Many years ago a friend of mine, a distinguished medieval historian who has lived and taught in the USA, described that country to me as ‘a mediaeval state with 20th-century technology’. Never has that description seemed more fitting than today.
I know that, as a sign of our superior enlightenment, we’re supposed to tolerate alien cultures for their distinctive virtues, rather than measure them always against our own – the arrogant, xenophobic way that is supposed to have been typical of European imperialists in Africa and Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But, really! there is such a thing as ‘progress’, in moral affairs as well as material, which doesn’t just consist in ‘toleration’ of the ‘unprogressive’. Present-day America clearly falls behind in this regard. Its constitution, even with Amendments, is over 200 years old: which is why America still has a King – though he’s called a President. Neither our (British) Queen nor our Prime Minister has half the residual powers he has. Nor are any of our founding constitutional ‘documents’ expected to bear the literal and enduring interpretation that the American Constitution is supposed to; especially by reactionary judges such as the one who has just been appointed to the Supreme Court in order to secure its conservative bias. British judges are typically reactionary too; but they, and our whole legislative structure, are able to move with the times. We don’t have a written Constitution; and if we did – as perhaps we ought to – I imagine it wouldn’t be treated as Holy Writ.
Nor is the genuine Holy Writ treated as Holy Writ in more progressive countries, as much as it is in America. Americans, by all accounts, are astonishingly religious: at least, as measured by church attendance, and by the powers of the Christian – and now in particular the Judeo-Christian – lobbies. This may not mean much. People can find scriptural sanction for almost any prejudice, and in particular, as I see it, if they skip over the really Christian parts of the New Testament (the four Gospels). Religions are taken as rigid templates rather than for thoughtful guidance – by Moslems and by ‘God’s Chosen People’ as well. Donald Trump transgresses nearly all the moral teachings of Jesus, yet is supported by supposedly devout Republicans in their millions. Some even regard him as ‘sent by God’. (See https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/oct/03/the-trump-prophecy-film-god-election-mark-taylor.) This mirrors the mediaeval mindset quite closely. I’m exaggerating, of course, with regard to both mediaeval Catholics and modern Americans; but this uncritical kind of religious belief is something one might have expected to have been eliminated at this stage, by the advance of what I still regard as ‘rational’ progress.
The conduct of American politics too, appears mediaeval. Plots, counter-plots, corruption, lies, pride, greed, wars, deception, gross immorality, robber barons, cruelty… all were recognised by William Shakespeare, just out of the Middle Ages, as defining characteristics of his line of dramatized mediaeval kings. None of the ‘Henry’ plays would have worked without them. I wonder whether this is what attracted Boris Johnson to write his projected Life of Shakespeare – a task, incidentally, for which he would seem to be remarkably ill-fitted otherwise. Indeed, our whole present Anglo-American panoply of political leaders would go well in a Shakespeare-like Tragedy-History. You can imagine them strutting, larger than life, and full of malevolence, at the Globe or the Swan, delighting the groundlings. Or, in modern-day parlance, the Trumpists and Brexiters.
Of course this isn’t the only period in history which has sidelined any thought of rational ‘progress’, in exchange for something more visceral. I’ve mentioned 1930s Germany before; and there are others. ‘Progress’ is never steady. Nor is it incapable of being abused: by the idealists who ruined Russia, for example, or the scientists who turned to eugenics in order to purify the German race. You can find ‘rational’ reasons for subjugating women. The reactionism of our time, however, is different. It rests on no particular philosophy, because philosophy itself – joined-up thought – is rejected as ‘elitist’. Even Shakespeare might have had difficulty with that.