Too Late Smart
I once had a large beer stein, embossed with this statement in a mock German/English hybrid: Ve grow too soon oldt, und too late schmart! Many a lager or ale was quaffed from that stein with not much thought to the import of those words.
Predictably, I have grown old too soon, at least for my liking. And that particular stein has long since vanished. But strangely, the significance of the inscription has stayed with me. In my wry moments, I apply it to the world at large, our planet, and to how we humans both inhabit and desecrate it.
There are various theories as to when the so-called new world was discovered by the Norse and European peoples; consensus has it somewhere between 500 and 1100 years ago—a not inconsiderable difference of 600 years, during which the indigenous new world inhabitants must have had scarce premonition of what was to befall them.
If I were to sum up the future they faced in one word, it would be exploitation. If I added a word, it would be extinction, at least for many of them. I’m reminded of the famous boast attributed to Julius Caesar: I came; I saw; I conquered! Just imagine that from your perspective if you were one of the indigenous new world peoples: they are coming, they see us, and they will conquer us!
Victor venit ad spolia! To the victor went the spoils.
When one contemplates the imperial expansion of the old world into the new, there are several ex- words that come to mind: exploitation and extinction, the two already referenced; extermination; expulsion; extraction; excision; expurgation; extortion; extrusion; exclusion; execution; exporting; expunging; extradition. And exile, of course, for many who resisted.
Imperialism and all it entails seems to have been the motivation for such unbridled acquisition of new world territories. In life, nothing is in stasis; organisms are either growing or dying. And the great European colonizer-nations were most definitely organisms of a particular sort: social, political, economic, and militaristic. They either competed against each other for dominance or faded into irrelevance.
From today’s perspective, we can look back on all that has unfolded as a result of the aggressive outreach of those nations. Depending upon our viewpoint, we can praise it or decry it. Descendants of indigenous peoples displaced and overthrown might be forgiven if their outlook differs from that of the progeny of the invaders.
Wars among nations have been fought almost endlessly over the millennium, many in the name of the same acquisitional drive: the Thirty Years War, the Seven Years’ War, the Anglo-Spanish War, the Napoleonic Wars, and of course WW I and WW II, to name but a few in the European sphere. What have they resolved? And what have we learned?
Are nation-states still expansionist? Are militant religious factions still agitating? Are the world’s peoples better off for all the strife? Are we any smarter, or are we just older?
If only we could embrace different ex- words to drive international discourse over the next decades: expiation; examination; exculpation; exemplary; exponent; excellence; exhortation; extolling. Surely then, exaltation would arise among all of us, forever freed from conquest and suppression by others.
But sadly, we are likely too late smart.