Thursday, July 07, 2005

English Faces

I don't usually think fondly of nations. I think nationalism is a curse, a virus of irrational bigotry that incubated in German universities in 19th Century, and then spread rapidly all over the world to make the 20th Century the worst of all human centuries. The idea that every people with their own language, religion, and customs should have their own sovereign government was a disaster, and continues to be a disaster. So nationalistic paeans about the supposed virtues and denunciations of the supposed vices of whole nations have always left me cold, if not hostile. And I've known too many gregarious Englishmen and humble French and easygoing Germans and reserved Italians to find them very convincing.

But this morning I am deeply aware of how much I love England and the English. How much I owe them, collectively and individually. And there is a commonality there, though I doubt it's wise to even try to identify it. I could say the English are headstrong, emotional, sentimental. In some ways, a people -- like the Russians, perhaps -- made for suffering. I could say that they -- especially if you set them beside the Americans -- are intensely aware of pain, decay, and death. Of how things come apart. Of how many things cannot be helped. And how it's precisely because of this, that their bravery is so moving. They are a people who go into every battle expecting to lose.

It was a queer fate that made them for a time the most successful of all imperial nations. It's made them maybe a little more sympathetic to us than nations that haven't been through it. They understand the fey mood that takes a country when it seems that it just can't lose, that fate has dealt it every winning card. The Swedes and the French and the Canadians and the Swiss can believe that they would act differently from us, if they were masters of the world. But the English know all too well that no people can resist the stupidities of imperial success. The rest of the world views us as arrogant, violent, insensitive, and hypocritical by nature. Only the English seem to understand that it's just the cards we were dealt.

But -- this was not at all the post I set out to write. Yes, I am sorry, England, that we involved you in this ill-advised, obscurely-motivated, and spectacularly badly-planned occupation. But I feel strangely distant from that. What is near me now is the leaves of Russel Square, the kindliness of round English faces, and the quick patter of English voices. I am sorry that anyone ever suffers this, but I'm especially sorry that it should be you, the people dearest to me of all peoples.

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