts—the Russians would undoubtedly join in to exploit his troubles with Anglo-America.


Given this situation, Hitler decided to gamble that he could knock Russia out first and then turn to meet the Anglo-Americans on a single front, since there was nothing he could do about America—the idea was not stupid, he had just defeated the much more sophisticated French in slightly over a month. It was not idiotic to think the Russians—with much of their high command decimated from the Great Purge—would be quickly defeated.


So the anecdote had little connection to reality, but it demonstrates why “wokeness” is so pervasive in contemporary Britain and America; both societies have a deeply rooted, even on the right, sentimental cult around women and blacks—and writers, filmmakers, and politicians have finessed this cult for decades. Nixon’s contribution was just one minor example amid millions; and he gave a self-satisfied grin after he told the anecdote, partly from moral gratification and partly because he thought “I got away with that little tale; they bought it lock, stock, and barrel”. Occasionally, conservatives will venture that this attitude patronises women and blacks—and it does. Yet the fable is stronger, it satisfies people at a very deep level—the ironic reversal, the strong humbled, and the meek exulted. “How wise, I guess that mean old racist Hitler got what he deserved, eh? That’s what happens to you if you do a racism.”


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