June 27, 2006

Quadrant reviews The Anglosphere Challenge

Quadrant's review of my book is a homecoming of sorts. As reviewer Peter Coleman makes clear, Quadrant was responsible for the publication and sponsorship of Claudio Véliz, one of the first contemporary thinkers to return to and examine carefully the distinct nature of English-speaking civilization, in a series of articles and an important lecture delivered in the 1980s. These works are clearly forerunners and key foundation stones of the Anglosphere analysis.

But Véliz's works were admired briefly, and then dropped from sight. From the viewpoint of the Quadrant people, this is what happened:

Urged on by the Quadrant editor, the late H.W. Arndt, Veliz expanded his lecture into the book The New World of the Gothic Fox: Culture and Economy in English and Spanish America. Although it was well received, it was soon, as it were, put to one side. Then suddenly, quite recently, it enjoyed a revival. In his new polemic The Anglosphere Challenge: Why the English-Speaking Nations Will Lead the Way in the Twenty-First Century ( Rowman & Littlefield, 2004, about [Aus]$90), James C. Bennett sums it up: “Veliz is to today’s emerging Anglosphere what Tocqueville was to nineteenth-century America.”

What happened in the past twenty years to give Veliz’s ideas their new importance? A major factor has been the flourishing of the internet, which hardly existed when Veliz gave his Latham Lecture. In a few years the communications revolution has destroyed the tyranny of geography and has privileged the English language in world affairs and consolidated British civilisation (in the quasi-Hellenistic sense) on a scale undreamt of in past generations. Bennett calls this the Anglosphere. There is also a developing Hispano-sphere, Lusosphere, Francosphere.

What in fact happened was a convergence of minds coming from quite different places upon a suddenly-emergent common place. I had in fact written the entire text of what became The Anglosphere Challenge before having read, or even heard of, Véliz. It had begun as a discussion of what the effects of the Internet and hypertext revolutions might be on society and international relations; its primary focus was the emergence of cultural-linguistic "network cvilizations" and the potential for "network commonwealths" to emerge as political forms joining them.

The Anglosphere was merely the first and most obvious of these network civilizations, and the fact that Neal Stephenson coined the term "anglosphere" (as a throwaway in his novel The Diamond Age) to describe the phenomenon was merely an indication that something was in fact happening. (I have no idea whether "anglosphere" was an original coinage of Stephenson's; the term "francosphere" had been current in French for several years prior to publication of The Diamond Age.)

In fact, it was not until I was preparing the original manuscript for publication that I read Véliz, and because of a reference in a footnote in Gothic Fox, Alan Macfarlane's work. This caused a delay of at least a year as I had to go back and expand and elaborate upon the discussion of the Anglosphere in the work, and that discussion became so dominant that the central thrust of the book shifted from "network commonwealth" to "anglosphere", and the publishers changed the book's title to reflect that fact. Since the actual publication of the book I have gone much further in researchng some of the topics about the nature of the Anglosphere, a research which has been shared with a number of people including my fellow-bloggers here on Seedlings. Much of the discussion about "Gellner's Exit" and other such esoteric topics on this blog is the byproduct of a continuing email correspondence of our little cyber-salon.

Thus the book has a somewhat bifurcated nature, something Coleman, among other reviewers, have noticed and commented upon. For Coleman, of course, this is a bug, not a feature:

Unfortunately Bennett labours under two handicaps. One is a weakness for jargon (despite his years as a UPI journalist writing a column called “The Anglosphere Beat”). The book is marred by too many sentences like this:

“Given the emergence of transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP) as the universal standard for Internet communications, and of hypertext markup language (HTML) as the document standard, it is not clear that any further harmonization is needed at all.”

Bennett’s other, and related, handicap is that he was reared on science fiction and will not let a good idea speak for itself. No sooner has he laid out the role of the internet revolution in consolidating the Anglosphere than he takes us into the obscure and sometimes obscurantist realms of “the Singularity revolutions”.

If, on the other hand, you are part of the community that takes Singularity discussions seriously, this is a feature, not a bug. My only regret now is that I felt I had to take up so much space describing the idea of the Singualrity, since in the intervening two years, with the publication of Kurzweil and Garreau's works, it has become a commonplace of blogospheric discussion.

I guess that's one of the problems with writing a book that draws on highly disparate fields of knowledge -- I discover techno-geeks who think I invented the idea of Anglosphere exceptionalism, while I run into learned historians who are under the impression that I invented the idea of the Singularity. Much as I would enjoy credit for either one, I am perfectly happy to give credit to Véliz and Vinge respectively for those achievements. (I am probably the only person who knows both authors personally, however -- a pleasure in both instances, by the way.)

I do have to say that the particular sentence he quoted -- about TCP/IP and HTML as universal voluntary standards, is an important point, (given that standards harmonization is always trotted out as an argument for top-down structures like the European Union) and to have discussed it without using the actual terms would have been much more roundabout and less precise. But since Robert Conquest had also objected to that particular sentence, perhaps I should have worked on it a little longer.

Generally, however, when a book has a strongly bifurcated nature, it suggests that perhaps there should be two books altogether, or at least two future follow-ons. When I circulated the manuscript to a number of people, many of them commented that the scope was too wide, and that I would be better off narrowing the scope and discarding twenty or thirty percent of the text. The problem was that no two commentors agreed on what to keep and what to put in the next book.

Coleman's larger point, however, is on target. Since Véliz first returned to the idea of English-speaking exceptionalism in the modern world (it had been a common thread eighty years before, albeit in a somewhat different form) a number of people have come to the same place, for the most part independently. Véliz, myself, Robert Conquest, John O'Sullivan (who knows all three of us), and others have all taken up the distinct nature of the Anglosphere, and its possibilities, and the fact that such a diverse set of experiences all led to the same place suggests that there is something there. As Coleman say:

A major characteristic of these approaches—by Veliz, Bennett, Mead, Conquest, O’Sullivan and others—is their tentativeness and modesty. The Anglosphere is not a ready-made solution to the problems of the world, from Islamicist terrorism to failed multiculturalism. They see it as a direction, a potential, a liberal option.

It remains futurology. It may pass like other Anglo dreams or fantasies—Milner’s Kindergarten, Imperial Federation, or the Lost Tribes of Israel. For some Australians—late children of the British empire who (in Chris Patten’s formula) have lived their lives as enthusiastic citizens of America’s undeclared empire—it is a door they will not slam shut. But as Patten also warned, sentiment is only one element in Realpolitik.

I think that what Coleman sees as "tentativeness and modesty" is also a feature, rather than a bug, in our design. I would rather call it a real-world application of Hayek's concept of "local knowledge". We are saying not that we refuse to generate a universal solution for all peoples in all places and all times because we are better than others, but that solving any set of social problems, getting from the present situation to the desired situation, requires far more local knowledge than was assumed fifteen years ago. Then it seemed as if there was a universal democratic and free-market template that could be implemented overnight, anywhere, and deliver its benefits the next day. Today we value the end place no less, but are more cautious about what it takes to get there. Turning our attention primarily to the Anglosphere is an admission that that is where we know the most and can do the most good.

As far as the dreams of yesteryear, Seedlings has had a rather extensive discussion of the English-speaking Unionists of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, what they accomplished and what they did not, and how the lessons of their experience apply to the Anglospherists' challenge today. Of course it is futurology, as Coleman indicates, but to look at society twenty-five years ago and see what has changed since then, a futurology informed by taking the past seriously (which is what we strive for) is likely to be the only even potentially useful guide. The most unrealistic assumption is that nothing will change.

UPDATE:

Lex has an interesting discussion of this post, with some useful further links, over at Chicago Boyz. Comments section is worth checking out, too.

Posted by James C. Bennett at June 27, 2006 03:05 PM
Comments

"Turning our attention primarily to the Anglosphere is an admission that that is where we know the most and can do the most good."

And by seeing what has worked, and trying to understand why, we will be better positioned to make suggestions about policy and reform in other places.

Posted by: Lex at June 27, 2006 03:28 PM

James,

The only thing wrong with the quoted sentence is that you (apparently) gave in to the stooooopid publishers with their even stooooopider rules about how to deal with acronyms. Spelling out Transmission Control Protocol isn't relevant in the slightest, and making it the main noun phrase, and forcing the acronym into parentheses, is as knumbskull as it would be to have to write out the etemology of every other word. Bleah. Note how badly that sentence from the book reads, and how clear and coherent your later comment on it (that leaves out the expansions) is.

Posted by: Kirk Parker at June 28, 2006 12:54 AM

Yep. Well, style is to spell out an acronym the first time it's introduced. If I were writing primarily for a tech-smart audience, I wouldn't bother -- everybody knows what TCP/IP and HTML are (or, rather, everybody knows more or less what they do -- many could not actually tell you what the acronyms stood for, just as I've met a number who think "URL" is "universal resource locator"). So it's considered an authorial courtesey for the non-technical part of the readership. Trouble is, spelling out the names only provides clarity for a small fraction off the readership that's not familiar with the acronym, and as you point out, it's clumsy. I could have had an expalnation in footnotes, but I really wanted to avoid a footnote-heavy text. That's why hypertext is useful.

It's part of the general problem of writing a book for multiple, disparate audiences. I could write a sentence such as "None of the post-Trianon state entities constructed across the ausgleich line survived the fall of the Wall by more than two years." But aside from the frighteningly erudite readership of this blog, it would require a paragraph or two of explanation. The whole of the book contained authorial issues of that nature. What level of knowledge to expect in the readership?

Posted by: Jim Bennett at June 28, 2006 10:47 AM

James:
Harmonization need not be top down. The Belle époque's flourishing of voluntary harmonization organizations is the example I'd like the world to follow.
The one concern I have is that the eagerness for the rest of the world to learn English, might cause the Anglophones to think they're well informed about trends and events but really aren't because they don't read or speak other languages
Revel worried about this phenomenon too.

xavier

Posted by: xavier at June 29, 2006 07:00 AM

Xavier:

Yes, the age of global liberalism saw some wonderful examples of voluntary standards-setting and non-complusory cooperative institutions. I have a numbe of times encountered Europhiles who argued for Brussels-mandated harmonization as needed for the single market. Typically the cite the American single market as an example. But they don't realize that the American single market (actually for many purposes the North American single market) was achieved without mandatory product-standard harmonization. Much of it was done by other states adopting a model code from one state or a producers' organization. US states probably have more power to set unilateral product standards than EU member states do today.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at June 29, 2006 02:12 PM
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