White Supremacy and Its Cultural Justifications: Who Really Owns the Stories We Tell?
-- A Disussion of In Patagonia

Beth Soucar '91 (El 34, 1991)

Na~zism n. The ideology and practice of the Nazis, esp. the policy of state control of the economy, racist nationalism, and national expansion. (InterLex Dictionary)

Bruce Chatwin, in his book In Patagonia , addresses the second of these three elements of Nazism, racist nationalism. He tells of English and other European exiles holding firmly to white supremacy, which, odd as it may seem, is just one part of the European cultural past that they try to maintain. But is it the guiding force? Is the worship of English culture--Shakespeare, for example -- just part of a racist program for achieving the political dominance of whites? I think this is a question Chatwin wants us to consider.

Chatwin tells how the culture of the original country dominates an exile's self-image. In the following passage, one of the exiles, who speaks German with his niece and lives in a German- style house, mourns the waning of colonial power in Patagonia:

"'The war was the biggest mistake in history,' Anton Hahn said. He was obsessed by the war. 'Two peoples of the Superior Race ruining each other. Together England and Germany could have ruled the world. Now even Patagonia is returning to the indigenas. This is a pity'" (p. 64).

The houses, decorations, and other possessions of the exiles are as important to their European self-images as are their attitudes and their values. Chatwin, a few chapters later, moves into a discussion of another part of European culture, which the exiles would strongly covet: literature. He focuses upon English literature: Coleridge and Wordsworth (Chapter 45) and that paragon of greatness, Shakespeare (Chapter 49).

The ideology of white supremacy rests on the notion that the greatness of whites lies in a culture which sprang from within themselves, as if handed down by God, signifying whites as His chosen people. Great literature, as part of this culture, should therefore originate with whites. Chatwin destabilizes the origin of English stories and in so doing, pulls the rug out from under the ideology of white supremacy. He tells how the stories can be traced back to certain ship captains who recorded their impressions of foreign natives. One of these travellers wrote a description which was probably the basis for the character Caliban in The Tempest . The great irony of Anton Hahn's supremacist views is this: The "indigenas" he scorns hold partial responsibility for the writings of Shakespeare!

So when William Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education, writes of reclaiming "our cultural heritage," he speaks of a heritage (literary and otherwise) which holds no primary origin in America or Europe. Instead, this "heritage" consists of retold stories that have come from other peoples, who got them from somewhere else, and so on. Perhaps the Caliban "type" can be traced back even further to other stories. Chatwin does not research it any farther.

White supremacy loses its grounding when we look at English literary culture the way Chatwin explains it. However, just disproving the basis for a racist ideology does not ensure that it will go away. The real power of Nazi ideology comes when people forget the history of stories and see themselves as the origin of everything that is important and good. A myopia of the mind takes over, impelling people to colonize and ruin other countries, sometimes attempting genocide.

In the case of the English exiles in Patagonia, their adherence to European culture might look silly, especially to those who know what "real" Europeans are like. But they look silly because we look at them from an outsider's perspective. Regardless of whether one can make them see that white supremacy has no empirical basis, they are engaged in a power struggle in which they desperately need their stories of the past in order to justify their existence among the native peoples and among other European exiles.

The more problematic questions are: How might these exiles surive without discriminating against others? Is nationalism necessarily racist? What does it mean to be an exile? Are we all exiles in some way, whether we are from another country, state, or "side of the tracks"? How do we perpetuate those stories which allow one person to dominate another?

I don't think Chatwin wants us to put English literature on trial for conspiring with white supremacy, but he does want readers to see how some people define their politics through adherence to certain stories about the origins of their national culture.

United Kingdom In Patagonia