Planet Earth

We are all Anglo-Saxons now

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJul 28, 2012 3:21 AM

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I'm kind of wary of getting into political debates at this point because it's not my primary interest (additionally, people with stronger political views often end up willfully misrepresenting me because they think I'm taking specific sides, even if they actually guess my preferences incorrectly!).

But the whole Mitt Romney-Anglo-Saxon heritage kerfuffle has now gotten under my skin.

What prompted my agitation is a post over at The Atlantic by Max Fisher, Sorry, Romney: Neither America Nor the U.K. Are 'Anglo-Saxon' Countries. There are two dimensions to this, the positive and the normative. Most of you are probably aware of David Barton, the conservative Christian scholar whose bread and butter is a revisionist history of the United States which rewrites the past into a fiction to serve his own political ends, in a manner which would make Michel Foucault proud. But believe it or not conservative Christians are not the only group wont to rewrite the past to serve their own contemporary political preferences. In the case of Max Fisher what you have is a conclusion in search of support, and so our enterprising young man went out looking for it in classic hack style. Reading through the comments very few spotted the errors and confusions, aside from a few British commenters. First, Fisher assumes that Anglo-Saxon identity is a matter of blood. Or should I say blut? Let's take this as a given, that ethnic identity is identical to descent groups, that nations are bound together by their shared blood. Is Fisher even right for England? To prove his assertion he engages in "google punditry," simply sifting through the stack of facts in Google to find ones which support his supposition. He argues that anthropologists have disproved the Anglo-Saxon invasion, by citing a 7 year old piece in National Geographic. Seven years is a long time, and since then times have changed. Old school anti-migrationism is nearly dead. The assertion that most modern British are descended from Ice Age hunter-gatherers has not been falsified in totality, but it is certainly wrong to assert that it is rock solid orthodoxy in this day and age that such continuity exists. Second, the affinities between Germans and many modern British are rather stronger genetically than we might have thought in 2005 (using better techniques to ascertain genealogical relationships). But there is more to this than genes alone. First, on a minor issue, Fisher refers to "the the Irish and Scottish whose forefathers were never under Anglo-Saxon rule." This is wrongheaded because the Germans who crossed the North Sea and settled in northern Britain were one of the constituents of what became the Scottish nation. Scotland's name derives from an Irish Gaelic people who crossed over from Ulster, but the national identity looks back also to the Picts, the Celts of Strathclyde, the Norse, and of course the Anglo-Saxon peoples who streamed out of Northumbria and brought their German language across Hadrian's wall, which eventually became broad Scots! This is the native language of David Hume. In any case, the bigger issue is that Max Fisher's attempt to minimize the cultural impact of the Anglo-Saxons. This is laughable. We're both typing in English, the most prominent of the German languages. Listen closely to a Dutchman, the kinship in speech is clear. This is the descendant of the language of Beowulf for crying out loud! The flavor might be French, but the meat is still German. A more important aspect of the assessment of the impact of the Anglo-Saxons is that post-Roman Britain witnessed one of the most traumatic civilizational ruptures in the history of late antiquity. There are reflections of this in the chronicles of the British cleric Gildas. Romanitas disappeared, and the native British became serfs, or driven to the "Celtic fringe." The biggest indication of this is that the Christian religion itself collapsed, and had to be reintroduced anew. English Christianity in the south notably was not the heir to indigenous British Christianity, which had produced luminaries such as Pelagius. Rather, it was a new planting from the Continent in the 7th century (though Irish clerics did bring the religion to Northumbria). The Celtic language was also effaced from the landscape, and the Germans even termed the British "foreigners" in their own ancient lands (i.e., "Welsh" derives from a German word meaning foreigner). Though both the Norse and Norman invasions were influential, they

inflected a sturdy Anglo-Saxon base.

 These invasions did not transform and overturn the order that was. Modern England's roots go back to the 6th century, the hidden age between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of the Christian kingdoms of 7th century. Finally, Fisher makes much of the demographic decline of Americans of English descent. This an artifact. The number of people who identify as English has crashed since 1980. Why? The winds of cultural change. If you are of German and English heritage, you will usually say you are German American. If Irish and English, again, Irish (not to mention "Americans" who are actually English). Which brings us back to culture, and away from factual positive claims to normative ones. The whole of Fisher's piece is rooted in the thesis that the Anglo-Saxon people are united by blood. Destroy the ties of blood, as he attempts to do, and you minimize the influence of Anglo-Saxons. This again confirms my thesis that many modern progressive multiculturalists have simply refashioned the old racialist narrative. Does it really matter how many sons the Anglo-Saxons fathered if the local Celtic chiefs raised their own children as Germans? There is some evidence that the lineage of Alfred the Great himself derived from a set of southwest British Celtic chiefs who were Germanized (e.g., many of the early kings who Alfred claims as ancestors have Celtic names). The victory of Saxon blood may not have been substantial, but the victory of Saxon speech was! Even the layout of the countryside changed with the coming of the Saxons. To deny this reality seems farcical, but only if you deny the importance of blood in necessarily and sufficiently determining national identity. If so, then Max Fisher has good company with the British National Party, and racial nationalists the world over. This is frankly not an uncommon position, and I am subject to questions as to my own identity as a person of color who identifies as Western from commenters (usually some Europeans and American white racists, for whom being Western is necessarily predicated on being white). This is a fundamental philosophical question: how much is a man born, and how much is a man made? To some extent this is a curious question being posed by me, as I suspect many of Max Fisher's fellow travelers would take the side of nurture over nature on most questions in comparison. But it seems on this issue we are faced with the prospect that Fisher is espousing the proposition that blood is determinative in national identity. This is the mainstream model if you are German, Chinese, or Japanese.

But one of the distinctive aspects of the modern Anglo-Saxon model is its assertive, expansive, and assimilative power.

In the 19th century there were British prime ministers with Indian blood (Lord Liverpool) and those of proud Jewish origins (Benjamin Disraeli). As for America, what in the 19th century was a white republic has now become one headed by a colored man. And not just any colored man. Barack Hussein Obama has English Yankee blood, if not copious amounts. If Fisher's implicit assumption is that blood is the true test of a man's tribe, than Obama himself is an Anglo-Saxon! Of course another of the old racist canards was of hypodescent, underpinned by the assumption that the inferior stock overwhelmed the superior one. And so perhaps Obama is in fact a Luo tribesman by this logic of blood. At this point you may be exhausted by the exploration of picayune facts. But the point is that when we debase facts, and sacrifice them at the alter of expediency, we eat the very capital which is the basis of modern civilization. Without objective facts we are thrown into the world of conspiracies, where everything is illusion. Max Fisher and many others objected to the anonymous Romney aid's imputations, and so he went out to tear down every aspect of the argument and all its assumptions. In the process he prostituted reality, and misled thousands of readers. This is shameful, and we should all hold ourselves to higher standards, no matter where we stand on matters of politics. When history becomes a tool of polemic, then we live in a far poorer world indeed.

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