By which is not meant what most Americans assume it to be, viz. racism (or as the British would term it, racialism). Racism is only a small subset of bigotry (go into an Irish pub and propose God Save the Queen! and see what happens next). “Much may be made of a Scotsman, if he be caught young,” is another relatively famous example of it, but who calls Dr. Johnson a bigot?
I mean here to speak a word in favor of a bit of healthy bigotry, of the sort which begins with an assumption that whatever the speaker is (as self-defined), is absolutely the bee’s knees, and then draws from that the implication that every member of that identity group has an iron-clad duty to live up to the ideal. The condition of “superior” is inseparable from the obligation actually to be, you know, superior. One may fall short in one’s duty, and if one does one merits a double measure of shame, not only because whatever one did fell short, but because one’s falling short demeaned and damaged all other members of the identity group. This sort of bigotry begets traditions like that of the U.S. Marines; show the yellow streak and not only are you a coward, but you have introduced cowardice into “my Marine Corps” (and it’s always the speaker’s Marine Corps, as if he personally bore the sole burden of maintaining its reputation for integrity, bravery, and sacrifice).
I will suggest that such an outlook is not an attitude to discourage.
Yet we do discourage it nowadays. We have adopted as one of the few articles of public faith the dogma that No One is Better Than Anyone Else, a proposition which a moment’s reflection ought to reveal to be what P. G. Wodehouse would call unmitigated apple-sauce. Get caught cheating in school? It’s OK; no doubt you were feeling over-pressured. Update (01 Oct 12; did I nail this or what?): Amherst professor resigns after getting-caught red-handed (but notice all the exculpatory nonsense smeared throughout the article). Get caught stealing $1.2 billion in investors’ money, like Jon Corzine and his firm did? But he’s so smart, you see, and he does after all provide so much valuable support to the
Messiah president, so we won’t investigate too hard. Torch the neighborhood because a couple of bad cops beat a criminal rap when they roughed up a druggie? We understand your pain; here’s a few hundred million dollars to funnel into our pet contractors’ pockets (whence it comes right back in the form of campaign contributions, all distributed to the right folks). Cut your 16 year-old daughter’s throat and watch her bleed out because she was foolish enough to get caught slipping out to see her boyfriend, who just didn’t have the right kind of prayer rug? We respect your religious scruples.
Gone are the days of General Napier. He was governor-general in India, and one of the quaint local practices he took a shine against was suttee. You remember, don’t you? That’s that Old Time Religion where when the husband dies you tie the wife up and burn her on the pyre as well. Nowadays the Deep Thinkers (indebted to Thos. Sowell for the phrase) assure us that such things are just their faith and heritage and besides “Racism!!” Genl Napier had a different take. Some of the locals protested that it was their custom. Replied Napier, “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”
And so today, September 30, we remember the birth of Lt. Col. Alfred D. Wintle, MC, of the British army in both wars. He rejoiced that he had been born an Englishmen and not, by way of comparison and contrast, “a chimpanzee, a flea, a Frenchman, or a German.” He wangled his way into the army underage, and served at the front until severely wounded in 1917. Told his war was over, he replied, “It may have escaped your attention, but there is no fighting to be done in England.” And so back he went, without a kneecap, several fingers, and an eye, doing himself proudly enough that he won the Military Cross. Coming across a severely wounded Trooper Cedric Mays, Wintle ordered him, “Stop dying at once and when you get up, get your bloody hair cut.” Mays did so and lived to be 95.
Early in the Second War he finagled his way back into uniform and, convinced he had to get to the front in France, attempted to hijack the airplane of an air commodore, from the commodore in person. Was arrested and tried at the Tower for, among other charges, treason and threatening the air commodore (he’d told him he deserved to be shot, and proposed to perform that office himself). At his trial he not only didn’t deny having told the air commodore he ought to be shot, but produced and read aloud a list of others who merited similar attentions. The charges were all dismissed. Wintle finally did made it back to France where he was captured, and insisted on inspecting his German guard, whom he roundly ticked off for their slovenly bearing and poor turn-out. Did the same thing when he was finally imprisoned by the Vichy regime. He told the prison guards that he was going to escape (which he did), and that if any one of them was man enough they’d join him. According to later accounts all 200-plus guards at the prison later joined the Resistance.
Wintle held that a gentleman never left the house without an umbrella, and a true gentleman never unfurled his. His own, never unfurled, contained a note wrapped up in it that informed the reader that it had been stolen from Col. A. D. Wintle.
Wintle was a bigot. But observe. Once the landlord of a posh-ish London watering hole went to eject, upon entry, a West Indian laborer . . . a black patron, in plain language, who had mistaken the place for an ordinary pub. [Jim Crow may have had a Southern accent, children, but he got around quite bit back in the day.] As he was hustling the unfortunate towards the door, a voice from across the room barked out, “That gentleman is a friend of mine. I have been expecting him. Kindly show him to my table.” Unable to refuse, the landlord showed the no doubt by this time thoroughly confused worker to Wintle’s table, where Wintle ordered them a glass of wine each, upon finishing which each went on his way.
Maybe what we need is a touch of that old-fashioned healthy bigotry. The all-join-hands-in-a-circle approach doesn’t seem to be doing too well.