Indirectly, subconsciously, his views perhaps had to do with the fact that his own country, the United States, was now the mightiest power on earth, as omnipotent as Macedon under Alexander the Great, Rome under Julius Caesar, Mongolia under Genghis Khan, Turkey under Mohammed II, or Britain under Queen Victoria. His country was so powerful, it had begun to invade or rain missiles upon small nations in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean for no other reason than that their leaders were lording it over their subjects at home.Our air-conditioning mechanic had probably never heard of Saint-Simon’s, but he was fulfilling Saint-Simon’s and the other nineteenth-century utopian socialists’ dreams of a day when the ordinary workingman would have the political and personal freedom, the free time and the wherewithal to express himself in any way he saw fit and to unleash his full potential. Not only that, any ethnic or racial group — any, even recent refugees from a Latin country — could take over the government of any American city, if they had the votes and a modicum of organization. Americans could boast of a freedom as well as a power unparalleled in the history of the world.
But a seeming omnipotence can be surprisingly fragile under the surface. It would be quite easy to rewrite that above passage to describe the average Englishman’s view of his country at the turn of the 20th century. After World War II, of course, the Empire ebbed away, like a slow dissolve into the last act of a bitter movie.
How did it happen? Jonathan Last has a must-read piece in the Weekly Standard comparing the damage done by the pacifist/isolationist left’s abolition of Britain after World War I (even as the Nazis began to arm), and today’s anti-American left. Reading passages such as these, it’s obvious that a worldview such as Teddy Kennedy’s or Cindy Sheehan’s is nothing new:
In 1933, the Oxford Union – a debating society and one of the strongholds of liberal elite opinion – held a debate on the resolution “this House will in no circumstances fight for king and country.” The resolution passed. Margot Asquith, one of England’s leading liberal lights, wrote that same year, quite sincerely: “There is only one way of preserving peace in the world, and getting rid of your enemy, and that is to come to some sort of agreement with him. . . . The greatest enemy of mankind today is hate.”Churchill disdained the new liberalism, mocking one of his opponents as part of “that band of degenerate international intellectuals who regard the greatness of Britain and the stability and prosperity of the British Empire as a fatal obstacle. . . . ” So deep was this liberal loathing of empire that even as the first shots of World War II were being fired, Churchill’s private secretary, Jock Colville, witnessed at a theater “a group of bespectacled intellectuals” who, to his shock, “remain[ed] firmly seated while ‘God Save the King’ was played.”
These elites could see evil only at home. The French intellectual Simone de Beauvoir did not believe that Germany was a “threat to peace,” but instead worried that the “panic that the Right was spreading” would drag France, Britain, and the rest of Europe into war. Stafford Cripps, a liberal Labor member of Parliament, feared not Hitler, but Churchill. Cripps wrote that after Churchill became prime minister he would “then introduce fascist measures and there will be no more general elections.”
In an important sense, the British Empire’s strength failed because its elite liberal citizens stopped believing in it.
Sound familiar? Read the rest.