"The most sensitive plant in the literary greenhouse": the author H G Wells photographed in 1932
Show Hide image

H G Wells: the man I knew

George Bernard Shaw was, with the Webbs, one of the founders of the NS. This piece is a personal recollection of his friend H G Wells, who had died four days previously.

So our H G is no more. He has written his own epitaph and his own biography, which is, like most autobiographies, much more candid than any second-hand account of him is likely to be. But as I knew the man – and he could not have recorded the impression he made on me even if that had been his intention – I record it myself for what it is worth.

H G was not a gentleman. Nobody understood better than he what gentry means. But he could not, or would not, act the part. No conventional social station fitted him. His father was a working gardener and professional cricketer. His mother was a housekeeper. The two kept a china shop in Bromley, from the basement of which the infant H G contemplated the boot-soles of the inhabitants through a grating in the pavement, and noted that they were mostly worn out. Could anything be more petit bourgeois, as Lenin labelled H G?

His glimpses of high life were gained in his visits to the country house in which his mother was employed; and there he must have been a bit of a pet, though his references to it in later life were anything but grateful. He began to earn his living as a linen draper’s shopman, this being in his mother’s opinion a high destiny for him. Many years later, when he made his first essay as a public speaker, he kept behind the chairman’s table and addressed the audience leaning across it with his fingers splayed on it in a “What’s the next article” attitude. He rose to be a school-master; graduated as a science student, winning a BSc; and presently, like Dickens and Kipling, left it all behind and found himself a great popular story-teller, freed for ever from pecuniary pressure, and with every social circle in the kingdom open to him. Thus he became entirely classless; for though ’Erbert Wells had become H G Wells Esquire, he never behaved like a gentleman nor like a shop assistant, nor like a schoolmaster, nor like anyone on earth but himself. And what a charmer he was!

In one category, however, I can place him. He was the most completely spoilt child I have ever known. This puzzled people who regarded Wells’s youth as one of genius chastened by poverty and obscurity. As a matter of fact it was one of early promotion from the foot of the ladder to the top. 

He never missed a meal, never wandered through the streets without a penny in his pocket, never had to wear seedy clothes, never was unemployed, and was always indulged as more or less of an infant prodigy. When he reproached me for being a snob and a ready-made gentleman, I had to tell him that he knew nothing of the horrors of chronic impecuniosity in the progeny of the younger sons of the feudal class who had the pretensions and obligations of gentility without the means of supporting them.

Editors had jumped at his stories and publishers at his novels at the first glance: I wrote five massive novels and had to endure nine years of unrelieved failure, before any considerable publisher would venture on mine. It hardened me until my shell was like iron: H G was pampered into becoming the most sensitive plant in the literary greenhouse. The faintest shadow of disapproval threw him into transports of vituperative fury in which he could not spare his most devoted friends.

But do not infer from all this that H G was an intolerably unamiable person who made enemies of all his friends. H G had not an enemy on earth. He was so amiable that, though he raged against all of us none of us resented it. There was no malice in his attacks: they were soothed and petted like the screams and tears of a hurt child. He warned his friends that he went on like that sometimes and they must not mind it. When Beatrice Webb, whom he consulted as to his filling some public position, told him frankly but authoritatively that he had not the manners for it, which was true, he caricatured, abused, vilified and lampooned her again and again; but I never heard her speak unkindly of him; and they ended as the best of friends. He filled a couple of columns of the Daily Chronicle on one occasion with abuse of me in terms that would have justified me in punching his head; but when we met next day our intercourse was as cordial as before; it never occurred to me that it could be otherwise.

H G was honest, sober and industrious: qualifications not always associated with genius. He loved to assemble young people and invent new games for them, or referee the old ones, whistle in hand. In an age of masters of the art of conversation like Chesterton, Belloc and Oscar Wilde, the Prince of Talkers, he was first-rate company without the least air of giving a performance. Nobody was ever sorry to see him.

His place in literature and in the political movement of his day I must leave to another occasion or other hands. He foresaw the European war, the tank, the plane and the atomic bomb; and he may be said to have created the ideal home and been the father of the prefabricated house.

To Fabian socialist doctrine he could add little; for he was born ten years too late to be in at its birth pangs. Finding himself only a fifth wheel in the Fabian coach he cleared out; but not before he had exposed very effectively the obsolescence and absurdity of our old parish and county divisions as boundaries of local government areas.

There is no end of the things I might say about him had I space or time. What I have said here is only what perhaps no one else would have said.

This archive piece is included in the New Statesman Century: Volume Two, 1913-2013, a collection of interviews, profiles and encounters, available to pre-order now at newstatesman.com/century 

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was an Irish playwright and the co-founder of the London School of Economics.

PHOTO: JUSTIN MERRIMAN/ GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Political tribes: why democracy is no match for the visceral pull of “us” against “them”

How Donald Trump epitomises and supercharges white American tribalism.

During the Vietnam War, the US thought it was fighting communism. Afterwards, the consensus was that the Vietnamese had been fighting for national independence. But Amy Chua, in her extremely stimulating Political Tribes, suggests an additional factor: many Vietnamese thought they were fighting the country’s Chinese minority.

Ethnic Chinese made up only 1 per cent of Vietnam’s population, yet controlled 70 to 80 per cent of national wealth. They were what Chua calls a “market-dominant minority”. North Vietnam’s leader, Ho Chi Minh, was backed by communist China, but when he attacked “capitalists”, most Vietnamese knew exactly which ethnic group he meant.

After the war, many of Vietnam’s Chinese were either massacred or fled: they made up the great majority of the “Vietnamese boat people” of the late 1970s. The story makes the central point of Chua’s book: American decision-makers, both at home and abroad, have tended to focus on markets and democracy while overlooking tribe. The political salience of tribalism only became unmissable with Donald Trump’s election as US president.

Most people, argues Chua, a law professor at Yale University, don’t simply seek to be free or rich as individuals. They want to thrive within their tribe (usually an ethnic one), often while hurting other tribes. Now, the US risks tottering into the kind of winner-takes-all, tribalised polity that we usually associate with the developing world.

Tribe has always been Chua’s topic. Her 2002 debut, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, anticipated America’s debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nine years later, she hit fame with her Chinese-American how-to memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about how ethnic Chinese parents supposedly raise their children to be workaholic winners. Then The Triple Package, co-written with her equally high-achieving husband, Jed Rubenfeld, sought to explain (not altogether convincingly) why certain tribes (such as Jews, Mormons, or Nigerian Igbo) tend to succeed in the US.

Chua has a gift for simplicity, sticking to her main argument and homing in on what matters. She is a digger of surprising facts, which she presents in clear if artless prose. Her occasional oversimplifications, and her willingness to plunge into areas in which she is not an expert, only increase her influence on public debates.

The chief tension in US history is between the rhetoric of universalism and the reality of white dominance. As Chua says, the US officially thinks of itself as a “supergroup”, which can accept people of all tribes as Americans. Hardly any other big country sees itself this way. Even in very diverse states, one tribe usually dominates – in China, for instance, the Han Chinese. Yet whenever American decision-makers discover another country – generally after invading it – they tend to impose upon it the supergroup logic. They assume that once the country is given markets and democracy (or at least a pro-American dictator) then any pesky tribal issues will soon fade away. The prescription worked brilliantly in post-war Japan and West Germany, but then Japan had always been unusually ethnically homogenous, and Germany had become so through genocide. In the first half of Political Tribes, Chua argues that things went wrong when the US applied the usual prescription to more ethnically complex states such as Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Venezuela.

In Afghanistan in the 1980s, American funding helped create the Taliban. In 2001, the US identified the Taliban as an anti-democratic, demonic force that had to be eradicated. That wasn’t totally wrong, but the Taliban was also a resistance movement of ethnic Pashtuns, who feared that their fragmented collection of tribes and clans was losing control of Afghanistan. The US toppled the Taliban in 75 days. Then it installed a new Afghan regime, which (though the Americans don’t seem to have dwelled on the fact) consisted mostly of ethnic Tajiks. Nearly 17 years later, the Afghan war is the longest-running in American history. Trump has sent more troops, while saying: “We don’t want to talk with the Taliban. There may be a time but it’s going to be a long time.”

In Iraq, too, the US initially ignored tribal divides. Peter Galbraith, in The End of Iraq, tells the famous anecdote of the three Iraqi-Americans who were invited to watch the Super Bowl with George W Bush in January 2003. This was two months before Bush invaded Iraq, yet the visitors soon realised the president wasn’t familiar with the distinction between Shia and Sunni. When they tried to explain it, Bush allegedly blurted out: “I thought the Iraqis were Muslims!” The story would have been hard to credit, were it not for everything the Americans did after the invasion.

In countries with sharp ethnic divides, democracy often just makes these worse. When there’s suddenly a free election, the largest tribe – in Iraq, the Shia – tends to grab power and punish smaller tribes. Islamic State was created largely by disaffected Sunni Iraqi military officers. In Myanmar, too, more democracy seems to have led to greater persecution of the Rohingya. Western countries (not only the US) misread Aung San Suu Kyi as a democratic hero; she is in fact a tribal leader.

While democracy can hurt small tribes, the other American prescription, free markets, can alienate big tribes if a country has a market-dominant minority – and it usually does. When Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela 20 years ago, the US understood him as a communist stooge. In fact, the brown-skinned Chávez was backed by most of Venezuela’s non-white majority, who were sick of a white elite controlling the economy. But when Chua pointed this out in her first book, many white Venezuelans insisted that they were colour-blind, and that racism didn’t exist in their gloriously miscegenated country. She got death threats.

At times in Political Tribes, Chua overstates her argument. Whatever the country, her moral is always the same, “the blindness [to tribal identities] has been the Achilles’ heel of US foreign policy”. This is broadly convincing but surely exaggerated. Even for the average half-awake layperson, two days in Latin America is enough to establish the centrality of race. Surely American policymakers couldn’t have missed it? But Chua – a canny marketer – makes her points strongly. 

After her tour of American blunders abroad, in the second half of the book she comes home. By now, the reader is primed to see the US as just another messed-up tribal society. Other writers have made this argument over the past two years, but Chua does a better job than most of explaining how the country got there.

We’ve heard a lot since 2016 about how the white working class voted for Trump in a scream of post-industrial economic pain. That is partly the case, but it doesn’t explain why vast majorities of whites in all income groups (and most white women) voted for Trump. He was the candidate of whiteness. Many of his voters were upset by the browning of their country. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act abolished the old racist quotas favouring immigrants from white countries. Non-whites arrived and, shockingly, demanded rights.

Perhaps the biggest social change in the West since the 1960s is that ethnic minorities, women, gay people and now transgender people have stood up and said that there are no such thing as second-class humans. Some on the American left have taken their claims to extremes. They ditched Martin Luther King’s dream of a country in which people wouldn’t be judged on “the colour of their skin” (which was also Obama’s ideal); instead they revel in the unique identity and unmatched victimhood of their own subgroup. Chua describes how the acronym LGBTQ has spawned variants including GLBT, LGBTI and LGBTQQIAAP, as “identity groups quarrelled about who should be included and who should come first”.

Still, many members of the former second class have successfully stormed the first-class cabin. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants – for centuries, the US’s proverbial first-class humans – are now under-represented at elite universities, in the music charts, and even on the Supreme Court, which was entirely Catholic and Jewish until the Catholic-turned-Episcopalian Neil Gorsuch took his seat last year. Meanwhile, non-whites such as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates have claimed a right to retell the national story – helping shift it from Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” to an account of genocide and slavery.

Just as Iraqi Sunnis lost power after Saddam Hussein fell, American whites now fear decline. True, they remain dominant compared with blacks or Hispanics. They are richer, live longer, and have a police force whose self-understood mission seems to be lethal control of black men. But whites are no longer unquestionably first-class Americans.

Even so, says Chua, most of Trump’s 63 million voters are not white nationalists. If you take “white nationalism” to mean that all non-whites should be killed or expelled from the US, only 4 per cent of Americans admit to supporting it, according to an NPR/PBS Marist poll last August. In another survey for the Pew Foundation, even 56 per cent of Republicans said it was “neither good nor bad” that non-whites will become the American majority in the next 25 to 50 years.

Rather, when Chua tries to explain what racial arrangement most Trump voters want, she describes a video in which the Trumpist TV host Tomi Lahren lays into the black American football player Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled in protest at the national anthem. Lahren delivers a lecture on the “patriots” who died for the flag, and concludes: “Colin, if this country disgusts you so much, leave. I guarantee there are thousands and thousands of people around the world that would gladly take your spot.” This video has had 66 million views. Parsing Lahren, Chua argues that Trumpist whites want minorities to be grateful, to know their place, to buy the white narrative of a good America, and not to imagine they are first-class citizens.

Trump now articulates that position daily. He both epitomises and supercharges American tribalism. With him in charge, all other American groups – blacks, women, Mexicans, gays, ad infinitum – feel even more threatened than his base does. Meanwhile, below the radar, new American groups keep spawning. Chua catalogues them diligently: the millions of followers of the “prosperity gospel”, who think Jesus will make them rich; the mostly white, armed “sovereign citizens”, who think they would have been rich but for the federal government’s elaborate scam to rip them off; fans of World Wrestling Entertainment, who aren’t very interested in the reality-fiction distinction, and who embraced Trump years before he went into politics; mostly Hispanic followers of quasi-Catholic “narco-saint” cults, and so on.

Politically, the US seems to have reached the point that the future president John Adams feared in 1780: “A division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our constitution.” Meanwhile, the American patriotism vaunted by Lahren is waning. Trump’s own rhetoric is often caustically anti-American. “In these conditions,” warns Chua, “democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition – pure political tribalism”.

Chua’s conclusion – dripping with optimism about America, in 20th-century, high-patriotic style – doesn’t sound credible. She describes individual Americans who have reached across the tribal divides, and offers some cheerful vignettes from Yale: “I’ve seen a former Navy SEAL and a human rights activist bond over Trivial Pursuit.” She points out that the US is doomed if the left simply writes off the country as inherently racist since its foundation, and the right keeps dreaming of a white Christmas. If American tribes are to continue their common project, they will have to believe that the US can one day attain its promised universalism. Only non-Americans have the luxury of dismissing this as sentimental claptrap. She closes with lines from the black poet Langston Hughes:

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath –

America will be!

Chua admits that her extolling of individual outreach can seem like “a Band-Aid for bullet wounds”. An equally plausible scenario for the US is that Trump loses the 2020 election, condemns the vote as rigged and urges his followers to fight it, unleashing a low-level civil war (possibly while boarding a plane to Moscow to escape money-laundering charges). Then, the Iraq war will have finally come home. l

Simon Kuper writes for the Financial Times. His books include “Football Against the Enemy” (Orion)

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
Amy Chua
Bloomsbury, 293pp, £20