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It is one of the “what ifs” of history: Would Algeria have had a brighter future had it remained under French rule? One certainly could argue that with continued access to French language and culture, manners and moeures, the Algerian population would have been imbued with European civilization — and would have benefitted from the cultural inheritance of the West. Instead, successive regimes of fanatically pro-independence leaders and Islamist groups seem to have repudiated the country’s European roots.
Mind, I am not necessarily arguing for the superiority of one culture over another; rather, I am extolling the virtues and benefits of having different cultural and linguistic traditions interact with — or “encounter” (in post-modern parlance) — each other. The assimilation, blending and intermingling of different cultures and traditions within the bosom of the West throughout history is precisely what has made Western civilization vibrant, resilient and strong.
Is all this a veiled defense of colonialism? No, it really isn’t. But it is a critique of the common and widely-held assumption that European colonial powers only brought suffering, exploitation and destruction to their former colonies. Such overly simplistic arguments — sadly, too common among liberal internationalists and Marxist academics — ignore the benefits and contributions that colonists brought to the developing world.
The political institutions and administrative procedures inherited by India from Britain, for example, have contributed directly to its growth. Similar things can be said of Hong Kong. (For an excellent explanation of Hong Kong’s success under the British, find the pre-handover speech, “Two Cheers for Colonialism,” delivered in 1997 by Derek Davies, former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review). Algeria, in contrast, has retained precious little of its French colonial past.
A Parisian friend recently told me that his mother and her family had visited the capital of Algiers a few years ago. They had been pieds-noirs. He recounted how they had visited their ancestral home, with the permission of its new occupants, and had been surprised to find many of the family’s belongings — 19th century paintings, heirloom furniture, etc. — still there, just as the family had left them in the 1960s. The only difference was that everything was covered in dust and grime, the paintings were faded, the furniture was damaged, all of it neglected by the families now sharing the house.
My friend’s family recognized that none of it belonged to them anymore; but they were still heart-broken to see so many reminders of what once was — ruined remnants of European civilization. It was, my friend said, almost like seeing a lonely old ghost wander the halls of a forgotten, ruined palace: hauntingly tragic — and a reminder that Europe’s cultural legacy is eroding around the world.
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