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Ian Buruma Anglomania. Random House, 304-pages, $25.95

During the course of reading Ian Buruma's Anglomania, I left it lying on the kitchen table where a friend picked it up and looked it over. This friend is a writer in his late thirties, scion of an old and distinguished New England literary family, WASPS and Anglophiles all. "Anglomania?" he asked dismissively. "Who pays any attention to England any more?"

Who indeed? Not many people outside of England itself, which is one of the points made in this intelligent, funny, erudite history of Anglophilia--and Anglophobia--from Voltaire's day to our own. Buruma, author of books on Germany and Japan and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Institute for the Humanities, has special qualifications for telling this particular story. Although his father was Dutch and Buruma himself was raised in the Hague, his mother was English, a source of pride for the boy. "Through the late 1940s and 1950s, and even in the 1960S, the British were considered a superior breed in places like the Hague," he writes; "to me, a visit to Holland by my grandparents felt like the arrival of messengers from a wider, more glamorous world."

The patriotism of his grandparents, though, was far more than the arrogance of a master race, or the snobbery that has long been one of the less attractive faces of Anglophilia. Bernard and Win Schlesinger were both the children of German Jewish immigrants, and they fervently embraced the customs of the country that had given them asylum and freedom. "To them," Buruma writes, "the self-regarding cliches about Britain--fairness, liberty, tolerance, and so on--were not cliches." Not that the British, of course, were above the occasional anti-Semitic slur. But "Bernard Schlesinger was too proud and too patriotic to complain of prejudice. It would not have fitted his ideal of England." The Schlesingers themselves lived up to that ideal and then some, providing a home for twelve Jewish children who fled Hitler's Germany and even inviting, in 1945, two German vows to join them for Christmas dinner.

It is the England that embodied "a particular idea of freedom" that Buruma celebrates in this volume: the country that provided refuge for French Protestants after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, for French aristocrats after 1789, for European radicals and revolutionaries after the failed uprisings of 1848, for Jews from the late nineteenth century far into the twentieth. The mystery--and it was one that never ceased to perflex continental liberals--was that England, while indubitably the freest society in Europe, was also boring and conservative, crass and commercial, insular and philistine. As Karl Marx observed, in Britain even the workers were bourgeois. The press, the freest in the world, was also the most vulgar--as it continues to be. Cause or effect? The Russian radical Alexander Herzen, who found his British exile so agreeable that he took to calling himself "the old Putneyman," wondered whether perhaps "only a people incapable of inner freedom could manage to have a liberal form of government." "It is a peculiar paradox," Buruma continues, "that only a nation of inhibited conformists could live in freedom, that only a natural order based on custom and tradition could produce and sustain liberal institutions."

It is a question at the very center of this book, and one that has never been satisfactorily answered. Buruma refers to it as "Voltaire's coconuts," a nod to Voltaire's theory (a wishful one, perhaps) that there is no reason the successful political institutions of one country might not be transplanted to another, as coconuts are transplanted from one climate to another. The opposite outlook is the so-called "organic" view, held by skeptical souls like Montesquieu, Herder, and Taine: in their opinion, political institutions are the products of geographic, historical, and social conditions peculiar to each country and cannot easily be planted in foreign soil; laws, charters, and institutions, Taine claimed, are "like a complex of deep and branching

invisible roots."

Which theory is correct? The result of imitating British institutions abroad, Taine claimed (this was in the late nineteenth century), had been "grotesque"--except in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Giuseppe Mazzini, when asked in 1849 to lead the new Roman republic, tried to institutionalize British liberties; the republic collapsed after a hundred days. In our own century, the record of most of Britain's former colonies in Asia and Africa in their experiment with parliamentary government has not been stellar, to say the least. The United States, Canada, and Australia have succeeded: but then, they were populated predominantly by Englishmen in the first place. And as Buruma points out, American liberalism has in any case long since parted ways with its British progenitor, becoming "more active, more enthusiastic, more `progressive.' From a conservative guarantee of individual rights it became an instrument to improve society."

Voltaire was the first publicly passionate Anglophile; unlike the snobbish variety, he did not admire English manners so much as English political moderation. He did not commit the essential error of confusing liberty with egalitarianism, as did the French revolutionaries later in the century. "All the citizens of a state cannot be equally powerful" he wrote, firmly, "but they may be equally free." Free trade was an integral part of the society he idealized. The Royal Exchange, he wrote in Letters Concerning the English Nation, was a "place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together as tho' they all profess'd the same religion, and give the name of Infidel to none but bankrupts."

Voltaire's enthusiasm kicked off a French fad for all things English--philosophy, sport, garden-parks, even food--that crested in the 1760s, with the sage and his lover Emilie du Chatelet holding court at their Champagne estate, Cirey (or Cireyshire, as it was nicknamed). But while Voltaire's influence on England's public image was important enough, its principal legacy has been to serve as a flattering mirror in which the English themselves have preened ever since, for on the continent the French Revolution and the excesses of the Terror soon brought about an Anglophobe reaction, with Voltaire and the English liberty he championed perceived as far more radical than in fact they ever were.

Buruma presents a veritable menagerie of Anglophiles: Goethe, who revered Shakespeare as a "Gothic," Nordic, and above all un-French genius, but classicized him thoroughly in his Weimar productions; Prince Hermann von Puckler-Muskau, who spread the Continental mania for the "natural" English garden-park (as opposed to the formal French variety); Theodor Herzl, who envisioned a new society in which every Jew could be just like an English gentleman; and Pierre, Baron dc Coubertin, the organizer of the first modern Olympic Games, who believed that his country's pride and vigor could be restored after the Franco-Prussian War through a program of pedagogie sportive a l'Anglais, and who upon visiting Rugby College dropped to his knees on the hallowed tomb of Thomas Arnold.

Buruma throws in a couple of influential Anglophobes for good measure. Karl Marx, for example, despised everything England stood for but was more or less stuck there from 1849 until his death in 1883 since any other government would have clapped him in jail. Buruma's description of his tombstone, deep within the indignity of the quintessentially bourgeois Highgate cemetery, is masterly. The most colorful Anglophobe, though, is Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose tortuous, even Freudian feelings for his mother's native land would help bring about the wreckage of the First World War. His mother, Vicky, dutiful daughter of Queen Victoria, had drummed into him the inherent superiority of her country; he "never quite got England out of his blood. It would always be the country whose respect he craved," but never received. His response, of course, was to turn from the constitutional principles of one powerful grandfather, Prince Albert, whose Voltairean dream had been to transplant England's liberal institutions to Germany, to the autocratic ones of the other, the bellicose

Wilhelm I. "In a nation where nationhood grew more and more confused with race, the Kaiser was never able to reconcile the blood of two nations running through his veins. He was both an Anglophile and an Anglophobe, and his peculiar psychodrama shows what catastrophes can happen when a neurotic obsession with national identity takes the wrong turn."

Nowadays, of course, the British are no longer considered a superior breed--"even in the Hague" as Buruma notes rather wistfully. Britain's outsized boots have been filled, for better or worse, by the United States, which has inherited not only its global role but also the international onus that playing such a role--or choosing not to play it--always incurs. "Those who would have hated Britain for its commercialism, its individualism, and its tolerance of inequality will hate America today," Buruma remarks, with truth. He describes Britain in its heyday not only as a uniquely free society but as one "of great social and economic inequality, cruel penal codes, cultural philistinism, barbarous mobs, and insular attitudes to the outside world." Every one of these charges, of course, might just as easily be laid at the door of the United States.

Britain's other historical role, her self-imposed one of maintaining and ensuring the balance of power in Europe, has left her with a vastly diminished sense of mission and even of national identity in the era of European union, for since at least Tudor times she has enjoyed a vision of herself as a valiant little island, champion of liberty against every continental tyrant from Philip II to Hitler (via Louis XIV and Napoleon). Hence Britain's deep, and understandable, reluctance to submerge herself in the new Europe. In the long fight over membership in the European Union, though, an unattractive and not really pertinent note of nativism has too often tainted the dialogue, with pinstripe-clad anti-Europe politicians presenting a gross caricature of "Englishnes." Buruma likens all these pinstripes and polka dots to lederhosen and the Highland kilt, both nineteenth-century creations meant to afford "something native to hang on to while its political institutions were being swallowed up. There seems to be a rule of thumb: when political identities weaken, native costumes get louder." The answer, he believes, does not lie in cultivating a moribund facade of Englishness, national identity, and divine mission. "Britain cannot cultivate its allies by fighting `Europe' in the spirit of Dunkirk. For European democracies to survive, Europeans must regain the confidence to govern themselves and that course is not helped by the notion that only Britain, by some historic miracle, has the organic, homegrown political traditions to sustain a liberal state. For Europe to become more Anglophile, the Anglophile myth must go."

For all the enormous differences between Britain and the United States, the parallels between the two nations, both as political structures and world powers, are remarkable. Our own situation is in some respects eerily similar to that of Great Britain a hundred years ago. And while the subject of Buruma's book is England's political zenith--from the period between the Glorious Revolution of i688 and, roughly, the 1950s--its implications are more universal. England's one-time place in the world has a great deal to tell us about our own. A cursory once-over of Anglomania's cover might give the impression, as it did to my friend, that its subject is quaint and anachronistic; but that impression would be very wrong.

Brooke Allen reviews books regularly for The New Criterion.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Allen, Brooke
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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