The Unanswered Question

The Unanswered Question” may be Charles Ives’ “one-hit-wonder”. Reputedly, its contents and title were meant to convey a specific idea: raising the question of where divinity exists in life is simply the wrong question to ask.

If “History” is full of unanswered questions, or riddles, how far is this because we are “asking the wrong questions”? If I had to pick an “unanswered question” in history, I think I would pick this one: “when is an empire not an empire?” There is a supposed answer to that riddle: “when it’s an anti-imperialist empire”. Within that paradox can be fitted many a historiographical debate, which may imply that empires are a perpetual feature of “history”: the old “rise and fall” paradigm sets the tone, far and wide or within and without.

I think I can recall writing in my first book on the IRB that a debate, or rather a political rhetoric, about imperialism did not really emerge in Ireland until after the First World War. Later, I came to regard that as a mistaken idea. However, there are nearly always two sides to the coin whenever one looks at “the imperial question”.

It is a peculiar dynamic in history: anti-imperialist rhetoric is frequently born within an imperial power itself because the greatest impact of imperialism is naturally felt within “the empire” itself. The small states that borrow the rhetoric do not necessarily have the same meaningful experience or purpose as those who pioneered the same rhetoric. And, of course, empires compete with each other.

Empire’s Twin“, an American collection of historical essays on anti-imperialism, reflects an interesting trait of the Republican tradition in America. Abroad, it is often labelled as “isolationist”. In America itself, it is often seen as “anti-imperialist”, although the meaning of that term is rather like a former rhetoric within Britain: too much focus on power abroad leads to insufficient attention to how this was impacting, potentially very negatively, on the homeland by valuing the periphery at the expense of the core, leading potentially to the collapse of that core. It is like a “damage control perspective”. Hence, it is an irony that anti-imperialism is frequently conservative and imperialism liberal in perspective, yet people’s hearts and minds can be made to feel that the exact opposite is true (e.g. ‘liberal’ Gladstone made the British Empire more than ‘conservative’ Disraeli and yet that is not how they were usually perceived by the general public).

In America, Dwight Eisenhower types can be critical and supportive of a “military-industrial complex” at the same time in their efforts to “make America great again, in its good life” at home, and that can have a knock-on affect abroad. For instance, the American stance of “you pay the bills, not just us, for NATO” may have led to shifts in US-UK-EU relations over the past five years, which may or may not realign themselves now (for an interesting Irish perspective on that contemporary debate look here) but, being a historian, the contemporary is far less interesting than the possibility of perceiving patterns in history.

If too much attention abroad can lead to deterioration in circumstances at home by simply having one’s priorities wrong, the reasoning of the same state(s)’ counter-stance is equally clear: “if one steps back, someone else unwelcome may step in to take one’s place”. And thus “empires” shall perpetuate themselves, unable to revert into their supposedly “pure” republican form any more than they can turn back the waves. Yep: empires may be a riddle of history; even Irish history. For instance, if one goes back to the “Tom Clarke days”, theoretically one could suggest that an Irish anti-imperialism was, in itself, a reaction to an Irish imperialism: why should Irish talent serve Britain abroad when such talent could better become a bedrock for an Irish nationalism at home = Sinn Féin Amháin. There’s an idea that isn’t heard much anymore, and quite probably for good reason.

And why concern oneself with an “unanswered question” anyway, especially if it is unanswerable? One does try, just as one does feel a reason to contemplate making an effort to raise one’s spirits at this time of the year. So, being attuned to American tunes at this moment, perhaps I shouldn’t spend my Christmas thinking like Mr. Ives but think of merry little ditties like this old (Irish?-)American curiosity instead. Now: does the world seem like a more cheerful place? Perhaps. But, next year, many different historical conundrums will probably surface and preoccupy once more, as sure as day follows night. But let us not overindulge in history.