Lessons learned from Joha, the prince and the donkey

January 31, 2004 12:00 AM

Everyone in Boston knows the story of the Boston Tea Party. Typically, America’s independence from Great Britain resulted from some quarrel about tea taxes! The British ship that was bringing tea to the American shores was overrun by the American rebels, and the tea cargo was thrown into the ocean. Americans like to call that event and the events that followed their war of independence, which would set America in the camp of the oppressed nations of the world. Moreover some immigrant American thinkers, like Hannah Arendt, argue that America’s war of independence was the only rightful revolution in human history, all other revolutions being motivated by low human needs of material goods (i.e. class conflict), or by some tribal pride (i.e. national liberation), whilst that American revolution, was motivated only by the noble human longing for the principles of political freedom as expressed by John Locke and his likes. Of course Arendt was involved in sending Jewish children to Israel to colonize the holy land and Locke made a fortune off the slave trade!

Today, the Boston Tea Party is commemorated with a replica of the British supposedly colonial ship in the Boston harbor. Just next to it, in the other side of the harbor, one could see another ship, an American one, the destroyer USS Constitution. The two ships coexist like mother and daughter in Boston harbor waters.

Strangely enough the two ships reminded me of Joha, the wise fool of late medieval fairy tales. I thought that if he came back to life he would not be able to make a more bitter joke about the United States than putting those two ships so close to one another. The meaning was obvious; while the first ship tells the alleged story of America resisting colonialism, the second ship tells the story of America as the most recent, powerful, metallic version of Britain’s classical wooden colonialism.

In one of Joha’s stories he takes a large amount of money from a prince as he promises to make the prince’s donkey talk in 10 years. When his wife asks him how he could have made such a promise to the prince, who would definitely cut off his head once he realizes Joha’s deceit, Joha answers: “In 10 years, either I die or the prince dies, or the donkey dies!” Mentioning the three characters in this order is essential in the story; Joha is actually making a political statement about the prince. In the first half of the sentence, some equality is implicitly suggested between the prince and Joha, and in the second half the equality is suggested between the stupid prince and the donkey! By the end of Joha’s sentence one sympathizes more with the donkey than with the prince, for the death of the prince would seem to be the happiest ending possible rather than the death of the helpless donkey.

The position of the two ships in Boston Harbor is very much like the positions of the prince and the donkey in Joha’s sentence. The British “donkey ship” seems helpless and insignificant next to the mighty princely American destroyer, yet there is a sense of stupidity in both, because their peaceful harmonious coexistence in the harbour condemns them and they are too dull to realize it. By saying that the ships do not realize their funny position, I mean that the minds that put the ships together, from Boston Harbor Authorities to George Bush and Tony Blair do not realize, or do not want to realize the bitter joke they are making of themselves.

In one of my debates with a graduate student at the university, I was criticizing the federalist papers, a set of articles written by the founding fathers of the United States in order to convince the people of New York to vote for the suggested constitution of the nascent American state. The student was fascinated with the moral authority of the constitution and its defenders. I, on the other hand, was not as impressed. The defenders of the constitution were trying to convince the people of New York to embrace a state whose land was taken by force from its rightful owners and whose economy, to a great extent, depend on slavery.

In fact, a war was raging in different parts of the country to acquire more land from the native Americans and more slaves were being brought to the country by the day. Many civilizations experienced dominating other weaker groups, yet in all those cases the dominant nations tried to formulate some kind of a discourse that would legitimize their enslavement of others.

The ancient Greeks invented the theory of the natural slave, and the modern Europeans invented the idea of Europe’s mission to civilize the barbarous world. Yet those founding fathers did not mention either. As if the issue of “the other” was nothing to be bothered about at all. The student answered me stating that I should not judge the founding fathers using today’s moral criteria (though I never did, and I was judging them against the moral criteria of ancient Greece and colonial Europe).

The student then went on to tell me that, to the founding fathers the blacks were just not human, and you do not explain yourself to bulls and cows even if your economy depended on them. As for native Americans, they had no case whatsoever against the European settlers, the natives had no state, so they had no law, and since they had no law, there could not have been any conception of the right of property; in other words the natives never owned the land of America, and therefore the settlers did not take anything from them. The anger of the natives against the settlers becomes a sheer crime, and one does not explain himself to criminals in one’s constitution!

I was impressed by the student’s logic, as well as by Hannah Arendt’s argument that the American Revolution was the model revolution in human history. The bomb showers in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, made me more attentive as I listened to that student, after all, that logic seems to be ruling the world.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Culture/Art/2004/Jan-31/92583-lessons-learned-from-joha-the-prince-and-the-donkey.ashx#ixzz2wGRMwtLs 
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