There are worse havens from history than the Pacific Palisades. We are meant to be stunned, even tickled, that Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht and other Weimar stars made their lives among the groomed pets and extortionate chocolatiers of West LA.
But see it from their angle. On one side: an invincible ocean. On the other: a screen of mountains. To the north and south: much weaker countries. Europe’s claustrophobia, its overlapping nationalisms, were a physical impossibility here. So was the attendant violence. Versions of the same refuge can be found in Sydney or, with the protective Channel, London.
Even after the naval pact between the US, Australia and Britain last month, the “Anglosphere” is still an idea in search of stuffing. In its gun laws, paid leave, racial mix, religiosity, per capita income and favoured sport, Britain is far more European than American. Neither country has much intimacy with the distant Antipodes beyond some pooled espionage.
In fact, only one non-linguistic thread ties the main English-speaking nations together. Call it geographic luck. I have come to sense that it shapes their outlook more profoundly than language.
Of the “Five Eyes”, only one has a border with a larger country (and that is Canada’s with a benign US). None is landlocked. None, unless we count Britain’s decolonisation, has much experience of territorial loss or occupation. Growing up in these countries can blind one to the rareness of such geographic providence. Bodies of water and nice neighbours spare us the anxieties that history has induced in France or Nigeria or Mexico.
Or, come to think of it, China or India or Russia. Navigation of this century is going to call on various unexercised muscles in the Anglosphere. One is knowledge of civilisations that predate the west. Another is the vim to compete with economies that were poor enough recently enough to have no irony or ennui about commerce.
Of all the adjustments ahead, though, the least discussed is the most important. We have to fathom the mental lives of countries that were not so spoilt by geography. It is not just in theory that the experience of external predation has moulded them. It is there in what citizens do — whom citizens elect or follow — to ensure there is no repeat.
The Anglosphere conceit is that something deep in its culture explains why it never fell to tyranny. Leaving aside the selective recall here (what did the Confederacy speak? Tamil?), there is no allowance for geographic accident. Does the Netherlands, home of Spinoza, and merchant capitalism, and non-ecclesiastical painting, lack a freedom instinct? If it capitulated to the Nazis, isn’t hundreds of miles of German border the likelier culprit? Jokes about French surrender — that unerring mark of buffoonery — are just as good at missing the obvious. And if we can’t see the force of geography in such familiar countries, what chance a feel for Asian sensitivities?
Three years in Washington acquainted me with a political class that is, like London’s, hardworking, civic-minded and, if not blazingly original, smart enough. If there was a blind spot, it was for the ingrained insecurity of much of the world: for the role of humiliation in so many national histories. Chinese conduct, for instance, absorbed everyone. What George Kennan would have called the “sources” of it, didn’t.
The problem is as much education as all that shining sea. The currency of the humanities is abstract ideas: Enlightenment versus Romance, the Protestant ethic versus Catholicism. That something as corporeal as environment might shape nations too feels almost philistine to suggest. Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel has made it only faintly more respectable.
The Anglosphere-ists, who are right for the wrong reasons, are products of that ideas culture. Yes, there is an uncanny pattern among the five countries. Yes, it must inflect their view of the world. But language isn’t it (is Singapore, now more populous than New Zealand, in the Anglosphere?). Nor is it the intellectual inheritance of John Locke.
No, what marks them out from much of the world is the coincidence of their geographic detachment. Brentwood’s own Theodor Adorno found LA bad for the mind even as it kept him safe. Anglosphere countries face the same quandary: that what protects them leaves them uncomprehending.
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