I keep learning about movies and TV shows long after they’re past current — when the Netflix app on my iPad suddenly puts them in front of me. So I’ve just watched the first episode of An Idiot Abroad, the latest attempt by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the UK creators of the BBC’s The Office, to find humor in humiliating and ridiculing their friend Karl Pilkington — this time by sending him around the world to "experience" other cultures.
Merchant is clearly the better-educated half of the duo. "I’ve been to many exotic places," he says in the show’s opening. "I genuinely believe that travel broadens the mind."
Whether or not he’s sincere in that conviction, Gervais’s candor better represents the feeling of the series: "I want him to hate every minute of it."
Why? "Nothing is funnier than Karl in a corner, being poked by a stick," Gervais explains, adding, "I am that stick."
So why is Pilkington their victim of choice for this ongoing series of orchestrated culture shocks?
"He is a round, empty-headed, chimp-like manque moron, buffoon idiot. And he’s a friend," Gervais says.
But Stephen Merchant’s less blunt explanation is what caught me off guard and sent me to Google and Wikipedia to research current British terminology:
"He is a typical Little Englander and he doesn’t like going out of his comfort zone."
I could judge from context what he meant, but I had never heard the term Little Englander used that way. If you’re an American, the chances are you’ve never heard it used at all. I knew it from the history of classical liberalism, where the British war party of the 19th century used it as a smear against the anti-imperialists of the Manchester School. The British hawks called the anti-interventionist opponents of the British Empire "Little Englanders" to distinguish them, I assume, from the true patriots of Great Britain.
It wasn’t Britain the Little Englanders opposed, of course; it was empire.
The 20th-century equivalent smear, used both in the United Kingdom and the United States is "isolationist" — implying that the opponents of an expansive interventionist foreign policy are trying to shut out the rest of the world, bury our heads in the sand, and attempt to wish away the impositions of an ever more global culture. In other words, we are narrow-minded, myopic, and reflexively against everything foreign. By implication, it is the interventionists who are cosmopolitan and internationalist.
Here is Gregory Bresiger’s description of the Manchester School, from his JLS article "Laissez Faire and Little Englanderism":
The Manchester School [was] a radical group of parliamentary members in Victorian England. They were also known as the Little Englanders, or the Peace Men. Generally, they weren’t pacifists, but they proclaimed themselves as followers of Adam Smith, who saw peace, a reduction in government expenditures, and free trade as vital characteristics of prosperous, free societies. They fought the same battles as Taft and those consistent friends of liberty who today call for the dismantling of the American imperial state both at home and abroad.
Manchesterism, like libertarianism today, was a philosophy ridiculed by nationalists and jingoists in Victorian England, who called it hopelessly utopian and isolationist.
Is that what Stephen Merchant is accusing Karl Pilkington of? No, of course not. Merchant means that Pilkington doesn’t like Chinese food and thinks that foreign cultures have taken normal things from the English and made them weirder.
The result is a perverse travel show that is both very funny and oddly informative. Merchant’s use of the "Little Englander" epithet is a tiny, throwaway line, not at all the emphasis of the show — although it does get repeated in every episode of the first season, since it’s part of the opening.
So why do I find it significant? Isn’t this just another example of how language changes over time with shifts in political and historical context?
(I argue against this general line of thought — using a different example — in my most recent Freeman article, "Check Your History.")
If "Little Englander" were just a case of shifts in meaning, we should expect the more political and historically minded definition to have passed out of current usage, replaced by the insulting cultural definition.
But a quick Internet search suggests that while both meanings are current, the political meaning is still primary. See Wikipedia and Wiktionary for example, where the primary definition is anti-imperialist, followed by the "colloquial" usage that means xenophobic.
So why do the British still conflate opposition to empire with opposition to foreigners?
Is it the same reason Americans insist on the same conflation when talking about "isolationism"?