If you noticed that the frequency of my blog posts has gone down substantially this past year, it is because I was working on a labor-intensive bit of historical research for a forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost
. (The photos above show only a small portion of the books and notes I used. These are the ones I lugged on “vacation.”) Oscar’s Ghost tells the story of a bitter posthumous feud over Oscar Wilde’s legacy between two of his closest friends. It covers a period from the late 19th Century, leading up to Oscar Wilde’s arrest and death in 1900 and the inter-war years. (Lord Alfred Douglas, one of the two main characters lived from 1870 to 1945.)
When you delve into another era like that you inevitably find resonances between their time and our own. In the 1890s when Lord Alfred Douglas and Wilde’s eventual literary executor Robert Ross were young men London was at the center of the world. The British Empire was nearly at its peak when it would span 14 million square miles of the globe and include more than a quarter of the planet’s population. It’s absolute peak came in 1914. It was the largest empire the world has ever seen. It so dominated commerce that it could effectively control the economies of countries that were not officially colonies. Young British aristocrats had the world for a playground. They commonly set out on adventures seeking their fortunes in South African and Australian mining colonies or in the timberlands of Canada. They set out to India and North Africa for exotic vacations. London was also becoming a hub of activity for the working class as industrialization moved many young men from farms to the city. The prosperity also attracted immigrants. From 1800 to 1890 the population of London soared from less than a million to more than four million.
It was in this very period, when they should have been celebrating their unprecedented power and prestige, that England began to experience an undercurrent of anxiety and a sense that they were losing ground. “Decay” became a buzzword. There was a fear that old values were eroding, that unchecked effeminancy was dissipating the soldiers, that England was losing its cultural treasures and its cohesive sense of Britishness. (Robert Ross, in the early 20th century wrote an essay with the title “There is No Decay” arguing against the notion.)
In some ways, this makes perfect sense. Human beings are more motivated by the fear of loss than by dreams of gain. When they were the masters of all they could see, there were few more worlds to conquer and nothing to do but look back with nostalgia and to worry about all they now had to lose.
Thus I am repeatedly struck by the off-hand remarks we see regularly in the news about how awful things are in America at this moment in history. As Klaus Brinkbaumer wrote in Der Spiegel, “The fact that the United States, a nuclear superpower that has dominated the world economically, militarily and culturally for decades, is now presenting itself as the victim, calling in all seriousness for ‘America first’ and trying to force the rest of the world into humiliating concessions is absurd. But precisely because this nonsense is coming from the world’s most powerful man, it is getting trapped by him.”
In England, a Century ago, the rhetoric of “decay” was driven by those with the most to lose; the very people who had been granted the most– the aristocracy. Industrialization had changed the economy, the landed estates were no longer supporting the Lords and Ladies as they used to. The middle class was ascendant. The upper classes, however, still had a big microphone and the ability to shape public discourse. They were some of the loudest voices promoting the notion of “decay.”
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.” They knew they were not to blame for this state of affairs. So they sought scapegoats and embraced extreme ideologies especially on the far right, but also sometimes to the far left.
The far right drew from, among other sources, a series of exposes on immigration written by Oscar Wilde’s old 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. (See Holms, Colin. Anti-Semitism in British Society 1876-1939. New York: Holms & Meier Publishers, 1979.) A population that feared decay was looking for an outside force to blame. Immigrants, especially of another religion, were an obvious choice. The period of history I examined is rife with anti-Jewish sentiment throughout Europe. In France there was the Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish officer became a convenient scapegoat in an espionage scandal. (Oscar Wilde was then living in France and he and a number of members of his circle got caught up in the hysteria. Wilde befriended the real spy Esterhazy.)
Lord Alfred Douglas’s good friend Freddie Manners-Sutton (the 5th Viscount of Canterbury) 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 Lord Alfred Douglas’s social circle and were increasingly shaping his worldview to the point that he eventually became editor of a journal known more for its anti-semitism than its poetry. This would forever tarnish his legacy. He had been convinced there was a broad Jewish banking conspiracy by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a piece of fabricated anti-Jewish propaganda that was widely disseminated prior to the Second World War. It was the early 20th Century version of “fake news.” (A good book on this subject is Paranoid Apocalypse by Steven Katz.)
Homosexuals were another convenient scapegoat. One of the last volleys in the battle between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross was a bizarre libel trial in which a conservative MP, Noel Pemberton-Billing, used the courts to promote conspiracy theories about British soldiers losing the Great War because they were being seduced by German Jewish men and women on the homefront were becoming lesbians. He claimed he knew of a“Black Book” in which the Germans kept a list of 47,000 sex perverts so they could blackmail prominent English politicians and generals into committing espionage and treason.
Billing was a curious purity crusader. Tall and handsome with strong cheekbones and a confident charisma, he was “an archetypal playboy” and womanizer. He was wealthy and flashy, doing his political campaigning from an impressive yellow Rolls-Royce. The trial had a circus-like atmosphere. It played like a modern reality TV drama and included such sideshows as Lord Alfred Douglas calling his former lover, Oscar Wilde, “the greatest force for evil in the last 350 years.” The ridiculous spectacle distracted many people from the dangerous undercurrent of homophobia, xenophobia, and racism that Billing was peddling.
Today I read George Takei’s excellent article on Japanese Internment Remembrance Day. The actor, who spent part of his childhood in an internment camp because of his ethnicity, writes:
I cannot help but hear in these words terrible echoes from the past. The internment happened because of three things: fear, prejudice and a failure of political leadership… The false narrative — that there are those who belong here and those who do not — is designed precisely to divorce us from the truth that we are all here and in this together. We are an interdependent people, sharing a common bond of humanity…
The question before us, then, on Remembrance Day is a simple one: Will America remember? The internment is not a “precedent,” it is a stark and painful lesson. We will only learn from the past if we know, understand and remember it. For if we fail, we most assuredly are doomed to repeat it.