Sorry - I will do this again
Saturday, July 03, 2004

Sorry - I will do this again

War and the National Interest:
Arguments for a British Foreign Policy
by Sean Gabb
The Hampden Press, London, 2004, 133pp, £10/$20
ISBN: 0-9541032-3-8

Reviewed by Daniel P. Mulroney
This is a maddening book, half right, half wrong. It was put together from a set of commentaries on the War on Terror, but says much else about the nature of war and foreign policy. I don’t agree with its basic premise. But the more I disagree with this, the more I admire the execution, and the more I want everyone to read it who really cares about winning the War on Terror.

For us Americans, Gabb is the most famous English libertarian writer. He is famous through his writings on the Internet. He claims 12,000 subscribers to his list. But for years I read him at second or even third hand on groups that he still doesn’t know about. Everything he sends out is like a self-replicating message in a bottle. I have spoken to people who think he is the only libertarian in England. This isn’t true. There’s the rest of the famous Libertarian Alliance, and there are some pretty good blogs. But for most of us, mention libertarianism abroad, and the name Sean Gabb crops up. Certainly, mention sustained ideological writing, and Gabb comes pretty near top of the list.

This isn’t to say famous means popular. Last month, he published an article which became an instant classic of anti-American snobbery. This is reprinted in the book. The most notorious passage in this most notorious article reads thus:

It is, I admit, inappropriate to ascribe one state of mind to a nation of more than 250 million people. But Americans remind me increasingly of someone from the lower classes who has come into money, and now is sat in the Ritz Hotel, terrified the other diners are laughing at him every time he looks down at his knives and forks. I suppose it is because so many of them are drawn from second and even third rate nationalities. The Americans of English and Scotch extraction took their values and their laws across the Atlantic and spread out over half an immense continent, creating as they went a great nation. They were then joined by millions of paupers from elsewhere who learnt a version of the English language and a few facts about their new country, but who never withheld from their offspring any sense of their own inferiority. The result is a combination of overwhelming power and the moral insight of a tree frog. (p.100)

This generated a flood of denunciation that probably only delighted Gabb. In its inarticulate rage and defensiveness, much of it also probably just confirmed his opinion of our country. Let’s be fair, though, he did sort of apologize in his next article, saying how he just got carried away by his own rhetoric. Sadly (or, for Gabb, perhaps not!), this didn’t reduce the flow of maddened abuse. But here is a man who seems to equate success with unpopularity. He has spent the past 20 years making himself feared and loathed in the British Conservative Party. Since the opening of the War on Terror, he has used his considerable skills as a writer to do the same with America.

This is a shame, because his writings skills really are considerable. I have spoken to many people about Gabb’s prose style, and hardly anyone appears to understand what makes it interesting. I have read more or less conscious imitations of him and once read a parody of him. None of this worked. Gabb is an old-fashioned writer. But this doesn’t mean he goes for uncommon words and difficult grammar. His is an easy, conversational style, in which the underlying art is carefully disguised. To see this, I recall a passage written in imitation of Gabb. It began: “I have perused a missive from your keyboard”. This isn’t Gabb at all. (His usual response to e-mails goes something like: “I have just read your message of three months ago, and guilt obliges me to reply”!) He uses common, usually short words. His sentences are usually short. He creates his effect not by the nature of his words, but by his use of them. You can see this with the passage quoted above. Read it aloud, and listen for the patterns of emphasis and pitch, the pauses, the use and avoidance of hiatus, the way in which consonants are sometimes allowed to clash and sometimes prevented by the rearrangement of words. What he says is said about as well as it can be. The effect is always deliberate, but is made to seem accidental.

But style doesn’t by itself make a writer good. That also needs something to say that is worth hearing. Here, Gabb scores. I said he is a libertarian. But he is also a conservative. He isn’t the sort of conservative who hangs round our National Review or The Spectator and The Telegraph in England. He doesn’t get into a sweat about moral values and abortion and all the other issues of our moral majority types. He worships his country, but isn’t an assertive nationalist. His England is place where modern civilization was born, the place where constitutional government and due process and freedom of the press and trial by jury were all created and presented as gifts to the rest of the world. Yes, he ignores what England has done in Ireland (an odd oversight, considering his Celtic name and probable roots). Yes, he never seems to realize that, while the rest of us have to value what England has done for us, we also have to remember what she has often done to us. But Gabb has enough of a point not just to come over as a British eccentric.

For those who come to him with fixed political categories, it must be confusing to see him at work. One moment, he is defending the English system of weights and measures and the Church of England and the Monarchy in an almost mystical Tory spirit. The next moment, he is coolly explaining why drugs should be legalized and why there is nothing bad about gay marriage and adoption. In his own terms, there is no contradiction. Freedom is an Englishman’s birthright, and the English Constitution is more a set of customs and habits of thought than a set of legal rules. Libertarianism in England is contained within conservatism. As he might put it, an attack on the wigs and gowns of the judges is necessarily also an attack on trial by jury and the double jeopardy rule.

It is the same with his economic views. He knows his Austrian analysis, and wrote a short book about entrepreneurship a few years back. At the same time, he hardly ever argues against some state intervention on the grounds that it disrupts the smooth working of the market. His real objection is always that intervention is the act of a state enlarged beyond its proper functions. I remember he once conceded that the British Government could have successfully intervened in the 19th century to get a more rational railroad system, but was glad it did not intervene, as this would have given it confidence to intervene elsewhere.

Let me turn now to this present book. In its particulars, his argument is correct. We went to war in Iraq without any clear strategy, and the result has been a military and political embarrassment. Except the Iraqi armed forces ran away as fast as they could drop their guns, all that Gabb predicted has come about.

But this doesn’t mean I think his basic premise is correct. Gabb believes in a world of nation states all following narrow and predictable interests. He doesn’t believe in wars fought for other than these narrow and predictable interests. He is particularly opposed to fighting against abstractions. He says:

In general, I think the world would be a less violent place if it mainly consisted of nation states, each acting to preserve its own borders and other narrowly defined interests. This would give a predictability to international relations of the sort that existed in Europe between 1648 and 1914—a period in which, with the arguable exception of those against the French Revolution, hugely destructive wars were avoided. The problem with moralistic crusades for democracy or human rights, or whatever, is that they involve unpredictable actions in support of often unachievable ends. The natural result is unlimited national or ideological hatreds that lead to permanent instability. (p.23)

This is a good point. Gabb’s problem is that he doesn’t see how the modern world is different than the old one. I lunched with him the last time I visited London. He asked me in a jeering tone if I really thought history had begun with the first version of MSDOS. Of course I don’t. There are people who do seem to think this, and I think that is why we messed up in Iraq. No one in Washington guessed that people who dress and talk like characters from a costume drama could be highly sophisticated politicians able to make us dance to their tune without us even knowing it. We aren’t dealing with children, and we’ve got some growing up to do ourselves.

At the same time, Gabb is wrong when he says that the modern world is just like the past but with better plumbing and nice shiny electronic toys to divert us. Modern technology has totally changed the world. A country can’t just ignore the rest of the world as he wants England to do. In this, he’s like someone shutting their apartment door on a fire in the lobby outside. Modern communications have turned us from a world of detached nation states into one of civilizational blocs.

Gabb is kind of right when he says the 911 bombings were a response to American intervention in the Middle East. He is flat wrong when he says they were no business of England. We no longer live in a world where it takes half a year to sail from London to Calcutta. There is no buffer space left between civilizations. The other is no distant from us than Kew is from Westminster in Gabb’s mental world. Civilizations can no longer go their separate ways, but are in constant touch, and increasingly in constant competition for mastery. By the 22nd century, either the Islamic world will be westernized or the West will be overwhelmed by Islam. Gabb focuses on the specifics of 911 just as he might once have focussed on the specifics of the Sarajevo shootings. Yes, this was a specific event, but it was also a precipitating event. It didn’t begin a clash of civilizations. It was just the accident that started what circumstances had already made inevitable. And yes, the war with Iraq was badly planned and executed. That doesn’t mean we should just give up and walk away.

Perhaps the most hurtful thing anyone can say to Gabb is that his England is dead. You can get the country out of the European Union. You can cut taxes and regulations. You can smash the “Enemy Class”. But there will be no return to his dream of Little England. It’s gone. Whatever happens next will be a new start. This will be some kind of English Union. He and I are part of the same civilization. Our countries are part of an Anglosphere that includes all the English-speaking countries and a few European satellites. 911 raised the curtain on a new world, in which there is no room for Britain as an independent actor, and none even for America. Does he think the Muslim clerics raising jihad make or even see any distinction between British and American? Outsiders see us as all the same. If we are to survive, let alone prosper, in this world, we must learn to regard ourselves as outsiders regard us. We stand together or hang separately.

Let me put this in terms that Gabb might appreciate. With his rhetorical skills, he is the closest the British conservative movement has to a Demosthenes. But Demosthenes knew something Gabb doesn’t. By the middle of the fourth century before the Common Era, the closed world of the Greek city states had been made obsolete by the rise of Macedon. It was no longer safe for Thebes and Sparta and Athens to look on each other as foreigners and score little points off each other. Every city state was now faced by an enemy that wanted to conquer them all. Either the Greeks would drop their particularism and join together in a more than occasional alliance, or they would lose everything. It is the same with us. It is worse for us. At least the Macedonians were kind of Greek, and then there were the Romans, who loved the Greeks. The enemy facing us is not us by any definition, and does not love us. We shouldn’t have fought the war in Iraq as we did. But if we are all to survive, American and British servicepeople will be serving together in many other places before this century is out. The trick is not to denounce this, but to help make it work better than it just has.

In closing, I will make this appeal to Gabb: “Sean, you got it half right. Yes, our side was ignorant of history and drunk on technology. Some of us did think we could overthrow an evil dictator and watch his people rise up by themselves to make their country into a more picturesque Wisconsin. The Islamic mind set is a bigger mess than we gave it credit, and the Islamic mind is more sophisticated than we stupidly imagined it. We messed up in this war. But you were also half wrong. Islam is a threat to us all. Have your little triumph against us. But then come and join us. If you really think we are no better than tree frogs, come and tell us how not to be. We are all at war, and we need people like you on side to help us win it.”

In final closing, buy this book. Learn from it, and write to Gabb yourself to get him to see that even his country can’t be an island in our new world of the Internet and cheap airplane travel. 911 happened in my city. It might have been in his. Next time, it might be.

Daniel P. Mulroney teaches English Literature at a high school in New York.


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