CAMBRIDGE - 2 June 2003 - 477 words
Chosen People: The Big Idea that Shapes England and America - Clifford Longley
Hodder and Stoughton, England 2002 £7.99
Through the medium of the Biblical typology of the Chosen People, Catholic journalist and broadcaster Clifford Longley explores the roots of British and American national self-identification, and the way in which this sense of a unique, God-given mission underpins their actions on the international stage. At a time when much attention is being given to analysis of the social, political and economic reasons behind the two countries' alliance in the Iraqi war, a broader historical sweep of the ideological and cultural issues is particularly useful for building up a clearer picture. Married to an American, Longley writes with a clear sympathy for what is best in transatlantic culture, but with an ability to stand back and take an objective look at its pervasive of the myth of election, grounded in Biblical Protestantism, that can give rise to an unreflective sense of moral and political superiority.
Longley is not afraid to paint his picture with sweeping brush strokes, and in a condensed book, ranges from an exploration of Biblical typology to mediaeval and early modern history, the histories of the papacy and British colonialism in Africa and India, slavery, adultery and Lady Chatterley's Lover. The sheer breadth of vision and wealth of examples can leave the reader somewhat breathless, particularly in a book that has few footnotes for reference, but the material is always made accessible to the non-specialist.
The major difference between the two nations lies in Britain's loss of contact, in public discourse and popular culture, with the mental horizons historically forged by this typology. The bewilderment and indignation widely expressed in the press over Tony Blair's recent claim that he would meet his Maker with a clear conscience over the British participation in the Iraqi war illustrates how far we have come from recognizing the appropriateness of, let alone sharing such language in this context. America continues to employ the language of God's election to describe its role on the world stage, a 'missionary' stance that has not gone unnoticed by its critics, whether tolerant of or hostile to the use of religion in the political arena.
In the aftermath of a war whose aims have largely been economic and pragmatic, but whose language has frequently been ideological and visionary, it is useful to have such a wide-reaching analysis of the history of its mental horizons. This cannot be read in exclusion from more searching explorations of the political and economic decisions that led to the Middle East crisis and the Anglo-American response to and responsibility for it. But no coherent discussion of the present situation can take place without this history in mind, and Longley's book serves as an unraveller of many complex strands in the knot.
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