October 18, 2007


An Anglosphere Future (Christopher Hitchens, 10/18/2007, City Journal)

[P]roperly circumscribed, the idea of an “Anglosphere” can constitute something meaningful. We should not commit the mistake of “thinking with the blood,” as D. H. Lawrence once put it, however, but instead emphasize a certain shared tradition, capacious enough to include a variety of peoples and ethnicities and expressed in a language—perhaps here I do betray a bias—uniquely hostile to euphemisms for tyranny. In his postwar essay “Towards European Unity,” George Orwell raised the possibility that the ideas of democracy and liberty might face extinction in a world polarized between superpowers but that they also might hope to survive in some form in “the English-speaking parts of it.” English is, of course, the language of the English and American revolutions, whose ideas and values continue to live after those of more recent revolutions have been discredited and died.

Consider in this light one of Nelson Mandela’s first acts as elected president of South Africa: applying to rejoin the British Commonwealth, from which South Africa had found itself expelled in the 1960s (by a British Tory government, incidentally) because of its odious racism. Many people forget that the Soweto revolt in the 1980s, which ultimately spelled apartheid’s downfall, exploded after the Nationalist regime made the medium of school instruction exclusively Afrikaans, banning the classroom use of English, along with Xhosa and Zulu.

More recently, in July 2005, Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh came to Oxford University to receive an honorary degree and delivered a speech, not uncontroversial in India itself, in which he observed that many of India’s splendors as a rising twenty-first-century superpower—from railroads to democracy to a law-bound civil service—were the result of its connection with England. “If there is one phenomenon on which the sun cannot set,” Singh observed, “it is the world of the English-speaking peoples, in which the people of Indian origin are the single largest component.” He added that the English language was a key element in the flourishing of India’s high-tech sector. Few would have wanted to point this out, but it was Karl Marx who argued that India might benefit in this way from being colonized by England and not (and he spelled out the alternatives) Russia or Persia or Turkey.

We owe the term “Anglosphere” in large part to the historian and poet Robert Conquest, who this summer celebrated his 90th year of invincible common sense and courage in the fight against totalitarian thinking. In an appendix to his marvelous 2005 book The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History, he offers a detailed proposal for a broad Anglosphere alliance among the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, and the Caribbean, with the multiethnic English-speaking island of Bermuda as the enterprise’s headquarters. Though he unfortunately does not include India, he does find it “perfectly conceivable that other countries particularly close to our condition might also accede—for example Norway and Gambia, in each of which English is widely understood and in each of which the political and civic structure is close to that of the rest of the states.” Quixotic as all this may sound, it probably understates the growing influence of English as a world language—the language of business and the Internet and air-traffic control, as well as of literature (or of literatures, given the emergence, first predicted by Orwell, of a distinct English written by Indians).

The shape of the world since September 11 has, in fact, shown the outline of such an alliance in practice. Everybody knows of Tony Blair’s solidarity with the United States, but when the chips were down, Australian forces also went to Iraq. Attacked domestically for being “all the way with the USA,” Australian prime minister John Howard made the imperishable observation that in times of crisis, there wasn’t much point in being 75 percent a friend. Howard won reelection in 2004. Even in relatively neutralist Canada, an openly pro-U.S. government headed by Stephen Harper was elected in 2006, surprising pundits who predicted that a tide of anti-Americanism made such an outcome impossible.

Howard’s statement has a great deal of history behind it. Roberts defines that history as an intimate alliance that defeated German Wilhelmine imperialism in 1918, the Nazi-Fascist Axis in 1945, and international Communism in 1989. This long arc of cooperation means that a young officer in, say, a Scottish regiment has a good chance of having two or even three ancestors who fought in the same trenches as did Americans and New Zealanders. No military force evolved by NATO, let alone the European Union, can hope to begin with such a natural commonality, the lack of which was painfully evident in Europe’s post-1989 Balkan bungling (from which a largely Anglo-American initiative had to rescue it).

The world now faces a challenge from a barbarism that is no less menacing than its three predecessors—and may even be more so. And in this new struggle, a post-9/11 America came—not a moment too soon—to appreciate the vital fact that India had been fighting bin-Ladenism (and had been its target) far longer than we had. That fact alone should have mandated a change of alignment away from the chronically unreliable Pakistani regime that had used the Taliban as its colonial proxy in Afghanistan. But it helped that India was also a polyethnic secular democracy with a largely English-speaking military, political, and commercial leadership. We’re only in the earliest stages of this new relationship, which so far depends largely on a nuclear agreement with New Delhi, and with the exception of Silicon Valley, the U.S. does not yet boast a politically active Indian population. But the future of American-Indian relations is crucial to our struggle against jihadism, as well as to our management of the balance of power with China.

In considering the future of the broader Anglosphere tradition, especially in the context of anti-jihadism, it may help to contrast it with the available alternatives. As a supranational body, the United Nations has obviously passed the point of diminishing returns. Inaugurated as an Anglo-American “coalition of the willing” against Hitler and his allies, the UN—in its failure to confront the genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur and in its abject refusal to enforce its own resolutions in the case of Iraq—is a prisoner of the “unilateralism” of France, Russia, and, to a lesser extent, China. NATO may have been somewhat serviceable in Kosovo (the first engagement in which it ever actually fought as an alliance), but it has performed raggedly in Afghanistan. The European Union has worked as an economic solvent on redundant dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, and Greece, and also on old irredentist squabbles in Ireland, Cyprus, and Eastern Europe. But it is about to reach, if it has not already, a membership saturation point that will disable any effective decision-making capacity. A glaring example of this disability is the EU’s utter failure to compose a viable constitution. Roberts correctly notes that “along with over two centuries of amendments the entire (readable and easily intelligible) U.S. Constitution can be printed out onto twelve pages of A4-sized paper; the (unreadable and impenetrably complicated) proposed European Constitution ran to 265.” (Roberts doesn’t mention the lucidity and brevity of the British constitution, perhaps because the motherland of the English-speaking peoples has absentmindedly failed to evolve one in written form, and thus will, on the demise of the present queen, have as head of state a strange middle-aged man with a soft spot for Islam and bizarre taste in wives.)

But the temptation to construe the Anglosphere too narrowly persists. Another recent book, The Anglosphere Challenge, by James C. Bennett, expresses astonishment at the low price that the British establishment has put on its old Commonwealth and Dominion ties, and some hostility to the way in which European connections now take precedence. But viewed historically, it is surely neither surprising nor alarming that the British decided to reverse Winston Churchill’s greatest mistake—abstaining from original membership in the European common market—and to associate more closely with the neighboring landmass. As Roberts himself concedes, Britain now enjoys a unique Atlanticist partnership along with full and energetic participation in the councils of the European Union.

As always with Mr. Hitchens, there's broad sense here punctuated by nonsensical particulars, when his residual Leftist muscles spasm. And it's seriously marred by his failure to acknowledge the central tradition of the Anglosphere, which is, of course, the Judeo-Christianity that gave rise to its democractic/capitalist/protestantism. Even the English of the English-speaking world is basically a function of the King James Bible.

Meanwhile, the multiculturalism that he claims should be defended elsewhere in the essay is nothing more than an attack on the very culture of the Anglosphere as is the transnationalism of the EU, which is why the European constitution can't be presented to English-speaking people without being rejected.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 18, 2007 3:27 PM

Oj, do you agree with the implication that English as a language is a necessary ingredient of the Anglo-sphere?

If not, could you say a little bit about it?

Posted by: Benny at October 18, 2007 6:56 PM

No, it probably wasn't necessary. But the basic ideas are transmitted in English for the most part and globalization means that English is basically universal now, so as we add nations to the Anglosphere that weren't English-speaking just a few decades ago they are now. Japan is essentially an Anglospheric state, for example, and Israel.

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2007 7:06 PM

Socrates always wanted his partners/opponents to be Greek speakers. Do you think that was an unnecessary concern?

For my part, I believe manner of thinking, actual thoughts and language are powerfully inter-related.

Posted by: Benny at October 19, 2007 1:01 PM

No, that was a vital concern for Socrates (Plato) because anyone else would have run rings around him. The most important engagement with the ideas of Socrates all occurs in English and he comes off rather badly.

Posted by: oj at October 19, 2007 1:33 PM

All occurs in English...


Posted by: Benny at October 19, 2007 1:43 PM

One is dubious of the proposition that Socrates spoke English in the Agora (or wherever).

Posted by: oj at October 19, 2007 4:33 PM

I was pointing out that your response is not in disagreement with mine.

You agree that Socrates knew the value and restrictions a language places on the speaker.

You also point out that it is speakers of English who best avoid his snares...

...And not coincidentally created the Anglo-Sphere.

Posted by: Benny at October 19, 2007 5:50 PM

You want them to be English speakers. He wanted them to be Greek speakers. It's just parochialism. De Tocqueville wrote in French but understood the ideas as well as anyone ever has.

Posted by: oj at October 19, 2007 8:19 PM