Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Forward to the Past

While I’m only knowledgeable about 18th Century English political history because as the Scrooge McDuck of cultural capital, I’m knowledgeable about everything, a great many Conservatives are buffs on the era of Old Corruption out of sheer nostalgia. They feel a deep affinity for a frankly oligarchic system in which all elections were stage managed by insiders, Parliament spent much of its time expanding the death penalty to cover the theft of silverware, and George III and his minions could control government by paying off their supporters with government contracts. Like the followers of our George, the King’s party benefited from the many rotten boroughs that returned an MP despite their tiny populations—think Wyoming or Alaska. Relatively inexpensive favors could buy a vote in those tiny constituencies just as it is fairly cheap to buy off the cattle and mining interests that dominate the empty pith and frozen rind of the American continent. Meanwhile, general public opinion was also for sale. The English system provided a good living for a large class of flacks and publicists who defended the powers that be with purchased sarcasm.

The Anglophilia of the rightists explains a lot. For example. The administration and its posse is thought to be hostile to things French because of the opposition of France to the Conquest of Iraq, but the pundits never manage a comparable level of anger for the Germans or any of the many other peoples who opposed the war. You might think that the Germans, whose government is officially socialist, would be a more obvious target than the French, who are led by a conservative. Anger at the French, however, is more rewarding to our Conservatives on the level of fantasy because these guys still think of themselves as William Pitt. Over and beyond the normal hostility of Conservatives to the Enlightenment, in denouncing Paris, they are channeling the English beefsteak patriotism of 1796. Somehow it goes with bow ties.

I advise the pundits to be careful with the historical analogies. They’d like to believe that contemporary America is in the situation of late 18th Century England, a nation that eventually triumphed over its great continental enemy despite its diplomatic isolation. It is perfectly true that England did survive the loss of its American colonies and went on to flourish economically despite the hostility of most of Europe. England, however, did several things that we are not doing. While the English were in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, we are busily dismantling our own manufacturing economy. While the English pioneered a sound system of public finance, we are destroying our own national credit. While English patriotism made it possible to increase taxes during wartime, we’re unwilling to pay the price for our aggressive foreign policy. In fact, in our ideological posturing, national vanity, and feckless bravado, we’re acting precisely like cartoon versions of 18th Century Frenchmen. Moreover, as a declining but militarily formidable power, we’re very much in the situation of late Bourbon France. Unlike the English, we don’t have the prospect of lording it over a worldwide power vacuum where obsolete empires and helpless natives await exploitation. This time the heirs to the Moguls and Manchus are coming for us.

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