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Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Vermilion

" 'The Vermilion' is another of his names because he always writes in vermilion-colored ink." 

"Strange, strange people, the Chinese, Culum," Struan said. "For instance; only the emperor among three hundred millions is allowed to use vermilion ink. Imagine that. If Queen Victoria said, ‘From now on, only I am allowed to use vermilion,’ as much as we love her, forty thousand Britons would instantly forswear all ink but vermilion. I would mysel’.”
James Clavell, Tai-Pan (1966), concerning mid-19th century Britain-China trade relations. Trade opened the world to Chinese products and customs. But the Chinese supine deference to "The Vermilion" would remain foreign to the West for a century.

But alas, supine deference would not remain foreign forever. In the 20th century, fear and obeisance ascended in the West, and very nearly ruined it: 
We might have gotten away in the first week or two, if the French had simply sent us off the thirty miles to the Spanish border. That would have been a decent return for the food and medical supplies America has lavished on this government for years. But the Vichy men are a loathsome form of life—crawling, sycophantic, pretentious, lying, self-righteous, anti-Semitic, reactionary, feebly militaristic, and altogether base and unworthy of French culture—the very slimy dregs of the anti-Dreyfusards of old. In short, we didn't get out.
. . . .

Orders do not seem merely to guide [the Germans'] actions; orders, as it were, fill their souls, leaving no room for a human flicker in their faces or eyes. They are herdsmen, and we are cattle; or they are soldier ants, and we are aphids. The orders cut all ties between them and us. All. It is eerie. Truly, their cold empty expressions make my skin crawl.
Herman Wouk, War and Remembrance (1978).

These excerpts are from works of historical fiction. They tell of a tension between two species of men: the man who is free, and the man who is supine. At the time of their publications in the 1960s and '70s in the U.S. and the U.K., one species was regarded as familiar; the other, foreign.

Now consider this recent story out of the country whose people, Clavell expected a 20th century audience to readily understand, would take to writing in all-vermilion ink, were their queen to forbid it:
A woman was arrested for refusing to leave a park bench, saying she was ‘exercising her mind’

But she received nothing but criticism from people who said she was selfish – risking not only her own health but that of the police and others.
Consider also this viral story. From the country that rescued Europe from German order-followers and Vichy enablers, a group of Staten Island shoppers, insisting on absolute compliance with public facemask rules, converged upon an unmasked woman in a food market and shouted and swore at her until she left the store:
Viral video shot at a supermarket on Staten Island in New York City shows a mob of angry shoppers in coronavirus masks cursing a woman without one.


“Get the f--- out of here!” a man is heard yelling in the video. “Get out!” screams another woman, pointing toward an exit.

The paper reported that the woman who posted the video captioned it, “What happens in Staten Island when you don’t wear a mask in Shoprite!”
Should health experts insist only they were permitted to write in vermilion ink, I should think these people will be likely to accede. The Queen of England, at the height of the British Empire, did not have such power.

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