Friday, August 21, 2020

The Squandering of Anglo-American Cultural Hegemony

I was a pretty idealistic person in my youth. Part of that might have come from my Mother's honest Canadian patriotism (which included an acknowledgment of the importance of the First Nations) and her deep, sincere religiosity. If you believe in something, you should genuinely live to reflect your beliefs.

I think that's why as a kid, when World War Two was only thirty years in the past, the idealistic portrayal of the actions of Canada and our two larger allies, Britain and the United States, resonated so much with me. We were the democracies fighting tyranny. We didn't start the war, the Germans did. We fought to liberate other countries and did not take anything for ourselves at the war's end. The film clips of Allied troops liberating Paris and Rome were thrilling. We even treated the Germans (and the Japanese) well afterwards, despite all their war crimes. (As a child, the dropping of the atomic bomb, was just accepted by me as something wise and powerful men had done as part of a war. I accepted it the way I accepted the reality of the existence of nuclear weapons in my own day.)

Here's the way I understood the progress of the war as a child: Germany invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war. (So did Canada.) France was defeated. The Germans bombed London and Churchill vowed that Britain would fight on. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Then D-Day happened. (There were battles in the Pacific between the American and Japanese navies and the British were fighting the Japanese in the Burmese jungles. The Japanese treated Allied prisoners terribly.) Germany was defeated and the concentration camps were discovered and the survivors were rescued. Allied troops liberated conquered cities to cheering crowds throwing flowers. Then the USA rebuilt Europe out of the goodness of their hearts. (You can see the impact of propaganda here in the absence of the enormous contribution of the Soviet Union and of the story of the massive suffering of the Chinese.)

That's the impression I had as a youngster and it didn't really get replaced with anything approaching a more nuanced reality for almost two decades. It just gradually faded from my mind as I became a narcissistic teenager. But it subconsciously continued to form my perception of the role of what Churchill called "The English-Speaking Peoples" or "Anglo-America." We were victorious democracies. We were liberators. We tried to help other people. (Sometimes the people we tried to help resisted us out of confusion or because of the malevolence of their rulers.)

I gradually acknowledged that we'd made mistakes in the past. By the 1970's I was aware that the USA had stolen the lands of the First Nations there. And that there had been slavery. (I thought Canada's history had been inexplicably far more peaceful. That we'd never had slavery and that we'd signed treaties with all "our" First Nations.) Britain had built an empire through conquest and had ruled people without their consent. (As a Canadian I sided with the British in the story of the American Revolution. The colonists didn't have it so bad. But what was done was done. We're all friends again.) The important thing was that all these bad things had happened in the long-ago past and the past was a different world. Most civilizations conquered others and enslaved people in the past. Black people were free now. (Racists were a minority and they were on their way out.) Both Canada and the USA were trying now to help their Indigenous Peoples to overcome the damages done in the past. Britain had peacefully given up its empire and we were all friends now in the British Commonwealth.

And everybody in the world wanted what we had, materially and culturally. Rock and Roll was an American phenomenon (and the contribution to it from Black people was a sign of their growing acceptance in American culture and the decline of racism). Rock and Roll as embraced by young people the world over. Aside from Black people in the USA, British people were (for some reason) better at it than Americans were! Hollywood films dominated the world. American television shows dominated the world. (Though, as a Canadian, I knew that if you wanted more clever television, there were British television shows that you could watch. Also, Canada had some pretty good Rock and Roll bands, SCTV was great, and many Canadians had gone to Hollywood and gotten successful and famous. Plus we had some famous doctors.)

People everywhere wanted our standard of living. (From what I could see, from Southern Ontario at least, the Canadian and US standards of living were the same.) The poor, oppressed people in the Soviet Union wanted Anglo-American culture and American blue jeans and running shoes. People came from all over the world to try to share in "The American Dream." (They came to Canada too. But one didn't speak of a "Canadian Dream" for some reason. Modesty maybe.)

In all honesty, I didn't know much about Australia. I just knew that it had English-speaking people too who shared a similar standard of living with us and that they also had kangaroos, koalas, Tasmanian devils, baby-snatching dingoes, and Aborigines who lived in the dry, dusty "Outback."

The thing was, there was some truth to this whole childish vision. We did have a high standard of living that had gotten better (by conventional measurements) with each succeeding generation.  And immigrants did come from all over to have a share of it. (And we welcomed them. My Dad's grandparents had been immigrants after all. (My Mom's family had been in the Maritime Provinces since forever as far as I was concerned.) Both my parents were good people. Anti-racist. My Dad liked to listen to the Blues and also Black radio stations from Buffalo, New York. There were people trying to repair the ill-effects of our racist and otherwise problematic histories.  "Our" movies, films, music, writers, were admired the world over. We had been the liberators in WW2. And the USA was the richest, most powerful country the world had ever seen.

But that time has clearly past. The standard of living of the average US-American went from being first in the world to outside of the top-ten. The British have been a nation in permanent decline since 1945 and the process is accelerating. Our economies have suffered from a process of financialization that has concentrated wealth in the hands of a small coterie of criminal parasites. Politically we suffer from being societies that have believe our own lies about ourselves for too long. More to the point, our oligarchies have been resorting to pandering to the most debased (racist, sexist, authoritarian right-wing bullies/cowards) to be their shock-troops against the inevitable reactions to their depredations. 

This is why we have Boris Johnson in the UK and Donald Trump in the USA. And the mainstream "opposition" to these boors are neo-liberal scumbags like the Clintons, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Canada vomited up Stephen Harper but we're currently under the neo-liberal scumbag Liberal Party. The massive failures of Trump and Boris Johnson, together with the undeniable economic decline caused by slavish devotion to the demands of the financial sector have made those two countries international laughing-stocks. Their culture of corporate-friendly mythology exposes the hypocrisy and shallowness of it all. As I said, Anglo-Americans have been allowed to believe in their own self-serving lies about themselves for far too long and this current sorry state is the result of that.


lagatta à montréal said...

Do remember that not all Canadians are Anglo-Americans, though. As well as the Indigenous nations, there are many francophones (Québécois, Acadians and others). The Québécois were conquered (at the time, they referred to themselves as "les Canadiens" and the conquerers as "Les Anglais", but there was also a lot of Celtic on both sides). The Acadians had it far worse as they were ethnically cleansed. This made for a significantly different worldview.

Indeed, memories of the War deliberately erased the vital role played by the Red Army and the Soviet peoples as a whole, in turning the tide, while suffering horrific casualties. There were accounts of the Nanking massacre, known as the more lurid "Rape of Nanking", but little else about the horrors the Chinese people endured.

thwap said...


I couldn't remember everything about my childish idealism for Canada. But yes, I did have the idea that the separatists in Quebec were parochial and deluded because Canada was a brilliant success story of how our "Two Founding Peoples" eventually overcame old-fashioned bigotries to become an example for the world of different people coming together in peace and harmony.

I suspect Japanese atrocities against the Chinese were muted by the fact that China was communist and therefore it wasn't in the interests of western propagandists to make people sympathize with them, even if by chance.

lagatta à montréal said...

Also by racism, even though Japanese are also East Asian. I suspect that a lot of Westerners just didn't care so much about "those people".

And sadly, it took genocide to consider Ashkenazi Jews as "white", and there was still a lot of prejudice. And prejudice has never ended for the Romani (Gypsy) people although they were exterminated at the same rate as the Jews, in proportion to the relative populations.

As for Québec, there have always been right wing nationalists/populists such as Duplessis here, though few advocated outright independence. Most of the members of the FLQ were very far left indeed. (Note that I'm not excusing many of the things they did; however there was very deep poverty and discrimination against the francophone majority and electoral politics seemed blocked.) And a pro-independence stance was definitely in the majority among the Québec labour movement and social movements.

Anonymous said...

Nice. Interesting, too.