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Does the Anglosphere Make Any Sense?

To be part of the Anglosphere requires adherence to the fundamental customs and values that form the core of English-speaking cultures. These include individualism, rule of law, honoring contracts and covenants, and the elevation of freedom to the first rank of political and cultural values.

Nations comprising the Anglosphere share a common historical narrative in which the Magna Carta, the English and American Bills of Rights, and such Common Law principles as trial by jury, presumption of innocence, “a man’s home is his castle”, and “a man’s word is his bond” are taken for granted. ~James Bennett, An Anglosphere Primer

Via Albion’s Seedlings via Steve Sailer.

At first blush, Mr. Bennett’s Anglosphere idea seems compelling and initially I was sympathetic to the idea because of the priority it gave to cultural habits in determining political and social order and because of Mr. Bennett’s argument that agood method for reproducing such “memes” is through genes (that is, cultural habits are more readily reproduced in biological descendants than in others). To that extent, the idea does make sense and Anglosphere may be worthwhile as a descriptive term, but where Anglospherism seems to break down is in the attribution of a distinct civilisational identity to the Anglosphere and an odd political project in which the major white Anglosphere nations (e.g., America, Britain, Australia) are supposed to cooperate more among themselves and adhere themselves less to their continental neighbours while at the same time affirming non-Western immigration as a kind of civilisational glue with the non-white Anglosphere. Thus Bennett:

Today’s Anglospherists see immigrants forming a new layer of intra-Anglosphere ties, as the East and South Asian, Caribbean, and Mediterranean origins of immigrants throughout the Anglosphere create new cross-relationships.

Thus an Anglospherist might be able to make strong arguments on the grounds of preserving the “Anglosphere civilisation” for ending Latin American mass immigration, but he would be perfectly thrilled (indeed, he would probably feel obligated) to have English-speaking Indians move in, in spite of the obvious, overwhelming cultural differences between them and white English-speaking peoples.

I find the idea of an Anglosphere civilisation unconvincing partly because of the odd primacy given to the one habit, speaking the English language, that is least determinative of cultural and political behaviour. Thus in a bizarre distinction, English-speakers in South Africa (such as, I suppose, Nelson Mandela) are more “Anglospheric” than Afrikaans-speakers, and indeed the Dutch character of the Afrikaaners is counted against them in spite of the overwhelmingly greater cultural affinities and similarities in practises between Afrikaaners and English South Africans. In what meaningful sense can we say that English-speaking Filipinos or Botswanans share these cultural habits with us to a greater extent than Afrikaans-speakers (who have, it must be stressed, actually acculturated to some real measure of British values even though they retain their ancestral language as their first language)? As much as Mr. Bennett clearly dislikes and derides Anglo-Saxonism, Anglospherism appears to be a sort of Anglo-Saxonism-cum-former colonials (provided that the former colonials speak English–no Afrikaans-speakers allowed!).

The other significant problem with the idea of an Anglospheric civilisation is that it is simply a new version of fashioning a civilisational identity based primarily on what I would consider to be the ephemera of political institutions and alignments. The idea of “Western civilisation” or “the West” was imagined in just such an artificial and ephemeral way, and Anglospherism seems to be an effort to fall back within a new artificial boundary as the old artificial boundary barring eastern Europeans from participation in our civilisation is breaking down.

Just as European historians, especially medievalists, are beginning to realise the absurdity of excluding large swathes of European civilisation and limiting our civilisation’s history almost entirely to the history of England and France (the old “Western Civ” construct), the Anglosphere idea rides to the rescue to deny fundamental common ground with Teutonic, Mediterranean and Slavic Europe. At this point I think the Anglosphere goes from being a potentially helpful explanatory device and becomes yet another attempt to escape the common European heritage that constitutes the foundation of anything meaningful that we English-speaking peoples share. At worst it could very easily be a new kind of the Whig theory of history, such that those parts of English and American history that are insufficiently in harmony with the proper Anglosphere/Whig “narrative” are written out of the history of “Anglosphere civilisation” just as they have been vilified in our progressive national histories. Basing Anglospherism on what is essentially a Whig narrative is least compelling to the very cultural conservatives who would probably otherwise be most sympathetic to this analysis of politics and society. Because it is a curiously selective reading of our past designed to deny or minimise much of our past, the Anglosphere is probably a largely undesirable construct for understanding the contemporary scene and would be, if it existed, a fatally flawed and superficial civilisation.

One huge problem with the Anglosphere that traditional conservatives would have is the following claim: “It is likewise important to make clear that a family in a civil society is a voluntary association, even though it is built on inherited connections.” Even if it were true that civil society families are somehow fundamentally different from families in other kinds of societies (voluntary vs. obligatory), Mr. Bennett would have a fairly hard time convincing traditional conservatives, for one, that such voluntary families are desirable.

On a slightly more technical, historical note, there are certain assumptions about “civil society” rooted in a bad, but typically Whig reading of medieval English history:

England, by virtue of its being the strongest part of an island at the periphery of Europe, was insulated from many of the more centralizing influences that eventually eradicated the complexity of emerging medieval civil society. In particular, its security from invasion after 1066 and consequent lack of need to maintain a large land army shielded it from the royal absolutism that continental monarchies fashioned in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Thus, England was free to continue combining medieval institutions such as Parliament, juries, and corporations into effective forms of complex civil societies. These forms were present throughout Western Europe, but faded or changed into instruments of state power over civil society on the continent, while still flourishing in England.

In this way bad Western Civ history lessons beget another bad civilisational construct. It is not some radical revisionist claim to observe that Parliament was the creation of an unusually strong monarchy. As I read in recent months in an article on the Carolingians, political consultation is a measure of strength and authority. The king of France could not compel attendance of his great lords, and it is well-known that the actual territory controlled by the French Crown was laughably small when compared to the royal lands of the Plantaganets or Tudors. Nothing like the Henrician Reformation could have happened in a France so fragmented by genuine competition among different centers of authority.

Insulation from the Continent did not prevent the rise of a strong monarchy (the resolution of civil wars and wars with Scotland strengthened the Crown as much, if not more, than was the case in Europe, where the monarchies in Spain and France remained far more hamstrung by the Cortes and the great aristocrats). It is a conventional mistake of Whig historians and their pupils to forget that it was the English (or, at this point, the British) who led the way in practically developing absolute monarchy (or that the supremacy of Parliament was simply the transference of control over the state apparatus from one absolutist, the King, to a group of absolutists), even if it was Bodin who first developed a political theory justifying it.

Someone might say, “Well, all right, this fellow doesn’t know much about medieval England, but the Anglosphere sounds pretty interesting.” But Mr. Bennett’s Anglosphere depends a great deal on understanding our history correctly, and he acknowledges as much when he says this: “Americans or Australians who long for depth of historical perspective ought properly to find it in the Anglosphere identity. The better we understand history, the more we understand that the voyage to those countries was more continuity than re-creation.” Unfortunately, I believe his model rests on a very conventional, but not necessarily very accurate historiographical tradition. Indeed, the “better we understand history,” the better it will be for all of us, but the “Anglosphere identity” and the “Anglosphere civilisation” do not promise to teach us history very well at all.

At the same time, the Anglosphere holds out the promise for noninterventionists to provide a sort of soft civilisational argument for keeping out of other nations’ affairs:

An Anglospheric perspective concentrates on tending and perfecting our own garden first, on creating deep and strong ties between highly similar nations and cultures, and seeking to help other nations by serving as an example (and sometimes, as a caution). It does not impose solutions on nations that cannot benefit thereby.

There is something very good in this awareness of the limitations of “spreading” our kind of political institutions, but there is nonetheless something odd and confused about the belief that we have more in common with English-speaking Indians than we do with central and eastern Europeans, many of whom can speak English but generally do not do so at home. When I meet a Christian central European (and there are such people) from Poland or the Czech Republic, we are more of one mind and share more of the same values than would be the case with a well-educated Bengali. If the Anglospherists made less of a totem out of the Bill of Rights (be it of 1689 or 1791) and recognised far more significant common symbols and practises (e.g., Christianity) it would become apparent that the relatively more religious eastern Europeans had more in common with Americans than do their overwhelmingly secular cousins and fellow Anglophones. The Anglosphere only really makes sense if you believe that political institutions and habits are the most important thing in the life of a people. They aren’t, so it’s not a very useful category.

The Anglosphere is a tempting idea, and it might just give my hobby of watching Bollywood movies civilisational significance (I am helping communication inside the Anglosphere, right?), but that should be a good warning sign that it is merely a faddish idea.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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