Tuesday, July 05, 2005

America: “The World's Last Great Victorian Nation”

The Scotsman ran a 4th of July editorial that deserves wide distribution in this country. Its author, Alex Massie, is to be commended on understanding and conveying so well what America means at this moment.

We are not unique. As he says, we follow in the Victorians’ footsteps, accepting the politically incorrect, the very politically incorrect mantle that Kipling called the “White Man’s burden.” He would have been more accurate to term it “the burden of democracy” for that is what it is and what it was when Kipling first named it.

We follow in Britain’s footsteps, though we do not wear her Imperial shoes. Wherever Her Majesty’s people went they left a legacy of property rights and the rule of law. Was it a bloody road to liberty? Indeed. The Victorians were sure they were right and they sought to impose their vision.

Sometimes we suffer from that Victorian vice of hypocrisy, too. No nation is perfect. But this one was conceived in liberty and thus it follows that America’s citizens are born free. Sometimes it is hard to see how astonishing, how extraordinary is our freedom. It is the air we breathe, the environment we swim in; it’s understandable that we can lose our sense of amazement sometimes, or that we fail to understand why others can’t grasp the absolute rightness of what liberty means. Mr. Massie reminds us all:
     one need not have ever visited the US to feel in tune with what it means to be an American. It is an empire of the mind (and the imagination) as much as it is a military and economic superpower. The principles of the American Revolution remain sound. The World Trade Centre no longer stands, but the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights does.
No other country has embedded the “pursuit of happiness” - the great goal of mankind - in the foundations of the state; nowhere else is the idea of liberty so revered. There is such a thing as an American sensibility and it can be felt from the Baltic to the Pacific.
So, Mr. Massie says, let’s reframe the question. It is not “could America be doing a better job?” Instead, he says --
     Wrong question. If not America, then who? No-one, that’s who. At its best, America and American ideals remain, in Lincoln’s famous words, “the last, best hope of mankind”.
Thank you, sir. Your words are an antidote to the poison of those who would see us defeated. And they give hope to those, like the Eastern Europeans, who know only too well that we are their best hope.

Hat tip: USS Neverdock


truepeers said...

Was it a bloody road to liberty? Indeed. The Victorians were sure they were right and they sought to impose their vision

Yes, but this is almost apologetic (not that we're ultimately in disagreement, i think); were any of the alternatives less bloody? The worlds the Victorians entered were hardly peaceful utopias - conflict and violence were endemic. And the worlds the Victorians have left, like contemporary Africa, often turned awfully bloody, thanks in good part to the corrupting effect of the victimary (anti-Victorian) and Marxisant ideologies adopted by the responsibility-denying local elites. Furthermore, there would be far fewer people in the world if not for the expansion of western science which developed in hand with imperialism (so much so, that if you condemn imperialism, I think, you must also condemn scientific progress - much of which necessarily depended on imperialism - if you are to be realistic and logical in your critique).

Hard to sum all these things up. But i am not quick to apologize for the violence of the Victorians, since the people who call for such invariably have hate in their eyes and show little sign of moral superiority though it is precisely their ideological delusion that they are, indeed, unquestionably superior to them bloody white Victorians. In any case, the nineteenth century was far less violent than the twentieth, both in Europe and around the world. If the course of history can be understood in terms of both progress in our capacity for violence and in the deferral of selfsame violence, I'll take the Victorians as more progressive than the moderns, any day.

Dymphna said...

The 19th century may have been less bloody for the Europeans, but you might want to ask the Indians, et al, how bloody it was for *them.* And how large a part did European imperalism in the 19th century not only make it a bloody place for the white man's burden but also bring on some of the crisis of the early 20th?

That said, I don't think we really disagree..I am not condemning imperialism as much as I am comparing and contrasting. We're more like the Victorians than we're like anyone else. But both cultures have their flaws and it behooves us to acknowledge them while moving ahead.

One way I would *not* take the Victorians over us is the lack of opportunity because of the rigid class system. The meritocracy in America is a much more flexible system. And more merciful.

Jude the Obscure said...

Dymphna, you may be interested in this.

airforcewife said...

A very important point here; the "If not, then who"

If someone is yelling for an alternate mode of action, they better have thought one out and present it.

erp said...

Airforcewife, What would all the anti-war, hate-Bush protesters do with themselves if they were forced to have some sort of alternate solution? Remember Kerry had a plan? Well out with it Jacques. Time's a wasting.

You know with all the international blogging, commenting and posting, we should put our country of original on our posts.

truepeers said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
truepeers said...

Dymphna, yes I agree with most all that; we have to ponder how the horrors of the twentieth century were variously connected and dependent on the nineteenth. My initial emotional reaction to your post was to spout off against an imagined foe who sees history as a building momentum/conspiracy to do violence to "subaltern" people.

FWIW, I tend to see history as an expanding, only potentially violent, force that at every step needs to be carefully and variously mediated to minimize or defer its potential violence. At some steps we succeed and at others fail. If we succeed, we increase the freedoms in the system that if first disproportionately enjoyed by the rich and powerful, are eventually widely enjoyed. But even with its successes, our present society's freedom is the flip side to our present capacity to annihilate most life on earth. a real paradox. I grow impatient with those who cry freedom and decry violence as a basis to see history as a conspiracy against the good, without their grappling with the moral complexity of how the growth of good and evil are conjoined.

Primitive people are not free in any modern sense; they are bound tightly by the rituals and limited consciousness of their culture, if not by any human overlords. So it makes no sense in our times to cry freedom in the name of the primitive man and woman who lived in the garden before their dispossession, now attributed to the conspiracy of evil patriarchs, at least not without our first assuming the moral responsibility for the potential violence that necessarily comes with the freedom and progress that only exists to the extent that they rip us from the old ritual order.

I like the Victorians because they were by and large responsible and kept their potential violence under some control, while increasing freedoms, especially for the bourgeois if not for all (though certainly for some) urban workers. Their limited sense of freedom and equality makes them easily condemned from our perspective, but we can only judge their limits in comparison to what came before. As for the 20thC, people had a lot more freedoms but they were also more irresponsible and less capable at controlling their collective violence or even themselves. The high culture of modernism is indicative: snobby, anti-bourgeois, verging on pomo nihilism. The age of the privileged revolutionary-cum-primitive child. Yech!

But the nineteenth-century high culture appealed to low and high bourgeois and aspired to include all in a common order of bourgeois values. That is why it was great and why we all, in whatever nation we now live, cannot do without being to some degree Victorians.

Dymphna said...

...the nineteenth-century high culture appealed to low and high bourgeois and aspired to include all in a common order of bourgeois values...

Yes, I agree. It is the common order and agreement that has been irretrievably lost. But along with that were the strictures of class.

I remember my mother telling me when she arrived from Dublin and a very Victorian family, that she felt free from anxiety and shame and "the ghosts." The long list of what "wasn't done" and what were proper careers to pursue, and what was permissible as a good address, and whom you were allowed to socialize with -- it all went by the boards just by crossing the Atlantic.

My own personal family suffered greatly because of those strictures. Had my mother felt free to ask for help from those Victorian-minded souls, I might have avoided 5 years of my childhood spent in an orphanage. That was a rough trade, personally, for a set of common values.

We all have our biases, don't we?

truepeers said...

Thanks Dymphna. You remind me how the nightmare of history is alive in us. Ireland has had a brutal past. If i had a time machine i would not want to live in the nineteenth century, American or Irish, much less earlier centuries, though I'd visit in order to learn how better to live now.

Freedom is something we all need and desire, something I want for all the oppressed in this world. But the responsibilty that goes with the level of freedom i enjoy is high indeed. Today, just to understand our freedom sufficiently so as not to become self-destructive or a danger to others is a big task. Becoming genuinely constructive or creative is a whole other leap. If I admire the Victorians it is because they were on the whole realitic and confident in embracing some degree of new freedoms - if only emigrating to new lands - confident that they could live better and more responsible lives by embracing science, globalization, etc. You are right that the flip side were many people not yet sufficiently confident to allow themselves and others as much freedom as was realistic and necessary in their day.

"A common order of bourgeois values" is an ambiguous expression, since bourgeois values are what are tradeable and hence volatile, dynamic, an order in which people do not simply assert authority, or feel oppressed, but where people can exchange some if not, immediately, all of their many differences; e.g. we can exchange differences by consuming novels or advertising, and hence dreaming of and working for a grand home we don't yet have, or, conversely, dreaming of a bohemian life beyond the grand home of childhood.

I think the question we face today is whether the worker and boss, men and women, westerner and southerner, "gay" and "straight", etc., should be inclined to find ways to negotiate their differences at a local and individual level, i.e. without seeing these differences in black and white, victim/oppressor terms, or whether they should continue to see themselves on the modern/postmodern model of victims and oppressors whose difference can only be mediated by a justice (or totalitarian violence) imposed from on high, such that justice becomes largely the resonsibility of the major institutions of the state, the UN, etc. For example, when radical feminists complain that the university is an oppressive old boys' club, they are not usually looking to have an open and honest debate with the alleged old boys about the values a university should promote. No, they are looking for a higher authority to address their historical grievances by imposing affirmative action policies and PC in lieu of open intellectual debate.

I'm not suggesting everyone can negotiate their differences. Some crimes are so evil, some people so disadvantaged in representing themselves, that an initial forgiveness or starting point for negotiation is not possible unless and until the oppressive relations on which they are based are indeed torn down, both in society and in the individual soul (which is why, e.g., sometimes a leading nation like the US has to be proactive in the world, cannot wait for people "to free themselves", as the American left, which nonetheless believes in affirmative action at home, argue when a Bush is president, all of which is to my mind inconsistent).

Still, the question remains, can we get back to a belief in a bourgeois culture or at least horizon in which we are each individually responsible for negotiating and upholding a sense of justice? Which doesn't mean we have to agree, except to disagree in a constructive spirit. Seems to me that is what we are doing here. I love, for example, the way you, on this blog, go beyond the confines of the modern state and negotiate, if only intellectually - but this is the key in the long run - with people around the world about how we see women, their rights/responsibilities.

Wally Ballou said...

Is hypocrisy a vice, or a neglected virtue? This old post quotes Neal Stepenson's wonderful take on hypocrisy in his fine book "The Diamond Age". The charge of "hypocrisy" is bandied by left and right constantly these days, and I think someone could write an entire book on what the term means and how it is currently used.

Properlky understood, it is at worst, the "tribute vice pays to virtue". At best it is "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a Heavan for?"

Wally Ballou said...

I actually can spell, I just can't type....

jinnderella said...

i loved that post.
Maybe we're all vickies on this bus.