Politics & Policy

What Happened to British Pride?

The English "go wobbly."

Later this month I’m heading back to the mother country. Now, as I am a rich ethnic cocktail — Jewish, Lithuanian, Scottish, German, with probably some Polish or Ukrainian in there as well — you might think I mean any number of places (and if you’re one of my many Jewphobic readers, you might think I mean Israel). But I mean jolly England — the headliner in the tag-team effort that is the Anglo-American tradition. I am an Anglophile, and I look to ol’ Blighty as the wiser Romans surely looked upon the Greeks: as the fons et origo of our grand civilization.

I’m jumping the pond to partake in a debate at the Oxford Union on one of the most pressing issues facing the world today. Formally presented, it is: “This house regrets the founding of the United States of America.”

The debate, timed to coincide the with the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown as well as the Queen’s American visit, might seem a tad ungrateful. In fact, I am sorely tempted to deliver my remarks in German, in order to put a fine point on the question. But my hope is that the rascals at Oxford Union are just being a bit playful.

In the same spirit, perhaps a better question to put before the house is whether Britain even exists anymore.

While doing my homework, I’ve been reading up on the goings-on over there, and there seems to be cause for grave concern. Exhibit A: the recent unpleasantness with Iran whereby 15 marines and sailors were captured by Iran and put on display as willing propaganda tools.

“Blasphemy itself could not survive religion,” G.K. Chesterton observed, “if anyone doubts that, let him try to blaspheme Odin.” Similarly, humiliation cannot survive the death of pride. So it was a hopeful sign that the British Telegraph editorialized that Britain had been “humiliated” by the Iranians. At least the sting of pride can be felt in that lonely journalistic redoubt.

But looking to the British government itself, pride seems to be sorely lacking. The most outrage I could find from a government official came from Patricia Hewitt, the British health secretary, who called the spectacle “deplorable.” Alas, she was referring to something else. She was infuriated “that the woman hostage should be shown smoking. This sends completely the wrong message to our young people.” Imagine the outrage if those captured marines had been fed trans fats.

The British have not lost all of their steel. The Daily Mail reported this week that police tracked down and nearly arrested an 11-year-old boy for calling a 10-year-old boy “gay” in an e-mail. This was considered a “very serious homophobic crime” requiring the full attention of police. The article explained that this sort of thing happens quite a bit. Last October, the coppers fingerprinted and threw a 14-year-old girl into jail for the crime of racism. Her underlying offense stemmed from the fact that she refused to join a class discussion with some fellow students because they were Asian and didn’t speak English.

The same day the Daily Mail reported the tale of the homophobic 11-year-old, it also reported that schools across the country have been dropping discussion of the Holocaust in the classroom for fear of offending Muslim students.

In his brilliant 1999 book The Abolition of Britain, Peter Hitchens chronicles how the British have slowly effaced the patriotism that made the British arguably the most consequential nation in history and an engine for so much that is right and good in the world, in order to become more “European” and about as bland as 2 percent milk as a result. The British used to be the great source of civilizational confidence, telling us, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, not to “go wobbly.”

My favorite anecdote in this regard is of the British general Charles James Napier. When assigned to British-run India, he was informed that he just didn’t understand Indian customs. He couldn’t ban the practice of wife-burning, he was told, because it was an ancient and valued tradition in India. He said he understood and appreciated that. It was just that “my country also has a custom,” he explained. “We hang people who burn women.” His custom won out. I somehow doubt General Napier would look kindly on Holocaust denying-by-censorship.

Perhaps I’m just being prematurely defensive, as I suspect my upcoming debate is something of a setup, but maybe lamenting the existence of America is the rational thing to do when you’ve decided to lament the existence of Britain as well.

  © 2007 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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