The following contribution comes from Richard C. Parks, author of Medical Imperialism of French North Africa: Regenerating the Jewish Community of Colonial Tunis (October 2017). Parks is an academic specialist in the history of science and medicine at Michigan State University.
“Us” vs. “Them”
I will begin with a confession. As a member of a class of professionals desperate to maintain relevance in a world that systematically eschews the humanities and social sciences in favor of more [economically?] “useful disciplines,” I have the unfortunate tendency to imagine examples of my rather esoteric research mirrored on the mastheads of every major news outlet. My inner ego, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, shouts, “You are so lucky to have such a great historical perspective through which to view [fill in the blank]!”
Since the American elections of fall 2017, historical perspective has become an increasingly important tool to contextualize the “alternative facts” and deconstruct the “talking points” that permeate our political zeitgeist. Riding a wave of social, economic, and political populism, that at times flirts dangerously with notions of white nationalism, some Americans are calling into question the very definition of what it means to be an American, who gets to exercise the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution, and what is the essence of American “greatness.”
Many have decried the disrespect of athletes who “take a knee” during the national anthem. They scream from their couches, “Those people should be thankful for their jobs! They should be more respectful to ‘the owners!’ They should give due deference to the flag! (Can you pass the guacamole?)” Establishing who gets to complain and how precisely they should lodge those complaints has become a national preoccupation. What people are complaining about has fallen completely by the wayside.
History is rife with examples of internecine battles over the rules of the game and the terms by which we will all agree to settle our differences. But, those rules and terms are often constructed within a complex matrix of race, religion, economic prestige, social position, and political privilege that only the most powerful and savvy can navigate. Oh, no! Has the heartland of American been “colonized” by the populist voices of the one percent? Are we now rebelling like the colonial subjects of French North Africa for the right to be more than mere spectators to our own socio-political futures? See! I told you that my research topic was everywhere!
In a similar vein, the relief and rescue efforts in Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricane Maria have exposed the harsh realities of the “us” versus “them” mentality that dominates contemporary political, social, and cultural debates in the United States. Puerto Rico exists in the collective historical memory of many Americans as a “territorial possession”—it is not like the rest of America. Puerto Rico is in the tropics, the inhabitants speak Spanish as a first language, and, as President Trump has mused aloud in his characteristic stream-of-consciousness style, “[Puerto Rico] is an island, surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.” With the deft hand of an expert “brander,” Mr. Trump’s pithy summation of Puerto Rico’s otherness strikes a chord with many on the mainland. After all, why should we help those people anyway? Who are they not to submit to our authority? The temerity to complain after all we have done for them!
Established and forged in the crucible of military domination, the metropolitan-colonial relationship that has shaped the bonds between the United States and Puerto Rico has had numerous historic analogs. The subjugation of Tunisia by France in 1881, which sets the backdrop of my new book, Medical Imperialism in French North Africa, is one such example of the withering paternalism that accompanies military hegemony combined with assumed cultural, and even racial, superiority. French-colonial subjects in Tunisia endured these theories of ethnic essentialism, often supported by imperialist interpretations of science and medicine, as France endeavored to impose “modernization” on an “ungrateful” indigenous population.
At first glance, a book about colonial identity and medical imperialism in the French Protectorate of Tunisia seems to carry little currency in our world of “modern” socio-political discourse. But, comparable to the gulf between Third Republic France and her colonial possessions, divides exist within the social fabric of America, in spite of strong constitutional protections and two and a half centuries of shared experience. Perhaps these debates over who belongs and who does not are not fault lines, but an indication of healthy democratic dissent. Or, perhaps we are fracturing beyond repair. Regardless, it does beg the question, who is the “us” and who are the “them?”