Re: On Romney, Obama, and Anglo-Saxons

As an Anglo-Celt . . . Yes, we exist in large numbers in the U.K., but there’s some controversy on what to call us. Anglo-Irish won’t quite work since that means, in Brendan Behan’s formulation, “a Protestant with a horse.” A distinguished literary critic, Bernard Bregonzi, coined the term “Hibernico-English” to describe us, but for some reason that never caught on. I’m reduced to calling myself a “Liverpool Irishman” and explaining that it means a kind of Englishman in much the same way as “Boston Irishman” means a kind of American. Not everyone likes that formulation either. But what the hell.

So, as an Anglo-Celt, I’m extremely unfussed by the controversy over Mitt Romney’s aide’s reference to the “Anglo-Saxon” heritage and what it means. I agree with both Charlie and Jonah that a racial claim, argument, identity, or link is clearly not being made here. It’s just a casual and mistaken use of an old phrase that still remains in circulation. The French routinely refer to the U.S. and Britain as “les Anglo-Saxons.” Vichy specialized in this. A few years ago somebody referred to George Soros as an “Anglo-Saxon” — in a way rightly since the description was inspired not by Soros’s Hungarian-Jewish heritage but by what the continental writer believed to be his Anglo-Saxon free-market economics. (George has done some backsliding on this in the meantime.)   

So, in a sane world, we could ignore the row. Alas . . . a few points need to be made:

1. Unlike my colleagues, I’m fairly relaxed about Obama’s sending back the Churchill bust. I can imagine several good reasons why he might have wanted some other bust in the Oval Office. But whatever Obama’s motives, it’s demeaning for the Brits to complain and presumably mind so much about it. The last time Americans dismissed us, we went out and founded a worldwide empire. That’s the spirit! Not this whining! 

#more#2. Obama isn’t the first president of recent times to want to downplay the “special relationship.” Jonah mentioned George W. before 9/11. Well, in the first few months of his father’s administration, the papers were full of stories about how the new administration, casting aside sentimentality, intended to put Thatcher and Britain firmly in their (second) place and woo Germany as the new European leader. That strategy lasted until the first Gulf War when the fact that Britain had an army and intelligence service (and Germany had nothing useful like that) meant that the “special relationship” was suddenly back in vogue. Again, if you can fight, others take you seriously.

3. Obama has been pretty friendly to the Brits since a few early gaffes. Charlie recently reminded me of the virtual love-in that was David Cameron’s recent visit to Washington. But if you want to hear “special relationship” rhetoric on speed, tune into the president’s tribute to Her Majesty on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee. It’s positively gushing! I loved it.

4. Seriously, though, that’s a good thing. From a British standpoint, if the special relationship has any long-term value, it has to be between the two peoples and not just between the two conservative parties. Romney’s adviser may be right — indeed, he is right — in thinking that his boss is instinctively more Anglophile and Atlanticist than Obama. But the task of any sensible British diplomat is to ensure that Romney’s instincts are encouraged and Obama’s initial skepticism persuasively countered. Something like that seems to have happened. When so much else is wrong, I’m glad that this at least came right.

5. Charlie is right to criticize the argument, which the aide may have made, that the U.S. and Britain may be less likely to agree on common policies because Obama’s father was from Africa. What is far more likely is that Obama’s regard for his father’s left wing political views may influence his conduct of foreign policy. That said, Obama has at times flirted with exactly such an “essentialist” notion as is now attributed to Romney. Look at his biography where he describes feeling that the European monuments and works of art that he saw on a visit to Europe somehow did not speak to him; they were someone else’s heritage. Well, you can’t argue with another person’s feelings, but I wonder if he still feels that way. Somehow I doubt it. And, finally on this score, Obama has English relatives too.

6. All that said, the term “Anglo-Saxon,” when attached to heritage, race or anything else, belongs to the past. That’s especially so when it is applied to politics or diplomacy — it belongs to the age of Teddy Roosevelt, Joseph Chamberlain, Rudyard Kipling. It was not an ignoble idea in its time, but it has been replaced for our time by the concept of the “Anglosphere.” For a full account of this idea — and how it differs from related ideas in the past — read The Anglosphere Challenge by James C. Bennett, or his forthcoming book from Encounter Books, or his NR articles on this theme.

7. If one had to single out one way in which the Anglosphere differs from the Anglo-Saxon idea of the past, it would be that the Anglosphere is clearly a cultural concept rather than an ethnic one. What links countries as scattered and as different as Australia, Singapore, India, Britain, South Africa, the West Indies, and the U.S. are liberal cultural values transmitted by (but not confined to) the English language and institutions shaped in part by those values. No ethnic identity spans this world, but a common liberal culture ensures that these different countries see the world in similar ways and find cooperation much easier as a result. To grasp this point fully, consider that the second- most-important country within the Anglosphere today is India — a country which contains an English-speaking population almost as large as the U.S. population and maybe larger.

8. Mature polities can discuss these things without descending into resentful debates about racism, etc. For a shining example of this, read the speech by India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, when he accepted an honorary degree from Oxford in 2005. It advances strong criticisms of the British Raj, but it also gives due credit to the contribution that British rule made to modern India’s advancement:

With the balance and perspective offered by the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight, it is possible for an Indian Prime Minister to assert that India’s experience with Britain had its beneficial consequences too. Our notions of the rule of law, of a Constitutional government, of a free press, of a professional civil service, of modern universities and research laboratories have all been fashioned in the crucible where an age old civilization met the dominant Empire of the day. These are all elements which we still value and cherish.

But read the whole speech.

My guess is that it Romney and Obama would both agree with it.  

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