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October 27, 2007

Are Educated Jingoes Honest?


by David Bromwich

The title comes from a chapter-heading of J.A. Hobson's pamphlet The Psychology of Jingoism (1901). Some of its other chapter-headings are Credulity, Brutality, The Eclipse of Humour, and The Abuse of the Press.

An indictment of the Boer War and of the press campaign that made it possible, The Psychology of Jingoism offers an impressive foreshadowing of the Iraq war and the War on Terror. Hobson (1858-1940) had taught at the London School of Economics before agreeing to serve as the South Africa correspondent of the Manchester Guardian; and his analysis of Jingoism appears to have helped the transition from his history, The War in South Africa (1900), to the masterwork of political theory, Imperialism (1902), for which he is chiefly known today.

Hobson wrote from a deep disgust at the work the educated classes had performed in drawing Great Britain into an unnecessary war. The leaders of English opinion had created the image of a barbarous and implacable enemy, and had inculcated a pleasing delusion of the magnanimity of British war aims. Newspaper reporters, editorial writers, and freelance promoters of the war all concurred in saying that Britain could scarcely perform its historic duty as a worldwide sponsor of democracy without a permanent presence in South Africa.

"Christianity in Khaki," so characteristic a feature of the Boer War, may seem to lack a parallel in our present venture in the Middle East. But if one recalls the saying of General Boykin, "I knew my God was bigger than his," and reckons in the indispensable loyalty of the evangelical Christians and the Christian Zionists among the Thirty Percenters supporting President Bush, the echoes are distinct and admonitory.

Yellow journalism contributed more obviously to the Boer War than it has done to Afghanistan, Iraq, or, thus far, Iran. On the other hand the "embedded reporter" is an equivocation all our own. And the brutality of the propaganda of 1900 finds its counterpart in the antiseptic evasiveness of the American press and television against the showing of images of dead or wounded American soldiers.

When Hobson published The Psychology of Jingoism, he was the intellectual leader of the radicals within the Liberal Party, a group that opposed the emerging policy of the Liberal Imperialists. The latter group conceived of war as a vehicle for progress, and looked forward to a World War, which they believed to be inevitable. In the decade to come, Winston Churchill would join their number, and they would seek and find a war (and, with the help of Woodrow Wilson, a redemptive mission), to which, in retrospect, the Boer War would seem a minor prelude.

Jingoism defined:

"That inverted patriotism whereby the love of one's own nation is transformed into the hatred of another nation, and the fierce craving to destroy individual members of that other nation....Jingoism is the passion of the spectator, the inciter, the backer, not of the fighter."

The abridgment of evidence:

"The theory of 'cumulative evidence' consists in a pretense that fifty pieces of bad evidence proceeding from a common tainted source are exchangeable for one piece of good evidence. When any one admits that his case rests on 'cumulative evidence' it may be understood that he knows its falsity, and trusts to the corrupted intelligence of his readers for such acceptance as it may win."

Classification of enemies as illegal combatants to excuse the murder of prisoners:

"'Military opinion in the Transvaal capital urges that a Proclamation should be issued, declaring that any Boer found with arms in his hand, and without uniform, shall be treated as a rebel, rather than as a prisoner of war. Perhaps the time has come for even more drastic measures.' In interpreting this infamous suggestion, it must be borne in mind that the entire body of the Boer army is 'without uniform,' with the exception of such as have taken khaki uniform from captured British soldiers."

The pride of the victor:

"Vainglory is a characteristic which a Jingo-ridden people exhibits in common with the child and the savage....Closely linked with this vainglory is a complete cancelment of all sane, normal grasp of the laws of moral causation; as the one rests on a distortion of vision, the other rests upon a shortening of vision. The child and the savage live in and for the present. So does the Jingo....Such shortsight, coupled with a conviction that a reign of force will bring peace and contentment, is not really to be dignified by the name of 'policy;' it simply wraps up in empty phrases about 'good government' and 'equal rights' the primitive savage lust of the victor."

How a war of choice becomes a war of necessity:

"It arises in the following way. A number of different persons, groups, or classes...each seeking some particular end, form, by cooperation and interaction, a complicated plan of policy, the whole of which is not visible or conscious to any one of the participants. The historian, seeing the resultant line of action, and the clear-cut pattern which it takes, abstracts this design, and, knowing that it does not proceed from the full conscious agreement of the agents, places it wholly outside their wills, and calls it 'inevitable' or 'destiny.'"

Are educated Jingoes honest?

"Dishonesty, in the sense of professing to believe what one does not really believe, is very rare at all times; in this matter it may be safely regarded as undeserving of consideration. Those who profess to believe the war to be just and necessary do honestly believe this. But have they honestly come by this belief? That is the real question. Have they used such reasonable care in unbiassed consideration of the evidence as entitles them to claim an honest judgment?...The editors of Jingo journals have felt quite safe in continuing to repeat the most audacious falsehoods long after they have been exposed, simply because they knew that their readers, though perfectly aware that journals existed which gave another side, would not look at papers which opposed the war. Now, this attitude of mind has been the rule, and not the exception, among the classes which boast their education and intelligence, and it is an attitude of dishonesty."

This war and the next war:

"The most momentous lesson of the war is its revelation of the methods by which a knot of men, financiers and politicians, can capture the mind of a nation, arouse its passion, and impose a policy. It is now seen that freedom of speech, public meeting, and press not merely affords no adequate protection against this danger, but that it is itself menaced and impaired; the system of party, which has heretofore, by providing a free, vigorous, and genuine scrutiny of every important political proposal, been a strong safeguard against all endeavors of a clique or a class to exploit the commonwealth, has broken down under the strain of an attack unprecedented in its vigor and in the skill of its direction. It is of the gravest importance to understand the methods of this manipulation of the public mind, for the combination of industrial and political forces which has operated in this instance will operate again, and will copy the methods which have been successful once."

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David Bromwich teaches literature at Yale University. He is the editor of a
selection of speeches and letters by Edmund Burke, On Empire, Liberty, and
Reform
, and co-editor of a recent edition of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty.

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