Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, GK Chesterton and the Boer War

I have been dipping into The Great Boer War by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. From what I’ve read about Conan Doyle, I know him to have been a man of principle and great integrity; but, if I didn’t already know that, I would consider this history to be the work of a lackey or a jingoist.

Particularly galling are the frequent appeals to “progressive” sentiment. Chesterton described himself as a “progressive” on many occasions; but since his lifetime, I think the word has taken on different and more sinister associations (which, I would claim, were always latent within it). And that Chesterton would have despised the contemporary understanding of progressivism is clear from his own reaction to the Boer War; he opposed it for what I might call “anti-progressive” reasons, as his Autobiography makes clear:

What I hated about it was what a good many people liked about it. It was such a very cheerful war. I hated its confidence, its congratulatory anticipations, its optimism of the Stock Exchange. I hated its vile assurance of victory. It was regarded by many as an almost automatic process like the operation of a natural law; and I have always hated that sort of heathen notion of a natural law. As the war proceeded, indeed, it began to be dimly felt that it was proceeding and not progressing. When the British had many unexpected failures and the Boers many unexpected successes, there was a change in the public temper, and less of optimism and indeed little but obstinacy. But the note struck from the first was the note of the inevitable; a thing abhorrent to Christians and lovers of liberty. The blow struck by the Boer nation at bay, the dash and dazzling evasions of De Wet, the capture of a British general at the very end of the campaign, sounded again and again the opposite note of defiance; of those who, as I wrote later in one of my first articles, “disregard the omens and disdain the stars”.

Compare Conan Doyle:

In the present crowded state of the world a policy of Thibet may be carried out in some obscure corner, but it cannot be done in a great tract of country which lies right across the main line of industrial progress. The position is too absolutely artificial. A handful of people by the right of conquest take possession of an enormous country over which they are dotted at such intervals that it is their boast that one farmhouse cannot see the smoke of another, and yet, though their numbers are so disproportionate to the area which they cover, they refuse to admit any other people upon equal terms, but claim to be a privileged class who shall dominate the newcomers completely. They are outnumbered in their own land by newcomers who are more highly-educated and progressive, and yet they hold them down in a way which exists nowhere else on earth. What is their right? The right of conquest. Then the same right may be justly invoked to reverse so intolerable a situation....

[Some pages later, after quoting a passage from a newspaper article which was critical of the Boer government’s treatment of foreign miners and developers:]

The extract reflects the tone of all of the British press with the exception of one or two papers which considered that even the persistent ill use of our people, and the fact that we were peculiarly responsible for them in this State, did not justify us in interfering in the internal affairs of the republic. It cannot be denied that the Jamestown raid and the incomplete manner in which the circumstances connected with it had been investigated had weakened the force of those who wished to interfere energetically on behalf of British subjects. There was a vague but widespread feeling that perhaps the capitalists were engineering the situation for their own ends. It is difficult to imagine how a state of unrest and insecurity, to say nothing of a state of war, can ever be to the advantage of a capital, and surely it is obvious that if some arch-schemer were using the grievances of the Uitlanders for his own ends the best way to checkmate him would be to remove those grievances. The suspicion, however, did exist among those who like to ignore the obvious and magnify the remote, and throughout the negotiations the hand of Great Britain was weakened, as her adversary had doubtless calculated that it would be, by an earnest but fussy and faddy minority. Idealism and a morbid, restless conscientiousness are two of the most dangerous evils from which a modern, progressive State had to suffer.

Who can read the last sentence without feeling, if not sickened, at least disquieted? But indeed, all appeals to modernity and progressivism must imply a rejection of idealism. The bullish materialists of today who reject religion in the name of freedom seem hardly to understand that, in the name of an ideal, they are spurning the very possibility of idealism; for how can an ideal have any existence but a nominal one in a material cosmos? In the name of freedom, they are rejecting freedom. In the name of the human spirit, they are denying the human spirit.

Just as bizarre is the “progressivist” who claims to be liberating humanity, or fighting oppression. What liberty is there in being bound to a locomotive—since the essence of progressivism is that it is progressing in one direction only? What oppression could be worse than the opression of inevitability? What is so noble about helping the clock go forward if we are forbidden to turn it back anyway?

At a previous meeting of the Irish Chesterton Society, one member pointed out that Chesterton’s attitude to the Boer War left out the indigenous population of South Africa entirely. That, of course, is a separate matter. Here, I have not been discussing the rights and wrongs of the conflict itself, merely two different attitudes to “progressivism”.

No comments:

Post a Comment