Moral Empires

A historian who has evidently influenced the writing of American history significantly from outside the United States is Ian Tyrell. He has been cited as a pioneer of transnational history writing, which has almost become a euphemism for examining the international flow of ideas as opposed to the initial meaning of the term, which was the operations of international commercial firms (multinationals) that are not entirely regulated by individual state’s laws. One would think, therefore, that his speciality would be contemporary history, since the 1970s, but his seminal early text, Moral Empire, was about the 1920s and earlier. It focused less on the cultural influence of American businesses than religious missionary activity. One might not think of the present as an age of missionaries, but if there are still “moral empires” in existence do they not carry some form of mission?

I am struck sometimes that if we are living in an age of political correctness, the very notion of “correct behaviour” implies correction and, in particular, moral correction. Think of it: how many times have you read a contemporary commentary which implies a moral corruption of yesterday and a moral correction of the present or, if not the present, then at least necessarily tomorrow? It is as if society or the media is on some moral improvement crusade, but one of no designated or discernible origin. But surely it has an origin. A new study by a notable Irish scholar has been subtitled “the globalisation of compassion”, as if the history of non-governmental organisations in the past fifty years have created a new, more compassion sense of society on an international level. Like the United Nations, I find this arena partly credible and partly not. But it does perhaps reflect a trend: what was once an arena for missionaries is now a zone for lay activism across a very wide spectrum of activities. Are the NGOs really the source of new moral empires?! Perhaps studies like the above will help to spread some light, in print at least!

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