Monday, October 26, 2009

Did Defoe really celebrate diversity? Yes

As an antidote to Patrick Buchanan's racist dreams of a pure white America, Andrew Sullivan has thrice recently drawn on* a "once-celebrated 1703 poem from Daniel Defoe, "The True Born Englishman", written to counter the Buchanans of his day (and to defend a foreign-born king)." The poem is truly magnificent. Tracing the Brits' multiple ethnic infusions, it concludes:
A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction,
In speech an irony, in fact a fiction.
Reading it, I did wonder, however, whether Defoe was not mocking his country's "mongrel" makeup even as he mocked those who pretended otherwise. Eighteenth century satire often disappoints our current sensibilities in that way. These lines at least could be read as mockery:
From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came,
With neither name, nor nation, speech nor fame.
In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,
Infus’d betwixt a Saxon and a Dane.
While their rank daughters, to their parents just,
Receiv’d all nations with promiscuous lust.
This nauseous brood directly did contain
The well-extracted blood of Englishmen.
The tone throughout is complex, simultaneously mocking and celebratory. Rather than mock-celebrating the messy reality, however, the poem mocks to celebrate. There's a kind of self-canceling exceptionalism: England is blessed because it encompasses everywhere. Ultimately, the celebration has a religious dimension. The Christian contradiction of God becoming man in a sense sacralizes the omnivorous lust that fuses conquered and conquerer:
Some think of England ’twas our Saviour meant,
The Gospel should to all the world be sent:
Since, when the blessed sound did hither reach,
They to all nations might be said to preach.
Moreover, while the author glossing his own lines should not be granted an absolute interpretative authority, Defoe did, in an "Explanatory Preface" to a later edition, definitively spell out an inclusive ideology:
For why should not our neighbours be as good as we to derive from? And I must add that, had we been an unmixed nation, I am of opinion it had been to our disadvantage. For, to go no further, we have three nations about us as clear from mixtures of blood as any in the world, and I know not which of them I could wish ourselves to be like—I mean the Scots, the Welsh and Irish; and if I were to write a reverse to the satire, I would examine all the nations of Europe, and prove that those nations which are most mixed are the best, and have least of barbarism and brutality among them.
Defoe's response to the nativism of his day is indeed fully relevant today:
From hence I only infer that an Englishman, of all men, ought not to despise foreigners as such, and I think the inference is just, since what they are to-day, we were yesterday, and to-morrow they will be like us. If foreigners misbehave in their several stations and employments, I have nothing to do with that; the laws are open to punish them equally with natives, and let them have no favour.
Also astonishingly contemporary is Defoe's defense of a foreign-born (Dutch) king -- as is the abuse heaped upon that imported chief executive:
Nor would I be misrepresented as to the ingratitude of the English to the King and his friends, as if I meant the English as a nation are so. The contrary is so apparent, that I would hope it should not be suggested of me; and, therefore, when I have brought in Britannia speaking of the King, I suppose her to be the representative or mouth of the nation as a body. But if I say we are full of such who daily affront the King and abuse his friends, who print scurrilous pamphlets, virulent lampoons, and reproachful public banter against both the King's person and Government, I say nothing but what is too true. And that the satire is directed at such I freely own, and cannot say but I should think it very hard to censured for this satire while such remained unquestioned and tacitly approved.
Next up: Robin Crusoe's tips for neocolonialist counterinsurgents. Sketchy memory tells me that this will not be as satisfying.

*See also Sullivan's Sunday Times column on the U.S.'s mixed ethnic heritage.

1 comment:

  1. "While their rank daughters, to their parents just,
    Receiv’d all nations with promiscuous lust. "

    Promiscuous girl, wherever you are / I"m all alone, and it's you that I want!