"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Friday, January 28, 2011

Birthdays Today

Two interesting birthdays today that represent a paean to a certain kind of Englishman, now extinct.  Today is the birthday of Charles George Gordon, the British general whose fame (like George Armstrong Custer in America) derives from dying in a massacre perpetrated by barbarians, in his case by the Mahdist (read "Islamist") rebels who sacked Khartoum in the Sudan in 1885.   Gordon was born in 1833, and was 52 when he died.  

Also born today, in 1841, was Henry Stanley, the English journalist and explorer most famous for locating Dr. Livingstone in Tanzania after a 7,000 mile trek through the jungles of Central Africa.  

Gordon was apparently a bit of a nutjob in real life -- he believed in reincarnation and, apparently, that the world was enclosed in a hollow sphere with God's throne directly above the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Devil inhabiting the opposite point of the globe near Pitcairn Island in the Pacific -- and also a short guy (5'5").  Stanley too was apparently a bit of a nutjob and self-promoter -- there are serious doubts among scholars whether his signature statement ("Dr. Livingstone, I presume") was real, or was made up afterwards as a public relations ploy, and there are historical disputes about the degree of his own cruelty to the Africans who went with him on his expeditions (Sir Richard Burton is quoted as saying "Stanley shoots Negroes as if they were monkeys").   Nevertheless, these nutjobs in the service of Queen Victoria did extraordinary things and "saw the world," making journeys that, in their time, were the equivalent of space travel.   Gordon fought in the Crimean War against Russia, led an army in China in the Second Opium War, served as Governor-General of the Sudan, and was about to take charge of the Belgian Congo when called back to the Sudan, where he died at Khartoum.    Stanley came to America at age 18 by himself, served on both sides in the Civil War (a neat trick), became a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald, traveling in the Ottoman Empire and India, at age 30 outfitted the expedition to find Livingstone (with 200 porters), later descended the River Congo on a 999-day expedition that cost the lives of more than 2/3rds of the expedition, and was in large part responsible for negotiating the transfer of the Congo to King Leopold of Belgium.  

The contrast between these men -- however morally compromised or ambiguous -- and the contemporary exemplars of Great Britain is stark.   After decades of socialism, British manhood has, safe to say, declined, just as British power has waned.   It is now a shadow of the British Empire of Queen Victoria.   Mark Steyn has said it best recently in an essay called "Dependence Day" in The New Criterion:
When William Beveridge laid out his blueprint for the modern British welfare state in 1942, his goal was the “abolition of want,” to be accomplished by “cooperation between the State and the individual.” In attempting to insulate the citizenry from the vicissitudes of fate, Sir William succeeded beyond his wildest dreams: Want has been all but abolished. Today, fewer and fewer Britons want to work, want to marry, want to raise children, want to lead a life of any purpose or dignity. Churchill called his book The History of the English-Speaking Peoples—not the English-Speaking Nations. The extraordinary role played by those nations in the creation and maintenance of the modern world derived from their human capital.

What happens when, as a matter of state policy, you debauch your human capital? The United Kingdom has the highest drug use in Europe, the highest incidence of sexually transmitted disease, the highest number of single mothers; marriage is all but defunct, except for toffs, upscale gays, and Muslims. For Americans, the quickest way to understand modern Britain is to look at what lbj’s Great Society did to the black family and imagine it applied to the general population. One-fifth of British children are raised in homes in which no adult works. Just under 900,000 people have been off sick for over a decade, claiming “sick benefits,” week in, week out, for ten years and counting. “Indolence,” as Machiavelli understood, is the greatest enemy of a free society, but rarely has any state embraced this oldest temptation as literally as Britain. There is almost nothing you can’t get the government to pay for.
In short, the British Empire does not produce men like Gordon or Stanley anymore.   Here in America, Gordon was played by Charlton Heston in the movie Khartoum, and Stanley was played by Spencer Tracy in the 1939 movie Stanley and Livingstone (see below).   They played them as heroes, larger than life, better than they were certainly, but aspirational nonetheless.   We don't make movies like that much anymore (although maybe The King's Speech suggests that movies with a heroic and even martial theme can still move American audiences).   What worries me in a world of Obamacare and an omnipresent therapeutic culture in which we expect someone (a medical professional or a politican, it doesn't matter who) to "do something" to help us out of the most trivial difficulties of our lives, that we won't long be making Gordons and Stanleys either.  

By the way, when was the last time we went to the moon?


It's also Jackson Pollock's birthday (born in 1912), whose abstract paintings best represented for many what was wrong with abstract painting, yet which for me are still quite beautiful:

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