Let’s give short shrift to “Both Sides”

Occasionally two articles come along in the same week, ostensibly about different topics, but each prompting a similar reaction. It happened this past week with the publication a few days ago in The Guardian’s “Long Read” series of an article entitled “Built on the bodies of slaves: how Africa was erased from the history of the modern world”. Today came the follow-up, an Opinion piece in the Financial Times purporting to tell “the truth about the Anglosphere”.

The former, by American journalist and historian Howard W French, makes a strong case for Africa’s having been pillaged to build today’s world economy; the latter is by FT contrarian columnist Janan Ganesh – always worth a read, this piece notwithstanding – who claims that what distinguishes the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand from much of the world is “geographic luck, not culture”. It seems that these Big Five incubated a rebarbative insularity via the dumb luck of being variously sized islands, “precious stones set in the silver sea . . . etc.”.

Cradle of English has a dog in this fight, certainly: our wonder at the rise of the English language has always been and remains borne of the confluence of geography, human ingenuity, printing technology, and the forced proximity over a few centuries of an enduring community of creative and energetic polymaths. No single factor determined the success of their endeavours other than perhaps the lack of an extinction event that might have snuffed out their collective genius at any time across this past millennium. Nor can the morally repugnant actions of slave-trading English merchants undermine the cultural contribution of the scientists of the Enlightenment, the Elizabethan poets, and the political heroes from John Lilburne to Thomas Paine who helped craft the egalitarian heart of the modern world.

In addressing all the interesting and most vital questions of life, there are never just two sides, and there can never be good and bad people on both of those sides that there can never be. “Is English the language of white, paternalist imperialism?” is certainly one of those questions. The nuances are a shifting swirl of veils and occasional points of light. Languages reflect this in their evolution, within which nasty things are going on while Shakespeare toils.

Howard French makes his heart-breaking case with fluent verve, possibly undervaluing all the “other stuff” that was going on over the same centuries. His book’s review in the New York Times put this point well:

“ . . . in his zeal to press his point, French sometimes goes for broke. He variously traces a more or less straight line from plantation agriculture to . . .  coffeehouse culture and newspapers, political engagement and pluralism . . . the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment.”

But Janan Ganesh is less focused, ironically betraying a Eurocentric bias in describing the luck of all those denizens of the Anglosphere who took advantage of the protection of the same geographies that had failed to protect the indigenous inhabitants from whom the Europeans stole it.