Any superlative for the most arresting first sentences in literature must consider George Orwell’s works as a serious contender. The historical context of his writing played a crucial role, naturally, so there was no hyperbole when he began an essay in 1941 named “England Your England” by saying, “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.” In the following pages he set out to encapsulate the nature of his country that could be bombed into oblivion.
Orwell’s underlying claim was that England’s atmosphere would persevere. Its culture stretches far into the past and future and would continue to do so regardless of the efforts of Nazi Germany. Soon after the war ended, the British Empire began to atrophy as the burden and responsibility for global leadership fell to its American cousin. Winston Churchill coined the phrase “special relationship” to describe the everlasting bond between the United Kingdom and the United States in his last major speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1946. It was here that a formal transfer of duty was conveyed to America given its escalation of global authority. This trust and obligation was received with an overdose of national pride, one that Orwell recognized was never apparent in England. British patriotism, which he viewed as dim and subtle, is still contrasted in the 21st century by the loud American counterpart. The advanced stage of globalization, however, presents the case that the United States would do well to follow the British example.
The cost of the 2020 election in America broke all historical charts by amounting to a nauseating $14 billion dollars. Due to spending limits in Britain, its elections do not even reach 1% of the cost in the United States. And where is the flag-waving concentrated? Front lawns in America are peppered with polyester banners and car bumpers are covered with stickers and bad slogans. Such volume is hard to find across the pond. The skyscraper amount of funds and the never-ending election campaigns in the United States feeds an in-your-face approach, making everything political all the time, whereas Britain even prohibits any political advertising on broadcast media.
The statement from President Biden to lament and honor the death of General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs from 1989-1993 and Secretary of State from 2001-2005, was heartfelt and respectable, but it could not purge itself of bleeding red, white, and blue. In all fairness, this rhetoric is his best category of political adroitness. However, one could not help but to offer a slight polish. He ended his tribute by declaring, “[Colin Powell] will be remembered as one of our great Americans.” It is not hard to notice that America is rather obsessed with being American, even in the grand scheme of all possible titles for their political electees and appointees. This attitude is pervasive and never fails to tug on heartstrings, but sometimes is misplaced. Being a statesman cannot be less important than a location of birth.
Many recalled President McKinley’s assassination in 1901, even when certain episodes in history seem too impossible to repeat even comparably, after hearing that the British MP Sir David Amess was stabbed to death at a public event. Boris Johnson’s commemoration speech in Parliament was much less subdued on the matter of national pride. Orwell seemed to get this element right. He wrote that British pride is more “unconscious” when it exists. But one might ask, how could such a tame national pride persist, as he argues, if the country were destroyed in war? Therein lies the quick reverse – Orwell states that native resolve can swell, and any nationality (Scottish, English, Welsh) easily agree to fall under the same label of “British” when provoked. This element of war, and even the soft power of ideology, is not lost on the American imagination and is a main ingredient to attitudes of patriotism.
Both the US and Britain have played their respective, and often deplorable, parts in global imperialism. With Orwell, fortunately, history is afforded the perspective of an officer who hated his orders and role in a colonial occupation. In one of his most captivating essays “Shooting an Elephant”, written from his time as a police officer in Burma (now Myanmar), he illustrates such a conflicted conscience. Among the reminders to never describe the dead as peaceful and that even Buddhist priests turned hostile to outsiders, his reflection on the theater of imperialist war is particularly striking:
“Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib.”
Imperialist power is corruptive. Even in times of retreat, as seen during the US withdrawal in Afghanistan, there can be a selfish side effect. The commentary in the immediate aftermath in America was primarily concerned with the efficacy of the evacuation, the safety of American lives, and an analysis of the last twenty years in the Middle East. This might seem intuitive and even innocuous, until one realizes that such global power demands a better reason for the Afghan citizens now living under Taliban rule. A certain responsibility is incurred by a nation with such consequential sovereignty. Instead, star-spangled phrases echoed from the White House to fill the airwaves, and the world’s greatest power began to lick its own wounds.
America has around 750 military bases over the world, and a Pew research poll of 13 countries last year showed that America’s foreign reputation is the lowest it has ever been. Does a love of country mean anything when the rest of the globe disagrees? Such phenomenal capacity and self-absorption can be disjointed, though, and will be a defining tell in the future of America’s global presence.
Patriotism is never itself a vice, only when it remains as the default when a more cooperative idea is available. The last refuge of a scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson said. America could easily improve its character and international posture by not making everything about itself. Empires die if they refuse to give up their hubris. Continued self-vindication by unearned medals will result in the same ending of the tale of the little girl with all the talent in a small village. She won every contest and was covered head to toe in medals. But when a wolf came, and the town went to hide, she was found and eaten. The wolf could hear her. It could hear her medals shake on her neck.
If America truly wants to be the greatest country in the world, it must create some elbow room for new virtues. As with most sentiments, they can bleed into the motivations of actions and policies. Orwell’s apt observation of British pride seems to be the guiding light here. It might seem bizarre to anthropomorphize America with these personality traits, and to yearn for a superpower without much of an ego, with a sense of pride that is humble and sedated. But countries are like people, as Martin Amis wrote in his most recent book. Orwell’s war essays offer a study in examining them as such, and an impetus for developing a more cooperative, civilized world.