BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Sunday, 20 February 2005, 18:12 GMT
Progress? What progress?

Transcript of part three of Simon Heffer's series of essays for The Westminster Hour.

In his famous assault on the simplistic and wrong-headed uses to which some historians put the past, the Cambridge don Herbert Butterfield, writing in 1930, argued that 'The truth of history is no simple matter, all packed and parcelled ready for handling in the marketplace. And the understanding of the past is not so easy as it is sometimes made to appear.' His book The Whig Interpretation of History condemned liberal historians for using their interpretations of past events as 'propaganda' to legitimise 'progress' and to 'ratify' things as they are at the present day. Last week I discussed how this leads us into errors when evaluating recent British history. Today, I want to look at how the anti-Americanism that is so prevalent in Britain these days, and which has grown steadily ever since the Vietnam war and through the era of nuclear proliferation, may owe something to the Whig interpretation of world history.

We can advance many theories about why America is the subject of such fierce and significant hatred in our country today. Most obviously, because of the conflict in Iraq, even people who were not hitherto susceptible to disgust at what the left calls American 'imperialism' now find the foreign policy of that country more than they can stomach. They see America not as a world policeman but as a world bully, using its economic and military might to squash regimes around the globe that do not meet with Uncle Sam's approval. Other people, again not all of them on the traditional left, find the blue in tooth and claw capitalism of America hard to take. A notorious leading article in the New Staesman, published immediately after the attacks of September 11 2001, seemed positively to revel in the deaths of merchant bankers in New York when the twin towers fell. It implied that their horrific deaths made a refreshing contrast to those of the famine-stricken masses in the third world.

Some anti-Americans accuse the US of an institutional lack of compassion and the crushing, inhuman dominance of the profit motive. They see emanating from America a plague-like strain of cultural imperialism. They flinch when, in Britain and wherever they might travel in the world, they see the lurid logos of MacDonalds and Coca-Cola, or watch the trashy and formulaic products of modern Hollywood bulldozing their way through cinemas across the globe to be placed before frighteningly deferential local audiences. All this interferes with and contradicts an Anglo-Saxon Whig's idea of progress: yet to an American they represent the epitome of the concept.

Refined Europeans have long found the vulgarity of America and Americans distasteful, the passion for overstatement where we on this side of the Atlantic prefer litotes being too much for their sensitivities. And we should not forget the loathing of America on the old right in Britain: no politician has, in our lifetimes, articulated disapproval of and hostility towards America so effectively as the late J Enoch Powell. Powell's critique was of a level of sophistication way over the heads of more modern, banner-waving anti-Americans. He developed the argument, which I touched on last week, of the undeclared aim of America during and after the last war having been to destroy British power in the world. As a codicil to that, he believed (rightly as it turned out) that America was pressurising successive British governments to give in to the demands of the IRA for the future government of Northern Ireland. Had he lived long enough, Powell would have been struck by the rapid cooling by Americans towards the IRA once their country too had had a taste of the bitter cup of terrorism. As an ultra-nationalist himself, Powell had contempt for a country that he regarded as being not a nation - because it lacked the ethnic and cultural homogeneity that he regarded as the prerequisites of such a concept. He would, I suspect, nonetheless have been struck by the way in which September 11 2001 forged an immediate and, so far, lasting sense of nationhood in adversity.

The different critiques of right and left on America highlight the difference between the Whig interpretation of history and a less self-regarding, and propagandising, Tory one. To the left, who are the modern inheritors of the Whig tradition, America has become the enemy of liberal progress. It flaunts its abhorrence of liberal causes as diverse as a welfare state, rights for homosexuals, and environmental protection. Above all, it engages in what the left see as neo-colonialising acts such as are currently underway in Iraq. Also, it is unashamed of its disdain for its real and imagined enemies. To Tories like Powell, what America did internally was its business, and not necessarily part of a campaign for or against the liberal or Whig idea of progress. Where he and others like him, taking the non-Whig view, faulted the country was, in certain specific contexts, as a power acting contrary to the interests of our own nation state. The truth, in all probability, lies somewhere beyond these two conceptions. However, it is the Whig view, with its compelling but wrong-headed notion of history being divided into goodies and baddies, that has probably done more to distort our perceptions of America and its place in the world than the more rarified, minority view taken by Powell.

In outlining aspects and characteristics of the Whig view, Butterfield complained that it was a Whig tendency to abridge history. By this, he was referring pejoratively to the selection of facts by historians who wish to make political points rather than simply describe what went on. He argued that in any field of history, the Whig historian selected facts that supported his case and simply ignored or disregarded those that did not. Those who take history in its 'abridged' form see things for the sake of ease in black and white, and are accordingly narrow in their view. For them, the black-and-white of it where America is concerned is that the motive force behind that nation is imperialism, both cultural and physical. The arguments they trot out against America are of such ferocity and counter to the reality that America is a mature democracy that one could almost imagine their being advanced by people from another planet.

Here, for the sake of illustration, are some of the contentions today's anti-Americans put forward. Sustained by phenomenal wealth must it not, ipso facto, be at least an object of suspicion, and at most an object of evil, in whatever it does? Is not the principal purpose to which that wealth is put the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, and the secondary one the bringing of men under arms who can complement those weapons? Did not the attacks on 11 September 2001 serve America right for being wealthy, for being strong, for having opposed the socialist revolution whether in Cuba or Vietnam? Was it not even then seeking to impose its values, its way of life, on cultures that were inimical to it, notably upon Islam? Was not America relatively as bad as the Soviet system against which it had fought in the 45 years after the end of the second world war? Did not one of the high priests of 20th century anti-Americanism, Graham Greene, argue that he would rather be a writer in Soviet Russia than in America, in North Korea rather than South? (Indeed he did, which only goes to show that even the most brilliant and talented of men can have moments of utter derangement.) Above all, does not the war in Iraq prove America is unregenerate morally and has learned no lesson? And must not American democracy itself be flawed, because of its unaccountable failure to remove George W Bush from office in the elections last November?

Most of these arguments, rooted as they are not just in an abridged version of history but in a climate of quite repulsive moral relativism, are complete rubbish. America, and the American way, are far from perfect, and in obvious ways rightly antipathetic to our way of doing things in this country. However, the relentless and heavy-handed assault on our closest ally and a free democracy stems from the traditionally Whig misunderstanding of the past - not just America's past, but the world's. For all the easy parcelling-up of history that the Whigs demand, they achieve no clarity: rather, their abridgement of what really happened blurs the distinctions between right and wrong, good and evil. This is why, it seems, normally sensible people in the West are so prone in this era of the 'war against terror' to see America as, in the words of Islamic extremists, 'the Great Satan'.

Butterfield wrote that 'all abridgement is a form of impressionism', and he attacked 'the selection of facts for the purpose of maintaining the impression.' That is precisely what has been done with the construction by a few contemporary Whiggish historians of a case to support the present vilification of America. As propagandists - as Butterfield would have seen them - they choose their facts to depict a Conservative nation (as it is now undeniably seen since the fundamentalist right gave George W Bush his victory last November) and the sole world superpower acting as an obstruction to international progress. But implicit in this view of America, which is more rhetorical than factual, is the making of a moral judgment: and Butterfield was censorious about the historian's right and duty to do such a thing. The historian, as he saw it, was there to discover facts and to present them, to re-create a period in history for the enlightenment of those who studied the evidence. As he himself said, the Whig historian 'tends to regard himself as the judge when by his methods and his equipment he is fitted only to be the detective'.

Of course, the making of a moral judgment is essential if one is to believe the notion of progress, which is at the root of the Whig's historian's world view, and especially if one is to define what progress is. Some sort of moral judgment - albeit a judgment rooted in a twisted view of morality - is a prerequisite for the unsound action (for a historian) of taking sides. When it comes to American history, the Whig is on the side of the Democrats because the Democrats are, and long have been, opposed to the caricature of American excesses that the left advances- even if it was that nice President Johnson who turned up the heat in Vietnam. Other than that, the moral judgments the Whig makes are about a Democrat America extending civil and economic freedoms to the disadvantaged of America, whether blacks or the white trash, and breaking down racial, religious and class prejudices throughout the last 60 or 70 years. The propagandists ignore, though, the rampant and well-publicised adulteries of Democrat presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, or of almost any Kennedy you care to name, because these people did something morally so much more significant than keeping their trousers on or being honest with their wives: they furthered what the Whig understands by 'progress'. Their moral judgments about these great men, and indeed about their opponents, will be entirely framed by that consideration. Facts will be presented or pushed to one side entirely in accordance with the determination to prove that what is good about America today is the legacy of former Democrat presidents and their administrations. Similarly, what is bad will be shown to have been the work of the present incumbent of the White House, or his equally questionable Republican predecessors.

Whigs in our own country have always been at their most virulently anti-American when the Republicans have been in charge in the United States, the aberration of the 1968 Grosvenor Square riots, in the last months of the Johnson presidency, notwithstanding. They believe that a Democrat president would never have attacked Afghanistan or Iraq. They believe he would never have engaged in the Iran-Contra episode, or developed 'Star Wars'. They believe a Democrat president could never have had a Watergate, and had to resign in disgrace halfway through a term of office. They believe a Republican could never have introduced the New Deal, or ended isolationism so as to take on the Nazis, or made a positive response to Dr Martin Luther King, or simply been just a good old saxophone-playing tail-chasing boy like President Clinton.

Yet who is to say that any of these contentions is necessarily true? Would not Kennedy, faced with Soviet aggression over Cuba, have had to respond with similar aggression had Khruschev not stayed his own hand? Were the Kennedy family's private lives and political dealings really so much cleaner than Richard Nixon's? Would not a Republican president, in office in December 1941, have had to make the identical response in joining the Second World War to that made by Roosevelt? Had Al Gore won in 2000, would his eventual response to the attacks of September 11 have been, in the end, very different from President Bush's, given the demands of American public opinion and the growing frustration with the ineffectualism of the United Nations? If we accept that the present wave of anti-Americanism not just in Britain, but in Europe, is conditioned by distaste for a Republican president's way of doing business, are those who engage in this prejudice not falling headlong into the Whig fallacy? Hasn't every President of the last 65 years in America done exactly what events demanded he did at the time? Doesn't America, like any other sensible nation, always act according to that imperative? No-one doubts that Roosevelt, or Kennedy, had a vision: but weren't both their visions equally derailed by the realities of having to cope with what America and the world threw at them once in office? If we look at all the facts about American history since before the Second World War, rather than abridge them to suit our argument, has not there been wrong on both sides of the political divide, and have there not been presidents of both colours who have left both a better and worse legacy to their country and the world? But then as we look at American history, we learn the same thing from it that we grasp from the study of our own, or any other country's, past. It is, as Butterfield said, that there is not a continuum: there is not a line of causation. The America we see now is different to the America of ten, 20 or 30 years ago: and it will be different again in 10 years time. At every stage in its history, America has responded to the challenges presented to it at that time. That is why being 'anti-American' can in all sanity be only a temporary or occasional thing, as the range of actions and attitudes that one is opposing will change from time. It is, after all, a nation, not an unalterable ideology. If we see history as a means of explaining events, we shall see that, and avoid error. But if, as the Whigs would like, we insist on seeing history always as a means of propaganda, we shall never properly understand the past or the present, abroad or at home. Goodnight.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific