08 February 2010

The Future of Despising the Past

Although I've been a fairly frequent visitor to Britain over the years, I have never been a British citizen, nor do I have any immediate prospect of becoming one. In other words, I've about as little reason as any Yank for having a personal dog in the race of domestic British politics. And yet, somehow, I don't think I've ever longed for the political departure of anyone - no, not George Walker Bush, or even William Jefferson Clinton - as eagerly as I now await the close of the Long Reign of Gordon Brown.

Here, it seems to me, is a man who - if I may paraphrase Cromwell - has been sitting where he is far too long for any good he's been doing there. And yet I've found what I most dislike in Prime Minister Brown is not any one, two, or three things he may have done or left undone during his two successive offices. Rather, it is the entire way he thinks: - a certain ingrained disposition towards the world, and one that I've no doubt has shaped, in ways both massive and subtle, just about everything he's ever said or done since he first entered politics.

I understand he's a warm appreciator of my country, or at least of certain American ways of doing things. And in particular those American ways that make us seem not only a far more modern country than Britain, but far more impatient with and dismissive of not just Britain's, but every nation's Past, including our own. Mr Brown strikes me as one of those admirers of America from a comfortable distance who can be found in considerable numbers at every point of the British political spectrum, with the possible exception of the Lunatic Left. And yet - speaking as one American - it seems to me that both he and others like him are making a key and very unfortunate mistake. They're making the mistake of applauding precisely those aspects of America's political and economic success that are most - how shall I put it? Most cocky? Insolent? Hubristic? Heedless of past wisdom? Or perhaps, in a word, most "smartass." In effect, they're allying themselves with precisely those elements of our culture which are implicitly most destructive, in the long run, of both America's and our allies' positions, and leverage, and credibility in the world.

Then again, if you're really good, and know you're good, who needs credibility anyway? And just how do you measure leverage? Assuming we Yanks really did attain our unique pre-eminence in the world entirely by our own merits, with neither grace nor help nor prayer from any manner of soul dead or living, why should we care what anyone else - including our allies - wants or thinks? Why, to do so would be little short of immoral, or at least grossly irresponsible. I mean, to vacate our place at the head of the Headlong March of Mankind, when every thinking person knows it cannot be slowed down for any one or any thing? and that nobody but nobody can drive it faster than us Yanks? In brief (though I doubt he'd savor the comparison), it seems to me that what Mr Brown likes most about us - about our American drive, American efficiency, American success - can best be summed up in two words: Donald Rumsfeld.

There is one other thing, however, that bothers me even more about him. As far back as his university days, one of Mr Brown's chief political inspirations - if not his foremost political hero - was the radical socialist and MP James Maxton of Glasgow. Maxton lived from 1885 to 1946 - a highly critical period in British and world history, to say the least. He was a man of undisputed political courage, integrity, conviction and independence - besides being driven by a fierce, heartfelt compassion for pretty much anyone poor or marginal. Yet for some reason, the best way he could find of translating this compassion into the language of foreign policy was to become a passionate admirer of Lenin in the 1920s and '30s, and a resolute appeaser of Hitler in the '30s and '40s. In other words, Maxton spent the better part of his life crusading against tyranny and oppression wherever he could recognize them, only to end up misreading completely two of the very worst embodiments of those evils modern history had yet seen.

And this is the best our Mr Brown can do. At the very onset of his public life, this was the soundest point of departure he could find for his own intellectual journey into politics. Given, then, this severe ideological handicap from almost the start of his career, I wonder if the real future historians' debate will concern not how much or how little Gordon Brown did things wrong during his time in office, but whether, and how far, he ever had much chance of doing anything right.

All speculation, of course. But in all this I do find a remarkable thread of consistency, both in Maxton's political career (including his weakness - or strong stomach - for bold iconoclastic dictators) and in Brown's choice of Maxton as posthumous mentor and forerunner. Like Brown, Maxton was a conscientious disrespecter of tradition wherever he found it. Not to be outdone, his disciple, together with his "Cool Britannia" predecessor, appear to have taken their country as far down paths of multiculturalism and political correctness as any nation on earth. Or at least any nation that doesn't plan to commit suicide. And all with famously stellar results for Britain's violent crime rates, incidence of unwed pregnancy, levels of social cohesion, and other sane measures of national sanity. The net result of both master's and disciple's careers, then, may yet prove to be a Britain far more disdainful of its modern history - far more guilt-ridden, ashamed and revisionist concerning even its 20th-century moral record - than anything even we post-moderns can foresee. And with what dividends, especially to those ultra-revisionists who are convinced Churchill's Britain was fighting the wrong enemy all along, I can only shudder to imagine.

An easier question to answer may be whether, even now, both the master's legacy and the disciple's work have succeeded in producing a more just, more humane, and generally less drunken and debauched British society - or even one able to provide a credible moral alternative for its own disaffected elements. And these include (lest we forget) Britain's apparently growing numbers of potential recruits to jihadism. Granted many of these types are probably unassuageable already. So why not - if I'm reading the Blair/Brown line correctly - why not give them yet more cause to be sickened and disgusted with mainstream British society?

At all events, I do hope these two men's examples will invite us both, Brits and Yanks, to take a second - and kinder - look at certain things whose value we may all too easily deride or minimize in this globally enlightened world of ours. Things like history and tradition, or continuity and precedent. A kinder look, in sum, at all those ways of approaching and exploring the Past that require the use of tools more subtle than bulldozers and jackhammers (or even Orwell's jackboots and truncheons, for that matter). And who knows? Having endured a decidedly ugly and bullying face of Headlong Progress over the past two decades, we may find some form of Conservation starting to look more comely with each passing day.

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