25 February 2014

Babb: "They Gave the Crowd Plenty Fun"

The National Archives has been posting podcasts of its events (really lectures) it holds to its site for some time. The quality of these is mixed. In some cases, the lecturer relies too much on the PowerPoint-style display for what is effectively a radio broadcast. Others are just a description of the contents of various files that might be of interest to researchers. But some are genuinely excellent. In the latter category I place 'They Gave the Crowd Plenty Fun', presented by Colin Babb.
Although this podcast focuses on West Indian cricket, it really is about the immigrant experience, as seen through the perspective of the sports fan. When I did my major field in Race, Imperialism, Slavery, one of the two topics that drew my greatest interest was the relationship between race and immigration. Sometimes immigration has nothing to do with race. Sometimes race has almost everything to do with immigration. Most usually they overlap in ways that it is the historian's job to explain. (The Irishman in the lower-left corner has rather simian features.) It is a fascinating subject, especially if one avoids bringing to it attitudes strongly influenced by today's debate over immigration and sticks closely to the the perspectives of immigrant and host.
Babb's lecture does a good job, for the sensitive listener, of seeing the dilemma confronting the immigrant. In my view, if people could avoid immigrating, they would. People try to identify with collectivities, and can find it hard to leave parental ones behind. Babb describes himself as a 'British-born Caribbean'. Indeed, the very concept of 'the West Indies' makes more sense from Britain than in the Americas. He points out that his parents were, in fact, from different countries, and that it was their presence in Britain that united them. According to Babb, people from Guyana are seen as 'South American' from the perspective of the islanders of the West Indies. When he went back to the Caribbean on childhood holidays, he was treated as somehow not quite West Indian, while in Britain he was certainly seen as a non-Briton, a 'West Indian'.
In fact, if one reads about the history of immigration, talks to immigrants, or actually does a bit of immigrating oneself, one finds such situations commonplace. The immigrant, and more particularly the child of immigrants, is regarded with a degree of 'suspicion' both in the source region and in their host region. It is an awkward role that one is forced into, and is most obviously expressed in those sporting events based on countries.
I don't want to spoil the lecture, because I think it would be worth your while to have a listen, so I won't give away any more of its content. Let's just say that I found the lecture really raised a great deal of sadness in my mind that the legacy of the British Empire may now finally be dying, reflecting the gentle aging into retirement of that 'post-imperial' generation which includes Babb and myself. Also, that it is interesting how the pattern of assimilation of 'West Indians' in Britain reflects Britain's particular history on race. In the 1960s, the 1970s, and into the Thatcher years, and even today, thinking about the British experience of race and racism often seems a sort of caricature of the American one. But Britain's history of race relations is different — pace the late Stuart Hall, less toxic — and the assimilation of the West Indians reflects that. NB — I cut my finger recently, rather badly, harming my abiity to type. Posts will be erratic for a bit.

18 February 2014

War's 'Dead Chaps', Literature and Religion

A while ago I caught the end of the second episode of Frank Faulk's documentary on the CBC (link to part one only) about C.S. Lewis and the Inklings. I've now heard the entire thing (I'm nothing if not a procrastinator), and I really recommend it to anyone interested in the kind of influences that have been at work on thought in twentieth century Britain. Despite being an irreligious society with a state church, in contrast to the Americans' religious society with no established church, religion had a lot of influence on British literary culture between the end of the First World War and about the time I was born. Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and, most importantly in these times, J.R.R. Tolkien all were deeply affected by Christian faith, and mostly a Catholic version of it. But, I think, there is another influence at work here, and that is two of them experienced the First World War immediately, and the other two through a kind of lacuna. Waugh, I think, expressed that lacuna best in Brideshead Revisited (p236 in my decrepit, well-read Penguin Edition):
We went to a number of nightclubs. In two years Mulcaster seemed to have attained his simple ambition of being known and liked in such places. At the last of them he and I were kindled by a great flame of patriotism.
'You and I,' he said, 'were too young to fight in the war. Other chaps fought, millions of them dead. Not us. We'll show them. We'll show the dead chaps we can fight, too.'
For those who survive a war, a common feeling is that they were no better than those who did not, and possibly in some way inferior. But, if Mulcaster's sentiments reflect something Waugh was familiar with, for some of those who just missed a war, there appears to be a nagging sense of inadequacy, a failure to arrive in time that was somehow a personal betrayal of those who died or were killed. In this context, does a quest for meaning lead one to religion?
But, again, there might be even more influences at play. Faulk highlights that Lewis' conversion from atheism to religion had something to do with perceiving a lack of imagination on the part of unbelief, which was somehow related to the emphasis of Enlightenment thought on reason and fact. While we often hear of the terrible crimes perpetrated by believers in Crusades, Inquisitions and Imperialisms, the Enlightenment's responsibility for Racism, Eugenics and the kind of depersonalisation of working people that occurred during the rise of Capitalism are less often commented on. I think blame for each of these can be assigned to reason's antipathy towards 'fancy', a word of various flavours that is extremely useful in this context. 'Fancy' helps us to transform mere numbers of people, or measures of their production, into individuals.
The paradox is that, for the Lewis presented in Faulk's two-part documentary, the actual truth of God's Plan for our Salvation is potentially irrelevant. While we are alive humility and charity ought to make us good people, but after we are dead we won't really matter any more to the survivors, except as an influential memory. And that is exactly the impact of 'the dead chaps' on Boy Mulcaster in Waugh's novel.

14 February 2014

The Conservative Dilemma

I have been reading Jay Cost off and on for something like a decade. He started out as something of a conservative antipode to Nate Silver, baseball sabermetrician turned political rune-reader. Cost has been very astute when it comes to interpreting the message contained in polls, although late in election cycles one might need to remember his bias. He has been writing at The Weekly Standard for quite a few years now, and recently published an article about immigration reform in the United States that contained the following paragraph:

Conservatives are pro-business because they believe that, in general, business is good for everybody. If business presents a plan that hurts a significant swath of the country for its own advantage—such as the Senate bill—conservatives should oppose it. Indeed, they should do so loudly and forthrightly, for their biggest electoral liability is the widespread conviction that the GOP stands with big business instead of with the average person.
This got me to thinking about that conviction, and flavours of 'conservatism' throughout the Anglosphere.

Looking at conservative politics over about four hundred years of Anglospheric history, one can see that for the longest time conservatism was identified with preserving the institutional framework of a state, and particular the social capital of individuals who ran those institutions. Then, starting in the nineteenth century, and with the rise of the battle between management and labour under industrial capitalism, conservatism gradually acquires a pro-business wing. This is most clearly seen in the Republican party in the United States, and takes a lot longer to occur in the more specifically 'Anglo' parts of the sphere.

Cost, in this article, is seriously challenging the broadly accepted interpretation of what the GOP, as a conservative party, is historically. He is harking back to the Federalist tradition in the United States, and to what I would consider the core Tory values in Britain and the Commonwealth. In this paternalistic formation, business is an ally, but not to be trusted, because it is destructive of social capital among the elite. (As Marx and Engels put it, 'all that is solid melts into air'.) There are times when the elite remembers how its authority is rooted in the feudal principle that it has a contract with its subjects to protect their life and property from foreign enemies. Both Tories and Federalists see The State itself as an organic entity, where Jeffersonians and libertarians see it more as a parasitic cabal. During much of my lifetime, the latter interpretation has been favoured by conservatives, which thus cemented the partnership between Tories and GOP and big business. But big business, as Schumpeter recognised and Friedman largely shrugged his shoulders over, seeks a kind of privatised socialist corporatism.

Cost is basically arguing that a conservative party fundamentally exits to protect the institutions of the state, and the alliance of these with the state's subjects/citizens. (The Feudal Compact, I call it.) In this, I think he is right, and it is why I have always been unwilling to characterise the Republicans as a conservative party. Conservatives always face a dilemma when the interests of business clash with those of the state's institutions. At least since the 1840s, the business wing has always won out. If this changes, it will be a sign that we are flirting with a new historical epoch.

12 February 2014

Cultural Exchange

While Tim Roberts' article on parallels between nineteenth-century Anglo-American relations and twenty-first century Sino-American relations might at first glance seem, at the least, not outrageous, a deeper consideration of what this article is telling us, and what is going on today might make us think about all this a bit differently, especially in a cultural context.
Six of the first fifteen U.S. presidents spent time early in their careers in Britain, educating them about British ways, different from much of China’s ruling elite’s experience of the United States only from afar. Besides this, though, many nouveau riche Chinese people today cross the Pacific and enjoy downloading Desperate Housewives and The Walking Dead, postmodern versions of ambitious Jacksonian Americans’ tours of Britain and reading their Shakespeare and Dickens.
As anyone who has visited Abraham Lincoln's house at Springfield, Illinois, will recall, busts of those two celebrated authors are on prominent display in his sitting room. And so, we think, this Anglo-American cultural relationship is now a thing of the past. Our future rests with cultural exchanges rooted in East Asia, as opposed to finding auduence appeal in the trivia of a 'fossilised' ruling elite. I would beg to differ. The recent marking of the fiftieth anniversary of the appearance of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan's show with a special programme should remind us that this cultural exchange between Americans and the British is a tidal thing, sometimes ebbing and sometimes flowing. At the moment, it is ebbing, but study PBS' weekend schedules carefully before deciding that we have finally reached the point where the 'pivot to Asia' has ensured this enduring cultural link is finally broken. The relationship is not what it was, but it never has been. For example, and sticking with the world of film, think of how many Britons appear in key roles in the cast of Lee Daniels' The Butler — Oyelowo, Pettyfer, Redgrave and Rickman. And who plays the sheriff in The Walking Dead, apparently beloved of the Chinese elite? That Anglo-American link remains strong, even as Britain is no longer the Britain of Americans' imaginations.

05 February 2014

Plants to seeds or seeds to plants?

Ira Chernus, who blogs at History News Network, takes a look at the idea that this year sees the fiftieth anniversary of 'The Sixties'. He uses this to make a springboard to a broader notion that historical scholars need to have a clear idea in their head about how to define an era under examination. Chernus points out that for most Americans 1964 wasn't much different to 1963, although the seedlings that would carry the blossoms that characterise 'The Sixties' had sprouted sturdily in 1964. It is simply a matter of, in retrospect, making the connections. Chernus argues that this matter of connections, however, is crucial to historical understanding. He proposes that while from our perspective The Sixties can be seen as plain as day, people at the time were largely unconscious of the change, and that in writing a history of The Sixties, the presence of this consciousness is important. He effectively says that one can't have The Sixties without people knowing they are living in The Sixties. I had already drawn similar conclusions while I was researching my original dissertation topic, and it represents one of the reasons why I turned to a different (although in my mind related) subject. I draw a different conclusion, though, about what this means if historical scholars want to write about a phenomenon that the public broadly understands as 'The Sixties'. The fiftieth anniversary of my 'The Sixties' occurred a few years ago, and my 'The Sixties' ends a little bit after the time Chernus seems to be suggesting they begin. But that's not the big lesson I draw from Chernus' post. For me Chernus is pointing out a fundamental flaw in the way historians can approach their subjects. I first noticed this in relation to John Higham's estimable Strangers in the Land, a book I view nonetheless as deeply flawed. Higham structures his book around the Immigration Act of 1924. This is the end of his story, and he tries to show all the seeds that sprouted to brought Americans to this. I'm not really willing to connect this piece of legislation as closely to the Nativist movements of the mid nineteenth century, one of the plants in Higham's anti-immigrant garden. As a consequence of pondering Higham's work, I question a 'looking back' approach to history. The various historical plants that grew into mid-nineteenth century Nativism did not all lead to the 1924 Immigration Act. In fact, I would argue, very little of mid-nineteenth century Nativism has much to do with later legislation, or even with today's political crisis over immigration, which afflicts the two main pillars of the Anglosphere, Britain and the United States. And, in the light of this, I concluded it is much better to start from the seed, and trace its growth, than to view the blossom, and look down for its roots. For me, a construct such as 'The Sixties', is a useful starting point as a teaching tool, or a marketing device, but historians should undermine the validity of these constructs for the purpose of understanding the past. They belong to the dying age of the weekly newsmagazine.

03 February 2014

'British' flags?

I have two other posts that I want to write, but reading this on The Guardian's web site stimulated me to start here. (The other two are also spun from Guardian links, largely because it hasn't retired behind a paywall yet.) Flags generate a lot of emotion, because they are understood as a coded message of community or oppression. The question, from a cultural historian's perspective, is whether they represent The Past, in J H Plumb's interpretation, or whether their tendency to appropriation and use in fashion (google 'union jack underwear' or 'soviet flag fashion' for examples) make them mutable symbols of a common heritage.* In this case, a suggestion to replace New Zealand's traditional 'blue ensign' (a common design for flags of constituent lands of the British Empire) with a silver fern on a black field has been made. On the one side, there is a flag that encapsulates the New Zealand 'past' from the settlement of the New Zealand Wars to the present. On the other, a flag that represents New Zealand's cultural signature to the rest of the world, sporting prowess on the rugby pitch. (Although some of us might be fond of New Zealand wine even moreso.) I guess there are some youngsters out there who might even think it has something to do with a successful video game franchise. Plumb interpreted The Past as a kind of dead hand on the body politic, one that scientific history would lift away to allow a more mature society with no need of a paternalistic elite to evolve naturally. In this he reflected the era in which his book was written, the Swinging Sixties which promised to modernise nineteenth-century British institutions. Of course, Plumb's work has become a tool to be used in another, somewhat different context. In a discussion of Plumb's work on History News Network, one finds the following statements:
Instead of Plumb’s vision, however, we have the ascendancy of a past that is audacious in its confrontation with history. The dogmatic Christian worldview that he believed was discredited by the philosophes and by later scholarly and scientific inquiry is now passed off as being not only determinative for religious believers but also for the nature and destiny of the entire nation....The future envisioned by the founders was not pluralistic, not dynamic, and certainly not complex: it was dogmatically Christian
In this, we see two 'pasts' clashing. There is the unwelcome 'Christian' past that the author objects to, and the supposedly pluralistic vision of the founders. I would suggest that the founders were rather more Christian, and rather less pluralistic, than the author implies in this article. Matthew Frye Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color makes a point at the start of highlighting the 1790 naturalisation law that envisages an America of 'free white persons'. Think about that 1790 context: the only substantial reservoir of 'free white persons' who might immigrate to the United States was the overwhelmingly Christian Europe. On the basis of that fact, one could equally argue that the Founders in practical terms envisaged a country with a substantially Christian European outlook. This outlook was changed because Americans, in practising their citizenship, wanted it to be changed. But I would add a further note, which is that while Plumb's vision may not apply in the United States, it is in rude health in the rest of the Anglosphere, because there is no conflict of different The Pasts. And so back to flags. It may be that the New Zealand flag no longer reflects a New Zealand of the future, and the time has come to change it. But before that decision is taken, remember that there were many New Zealanders in two world wars who fought and died under that old flag, and it was that common experience that remains a vital part of New Zealand's past, attaching it to a broader community that shares substantial settlement from the British Isles, some experience of monarchical government and a system of government that drew on Westminster as a model. All of the countries to which this applies have been moving away, since 1973 if not earlier, from a British heritage and towards an Americanised future. The United States was the first to break with the Union Flag as a pattern, and it took almost two hundred years before Canada took a similar step. New Zealand may be next on the cab rank, but as the prime minister points out in the article, is this really such an important issue? Does one really want to go down the American road, where different The Pasts make civic life a miserable arena in which government itself becomes a dirty word and Christian religion a tool of division? _____________ *Of course, the real answer is 'both'.