Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Anthony Trollope and the Spread of Civilization

I consider myself an Anglophile. I love English history, English accents, English tea, English novels, English churches, English humor, English villages, English television, English puzzles, English pubs, English music, English architecture, and English movies. I even love English cooking. There. That proves it if nothing else does. I’m an Anglophile.

Now, being an Anglophile doesn’t mean that I think the English can do no wrong, that their faces are the most beautiful on the planet, or that their garbage smells sweet. The Angles are no angels, as Pope Gregory misunderstood it. They have their faults. Big faults. But I understand their faults. I read about their Civil War, and I understand how both sides could have seen the issues as important enough to fight over. I read about how they treated the natives in America, how they treated the Africans they captured and sold as slaves, how they treated the Indians, and how they treat(ed) the Irish, and I see the same dark shadows in myself.

By contrast, I read about the French Revolution and scratch my head. None of the six or eight sides in that tragedy make any sense to me. In Les Miserables, Cosette hisses at her father. Hisses?! I’ve never seen a girl hiss at her father. I can’t imagine why she would.

One consistent thread in the tapestry of English foolishness is their belief that they must bring civilization to the rest of the world. That India had its own valuable civilization seems not to have occurred to them. India’s civilization had its bad points (the rigid caste system, for instance) and its good points (cotton underwear, for instance). But it was civilization with cities, social structure, religion, law, commerce, education, philosophy, art, music, and poetry. England certainly saw the value in cotton clothing and did its best to reap all the profits from Indian manufactures. But the rest they just tried to contain with their supposedly superior governmental system.

One of the merrier airs in this pageant of foolishness comes from Cecil Rhodes and his scholarship. Bring the English-speaking world to Oxford, said Rhodes, and let them learn true civilization. Then the English way will spread even more fully around the English globe, and the English sun will truly never set on it. My university’s president was a Rhodes scholar. Whether that makes the program seem more sensible I leave to the reader. Kris Kristofferson was also a Rhodes scholar.

At this point, I don’t have much left of either space, time, or the reader’s patience to connect the spread of English civilization to my current reading. So I’ll just say briefly that I read with great pleasure a passage in Trollope’s Framley Parsonage the other day that indicated his healthy suspicion of the whole project of Anglicizing the world. He showed through a clash between the civilizers and the Churchmen that the civilizers had modeled their project on Christian missions, with the difference that instead of literacy, morality, and hope of Heaven, they offered mostly only English suits and long dresses. But Trollope doesn’t let the Christians off either, noting that the most vocal among them care mostly that the heathens learn to act solemnly on the first day of the week.

By the way, at a more generic level, I consider myself a Britophile. I get it honestly, I suppose. My grandparents were named Stephenson, Allen, Kelley, and Jones, and I think that those names fairly represent the four nations of the British Isles.

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