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E.M. Forster and the Politics of Betrayal

By Patrick O'Hannigan

Thought experiments get no respect, but few thought experiments have the staying power of one posed generations ago by British novelist E.M. Forster (Howard's End, A Room With a View, A Passage to India). If we bumble toward the future like drivers in a dense fog it is partly because Forster left his fingerprints all over the American windshield, and we're low on wiper fluid.

Forster died in 1970. Filmed adaptations of his elegant books continue to win acclaim, providing a steady income for actresses like Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter. In spite of this legacy, it is one memorable sentence from an essay called "What I Believe" that makes Forster a pundit for our times.

"I hate the idea of causes," he wrote, "and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."

Because the most important and demonstrably righteous cause when Forster said this was fighting Nazis, his words shocked a few people. Sixty years later, his confession remains the pithiest summary of postmodern thought in captivity, far outstripping nice things in the same essay about "the aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky."

Forster's comment remains influential because choosing between friends and countries seems like choosing between people and things. Friends trade recipes, loan tools, and may even be willing to baby-sit. Most countries, on the other hand, are more to be feared than loved, at least to the extent that they are identified with their governments. In the United States, when federal officials are not collecting taxes or confiscating private property, they treat military units like pizza delivery drivers and find new uses for warning labels. As rabble-rousers frequently point out, the government frowns on school prayer but funds art that would embarrass squirrels.

For reasons like these, Forster's hypothetical brand of treason has undeniable appeal. The attraction is strictly superficial, however, because Forster's appeal to courage hides reckless assumptions and an acute misunderstanding of modern politics. In a poker game with any real thought, his statement would lose its shirt.

For Forster's comment to be the principled stand that it aspires to be, powerful people must take patriotism seriously. Today, however, most do not. Thanks to Hitler, the evils of unbridled nationalism are so well known that most of those in the ruling classes buried patriotism with vinyl records and poodle skirts, just in case it was the impulse that Hitler exploited. More prudent folk of the same opinion waited until the collapse of the Soviet Union allowed them to soften devotion to the United States by dunking it in the milk of the peace dividend. Either way, the hearty crunch of patriotism has been muted, and all we have left are its crumbs. As Sam Smith of The Progressive Review observes, "Modern governmental and media technocrats don't really believe in countries any more -- even their own. In a logic system overwhelmingly dominated by money and its passage from here to there, the nation-state has become a nostalgic anachronism, useful primarily as a symbol with which to appeal to aged members of the electorate on Memorial Day."

If Smith is right, the catchphrase of our age is "Show me the money!" rather than "Give me liberty or give me death!" With patriotism in decline, treason drops several weight classes, too. It then makes sense that scientists caught passing nuclear secrets to foreign countries are more likely to be fired than imprisoned. In America today, treason requires as much courage as jaywalking. Espionage is threatening only if the New York Times finds out about it, and then only to your employment.

That Forster was wrong about betrayal requiring guts might not matter if his comment had a good influence in the lives of those who swear by it, but it does not. Ironically, people who disagree with Forster are more likely to make the sacrifices that friendship requires than people who agree with him. Two movies help make the point.

In Casablanca, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) loves Ilsa but lets her go because he knows that only with her help can Laszlo lead anti-Nazi Resistance effectively. Rick puts country above friendship, and this noble act makes him a better friend. It also makes the movie's last line ("I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship") especially poignant.

Years later, The English Patient asks us to sympathize with a man of the Casablanca era who gives military maps to the Nazis in retaliation for British failure to help rescue his girlfriend. He and she have a torrid, toxic relationship that by their own reckoning matters more than the lives lost when the Nazis put the maps to use.

We need not rely on Humphrey Bogart to shame Forster; we can also call Confederate general Robert E. Lee. In 1861, Lee disappointed friends by rejecting command of the United States Army. He declined the command because it would have put him at odds with what he thought of as his country, Virginia, on the brink of civil war.

In our own time, Linda Tripp, Christopher Hitchens, Elia Kazan, and others have been vilified for choosing to ally themselves with their country rather than with their friends. Meanwhile, Susan McDougal is widely admired for her willingness to go to prison rather than implicate the president in further scandal, and veteran newsreaders Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer seem surprised when interviewees appeal to reason rather than emotion. In an angry essay for MSNBC, Richard Stengel described this reaction as evidence of "the slow and sad shift that we have made from a Culture of Thought to a Republic of Feeling." Forster's disciples now dominate public discourse to the point where the Washington Times was moved to observe that, "in the Clinton White House, loyalty is a card dog-eared from being played so often."

Some kinds of loyalty are better than others, however. Sam Smith's March 1999 summary of "Current Standards of Loyalty as Purveyed by Contemporary Media" lists loyalties to country, democracy, principle, spouse, and laws as archaic. Postmodern endorsement is reserved exclusively for loyalty to the president and to friends, and never mind that "the definition of a friend remains as uncertain as it was when President Truman suggested that if you want one in Washington, you should get a dog."

With regard to betrayal, the controversy over awarding an Oscar for lifetime achievement to anticommunist film director Elia Kazan gave Lionel Chetwynd a chance to make the traditional case. Chetwynd observed that "Freedom is too great a prize, won at too dear a price, to be subjected to schoolboy codes of honor where he who identifies the evil-doer is, by some strange moral alchemy, the greater sinner." Chetwynd's argument did not stop leftists from shopping for analogies that compared Kazan to Judas. It did not give solace to the woman wondering why Kazan's forty-year old testimony trumped her twenty-year old rape accusation against a sitting president. Chetwynd could not have done these things, because Forster's insistence on the primacy of friendship is a cornerstone of the current moral climate.

With its context and significance in mind, we can consider Forster's statement itself. Apart from its ignorance and its flair for rationalizing disreputable behavior, the comment depends on a pair of unproven assumptions: that there is always a gulf between people and principle, and that it is better to betray a good principle than a bad person. Forster may have recognized the precariousness of these assumptions if he had been an American, because ours is the only country in the world founded solely on ideas. Unwillingness to betray the United States does not imply endorsement of its bloated, meddlesome government. We have a capitol overrun by knaves and fools, but we also have the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. To renounce betrayal of country is to embrace our land, affirm the principles in our founding documents, and extend a vote of confidence to our fellow citizens.

In short, Anglophiles who insist on taking philosophical cues from dead Englishmen should ignore E.M. Forster and embrace Richard Lovelace. In 1649, Lovelace was asked why he was leaving home to fight a war. The poet's celebrated reply was gentle but firm: "I could not love thee, dear, half so much, lov'd I not honor more."

From that we know that Lovelace was trustworthy. We have already seen how Forster was prone to hasty generalization. In the unlikely event that we are forced to choose between friend and country, Forster's reflexive disdain for patriotism will hinder more than help. I want his prints off my window.

© 1999 Patrick O'Hannigan

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July 31, 1999