Building the Empire or Building Jerusalem?

Last week, improbably, I attended the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Last Night of the Proms concert. This came about because my older son had come to enjoy Elgar’s 1st and 4th Pomp and Circumstance marches, which led to a conversation about the 1st march being traditionally played at the Last Night of the Proms, which led us to attend the TSO’s version of that concert.

It was my son’s first evening concert, and he enthusiastically enjoyed it, despite the late hour. I was amused to see a graying fair-skinned audience carrying their Union Jacks, a demographic that characterized the Toronto of my youth, not its current multicultural reality.

The program included the lyrics to “Land of Hope and Glory” and Jerusalem, with which I admit to being unfamiliar. Riding home on the subway with a tired son, I tried to explain the dramatic difference between the two anthems. The words have stuck with me, just as a tune will sometimes, involuntary, persist in one’s consciousness.

The nationalist jingoism of Land of Hope and Glory is unmistakable. “Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set.” A global land grab. “God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.” More wealth. A bigger navy.

If this was the world view of the British at the turn of the twentieth century, it was also the attitude of the Germans, Americans, Japanese, French, Austro-Hungarians, Turks, and even Belgians. In retrospect, it is obvious how this attitude set the stage for the First World War.

In his poem, “And did those feet in ancient time,” William Blake used Jerusalem as a metaphor for a better, more compassionate and caring world than that which he inhabited. As a liberal Jew, I refer to this vision as the messianic age. Blake asked whether, as legend had it, Jesus ever briefly visited England and then referred to the “dark Satanic Mills” of the industrial revolution. Those mills, paradoxically, are what those who would have fervently sung Land of Hope and Glory would have embraced as a key engine of economic growth that created the Empire.

Blake’s conclusion was that he “will not cease from Mental Fight” until “we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant Land.” The dominant interpretation of his poem is that building Jerusalem means overcoming the inequities of economic growth to build a more just and compassionate society.

The conflict between “Land of Hope and Glory” and Jerusalem remains at the center of politics and policy today. “Land of Hope and Glory” is an expression of the view that puts a priority on economic growth with considerations of externalities, equitable distribution, and values that cannot readily be measured by the yardstick of GDP subordinated. Jerusalem speaks to the concerns of externalities, limited resources, equity, and community. These issues were recently discussed in Joe Gertner’s thoughtful article in the Sunday New York Times on May 10, 2010 entitled “The Rise and Fall of the GDP.”

In Canadian politics, the Conservative Party sings to the tune of Land of Hope and Glory, with its emphasis on a strong military, economic growth, northern sovereignty, “useful” science, and limited government. My regret is that those who would sing to the tune of Jerusalem – particularly the Liberal Party – have not articulated their program with comparable force or clarity.

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