Saturday, August 9, 2008

How I Learned To Love The English-Speaking Peoples

Sometime ago, we examined whether the creation of certain fictional costumed do-gooders (for instance, Captain America) came with a jingoistic motivation to represent the Anglo-Americans in a positive light while conversely painting the Reds and Germans in ugly, dark hues. The conclusion was that, those particular characters can be enjoyed for what they are even if one had little love for the nationalistic concerns behind said characters. In fact, I have been informed that an average issue of a "Captain America" comic actually sells better in Germany than in North America! Perhaps this is not so surprising because those books are read primarily for the entertainment, the humour, the ridiculousness of costumed adventurers and the romance of it all (showcased by the stellar writing/art talents of Jim Steranko, Jack Kirby, Mark Waid, Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting and company). Not so history books. History books are not primarily meant to be entertaining. They are meant to firstly inform, then to shape opinions. It can be said (and has been said, most frequently by my friend Pltypus) that there really is no such thing as "objective history". Even an idiot like Dan Brown knows that and actually made hundreds of millions by reminding the world that "history is written by the victors". In other words, there really is a motivation behind historians to indoctrinate their readers with certain beliefs, nationalistic interests, etc.

I was in Times Bookshop, The Pavillion yesterday morning hunting for British history books when I encountered this monster-sized one-volume tome entitled "A History Of The English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900" by Andrew Roberts. It is an ambitious work that attempts to serve as a sequel to the four-volume work by Sir Winston Churchill ("A History Of The English-Speaking Peoples") that traced the histories from their humble beginnings up to January 1st, 1900. Roberts' opinion (which I do share) is that the best and most exciting history of the English-speaking peoples actually BEGAN from January 1st, 1900 rather than ended there. What was "the future" to Churchill is now our "past", seeing as how we have the luxury to examine it from where we are now in 2008. I grabbed the book, headed down to the food-court, gobbled down a beef-pie and started reading. I find much to agree with in the book. There should be no question whatsoever that we cannot understand much about the previous century (or our present, for that matter) without a careful examination of the importance of understanding the English-speaking peoples. In fact, however much we hate to admit it (as I believe readers of Chomsky do), the previous century really must be defined as the Century of the English-Speaking Peoples.

Having said that, Roberts' book is largely flawed. To put it more succinctly, the strengths of the book are also its weaknesses. Roberts go to no small lengths to prove the "greatness" of the English-speaking peoples (UK, US, Australia and Canada - but excluding Ireland, because of their seeming addiction towards self-flagellating regression) and ended up sounding so jingoistic as to sometimes be a turn-off! There is no question that there is much to laud, to applaud even, about the achievements of the English-speaking peoples. I would even go so far as to ascribe a certain undeniable greatness to them. But to read a 800-page defense of their "Manifest Destiny" can be a little too much to take. Perhaps the solution is to read this volume with the other book that I mentioned in an earlier post (An Utterly Impartial History Of Britain) within convenient reach so as to counter the heady-optimism. I often think that the best histories are those that make us critical of ourselves, our nations, our culture. Roberts' self-congratulatory tone throughout makes the book sound, at times, like a ridiculous religious tract written by blind-adherents rather than a work worthy of a true historian. Having said that, the breadth, the ambition and the obvious passion of the author is to be applauded. This will be a good volume to read and re-read, if for no other reason than to see the desperate apologetics of the English-speaking peoples in an age when they actually have to be so desperately apologetic!

Postscript: My friend Jen shares my love for history (but probably not enough of my criticism of the Brits!). She just put up a blog called EmO-LoCo-ChiCa but you probably need permission to read it... :)

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