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Paul Greenberg / April 17, 2009

Hail Britannia

Barack Obama is in the Oval Office these days, and Winston Churchill’s bust is not. It’s been sent back to the British embassy. Was it Sir Winston’s uncompromising views on fighting another era’s axis of evil that got him ousted? “Never give in,” he said when England stood alone against the Nazis – “never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

Can’t have that sort of talk these days. Our enemies – and we have them aplenty – might not like it. Soft power is the ticket, more soft than power. Better to make nice with Tehran’s mullahs and Russia’s new tsar. Keep paying the Danegeld to Kim Jong-Il in North Korea as he misfires another ballistic missile and holds a couple of American reporters hostage. Mustn’t upset the world’s tyrants. They might get mad.

Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, hopped across the pond the other day to pay the usual respects to a new American president. Also to the Anglo-American Alliance, special relationship, common heritage and all that sort of thing. But he didn’t get the usual welcome accorded a British leader. There was no state dinner, no chummy weekend at Camp David, no joint press conference with flags of both nations in the background – the kind of reception many another foreign visitor seems to merit. The prime minister was treated less like a representative of the mother country than a poor relation whom his host didn’t want to make too welcome, lest he stay too long. Mr. Brown had brought along the perfect gift for his host: a first edition of Martin Gilbert’s biography of – who else? – Winston Churchill. Was it a thoughtful gesture or a gentle rebuke for Winnie’s having been ousted from his place in the Oval Office? His bust had stood guard there since it arrived shortly after

September 11th. Now, along with any reference to the War on Terror, it, too, has been banished.

A State Department official explained the lack of any special welcome for our British ally in a comment to London’s Sunday Telegraph: “There’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.” Nope, nothing special about England, which only gave us our language. And the basis of our political and legal and many of our religious institutions. Ours is only a diplomatic, historical, cultural and military relationship with the Brits, that’s all. Even now their troops fight side by side with ours against the latest threat to Western civilization, if we’re still allowed to use that term.

Nothing special about Britain? Its Puritans and Pilgrims, not to mention Cavaliers, brought not just themselves to these shores but a whole cast of mind that remains fundamental to the American ethos – from the work ethos to an aversion to the kind of violent, transient change that in the end changes nothing. Compare the patience and permanence of the American Revolution to the Terror of the French one. An American president named Woodrow Wilson, an academic type, once said English history might be summed up as a continuing thesis against revolution. Think of the gradual development of the English common law that shapes our own to this day. Happily, this State Department type did remember to speak in English, rather than, say, Fijian or Quechua or in the native tongue of one of those other 190 or so countries that are the same to us as England. Instead, he stuck to the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Add ress and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and … well, you get the point. The twit who said there was nothing special about our connection to the mother country didn’t. He spoke as if unaware that the very language he was using contradicted what he was saying in it. For no one who shares the treasure of the English tongue, who speaks and thinks and feels in it, is not to some intimate degree, English himself. That’s how language works. It is the distillation, bearer and shaper of a culture. As long as a people retains its language, it lives.

Do you think, when they laid hands on that image of the Rt. Hon. Winston Spencer Churchill, son of an American mother, the prime minister who mobilized the English language and sent it into battle when Britain stood like a rock against the forces of darkness, who took office when all that the West represents faced its gravest peril, and proceeded to transform Britain’s imminent defeat into its Finest Hour, who wrote a monumental “History of the English Speaking Peoples” … do you think those who moved his bust out of the White House apprehended the sad symbolism of it? Might there have been a small tear forming in the corner of its eye?

Consider this old Talmudic story that I just made up, may the ancient sages forgive me: One morning soon after his coronation, a young prince of humble origin who had risen to command a mighty nation looked out over the palace courtyard and saw a great crowd of 190 women gathered there, most with a petition in hand, clamoring for his attention. Only one stood apart, keeping her distance and dignity. He recognized her; she was his mother. So did his chamberlain, who asked if he should escort her into the palace at once. “No,” said the prince in the pride of his youth and new power. “We have no special relationship. She’s the same to me as any of the others out there.” And he turned back to work on the many great changes he had in mind for the kingdom. But the young prince found that he was unable to concentrate, that he couldn’t focus his attention on what was truly important and lasting. It was as if he’d lost his sense of direction. Having forgotten from where he had come, h e had no idea where he was going.


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