Anglo-Saxon histories (US, UK, AUS)

Anglo-Saxon countries are often heaped together as having a single culture. When it comes to migration, attitudes to sex, teenage-pregnancy, inequality, language, and bellicosity, that seems about right. At least, the UK, the US, and Australia are pretty close on those scores.

But how about their relation to history? My experience of these three countries is wildly different in terms of how the population relates to their national history. See if you agree with my observations, which are admittedly loose.

The Americans seem to invent a new history every few years, and each group has a wholly different take on history that has a different story of who the arch-enemy is. 9/11 and #MeToo are beautiful examples of what I mean: in both cases it has been a matter of mere months for US history to be re-written by those championing a cause. After 9/11 you saw new research institutes on terrorism arise like mushrooms, complete with stories going back to before the bible about the defining struggle against all sort of terrorism. Similarly, nowadays, the eternal patriarchy is rapidly being uncovered to stretch from time-immemorial to now. With every new wave of thinking, it seems the Americans want to feel they are at the pointy edge of some long historical struggle, with a looming final show-down with the enemy that has been there ‘all along’. When some new fad reaches their group consciousness, the cycle starts anew, complete with a new history and an apparent quick fading of the previous history stories. Fascinating stuff from an anthropological perspective!

The Brits are totally different. History here is not re-written every 10 years by every new group coming along but is only slowly changing and quite stable. The ‘struggle against terrorism’ was treated as a mere variant of opposing ‘those who oppose us this time’, not very different from how the influence of the EU was opposed in some quarters. #MeToo is certainly having an effect, but much more on the notion of what is ‘proper’ than on the reading of history. Maybe I missed them, but books reinterpreting the whole of history in a very particular light that belongs to some proselytising group are rare here. The Brits seem to think that some form of struggle is normal and that people disagree. New norms are quickly absorbed into a fluid notion of what is ‘proper’ rather than necessitating any wholesale re-imagining of national history. History is presented as a slow-changing wave, not a struggle that has its defining moment in the here and now. American-style re-interpretations of history that would necessitate the abandoning of old heroes like Cecil Rhodes are resisted.

The Australians are totally different again in their treatment of history. It currently seems like open warfare between quite virulent and aggressive streams of thought. I am no expert on the matter, but the deafening roar of the guilt-shouters on the left is overshadowed only by the canon-ball salutes of the new militarism that defines the historical reading by the current two major parties. It’s a regular culture war that is not directly related to current political topics at all, but seems to come from opposing economic interests and forms of mysticism, not all that obviously related to new political issues. Yet, unlike the US versions of re-writing history, the new Australian histories are not about setting up a narrative of who the enemy has been all along, but are about accentuating the character of who Australians have been all along. The main character narratives on offer are the universal sinner and the obedient soldier. To me, it’s a quite bizarre spectacle.

I have many explanations for these differences, none of which I am convinced of yet, but in a way, the explanations are less interesting than the observations. So let me know in the comment boxes if you see the same differences I see.

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30 Responses to Anglo-Saxon histories (US, UK, AUS)

  1. Ravi Smith says:

    I definitely agree with your observations. I have a basic explanation for the British and American patterns, but the Australian relationship to history is the most puzzling to me.

    The British pattern is probably linked to its aristocratic past. A single body of cultural norms that is changed gradually over time. A parliamentary system that centralizes power at the national level, while keeping it unconcentrated helps institutionalize this dynamic.

    The American pattern has both cultural and institutional roots, both linked to the Puritans. Think of the Puritan political system as a kind of a ‘start-your-own-theocracy’. A strange combination of extreme intolerance and openness. The combination of the ‘separation of powers’ and federalism means that you are always adding up local majorities across states on an ‘issue-by-issue’ basis. Local and state governments have a largely the same powers as the federal government. Most policy ideas as implemented in local or state governments before they are tried at the federal level, if only because it requires less organization to implement change there.

    Saul Alinsky’s ‘Rules for Radicals’ identifies the unique tactics that are evolutionarily stable in this system. The two most important rules are as follows:
    1. All politics is local.
    2. Pick a target, freeze it, then polarize it.

    Any proposal that doesn’t start from local organization is vulnerable to a Tea Party/Indivisible type revolt from below. Implementing an idea at the local level is incredibly easy. Passing it at the federal level requires being able to mobilize voters and organize across states. Groups with lots of money and a workforce that is spread out (finance, healthcare etc.) have the most power. For those supporting a particular cause, appealing to existing values and polarization are the only way to spur action. The following Alinsky quote describes this dynamic:

    This failure of many of our younger activists to understand the art of communication has been disastrous. Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values — would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Could you elaborate on point 2) please – I don’t understand it.

      “Pick a target, freeze it, then polarize it.”

      • Ravi Smith says:

        I wasn’t very clear in the comment. When you ‘pick a target’, you focus on a specific issue and ask ‘where do I have the power to start.’ In any complex system, there is a constant, and partially legitimate, shifting of responsibility. When civil rights protesters targeted the principals of segregated schools, many responded that they had a neighborhood school policy and organizers should focus on desegregating the neighborhoods. The local politicians would have no doubt, blamed some other party. When you ‘freeze’ the target, you disregard these arguments and, temporarily, all others to blame.

        Finally, you polarize the issue, leaving no middle ground. This forces the hidden supporters of the target to reveal their true position. Polarization is also necessary if action is to follow. The Declaration of Independence is really a form of ‘deceit by omission’, listing all the injustices of British rule with none of the benefits. Not the medicine the British sent during epidemics, the military protection, nor the growing number of supporters in parliament. Many founders were honourable men but knew that this was a call to war and men do not leave their wives and children and take up arms for a pro/con list.

        I don’t know how ethical these methods are, but I fear that they are the evolutionarily stable strategy in American politics. One reason I’m a fan of your sortition proposal is because it decreases the need for polarization, and thus shifts the ESS in a positive direction.

    • Ravi
      What do you make of the Australian relationship to history ?
      it baffles both I and my wife ,who is a professional historian .

      • Ravi Smith says:


        Australia’s relationship to its’ history is baffling indeed. Here is my best guess, although I’m not really satisfied with it. For me, the quintessential Aussie trait is a willingness to take down the pretentious. This characteristic has two main social effects:
        1. A pragmatism and resourcefulness that arises from leadership minus the pomp and ceremony.
        2. A strong tendency to obedience/loyalty (since loyalty is, in many ways, a more egalitarian form of obedience).
        These characteristics explain the ‘obedient soldier’ narrative (which is partly based on fact: the egalitarian resourcefulness of ANZAC soldiers meant they had lower death rates than the other Anglos in WWII). As Australia became more unequal, loyalty started to look more like obedience.

        I’m not really sure where the ‘universal sinner’ story comes from. The Puritan influence is almost non-existent in Australian history. Is it possible that the Australian left has simply adopted the story of the American left without the redemption/’struggle-against-some-evil-force bit? What’s your take?

        • Ravi apologies for my slow reply, my back makes sitting for any length of time painful.
          Conrad below gives a good summing of what i think is a common attitude to Australian history: nothing much happened ,why bother about it.
          And that view is often combined with a view that our culture is , derivative: therefore the real history and driving force of our cultural history is to be found OS , principally in the UK or US.

          Unfortunately many unconsciously accept these propositions and do so so completely that they don’t think to test them.
          For example votes for women, preferential voting system( (and quite a few other aspects of our political system)are of some interest and ( by definition )were not copied from the late 19c US or UK systems .

          • Ravi Smith says:

            I like your explanation (much better than mine). It does beg the question of why many Aussies don’t trumpet our achievements like most nations do. Also, no worries about the late reply!

  2. Hi Paul
    In the late 70s a young art historian -Andrew Graham-Dixon was given the job of escorting a visiting Chinese scholar around either Cambridge or Oxford Uni.
    He took the visitor to the Unis ancient great chapel.
    All around the walls of that chappel where there once were statues of saints and the Virgin , all that remains are roughly chiseled gouges.
    The Chinese visitor turned to Andrew and said: I see that you too have had a cultural revolution .
    Once was enough , no?
    As for Australia it seems to me that our dominant political factions, all dislike History- History is too ironical for ideologues.

    • Paul
      Cromwells reign as protector-dictator of the English ‘republic ‘ was but the culmination of about 100 years of ideological- religious turmoil and a 100 years of smashing of images ( and lots of lives ) on a unbelievably massive and well organised scale.
      After Charles the second was invited to return home in 1660 and become a constitutional monarch,all documents were dated as if he had become king in 1649, the year his father lost his head.
      And the glorious revolution of 1688 was further confirmation that the English had had more than enough of those who want ‘purity’ no matter what the cost .

      • Paul Frijters says:

        Your Chinese visitor is quite astute! Yes, the Protestant Reformation was accompanied in the Netherlands too with a massive smashing of relics and statues in churches and cathedrals (‘de beeldenstorm’ aka the storm of statues). Its been a bit more quiet on the history re-writing front after that, at least in the Netherlands and the UK.

        Moz (below) seems to agree with the observations, even though he squabbles about the origin of particular words. Of course the words used to re-write history have been around much longer. Otherwise it doesn’t sound authentic enough.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        John, your description of Henry’s, Edward’s, Mary’s and Elizabeth’s reigns as “religious turmoil and a 100 years of smashing of images ( and lots of lives ) on an unbelievably massive and well organised scale” is seriously over the top. I presume the worst of this was during Mary’s reign and the figure I’ve seen guessed at is a death toll of about 3,000. There was tension alright but – and I would have thought far better handled than in most places on the continent. By this stage I have read that England was a more coherent ‘nation’ than anything in Europe which must have helped – as did the channel as usual.

        Neither James I nor Charles I’s reigns were horribly bloody were they? There was lots of tension that’s for sure. And certainly the Civil War(s) immediately preceding Cromwell were horribly bloody, but that wasn’t 100 years, that was from about 1641 to 49.

        • John R Walkee says:

          Was primarily talking about the scale ,duration and the systematic organisation of image smashing ,sure it came and went ,but over the time span it was huge.

          BTW do we have figures for.deaths related to things like the civil war etc?

        • On reflection are you , serious ?
          The period roughly between the murder of Thomas Cromwell and the restoration of constitutional monarchy was a mere bagatelle ???
          Don’t know where to begin…

        • derrida derider says:

          certainly the Civil War(s) immediately preceding Cromwell were horribly bloody

          According to one history of it I read some years ago, surprisingly not so in England (Ireland was, as usual, different). The nature of warfare at the time made for small (because expensive) professional armies so commanders would not risk heavy casualties, and neither side practiced a genocidal approach because the war was really about money, not religion.

          Religion tended to be an ex post rationalisation during the war itself (after the war was, again, different) . The main impact of it on your average English peasant was that taxes were even heavier.

          • DD a quick Google gives an estimate of about 200,000 English deaths out of a population of around 5 million.

            Respectfully to not see the civil war(s) as the culmination of the religious-social upheaval that was the reformation- which began in about 1530 , seems arse about.
            While the intensity did go up and down over the decades between 1550 and 1668 the sheer total amount of time and energy that went into smashing religious images is hard to explain if it was really just about the money.
            An example of the tally from just a few days in just one town:

            “At Clare. . . we brake down 1000 pictures superstitious; I brake down 200; 3 of God the Father, and 3 of Christ, and the Holy Lamb, and 3 of the Holy Ghost like a dove with wings; and the 12 Apostles were carved in wood, on the top of the roof, which we gave order to take down; and 20 cherubins to be taken down; and the sun and the moon in the east window, by the King’s arms, to be taken down.”

  3. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    Possibly biased by the one area that I have some knowledge of, that sounds like ahistorical nonsense to me. “the patriarchy” is a recent description, sure, it was only coined in the 17th century. Then taken up by feminists as a criticism in the 19th. But the latter is largely because we didn’t have feminist as a term before then, just as we didn’t have Marxists bemoaning Caesar’s treatment of the proletariat. We can still use Marx to inform analysis of the Roman Empires, though, just as we can use feminism.

    I fear your criticism of the back-porting of terrorism falls into the same trap. Terrorism describes a set of actions, and because of the “except when done by nations” it’s actually more useful when describing pre-Westphalian actions because the qualifier loses meaning.People argue vigorously that the “shock and awe” attack on Iraq wasn’t terrorism but will agree that the Mongols practiced it (in the same way, for the same reasons… and both were armies controlled by empires {whistles}).

    I suspect what you’re seeing is a difference in presentation: “we have always been at war with Eastasia” in the US vs “the slow march of progress” in the formerly united kingdom (the DUK, ruled by the DUP?). In Australia seems plausible that it’s a fight to define the country, only I’d phrase it as “we’ve always been white supremacists” vs “we’ve always been multicultural”. Looking at it as a fight over who gets heard, it’s obvious that the racists are losing just by looking at all the non-RWM voices that are in the debate. Some of those rich-white-men are explicitly angry about having to argue with their natural inferiors (and periodically there are “purges” when the explicitness piles up too high… further evidence of who is losing. History progressing one death at a time, just like science).

    • Moz you’re right about terrorism, the Assassin Cult from memory around about 11th century world certainly count as a terrorist group and were seen as such at the time.
      While it’s a long time since I read much about that cult, from memory it’s a good example of how there are very few things in history including terrorist groups that are truly without precedent.

  4. Chris says:

    Having just come back from Ankor, I was impressed by the evidence there of the rival factions having gone over the temples chiselling out alternately the buddha images/shiva images as the numbers in the court shifted; particularly as nobody at any point attacked the underlying hindu symbolism of vast bas-reliefs of gods and demons – for example, shiva churning the sea of milk.
    The important thing, evidently, was the primacy of the god-king; which specific god was a second-order feature.

  5. conrad says:

    I think part of the reason for the weird ideological debates and lack of identity is that very little interesting has ever happened in Australia (and this really is something to celebrate, perhaps the best thing, but no-one wants to celebrate being boring — but I’d rather live somewhere whose population history doesn’t look like a sine-wave than somewhere where it does). For example, people often claim we don’t know much about Aboriginal history, and that’s true. But I doubt your average person could name 5 Australians of any interest and what they did between 1800-1900 (that might in fact be impossible if you have a high bar). That’s probably because not much of interest happened. Even in terms of the 20th century, most of the important moments are caught up with other countries, and, on a global scale, fairly trivial and certainly not enough to differentiate Australians from others. For example, the worst and most heroic Australian war efforts are globally insignificant (that’s not to say the people involved wern’t exceptionally heroic), and they are also really non-metaphorical incidents of your obedient soldier description. Why did we got to WWI? Not for reasons you’d want to base an identity on.

    So if you combine the lack of anything interesting happening in our history with current politics where both parties essentially offer the same policies, then you are left with a need for parties to differentiate themselves on something. And so we get weird ideologies of no significance pushed in the media because there is little else to argue about.

    • Conrad re or war efforts and insignificance.
      Milne Bay was a very important victory for the US ,as well as for Australia.

      And there is no question about the significance of the AIF and Monash’s role in the collapse of the German army that began in a few hours on the 8th of August 1918 at Amiens.
      It was not heroism that caused the utter destruction of the German army at Amiens in less than three hours , rather it went down to innovative thinking re the combined use of all the latest technology , meticulous planning and “discipline based on individualism “.

      In 1937 Hienz Guderian published “Achtung Panzer” . Guderian copied Monash’s battle plan for Amiens into that book. After Guderian got the backing of Hitler,Achtung Panzer became the blueprint for the tactical system that became known as blitzkrieg.

      I think a better conclusion is :if you combine our lack of interest in our history with our politics….. you are left with little more than weird ideologies (and identities )that are but sound and furry signifying stuff all.

      • conrad says:

        John — I agree with you, and in fact I think your other comment about our preferential voting is basically the best thing about Australia that is unique (it’s far better than alternatives like run-offs where 2 candidates fight it off). I think the problem is the psychology of it all, and being boring or having a great voting system doesn’t seem to cut it for things people can identify with, especially in Australia where some people seem to think we should be the best at something and important to the world. Curiously, I don’t think NZ suffers these hang ups, and they seem happy enough to be fairly egalitarian, open minded, and don’t have grandiose dreams like Australian politicians push .

        • Conrad I agree with you. :-)

          Re “The grandiose dreams[that] Australian politicians push” . Those dreams these days have a strong whiff of parody (or polystyrene mock-up) about them , no?

        • Conrad
          Another australian quality that should be celebrated is what Les Murray calls “The Quality of Sprawl “.
          That poem was inspired by something Murrays dad used to say about a shopkeeper in a nearby town : ‘ he’s too close, never says , near enough’:

          Sprawl is the quality
          of the man who cut down his Rolls-Royce
          into a farm utility truck, and sprawl
          is what the company lacked when it made repeated efforts
          to buy the vehicle back and repair its image.

  6. stephen bartos says:

    I know you said you were more interested in observations than explanations. Nevertheless, I’d suggest that there is no one view of history, each country has within it (expressed by individuals, interest groups, politicians etc.) multiple interpretations of the national story that at any particular time vie with each other for prominence. The extent to which some histories prevail over others is related not so much to force of argument or right vs. left as other external forces.

    Such external forces might include:
    • Economics. I’d suggest good times encourage collaborative and constructive histories, stories about scientific or cultural achievement; downturns – or in Australia’s case a perception of economic downturn even though we have had continuous growth – encourage histories focused on how the external enemies a nation has confronted in the past.
    • Status of women. This influences whose stories appear in history, and how. If women are more prominent, also affects the inclusion of minority groups in the national stories.
    • Distribution of wealth. Countries with a high Gini coefficient would (for obvious reasons) be more likely to frame their arguments over history around struggles between rich and poor, reform and welfare. They will demonstrate more volatility in the way they deal with these debates.

    The corollary is that all of the countries you mention have the same sort of underlying tensions between different versions of history, but the way they go about holding their arguments differ because of differences in their external environments.
    In terms of your generalisations, there are particular ways of dealing with historical narratives which at this time prevail in the histories of the US, UK and Australia.
    In Australia, see a good recent article by Paul Daley about the rise of the military version of history, and why it has come about. My feeling is Australia was more like the way you characterise the UK for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with absorption of different views into an ongoing narrative; even the elevation of ANZAC and Gallipoli to icon status is a relatively recent phenomenon. So perhaps one of the things going on is that we are becoming more American in our approach, and there’s convergence between the USA and Australia and divergence from the UK.

    In the USA, the reinvention tendency you mention also seems to me relatively new; the enduring narrative in US history is the tension between isolationism and internationalism.

    Papa Hegel is of course the ultimate authority on all this!

  7. Paul
    WW1 had a long lasting impact on Australia . Prior to 1914 Australians were known to be on the whole much healthier than the average UK citizen.

    Just under 50 percent of all Australian males aged 18 to 40 enlisted. Of those who made it home more than half were in various , often multiple ,ways wounded: many had PTS – suicide was not uncommon, most had lungs damaged by poison gas which never really heals, many had lost limbs or an eye or had damaged hearing, quite a few also had STDs and some were also addicted to morphine .
    ( and very few of them wanted to ‘talk about it’ either)

    In other words in the 1920s ,around 25 percent of Australia’s total number of males roughly aged 18 to 40 were to various degrees disabled .
    This must have had a big , if silent,impact on Australias culture and is economy .

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