November 22, 2005

Anglosphere Historical Narrative, Continued

I liked Carl Hollywood's comment to Lex's Anglosphere Historical Narrative post so much that I am arbitrarily using my editorial privileges to move it up here. So here it is:

There are lots of great reasons to buy the Anglosphere narrative, and Lex stated many of them. Here’s my own partial list. Some of the items overlap his… but we lawyers love our restatements.

1. Expanded possibilities of collaboration. The Anglosphere narrative provides an understanding of how important it is to have shared cultural references. The lack of them isn’t insurmountable, but a shared culture (transmitted along with the English language) makes communication and understanding easier. This, plus the rise of ever-better communication technologies, raises the possibility of collaborating with a much wider group of people, who have more in common than one might have previously suspected.

2. A model for less developed countries to follow, and for us to cherish and maintain. Macfarlane and others explain how the model works. We can analyze the factors and figure out how to make the model work in Iraq and other locations. (In most places, this will probably be the work of generations… but Japan developed rapidly on the Western model thanks to Yukichi Fukuzawa.) (I can’t avoid thinking of the process in Baghdad as “putting the IRAC in Iraq.” Sorry.)

3. An increased appreciation of the subtle revolutionary power of consumer goods and services. Claudio Veliz’s The New World of the Gothic Fox provides a brilliant metaphor for thinking about Western capitalism and the constant production of new items designed to appeal to consumers. In particular, I’m thinking about Ruskin’s Gothic cathedral, to which “workers” (i.e., producers of goods and services) are always adding “rooms”. Consumers can decide to enter these rooms or not, and they provide value to some regardless of how many others dislike them. In the Anglosphere, there is a celebration and use of imperfection. Even the mediocre has value and is appreciated by someone, somewhere.

And so we have 300 kinds of breakfast cereal, and Britney Spears singing “Baby One More Time” while wrapped in a boa constrictor. William Carlos Williams fans may kill me now, but

so much depends

a writhing boa

wrapped around Britney’s

before an admiring

Is Anglospherist pop culture mediocre… or is it beautiful? Regardless of your position on this (me? I love it, but Travis’s version of “Baby One More Time” wipes the floor with Britney’s), any Salafi jihadist will tell you it’s utterly revolutionary.

4. An improved concept of the network (or network commonwealth) as a tool for information processing. The Anglosphere is decentralized as a rule and believes in local knowledge, incremental (not radical) improvement, and flexible adherence to shared values. It gave us the common law, and it can make better use of ideas like the wisdom of crowds and smart mobs than other organizational models can.

5. A new way for lawyers to see themselves. I’ve always liked my day job, but many of my colleagues either started out cynical or got there fast. If they knew how important their work is to the English-speaking peoples, and by extension to everyone else, they might cheer up a little. They might view themselves as trustees of the common law system that’s preserved essential institutions like trial by jury and free transferability of property, for centuries. Like item #2 above, this reverses the widespread “we’re so awful” meme and replaces it with justifiable pride and reality-based optimism.

6. A great set of tools for analysis. Mr. Bennett’s reading list is awesome. Alan Macfarlane’s books pack the heavy intellectual firepower of the justly renowned Cambridge school of anthropology. Fischer and Fukuyama provide a completely new and revelatory way of looking at the Anglopshere and the rest of the world. For example, now I think of Chinese culture as a mixture of Puritan traits (like emphasis on literacy and education in general) and backcountry traits (like sticking to your extended clan and trusting no one else for various historical reasons). As Fukuyama and others have noted, long-term progress for the Chinese may depend on the ability to dissolve tight family bonds and associate more freely with people outside the family circle.

7. A solid background for scenarios, like the ones reviewed here and described here. Mr. Bennett recently posted about alternative histories, which are not only fun to read, but also allow the reader to better visualize how events come about and which actions are likelier to lead to the desired results. Visualizing the future is a wonderful tool for strategic planning. What if the UK pulls out of the EU? What’s the significance to other core Anglosphere countries if the Conservatives take over in Canada next January? What are the possible ways for Anglospherists to meet the challenges presented by the Singularity? (Some are suggested in the books on Arnold Kling’s essential reading list.)

8. The pleasure of knowing where we came from. I mean “we” in the cultural, not the genetic sense. When I first saw the connection between East Anglia and New England, in the way David Hackett Fischer describes it, I felt the same pleasure a schoolboy feels when he first learns about Pangaea and continental drift, after years of staring at a world map and wondering why the coastlines of South America and Africa are so similar.

My two-year-old loves to chant ”Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee”, and I like to think he’ll experience the same joy later on, when we fill in the details of what happened between the first Willie and the second Elizabeth.

Posted by James C. Bennett at November 22, 2005 11:18 PM

Intersting points of departure to discuss. Here are some cursory thought

Point 2) I disagree that the Anglosphere concept per se is a model for developing countries. Latin America has tried and it's failed. I suspect that elites mistakes was in wanting to slavishly imitate the British/Americans and denigrate their own cultural heriatge. Further, we need to investigate further the hedgehog. After all it exists alongside the fox and acts as a useful corrective to latter's enthusisasm for disorder and neophilism. Also, the hedgehog isn't as intransigent as Claudio makes it out to be. So it's possible to nuance the hedgehogs between less and more intransigant towards change. Also, let's not forget that the fox itself occasionaly displays hedgehog attributes (why do Americans make such a big deal about a first woman president?)

To reiterate my mantra: the hedgehog isn't always wrong even if the fox makes legitimate points about change and cooperation. :)
3) On the 300 brands of cereal. I was less convinced by that argument and tend to concour with the Atlantic monthly article of some time ago that opposed excessive consumerism and raised the qustion if the infinite variety of consumrproducts might not destroy capitalism?
4) Let's be careful about how we loosen family and other ascriptive bonds. If I have one criticism of the Anglopshere is to treat the family as just another voluntary organization rather than the centre of society. Both the Chinese and Catholic polities are correct to view that what's good for the family is good for society; what's bad for the family is bad for society.

Great point of departure questions.


Posted by: xavier at November 23, 2005 06:20 AM

"If I have one criticism of the Anglopshere is to treat the family as just another voluntary organization rather than the centre of society. Both the Chinese and Catholic polities are correct to view that what's good for the family is good for society; what's bad for the family is bad for society."

Question 1: Does the Anglosphere really undervalue the importance of the family? I'm reading Adam Smith's lectures on jurisprudence right now and they start by categorizing the rights a person has as an individual, their rights as a member of a family, and their rights as a member of society. That seems to me to put the family in the middle of the legal/political structure joining the individual to society. He spends quite a bit of ink on issues like polygamy v monogamy, divorce, and other features of family structure that distinquish different cultural approachs to family. My impression was that he was not advancing new theories here, but rather restating English common law theory and practice.

Question 2: Do the Chinese and Roman Catholic polities really share any common view of the importance of the family? By coincidence I happen to come from a family that is one half WASP and one half Chinese Catholic. My brother's wife's family fled the mainland in 1949 partly because of government persecution of Catholics. My personal experience is that, even today, the Catholic Church and the Chinese Government have radically different views of what is good for the family (birth control being a glaring example). Conversely, my in-laws share a lot of common values with my family. Tomorrow three generations of Chinese Catholics (including some who don't speak English) are going to share a Thanksgiving dinner with three generations of Anglo-Saxon Episcopalians. I think a strong argument can be made that Hong Kong and Taiwan are part of the Anglospere.

Posted by: Paul K at November 23, 2005 08:58 AM

Xavier, treating the family as a voluntary association of individuals is at the heart of Anglosphere exceptionalism. It's important to read Macfarlane's Marriage and Family in England on this point -- and that this distinction long predates the Reformation. It was a feature of Catholic England too.

The problem with treating the family as the fundamental legal unit of society is that it turns each family into an autocracy, which can be benevolent or malevolent as fortune creates the character of the paterfamilias. Although this is true of the Anglosphere family to some extent, it ends when the son or daughter comes of age, whereas the traditional non-Anglosphere premodern family kept this control in force throughout life. This was an enormous psychological difference. I am convinced it has something to do with the absence of any mass fascist movement in the Anglosphere.

On the other questions, I do agree that the Anglosphere model should not be blindly imposed on societies with no Anglosphere connection. As you note, Latin America is littered with the wreckage of American-style constitutions. The key is not Anglosphere institutions per se, but strong civil societies and expanded radii of trust. It is prefereable is these can be accomplished by extrapolating from the roots of the society in question. For example, I admire Catalonia's reaching back to its medieval constitutionalist roots in constructing its representative institutions. Perhaps St. George should serve as the patron of representative assemblies, with reference to both Westminster and Barcelona.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 23, 2005 09:28 AM

Paul K:
Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, given the fox's neophilism and love of disorder, the family is just become another societal institution to tinker at one's pleasure. Look at the various American and Canadian Supreme court rulings as well as the enthusisasm that some local states and commercial corporations have embraced the new definitions of family. Sometimes, just because some one self defines himself doesn't make it so.

When it comes to the Chinese, I didn't have the regime in mind but rather the society. Chinese society mixes a correct understanding with many errors. The regime has perverted that correct understanding through the one child policy . Eventually, however, the Chinese society will evntually reassert their natural law understanding of the family and Christanity will play a prominent role


Posted by: xavier at November 23, 2005 10:42 AM


What about the Spanish government's recent legalization of gay marriage?

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 23, 2005 02:06 PM

Thanks for your comments. I'll have to get that book you mention. I should've made my a priori assumption more explicit. I hadn't thought of the family as a legal institution but a moral one (Quebec for example endows the family with no legal existence only the individuals qua individuals and secondarily as parents, sons, daugthers have legal recognition)

So how can the fox help Latin Americans extrapolate from their past to develop strong civil societies and radius of trust? I have some clear ideas but I'd like to know how the Anglopshere can help act as a catalyst

As for the legalization of gay marriage in Spain- I share Montse's sardonic post
The socialists in Spain desperately want to be a Gothic fox but act as a typically intransigent hedgehog (the Castillian right suffers similarly but with the economy and the regional nationalities) The whole debate was socially polarizing, there was no consenus nor demands by the society. It wasn't even an electoral issue. Geez there was never any debate, discussion or honest reflection. It was a purely arbitary decision to foist the change a societal base in order to show off their 'progre' credentials whether the changes were relevant or not. It's the same with the recent education law.


Posted by: xavier at November 23, 2005 02:47 PM

Jim: Thanks for the repost and for fixing my link to the Rheingold book.

Paul K and Xavier:

My own experience (in my former parish and elsewhere) confirms Xavier’s point concerning the central position of families in Chinese and Catholic-dominated cultures. Both are significantly deferential to ancestral authority, more so than the English-speaking countries. And I agree with Xavier that something’s lost when strong family bonds are loosened.

But something’s gained as well – among other things, the possibility of greater material progress. Jim made an excellent point about the increase in individual freedom that comes from the absence of autocratic paternal authority. And with respect to fertility, the predominant view across the Anglosphere seems to be the “progress-prone culture’s” view in this thought-provoking essay:

Progress-Prone Culture: “The number of children should depend on the family’s capacity to raise and educate them”

Progress-Resistant Culture: “Children are the gifts of God; they are an economic asset”

Personally, I subscribe to the view the essay describes as “progress-resistant”. I think Julian Simon was right when he said “more human beings are beneficial because of their minds and the goods their minds produce”. And China’s implementation of its “one child” policy is barbaric.

Still, if you believe

1) it’s good to promote the individual freedom of family members (I agree cultures which do this are less likely to succumb to fascism), and

2) it’s good to promote the free alienability of property (a key engine for economic growth),

then it’s easy to conclude that

3) it’s good to ensure you have sufficient assets for each family member to maximize the advantage each one will have in a freely competitive marketplace. Limiting family size is one way to do this.

I don’t think the mainland Chinese government thinks much of families – in fact, over time it’s done a lot to subvert and destroy them – but at this stage, it recognizes people want families, so it’s allowing that but also limiting population growth in a way it considers economically rational. Many Westerners impose the same policy on themselves for similar reasons, although of course they can make their own decisions, a privilege denied to the mainland Chinese.

Posted by: Carl Hollywood at November 23, 2005 09:57 PM

Thanks for your message. With respect to Jim's observation: yes and no. The question that troubles me the most is how come the loosening of familial bonds in historically monolitic Catholic countries has been catasrophic? What errors were made and can they be rectified? How did the Anglopshere succeed in loosening the familial bonds without the catastrophoic results? Can they be applied to the historically Catholic countris; if so how?.
I avoid China as I'm not sufficently familiar with it but I guess we can ask the same tupes of questions?

Posted by: xavier at November 24, 2005 08:52 AM

Interesting information.

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