What do I mean when I refer to an “Anglosphere historical narrative”? I mean the study and understanding of the history of England, then its daughter polities such as the USA, and its former colonies notably India, and the global, networked Anglophone cultural and economic space which is emerging — as a unity. I mean looking at the development of these communities not from within the too-small boxes of national history, or the too large boxes of world history or Western Civ. I mean seeing that the legal, political and cultural ideas and institutions which arose in England and spread throughout the world have their own distinct identity, which is becoming more apparent in a world increasingly linked by technology. This may or may not lead in the future to a new institutional form for the dispersed-but-networked Anglosphere, perhaps the “Network Commonwealth” which Jim Bennett has sketched out in his book and in other writings.
This approach to understanding the history and identity of the Anglosphere is relatively new, though it has had precursors and false or partial starts in the past. Developing this history and understanding its implications is a current and ongoing project, with Bennett as a founder of sorts, and others of us participating in it as we can, and with the idea taking on a life of its own in cyberspace and beyond.
Of course, history is not only an academic discipline existing in an “ivory tower”. History is self-understanding, which defines the scope of what is accepted as legitimate, which has political consequences. If a particular historical understanding becomes widespread, then this has implications for what types of political and cultural direction a country’s people will be willing to go. Orwell was not necessarily overstating the case when he has O’Brien the thought-policeman say “he who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future.” In a free society, no one “controls the past”. However, certain views can gain a hegemonic position and become the accepted, general view. This occurs through university teaching and then the training of school-teachers, among other means. This hegemonic position in historical studies has the effect, sometimes intentionally, of promoting positions in contemporary politics and cultural life. A community’s historical self-understanding will therefore ultimately impact the exercise of political power and the direction its culture will go. Therefore, what is taught is can be extremely important, and what contrary or challenging views gain acceptance is important as well. So, potentially, a lot is at stake if the idea of the Anglosphere take hold, and gains acceptance, and begins to spread.
The question sometimes arises,, from well-intentioned conservatives, usually: Why ask people to buy a new and different “Anglosphere” narrative? Isn’t it a distraction from the crucial work of reviving and restoring the traditional American (or British, or Canadian) narrative that we remember from childhood, that was good enough for our parents and grandparents? Isn’t the main thing to revive a healthy national patriotism and reawaken awareness of national history in these countries? Why bother with this newfangled way of looking at things?
Let me count the whys. Because restoration of a former narrative is impossible to do, as a practical matter. Because the old narratives appear to have lost acceptance because they did not satisfy the felt needs of the time, not just because of political correctness or corruption in the education establishment, though these malign forces had a lot to do with it. Because contact with the larger world and development of a global economy has shown us more and more clearly what makes us distinct from certain other communities, and what we have in common with certain others. Because it is more and more clear that those continuities which we share, and which shaped us, go back fifteen centuries, at least. Because the British narrative was founded on Protestant triumphalism, and Britain is no longer Protestant and Protestantism is no longer triumphant. Because the British narrative was founded on Imperialism and expansion, and that version can no longer stand. Because the British narrative can be and should be accurately reconfigured into the true story of England as the “homeland of liberty”, the birthplace of the common law, and the seedbed of free institutions. Because the British story, told thus, will be both true and globe-spanning in a way which can supplant the old imperialist narrative and restore a justified pride to the British people. Because this more accurate narrative can be a guide and a source of communal feeling for formerly conquered peoples of the Commonwealth. Because such a narrative is shorn of religious and ethnic bigotry it can show the people of former colonies, either living in those countries or emigrated to the metropole, the value of what they have inherited — and shared in and fought for –without asking them to celebrate their own subjugation. For Americans, an Anglosphere narrative restores to us a huge slice of history as our own. Because American exceptionalism in a radical form is not an “ancient” American narrative, but is a 19th century creation. The older and more accurate American narrative incorporates history back into the mists of the Saxon era. In that sense a more Anglospheric American narrative is a restoration of an earlier understanding of what America is and where it came from.
All that aside, the reason for a new narrative is the best one of all: Because it is clearer than ever, now, that as a matter of historical fact, the Anglosphere narrative is more accurate and more complete than the older narratives. The Anglosphere narrative is simply a more accurate statement of the truth, of the facts. The old narratives have served their time, based on the understandings of their times, and they responded to historical conditions which no longer pertain. What is true and good in them will be incorporated into the larger narrative. The older narratives of national history won’t be replaced, they will be clarified, refounded, and enlarged. The Anglosphere narrative is strong because it is much more based on fact than on myth. Better facts mean a more refined and more compelling and more binding narrative for everyone.
This all leaves to one side the question of how this superior understanding of the past and present can be widely disseminated to the point that it reaches general acceptance. That is probably the work not of years or decades, but generations. But I trust I am not being naive in believing that a superior grasp of their historical heritage by the citizens of the Anglosphere will lead to better policy decisions and a more prosperous, free and peaceful world, not only for the Anglosphere but for everyone else as well.
There ya go. The big picture.
Cross-posted on Albion’s Seedling.