English Victories & American Destinies
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England
~ John of Gaunt, Shakespeare's Richard ll
Tho' I've belted you an' flayed you,
By the livin' Gawd that made you,
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
~ R. Kipling
A few years ago, after the World Cup, we heard German football fans taunted some British fans by saying "We beat the Brits at their national sport!"
"No big deal," replied the Brits, " we beat the Germans at their national sport twice in the last century."
That was pretty witty and pretty clever, if only partly true.
If not for America, things would have turned out worse.
It must be admitted,the ferocious Red Army played a part too,to say the least.
Ahhh, but that further muddles the whole freedom narrative, so some pretend not to have noticed that, especially when evaluating quips.
Yet, no matter what, the Brits still win the exchange. It hit the Germans where it hurt the most. Also, the aggression of the rejoinder managed to camoflage itself inside a thin shell of comedy.
The English are good at this type of thing.
When Gus, an elderly Greek man we know, was elaborating on some aspects of historical Albion that he found perfideous, we reminded him of a famous quote from Winston Churchill:
"No longer will people say that Greeks fight like brave men, they will say brave men fight like Greeks."
Suddenly Gus stopped complaining about England and started recalling all that he found admirable in the English soul.
Turn to page fifty-six of Blood, Class, And Empire, by Christopher Hitchens.
Owen Wister, friend of Teddy Roosevelt , author of "The Virginian," not only invented the romance of the cowboy, but also published many defenses of the British Empire before, during, and after World War One.
Wister was an anglophile and he thought anglophobic Americans were just suffering from an inferioity complex.
Wister referred to England as the "lion" and America as her "cub." Wister claimed that England saved America from France and Germany, rather than the other way around.
Wister, as such, became a target of opportunity for Daniel T. O'Connell's Fenian frame of mind.
O'Connell was an Irish-American attorney and director of the American Friends of Irish Freedom.
O'Connell's pamphlet, gently titled "Owen Wister, Advocate of Racial Hatred," accused Wister of being a parasite looking for favor from England and then projecting that attitude onto America.
Hitchens excepts O'Connell:
There is not in the history of any country, nor in criminal annals anywhere a record of crimes so shameful, so callous, so vile as England's opium war or England's present opium trade, or the rape of the Boer Republics, of the crimes in India and in Persia and in Ireland and in Egypt, of Amritsar and of Congo.
That's pretty clear, but he goes on:
What he [Wister] says leaves the impression that he is a frank sycophant. He is always in awe of persons and things English ... he should know that gorge of anybody, even an Englishman, will rise at cringing servility and flattery.
England's power has since declined, and so has hatred of her, the Royal Standard, and the Union Jack.
Yet, one can not help but be impressed by the British Empire as O' Connell denounces it, in part because of it was worthy of denounciation and it inspired declarations. It was a very bloody affair.
However, history mutes O' Connell's complaint as memories merge with nostalgia. The 'exoticism' of the conquests, with historical 'distance,' can sounds poetic, especially in its twilight:
Lord Kitchner, Cecil Rhodes, Chinese Gordon, Glubb Pasha, Araby, The Orient, East of Suez, Mespot, Khyber Pass, Lahore, Amritsar, The Grand Trunk Road, etc.
Further, O' Connnel's excellent English rhetoric further adds to the irony; his use of the English language serves to remind everyone of one significant result of the English occupation of Ireland.
Christopher Hitchens, recently wrote of India and the romance of Empire:
My father was a Royal Navy man and I was brought uplargely on navy bases, and sent to a boy's boarding school that was attended mainly by the sons of officers.The school library was full of books devoted to the romance of colonialism, and I loved to steep myself inthe work of G.A. Henty and, as time went on, John Masters and Rudyard Kipling. Maharajahs, elephants, dusty plains, imposing mountains, teeming bazaars...and loyal Indian jemadars and subedars who made sturdy and trusty subordinates. The history lessons more or less repeated these tropes: we had to know about the Battle of Plassey, the Siege of Lucknow and the Black Hole of Calcutta, though if you paid attention and did a little extra reading you might discover, from Edmund Burke's impeachment of Warren Hastings, that not everything had been part of a civilising mission.
After reading this, you can be forgiven for forgetting to ask:
"What were the English doing in India anyway? Why did they partition the Subcontinent? India? Bangladesh? Pakistan? Afganistan? What about Israel and the West Bank?
Are not both the Israelis and the Palestinians, in many ways, both victims of this British method? What about the odd creation of Iraq after the Great War? The divisions of the Kurds? The Transjordon? Cyprus partitioned? Ireland? Etc.
Partion, so as to divide and conquer, was necessary for conquest. It became necessary in retreat too.
Are we Americans condemned to repeat this in Iraq?
Are we just treading the same ground and repeating the same mistakes?
Americans rejected Empire over two hundred years ago, so serious Americans feel obligated to mock the idea of romance in Empire. We are not English.
Nevertheless, growing up we were still thrilled by the stories, myths, and histories that grew out of the British Empire.
We are now paying the price for all these old partitions. Partitions are like wounds that do not heal, but continue to blee royal red.
The romance of colonialism, of which Hitchens speaks, sound compelling. Those were heady days. Thus, you have the English victory of historical style over the substance of current reality.
In some ways, you can see a similar pattern, in some movies. Consider the fact that the film "Wall Street," tells a tale that is critical of Wall St.. Yet, the movie is exciting and that causes people to be attracted, rather than repelled, by the characters and settings on screen. The actor who played "Gekko" noted this; he was puzzled why fans would express admiration, along with a desire for emulation, for his villianous character.
In the movie "Chariots of Fire," the English writer and director craft a modernist message that conforms to their progressive politics and serves as critique of the old order. Nevertheless, the visual images of an older England overwhelm the script and serve as a powerful counter-argument. It's a compelling mix.
Maybe tales of the British Empire, especially when purged of bloodier chapters, are just too thrilling. Yet, the fact that they are so uniquely English may serve to remind us why America should not decay into Empire, but restore the republican ideals that made us a place apart.
Maybe tales of the British Empire better explain why some of the most articulate and most aggressive voices for America to act imperially seem to come from that 'happy breed of men,' who come from that 'blessed plot,' that 'seat of Mars,' England.