What does the Anglosphere's legacy amount to?

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Niccolo and Donkey
What does the Anglosphere's legacy amount to?

The Globe and Mail

John Ibbitson

May 27, 2011

In 1816, the United States and Great Britain were on the brink of an arms race for naval supremacy on the Great Lakes. There had already been two Anglo-American wars in the previous 40 years. Smart money was on a third sooner rather than later.

Instead, U.S. secretary of state James Monroe and British foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh agreed to save money and demilitarize the lakes, which eased tensions and laid the groundwork for 195 years of peace that led, this week, to Barack Obama becoming the first American president to address both houses of Britain's Parliament.
In his speech, the President predicted that the Anglo-American model will guide the world in this century as it did the last. He's probably wrong. The Anglosphere is on the wane.

But the English triumph has entrenched itself in other insidious ways whose power lies in not being noticed. This wasn't in Mr. Obama's speech. But this is the greater truth.

“I am told that the last three speakers here have been the Pope, Her Majesty the Queen and Nelson Mandela,” Mr. Obama solemnly observed, “which is either a very high bar or the beginning of a very funny joke.” You can get away with that in Westminster Hall if you're an American president. German chancellors shouldn't try it.

But then, the Special Relationship really is special. Mr. Obama talked about how Britain gave the world Magna Carta, the rule of law and the Bill of Rights; how America advanced and safeguarded those rights from challengers who were, at the risk of being rude, evil, so that now all the peoples of the world either bask in the Anglo-American inheritance or long for it.

Except that the U.S. federal deficit is running at 10 per cent of GDP, and the English are so broke they're cutting spending by 20 per cent across most departments. Both countries are probably in permanent decline relative to the rising powers. Those powers, with the exception of India, are outside the Anglo-American sphere of influence. Brazil's colonial masters were the Portuguese; China is China. They don't sigh over Runnymede.

It is possible to imagine a world in which most countries employ a managed form of global capitalism protected by a truncated rule of law that protects little more than contracts, while limiting the excesses of free speech and fair elections. In a century, the world may not even remember what it is the Brits and Yanks were supposed to have bequeathed. But maybe their real legacy won't invoke quotes from Churchill or Lincoln. Maybe the real Anglo-American legacy will be subtler.

English has become a convenient lingua franca, spoken – usually badly – by about four billion people. If, as some linguists argue, the shape of a language influences the way people think, much of the world's thinking is influenced by the subject-verb-object concreteness of English.

Men around the world now wear neckties, unless they don't have to. They often have to at conferences, though they remove them when they get to their hotel room, where they may pour themselves a Scotch and read a novel or watch porn on their computer.

Everything in that paragraph was either invented by Anglo-Americans or popularized globally through the spread of Anglo-American business and culture.

Women don't wear ties, and are less likely to drink Scotch or watch porn. But increasingly they are just as likely to show up at conferences, and in some countries there are now more of them at universities than there are men. It wasn't the Spanish or the Russians or the Chinese whose women led the fight for women.

When the British jailed Oscar Wilde for committing the crime that dared not speak its name, the Americans, shocked, asked: Is that what your artists do? Meanwhile, the French, shocked, asked: Is that what you do to your artists? But it was in New York and San Francisco and Montreal – though, yes, also Amsterdam and Stockholm – that the battles for gay equality were first fought and won.

Football. The f-word. Ugly suburbs. The United Nations. Rock 'n' roll. The kids wearing Nike shirts burning the Stars and Stripes. Try to imagine a world that isn't steeped in Anglo-American symbols, products, practices – you could even say values. You can't do it.

So maybe Mr. Obama was wrong when he predicted: “Our alliance will remain indispensable to the goal of a century that is more peaceful, more prosperous and more just.” Maybe the world will get along fine without them – without us, really. Maybe the emerging global middle class will worry more about the down payment on the condo and less about why the opposition leader is in jail.

But whatever happens, you know that if you want to ace that interview, you have to wear a tie.

A stupid summation of Anglo contributions. Subtract Anglo technology alone and we're back to hearths and horses.