The Times They are A Changin’

I’d like to thank Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed for the interview for The New Books Network. It is always a pleasure to be interviewed by someone who took the time to read your book and to prepare thoughtful questions.

I was especially pleased that Nataliya touched on some of the larger themes in Oscar’s Ghost, the social context in which the feud between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robbie Ross took place. In the early 20th Century London society had an entirely different feel depending on whether you were of Douglas’s social class or of Ross’s. For people like Robbie, the expanding middle class opened up a wealth of possibilities. For Douglas the decline of aristocratic power and fortunes felt like social collapse.

In the interview I touched briefly on how Lord Alfred Douglas moved from being generally conservative to being a proponent of right-wing conspiracies.  The fear that emerged of outside forces and cultural change among the elite of that era has a lot of echoes of our own.

Here in the United States, the conventional wisdom that Trump rode to victory on a wave of anger from displaced workers who were motivated by economic hardship. Researchers who have studied the data have found that this is not true. In fact, Trump voters were better off economically than most Americans, and the poor, white working class was actually slightly more likely to vote for Clinton.  What motivated Trump voters was fear of cultural displacement.  That is, it was people who could always count on being considered the “default” Americans, and know that public policy would be based on what was best for them. Slowly that sense of security has been eroding. They see a future where instead of requiring everyone to learn English they may have to learn Spanish, where the law might not support one’s aversion to two dudes kissing. In short, a world where people who have always had others adapt to them might have to do the adapting. In the UK the Brexit vote was likewise propelled by anti-immigrant sentiment.

There was a similar fierce overcorrection to cultural change in the 20th Century.  Here is a passage that I wrote for Oscar’s Ghost but cut to get the word count down:

The year marked another milestone in the loss of status of the aristocracy. Historian David Cannadine called the 1911 Parliament Bill “the instrument of [the Lords’] permanent emasculation.” It was a blow from which their power and prestige never recovered, ‘the citadel of patrician pre-eminence had finally fallen.’ The bill had come about as the result of proposed budget changes in 1909, which had outraged the Lords. Lloyd George effectively portrayed them idle and self-interested labeling them ‘ordinary men, chosen accidentally from among the unemployed.’ The Lords veto of the budget activated the Liberals, and an emboldened Asquith brought a series of resolutions to the Commons to limit the power of the peers, giving Lord Alfred Douglas yet another grudge against him.

The continued erosion of the aristocrats’ way of life caused a great fear that they were becoming, in the words of D. Pryce Jones, ‘in a scrap heap instead of a social class.’ This caused many of these former masters of all creation to seek scapegoats and to embrace extreme ideologies especially on the far right, but also to the far left. The far right drew from, among other sources, a series of exposes on immigration written by (Oscar Wilde’s friend) Robert Sherard. While his xenophobic articles describing immigrants as physically and morally degenerate did not specifically refer to them as Jewish, there were enough coded references to allow his readers to make the inference. An undercurrent of discourse at this time linked Jews to anarchism and socialism, even though Jewish immigrants were not prominent in those groups; and to criminality, even though statistics did not bear this out. It did not matter that there were no facts to back up the prejudices. A population that feared decay was looking for an outside force to blame. Immigrants, especially of another religion, were an obvious choice.

Freddie Manners-Sutton (a close friend of Lord Alfred Douglas) was prepared to disseminate the most extreme version of such prejudice, by publishing a controversial posthumous work by Sir Richard Burton. The Jew, the Gypsy and El Islam was an attack on what Burton saw as the cruelty of Judaism. Its most contentious chapter claimed that Jews had been involved in human sacrifice and ritual murder. Burton’s executor, W.H. Wilkins, had been skittish about publishing any of the book but felt he could not go against the wishes of the deceased author. He did, however, cut the most offending section. Somehow Sutton got wind of this and bought the chapter from Wilkins with the intent to publish. This led to a lawsuit, in 1911, by D.L. Alexander who claimed Wilkins had no right to sell the material and successfully received an injunction to prevent its publication. These extreme points of view were gaining prominence in certain segments of Bosie’s social circle and its forces were priming his imagination, although it would be a number of years before he would be taken in by the conspiracy theories.

In the long run, these reactions failed to turn back the clock on social change.  I will hazard a guess that the current wave of reactionary politics will not take America back to the “Leave it to Beaver” days either.

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