The red foam of the River Thames

Posted: Jul 20, 2005 12:00 AM

I've come to have a strange new pride in the American left's practice of flag-burning. This is not to say I like the practice. In fact, I think I'm with many Americans when I say that burning the American flag should amount to "fighting words" under the First Amendment. But, rather, the fact that burning the flag is considered fighting words by so many is a sign that the Stars and Stripes still arouses passion and meaning for all Americans. In other words, one could say flag-burning is a sign of cultural health. It's only when the people don't care about the flag at all that a country really gets into trouble.

That's what I've concluded after traveling around the United Kingdom recently. Large swaths of Britain - and certainly most of its elite - doesn't care much one way or the other about their flag. To listen to them talk about it, you'd think the Union Jack was little more than a bit of kitsch, the stuff of sno-globes and souvenir letter-openers.

I'm reminded of the line from Virgil's "Aeneid": "Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood."

OK, I'm not really reminded of the poem itself so much as the now largely forgotten speech by the British scholar and - briefly - politician Enoch Powell, who, in 1968, recited the verse to suggest that Britain was heading down a path that could only lead to social division and multicultural chaos. Powell lamented the usual rogue's gallery of villains: runaway immigration, secularism, feminism, et al. His worry was that the new barbarians were tearing apart the institutions, values and norms that tend to hold a nation together.

Powell was denounced as a racist and something of a fool for his "Rivers of Blood" speech. But in 2005, as George Jonas notes in Canada's National Post, Enoch Powell is enjoying something of a revival.

From this American's perspective, the debate in Britain in the wake of the bombings - over Powell, immigration, Islam, "Britishness" and the rest - reveals the extent of this proud nation's problems, and to a certain extent, the profound decline of Britain.

Here, the only real debate about the British flag is whether it is in some way analogous to our own Confederate flag. Immigrants, schooled in the jargon of multiculturalism, complain that being "subjected" to the Union Jack in the workplace is a form of oppression and discrimination because it reminds them of colonialism or whatnot.

Meanwhile, the denizens of the new, "cool Britannia" have sullied one of the great "brands" in global culture. A few years back, the CEO of British Airways scrubbed the Union Jack from the entire fleet in favor of a hodgepodge of world-ethnic goo.

Britishness, for all its faults, was once seen around the world as a distinctly valuable and admirable quality. Decency, respect for law, intelligence without so much bloody abstraction, propriety, manners: These were the attributes invariably attributed to the Brits. Since Powell's speech, however, the British have turned their backs on all of that. Their popular culture is vastly more coarse than America's. Worse, they have seized the kingdom's leading institutions and scraped out the best traditions and customs like so many tumors.

"We allowed our patriotism to be turned into a joke, wise sexual restraint to be mocked as prudery, our families to be defamed as nests of violence, loathing, and abuse, our literature to be tossed aside as so much garbage, and our church turned into a department of the Social Security system," writes Peter Hitchens in his wonderful book, "The Abolition of Britain."

All of this came about because the British lost confidence in themselves. Confidence in the greatness of your nation is a wonderful bulwark against those who'd like to turn it into something else. When William of Wykeham founded New College at Oxford in 1379, he planted a grove of oak trees on the assumption that the school's beams might need to be replaced in about 500 years. That's a sign of cultural confidence. The founder of the Guinness beer dynasty signed a 9,000-year lease for his brewery.

Now a person can move to this country and complain that the British flag is oppressive, and the Brits don't have the national spine to laugh the complaint away. Britain has given in to the "besetting temptation of all politics to concern itself with the immediate present at the expense of the future."

Now the future is here. Islamism is filling the yawning vacuum created by multiculturalism. England is producing homegrown suicide bombers who are supremely confident in a very non-British future for Britain. For years, the police here have looked the other way as citizens have slaughtered their wives and daughters in "honor killings." To clamp down would be "insensitive" to cultural differences. They've looked the other way, as jihadi ideologues have turned London into the Comintern of Muslim extremism. In other words, they opened their minds so wide, their brains fell out. And now the Thames, like the Tiber, is foaming with much blood.