Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Ave Senatus Populusque Americanus

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was honoured by a shockingly muted sixty-eighth anniversary by our southern cousins (insufficiently removed) on Monday. America's deepest, most painfully infected pre-9/11 psychic wound went almost totally unremembered, but for a few cursory nods from relatively marginal sources.

Americans strolled past the day as glibly as they stroll past tragedies that happen to (or that they inflict on) others--the way they insouciantly jitterbugged past the Luftwaffe's methodical annihilation of British industrial cities during the Blitz, an outrage barely noticed by America (despite the best efforts of Edward R. Murrrow), perhaps because stalwart Britons refused (as they still refuse) to wallow in exhibitionistic self-pity or, demanding that the whole world stop and stare, commemorate the disaster every few months with lachrymose spasms of bellicose schmaltz and jingoist chest beating. Perhaps too many Americans enjoyed watching their old imperialist nemesis get what to sermonising republicans seemed a divinely ordained comeuppance. Whatever the case, America smugly sat, unmoved and uncaring, before the twisted and shredded corpses of forty thousand British dead, still unconvinced that this Hitler chap was quite as bad as Churchill made him out to be, utterly refusing to lose sleep over a few tens of thousands of dead Limey women and children. Only when the fight against Nazi barbarism could be entered as a personal grudge match, as an act of face-saving vengeance, did America discover its selfless commitment to freedom.

The "day of infamy" had to lose its sting for Americans, now that they've adopted and rendered respectable the tactic that once seemed an outrageous instance of cowardly "Jap" perfidy--exactly the kind of thing to expect from a racial inferior. Perhaps they've grown so comfortably into their own virulent imperialism that they can afford retroactive disbursements towards the past costs of empire. It's about time. Many of us have been waiting for America to grow sufficiently beyond its national pubescence to find the philosophical integrity to meet counter-imperialist violence with less of the spoilt-brat whining that seems to accompany its every unpleasant encounter with lesser breeds without the law and more of the stoic, uncomplaining (and often ruthless) professionalism with which Europeans dealt with their own restive colonised tribes.

Oliver Cromwell never sobbed, "Why do they hate us?". He knew why the Irish hated him; he knew that nobody loves an overlord. Nor did Cromwell ever ask the rest of Europe to feel sorry for him. He merely wiped Wexford off the map, without expecting Irish Catholic gratitude for the deed. It is in their hybridisation of Cromwellian methodology with an unctuous, Oprahfied self-satisfaction that American élites are most contemptible. If they finally manage to adopt a European capacity to accept the consequences of their actions, Americans might just gain the wherewithal to start living the reign of justice and righteousness they ostensibly left Europe to found in the New World.

In truth, I'm not optimistic--for many reasons. I am exasperated, for instance, by the American denial that they are an empire. If they haven’t been convinced by their more than 700 military bases sited across the world, they never will be. More ominously, it is still depressingly impossible for an American politician to be even mildly anti-imperialist and retain a shred of popular respectability. The faintest, feeblest suggestion that America would be wise to scale back the magnitude of its foreign entanglements is met with scarifying derision and exile to the lonely, despised fringes--Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan territory. The only vaguely acceptable American anti-imperialist position is pro-imperialist; thus Obama's wish to expand and deepen America's occupation of Afghanistan whilst drawing down that of Iraq, though loudly deprecated as defeatist peacenik treason by the Right, contained enough vestigial aggression to placate swing voters in key states whilst sounding palpably irenic to those Americans, weary of interminable war, who desperately needed to believe that their nation was great, magnanimous, and wise enough to provide its people with an authentically peace-bringing option.

America's inability to nurture or tolerate a domestic anti-imperialist leadership is tragically ironic--not only in its mockery of the philosophical tenets that founded the republic, but in its falling tenebrously below a standard of civic integrity managed even by its old imperialist nemesis, Great Britain. British members of Parliament did not allow themselves to be silenced by cries of "treason" whilst George III waged unwinnable war in America. Opposition to that war actually enhanced the prestige of several of its famous parliamentary antagonists, including Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke. How many American political careers were polished into brilliance by a principled stance against the evil, unwinnable war in Vietnam? Eugene McCarthy was scorned. George McGovern was crushed. Bobby Kennedy was shot. In Britain, principled dissent heroises; in America, it immolates.

Even at the height of its globe-bestriding grandeur, when opposition to the United Kingdom's expansionist mission seemed most absurdly irrelevant, a career like William Gladstone's was possible. This magnificent old man staked his entire political capital on anti-imperialism while taking the Liberal Party, and a significant mass of the British people, along with him all the way. Gladstone's historic Midlothian campaign, perhaps the first truly modern electoral campaign, was waged against Disraeli’s colonial adventurism. After that contest, Gladstone relentlessly pursued an anti-imperialist agenda, railing against Britain's Afghan fiasco, its war against the Zulus, its conflict with the Boers, and its war with the Mahdi. His last great prime-ministerial initiative was the ultimately doomed set of Irish Home Rule bills, designed to extend self-government to some of the earliest objects of English colonialism.

Thus, Gladstone's mature career was one of unyielding opposition to a fundamental feature of British life, something held in semi-religious reverence by millions of Britons of all classes. One may disagree with this or that facet of Gladstone's agenda (Queen Victoria, for one, could not abide Gladstone), but one must acknowledge and stand in awe of the equanimity with which the people of Great Britain received his often vituperative attacks upon everything most of them held dear about their beloved empire. One shouldn't need to stand in such awe, of course: this fair-mindedness is to be expected of any people who lay claim to the possession of civic decency, political rationality and other key items on the menu of Enlightenment values. One stands in awe only, perhaps, because of how completely American intolerance and ideological narrowness have become North American norms--virtually prescriptively so--and how utterly Canadians have lost touch with the brilliant possibilities embodied by the rich deposit of our cultural past, a past populated by the Gladstones as well as the Disraelis and ennobled equally by both. You'll need to find me an American president of Gladstone's dissenting resilience and power--I'll settle for an influential U.S. senator, actually--before I'll grant to America any capacity whatever to fuel Gladstone’s kind of principled war against arbitrary and arrogant power--her own, especially—a kind that would enrapture American souls in their tens of millions if their nation were truly committed to the principles of its founders.

I should like to know, too, where are the American cognates to another classic British type--the champions of new nationhood, the builders who use imperial privileges and prerogatives for the sake of weaker, often hostile, peoples. Where are the American Parnells? Where are the American Lawrences? Where are the American Wingates? And to what services on behalf of freedom have American education and training inclined their beneficiaries? Who deserves higher praise--colonial graduates of the School of the Americas or those of English universities?

Our global nightmare is this--that America denies the reality of the imperialism she fecklessly and incompetently pursues while marginalising all domestic attempts to bring her to reason. She is a sleepwalker stepping off a cliff whilst dreaming of flying. Pity the sleepwalker, but pity more keenly those of us (which is all of us) she's dragging over the cliff with her. Pity most keenly those of us who think it rude to waken the sleepwalking goliath, and promise never to vote for the suicidal madmen ever again.


Aeneas the Younger said...

The American republic and it denizens have been delusional from the very beginning.

They rebelled against British rule because a minority was able to mislead the majority about the connection between British duties and taxes and their own national security.

So, they founded a republic on the pretext that "all men are created equal" which guaranteed Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness - and then EXCLUDED a significant minority of their population from such benefit because of their skin colour.

In both Great Wars, the United States - supreme defender of Freedom that she claims to be - waited until Germany had almost come to dominate Europe before deciding join in the cause.

In Vietnam, the United States pledged to "stop the dominoes from falling" - but when the price became too high through ineptitude- abandoned the South Vietnamese and Cambodians to Communist enslavement.

After 9/11 the United States pledged themselves to hunting down Al Qaeda, but instead invaded one of Al Qaeda's oil-rich enemies. Bin Laden of course, remains free.

Your point about the British Civic Tradition resonates with me wholeheartedly; I have fought hard espousing this view for years now in the Blogosphere.

However, the co-opted of both the right and left merely wave their hand dismissively at me and utter with extreme contempt "begone you Anglo-Saxon supremacist!"

What none of them seem to comprehend is that even Mohandas Gandhi was an exemplar of this British Civic Tradition. And he was hardly an ethnic Briton.

When the culture is so corrupted, when the tradition is so derided, when the values are so co-opted can one not concede why another is given to lamentations and pity?

Great post by-the-way ... I wish I could write in your style. Alas, my style is too editorial/historical.

Catelli said...

Sir Francis may well correct my impression, but I admire Roosevelt's unwavering loyalty to the "Europe first" policy during WWII. He worked behind the scenes to lend as much assistance as possible to Great Britain, not to avoid the war, but because his people wouldn't let him join another "European war".

Looking back, would America today allow a leader to delay a full out attack an Japan to go engage the German threat first? I think not.

The overreaction to 9/11 stands in such stark contrast. There was no method, it was all madness, and horribly ineffective (at such cost!) because of it. Obama's effort to refocus on Afghanistan is, I fear, a case of too little, too late. But the fault for that lays at the feet of George W.

Ti-Guy said...

by our southern cousins (insufficiently removed)

Heh heh. I wonder how many of your readers will get that?

Sir Francis said...

Your point about the British Civic Tradition resonates with me wholeheartedly...

I am hardly one of Gladstone's biggest fans; in fact, as a Tory, I deplore much of what he advocated (though he still managed to become one of Winston Churchill's inspirations).

Nevertheless, Gladstone's basic integrity is undeniable. His principled Liberalism has been unmatched here in Canada (Alexander Mackenzie and Edward Blake being possible exceptions; Laurier was a sell-out hack).

The fact is that I remain impressed by Britain's (and Western Europe's) civic diversity and saddened by Canada's growing tendency to espouse the sterile triviality of America's bovine cult of consensus.

I wish I could write in your style.

Your writing is just fine, ATY. You write from the heart, which is the way it should be. I just wish you wrote more often. Your hiatus has reduced the on-line Tory contingent by 30%. That's a massive attrition! ;)

Ti-Guy said...

A lovely post. But...

and how utterly Canadians have lost touch with the brilliant possibilities embodied by the rich deposit of our cultural past, a past populated by the Gladstones as well as the Disraelis and ennobled equally by both.

That's your cultural past, not mine. I'd be careful about such generalisations when it comes to "Canadians," if you remember carefully where that word itself comes from.

Sir Francis said...


Remember that Roosevelt was an Anglophilic patrician (with some tangential Canadian connections to boot) and had a notion of America's global responsibilities seriously at variance with that of the vast majority of his fellow Americans.

That said, Roosevelt took many pounds of flesh out of the Commonwealth in return for American support. In return for Lend-Lease privileges, Britain was made to cede key military installations and control over crucial components of its monetary and trade policies to the U.S.

Britain was also forced to commit to the U.S.-authored "Atlantic Charter" which basically mandated the end of the British Empire, with America waiting to eat up the scraps. Roosevelt was particularly eager to take over Britain’s spheres of influence in the Middle East--for obvious reasons (those Studebakers weren't going to fuel themselves).

So, Roosevelt's "support" for England was just good business--nothing wrong with that, but not something over which we need to get sentimental.

Sir Francis said...


You're right. That was worded awkwardly.

I did not mean to imply that only the Gladstones and the Disraelis (i.e. only Englishmen) populate our cultural past--a patent absurdity. I merely meant that the two foregoing are among those who populate our cultural past.

Look, I'm one of the few Canadians who care to remember that Canada was a monarchy before 1759 or who consider Les relations des Jesuites de la Nouvelle-France to be one of the finest examples of Canadian literature. I was simply trying to say that Europe's heritage is ours also.

Ti-Guy said...

In fact, the more I read posts like this, the more incensed I become about a certain self-righteousness that relegates almost 200 years of Canada's history to some Dark Age of half-remembered myth that is best ignored, lest it spoil the narrative the English imposed on the nation from 1759 onward.

Ti-Guy said...

Forgive me, SF. I wrote that before your last comment.

I just think we all need to know that there were almost two centuries of "Canada" before 1759. We think of Canada as a young country, but it really isn't.

Sir Francis said...

We think of Canada as a young country, but it really isn't.

Most of North America's five oldest settlements are in Canada. Quebec City is the oldest permanent settlement in the Americas.

The "Canada-is-young" meme can be benign--as a way of affirming our capacity to adapt and change when necessary (a key component of the broadly "liberal" Western disposition).

It can also be posed, though, as a surreptitious license to approach the nation as a formless, ahistorical blob--one that requires shaping (that in fact begs to be shaped) by hack technocrats and rootless élites according to the exigencies imposed by their pursuit of their own short-term objectives. This last meaning is now, I think, the more common.

Ti-Guy said...

In fact, I'll be so bold as to endorse the unfashionable John Ralston Saul's thesis that what characterises Canada's culture is in fact the sensibility of a métis nation; that this country represents, rather than a conquering force, an ever-expanding and integrating circle that transforms everyone who comes into contact with it and that goes awry only whenever we attempt to work against that fundamental dynamic, established long before First Contact.

I don't think anything truer can be said about Canada.

thwap said...

I have to admit that I share your disdain for the bullshit moralizing that characterizes US foreign policy.

Europe had this crap too, from Kipling's "White Man's Burden" to France's "Civilizing Mission." But this was small-time compared to the way the USA makes its every foreign adventure "the supreme struggle between the forces of good and evil."

As far as Gladstone goes, he was consistently anti-imperialist all the way up to his invasion of Egypt. The fact that he had a personal financial stake in Egypt paying its debts makes his deviation from his supposed principles worse in my estimation.

Sir Francis said...

The fact that he had a personal financial stake in Egypt paying its debts makes his deviation from his supposed principles worse in my estimation.

Hey--he was a liberal, after all: he had no choice but to respond to market pressures on behalf of his enlightened self-interest. ;)

thwap said...

Ha-ha! I wondered what you'd say!

You exceeded my high expectations!

(I still admire Gladstone for having the courage of his convictions to transform himself from a high-Church, pro-slavery Tory to a tolerant, fairly consistent anti-imperialist. But that whole Egypt thing really tarnished him.)

Jack Mitchell said...

Brilliant post!