Monday, October 30, 2006

Goose Step

Christian Cotroneo's search for the roots of the goose step takes him back past George Orwell's quip about it, which he elides. Here's the full:

The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is "Yes, I am ugly, and you daren't laugh at me," like the bully who makes faces at his victim.

Probably he didn't give the full quote because if he had, he could have stopped writing right there. Except for noting its recent appearance in Iran and North Korea, Cotroneo, or anyone else for that matter, can't add much to Orwell's accomplishment in cooking the goose step. He does, however, find an expert with a delicious name:

"(The goose-stepping) says that here we can train all these men to do something that is completely unnatural," says author David Schimmelpenninck, who chairs Brock University's history department. "When you see men goose-stepping, that is much more ominous and much more impressive in a perverse sort of way than when you see men marching as they normally would in most NATO armies.

"In a militarized society, like Nazi Germany, like the Soviet army, like North Korea, the message is, `We are a society that will follow the dictator's whim.'"

It seems to be the metaphor of the story I read long ago of some 19th century Bolivian caudillo who, to impress a visiting Prussian dignitary, ordered an elite company of his own guards to march out an upper story window.

The curious thing that nobody seems to question is, why is it called the "goose step?" Geese waddle, sway from side to side as they move on their feet on land. It looks nothing like a "goose step."

Turns out, the original goose step (it dates back to the Napoleonic era, naturally) was a military drill to teach balance. You stood on each leg alternately and swung the other back and forth. This at least looks vaguely like a goose's way of walking. It must have acquired a general sense of "militaristic way of marching" by the time it was applied to "marching without bending the knees." That seems to first have happened in 1916. Like much of the horrible ugliness of the 20th century, it seems to have its roots in WW1.