BOSTON–For the past few days, I’ve been ferreting out used bookstores here (which, by the way, are increasingly hard to find) searching for books about the English people and their “sceptred isle.” In a few short weeks, I’ll be moving to London for the second and final year of an academic program and I’d like to hit the ground running, as it were, by reading as much as I can about the land of Dryden, Johnson and Pope, Waugh, Wodehouse and Scruton.
There is, to be sure, a very “special relationship” that exists between England and America. Usually undefined, this relationship is essentially characterized by warm and collaborative ties between the two countries–in the diplomatic, military, economic and political spheres.
But there is also a deep cultural affinity between the two countries–one that is, too often, left unexamined. Many people only see the linguistic expression of America’s cultural bond with Britain–the fact that we speak the same language. But there are “fundamental customs and values that form the core of English-speaking cultures” according to a website inspired by The Anglosphere Challenge by James C. Bennett.
People are oblivious to this Anglo-American core. In fact, I would argue that because of a cultural revolution in both countries over the past forty years, two things have happened. First, almost all English customs, habits and institutions have died. As philosopher Roger Scruton writes in his recent England: An Elegy, “England was part of Christendom, one branch of a spiritual tree which was struck by enlightenment and died.”
Second, the very idea of America’s British roots has become a quaint, almost laughable notion. In America today, conventional wisdom–infused with the ideology of multiculturalism and rampant relativism–holds that America does not have a dominant cultural identity. That may be true now, but it wasn’t always the case. It is my contention that the British roots of American civilization used to inform America’s self-understanding to a degree that we are no longer aware of or even understand.
In Acts of Recovery (1989), Jeffrey Hart, professor emeritus of English at Dartmouth College and a senior editor of National Review, wrote that America has witnessed “the evisceration of the idea of the [WASP] gentleman as normative.” This idea of the gentleman was “modified in its American context but . . . derived from the British model.” In contrast to today’s nationwide ethos that rewards everything that is different or diverse, deviant, base or counter-cultural, America’s institutions–its prep schools, its Ivy League colleges, the Episcopalian Church–used to “create and sustain” a “social and political crystallization . . . that does not seem today to be even remotely conceivable.”
I shared Hart’s ideas with a young participant at a Philadelphia Society meeting a few years ago. He looked at me with incredulity as I spoke of America’s British roots and the idea of the gentleman. Based on my friend’s amazement, I realized that the cultural revolution in America has achieved far more than anybody ever imagined, having successfully made cultural orphans of us all–even among supposed conservatives.
It is difficult to deny then that many Americans know not from whence they came. This is no less the case with regards to the origins of America’s political traditions and the source of its values. How many people today, for example, are aware of our debt to England for the inherited tradition of representative government, or the footing that the common law tradition provides for American law?
But one also wonders how many people remember that the fundamental ethic of the American character was informed by thrift and industry, civic-mindedness and conscientiousness, austerity and anti-sensuality, as Richard Brookhiser, also a senior editor at National Review, writes in The Way of the WASP (1990). Even though they may mean little to people today, these were the dominant values in the old days. They effectively promoted assimilation into a broader cultural ideal–regardless of one’s particular ethnic, racial or religious background. More importantly, these values functioned as a check against our worst tendencies. Today’s dominant values–unbridled ambition, instant gratification, the glorification of self and sensuality–have helped to emancipate the little libertine inside us all.
Russell Kirk wrote that the American narrative is fundamentally the tale of five cities: Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London and Philadelphia. This grand narrative explains America’s sources of inner and outer order and puts into context our fundamentally British roots. But there is a kind of cultural amnesia in America–the same amnesia and self-denial that Scruton says now characterize England.
With regards to my own ethnic heritage, there is no cultural amnesia. On the one hand, I am respectfully mindful of the Italian (and hence, European) as well as Bolivian (and hence, Latin American) traditions which are part of me. On the other hand, I believe in an America of local identity and traditional virtue–but also know to look towards the white cliffs of Dover for America’s roots and search that “green and pleasant land” for the source of my political virtues.
Kirk wrote that “America’s successes have been made possible by the vigor of the British culture that most Americans now take for granted.” Let us consider this culture anew–and perhaps try to remind others that our so-called “special relationship” with England goes deeper and further than simply speaking the same language, or strengthening bilateral economic ties, or collaborating on joint military endeavors. Until we recognize that the great political virtues, moral habits and social customs which made America great are rooted in Englishness, America will remain Albion’s spoiled, ungrateful and wayward child.
Alvino-Mario Fantini is Europe correspondent for Brainwash. He is currently an Erasmus Mundus scholar through the European Union.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire