Portraits

Paying a courtesy call on the British foreign secretary Robin Cook in 1997, the Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern noticed a painting of Oliver Cromwell in the room. He instantly walked out and refused to return until the portrait of “that murdering bastard” had been removed.

Amusing antics from the man whose 2007 election campaign used video testimony from Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

Now, the allure of cheap posts about how state officials are inconsistent hypocrites is starting to fade for this rain-sodden blogholder. But still.

The above photo is from the Roosevelt Room in the White House. In the background is a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt as a Rough Rider. Theodore Roosevelt has many admirers, including the current presidential candidates, Barack Obama cites him approvingly. John McCain basically wants to be him.

Roosevelt once remarked, of the American Indians:

I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of 10 are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the 10th.

Of the conquest and settlement of Indian lands, he observed, in language worthy of Mein Kampf:

It was as ultimately beneficial as it was inevitable. Huge tomes might be filled with arguments as to the morality or immorality of such conquests. But these arguments appeal chiefly to the cultivated men in highly civilized communities who have neither the wish nor the power to lead warlike expeditions into savage lands. Such conquests are commonly undertaken by those reckless and daring adventurers who shape and guide each race’s territorial growth. They are sure to come when a masterful people, still in its raw barbarian prime, finds itself face to face with the weaker and wholly alien race which holds a coveted prize in its feeble grasp.

For him, a healthy state consisted of of manly men and womanly women:

In the last analysis a healthy state can exist only when the men and women who make it up lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives; when the children are so trained that they shall endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome them; not to seek ease, but to know how to wrest triumph from toil and risk. The man must be glad to do a man’s work, to dare and endure and to labor; to keep himself, and to keep those dependent upon him. The woman must be the housewife, the helpmeet of the homemaker, the wise and fearless mother of many healthy children. In one of Daudet’s powerful and melancholy books he speaks of “the fear of maternity, the haunting terror of the young wife of the present day.” When such words can be truthfully written of a nation, that nation is rotten to the heart’s core. When men fear work or fear righteous war, when women fear motherhood, they tremble on the brink of doom; and well it is that they should vanish from the earth, where they are fit subjects for the scorn of all men and women who are themselves strong and brave and high-minded.

He expressed his own – in parts strangely familiar- thoughts on the matter of the Filipino American War (in which hundreds of thousands of Filipinos died), as follows:

The Philippines offer a yet graver problem. Their population includes half-caste and native Christians, warlike Moslems, and wild pagans. Many of their people are utterly unfit for self-government, and show no signs of becoming fit. Others may in time become fit but at present can only take part in self-government under a wise supervision, at once firm and beneficent. We have driven Spanish tyranny from the islands. If we now let it be replaced by savage anarchy, our work has been for harm and not for good. I have scant patience with those who fear to undertake the task of governing the Philippines, and who openly avow that they do fear to undertake it, or that they shrink from it because of the expense and trouble; but I have even scanter patience with those who make a pretense of humanitarianism to hide and cover their timidity, and who cant about “liberty” and the “consent of the governed,” in order to excuse themselves for their unwillingness to play the part of men. Their doctrines, if carried out, would make it incumbent upon us to leave the Apaches of Arizona to work out their own salvation, and to decline to interfere in a single Indian reservation. Their doctrines condemn your forefathers and mine for ever having settled in these United States.

And:

If we are too weak, too selfish, or too foolish to solve them, some bolder and abler people must undertake the solution. Personally, I am far too firm a believer in the greatness of my country and the power of my countrymen to admit for one moment that we shall ever be driven to the ignoble alternative.

An analysis of Theodore Roosevelt, Rough Rider in the White House, by Sarah Watts, characterised this approach as follows:

Roosevelt’s argument approaches a political version of domination or rape fantasy that projects the onlooker’s or perpetrator’s repressed but now resurgent emotions onto objects of desire. A manly nation carrying out a “righteous task” engages in random “wrong-doing” but largely accomplishes “brilliant feats of arms” to pre-empt an even “stronger and manlier” power from having to take the prize, a “barbaric” people. Such fantasies in political culture mirrored those in literature and art that appeared in the eighteenth century and gained currency throughout the nineteenth: they pictured, from the viewpoint of a male onlooker-participant, a helpless, often dishevelled and partly undressed female, passive yet ecstatic, who invites a man’s primitive urge to overpower her. Attracted by the powerful feeling her helplessness and sexual need bring out in him, he gives in to her allure.

The import of Roosevelt’s ‘rousing masculinity’, Watts continues, was that it

merged pleasingly and appropriately into the discourse on national identity. As never before in their history, Americans had identified the nation with the body of its president and believed in his struggles to preserve civilization against degeneracy and danger. The cult of the cowboy-warrior posed an Anglo-Saxon male with military bearing and athletic vigour who rescued, purified, and saved the nation and its men. By politically sanctioning violence and bloodletting, the cult invited a generation of Americans to think of their nation as the rightful and proper agent for the unleashing of male energy.

Theodore Roosevelt makes Oliver Cromwell look like Les Dennis.

The rules governing why Ahern didn’t walk out of the Roosevelt Room when he did so in Robin Cook’s office are fairly obvious: a) only your own dead people count; b) you don’t act the maggot when it comes to matters of real substance. It is only when the stakes are low that you can act all offended. So even though there’s a very impressive statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the British Houses of Parliament, Ahern didn’t require its removal when he was going to address the joint houses. Maybe one could add c) which is that Ahern automatically recognises the US as the ‘rightful and proper agent for the unleashing of male energy’; as such the considerations that came to the fore in Robin Cook’s office would never have entered his mind in the Roosevelt Room.

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