Mr. Britling, the title character of H.G. Wells’ 1916 novel Mr. Britling Sees it Through, is haunted by the reality of the First World War, a conflict that had been years in the making but which, with his optimistic and compassionate sensibilities, he had always publicly and privately denied as a genuine possibility. The arrival of war in Europe turns Mr. Britling’s intellectual and emotional reality upside down as he is forced to face the possibility that people are simply not as good as he believed, and that perhaps the race to which he belongs is not as mature as he gave them credit for. Though Mr. Britling is in his fifties, Wells’ novel is a coming of age story, an unexpected bildungsroman of a middle-aged man who has been living in the pleasant and quite bubble of Matching’s Easy, a sleepy English village in Essex county.
For those of us born in the last years of the so-called baby boom, it is easy to empathize with Mr. Britling, for lots of reasons. In the wake of the War in Vietnam there was fostered a significant mistrust of the military adventurism of Western States. This mistrust gave rise to the era of largely covert militarism in the late 1970s and 1980s. Our rather childish faith that the public wouldn’t again be so easily fooled into supporting economically motivated wars, was quickly dashed in the early 1990s when we watched the first George Bush commit the West to a war for oil. In an ironic homage to George Orwell, the first Gulf War ushered us into an what seems to be an era of permanent war and the protests against Vietnam are little more than a distant memory of generation now over-leveraged and looking for a comfortable retirement in age when economic security is a thing of the past. Worse than this, the global insecurity which Thatcher and Reagan, the Bushes and the Clintons gave birth is now having the knock-on effect of reigniting the xenophobia and fascism of the 1930s, only this time it comes with the added complication of climate change, global food and water crises, and potential nuclear conflagration. As the late Kurt Vonnegut would have said, so it goes.
Karl Marx told us that History repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce. If so, we are well into an era of farce, but one that promises everywhere to end in tragedy. But the unfulfilled promise that the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era left us, is more than an era of permanent war and shock capitalism, it is also an renewed ideology of “know-nothingism,” that strange pride that people take in their own ignorance and willfully offensive opinions and beliefs. And this know-nothingism is gaining speed and popularity against a monumental digital transformation of culture, a cultural transformation that can surely only be compared in significance to that brought about by the printing press.
Our “Mr. Britling” moment is partly the realization that the progress of the human sensibilities is nowhere near what we had hoped and that if you give people a uniform, a rifle, and a marching band they will willingly follow you anywhere, blithely beating the drums of war. But this is our individualized “Mr. Britling” moment. At a wider, cultural level, we are witnessing a bildungsroman in reverse; a huge faction of our race that, though we tried to drag them forward into an enlightened future, is happily reverting back to quagmire of blissful ignorance, racism, xenophobia, and the active peddling of hate. Unfortunately, the wilful rejection of rational discourse and the adoption of childish, hate-filled, squealing (so well illustrated by political figures like Donald Trump), is happening against the backdrop of a digital transformation of culture that seems to be, counter-intuitive as it sounds, chipping away at literacy skills and undermining the kind of intellectual expansion that we once took for granted in the golden age of reading, when people sat down for long stretches not only to absorb the imaginative power of novels but read long, syntactically complex journalism and nonfiction, rather than simply clicking on a link, looking at a headline and then blathering some uniformed opinion in the comments section. What would Mr. Britling, a thoughtful essayist and cultural commentator, make of a generation that has an infinite amount of information at its fingertips but watches cat videos instead and happily, even proudly, follows leaders who make ignorance and hate-mongering their modus operandi?