Thursday, August 24, 2017

We Think As We Speak

"There was no sense of the US being one country on a planet of many countries"

Reading American journalist Suzy Hansen's piece in The Guardian (courtesy of Narratively of August 20th) titled 'Unlearning the myth of American innocence', in which she details her personal experience of what is often described as American Exceptionalism, brings back memories from my post-WWII childhood in the UK. We were living then during the rapid dismantling of Empire while still being taught it was the greatest in history, the only one on which "the sun never set". Folk from a modest island on the outskirts of civilization had sailed out to dominate and settle throughout the globe to a hitherto unprecedented degree. We had brought with us democracy, justice, literacy and fairness - the exceptionalism of Classical Greece delivered up to modern barbarians. 


Our ruling class still studied the Classics at university and spoke with a special accent inculcated during a schooling bottled up as boarders inside privileged and expensive teaching centres oddly known as 'public schools'. Despite the political triumph of socialism after peace came in 1945 and the post-Third Reich embarrassment of still 'owning' colonies, the behaviours and beliefs of centuries of imperial thinking remained implicit in much of what we were taught and heard. Many of those who recently voted for Brexit are old enough to have absorbed the feeling that our way of life was somehow special, and superior to that of other European nations. Watching the current film epic 'Dunkirk' we are reminded how that glorious episode (and the subsequent Battle of Britain in the air) saved that Europe for the Light of democracy.

A conceit of formerly successful imperial nations is that their contribution to history greatly exceeds that of lesser peoples, and this applies to their speech. Just as Latin lived on as a language of religion and scholarship many, many centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, so we can expect to see English survive the mid-C20th demise of British imperialism and the already underway decline in the American global hegemony. In the continued use of such imperial speech beyond its founding political support network's disappearance, we witness the perpetuation of the ideas inherent in its phraseology and locus. The thought patterns of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism are likely to remain with us for many years into the future. English is the lingua franca ('the language of the Franks' - the common language of Christian rulers during the Middle Ages) of today's mechanistic and secular Modern Age, and may well remain so right up that civilization comes to end.

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