The Americans and us: nought for our or their comfort

This is a message to some good American friends who had warmly commended to us Barack Obama's address at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, on  20 January 2008.  It comes from a life-long admirer of America who has lived, for years at a time, in the US and who has watched for a longish lifetime the different rates and directions of change of our American cousins and of us Europeans respectively, a phenomenon observed on my part without pleasure.  I wrote this in reply:

Those of us who have read, seen and heard Barack Obama's speech, or sermon, at the Ebenezer church in Atlanta on the 20th are bound to have been hugely impressed by such powerful and evocative eloquence.  Personally, though, I was even more strongly impressed, and depressed, by the huge gulf that it revealed between the conventions of US politics on the one hand and those of virtually the whole of the rest of the western developed world (not just the British) on the other.  The sentiments he expressed were, as we can all agree, lofty and admirable.  A clergyman (or clergywoman), or a university lecturer in ethics, or even a political commentator over here expressing similar sentiments would be either applauded or, perhaps more likely, ignored as preaching the obvious to the converted.  But a campaigning politician in western Europe who delivered a major speech in such terms would, I suspect, be ridiculed, or if not ridiculed, at best bombarded with the obvious question:  that's all very fine and high-minded, but what are you actually proposing to do about it in hard policy terms? 

Then there's the paradox that while you in the United States have constitutional provision to ensure separation of church and state, while we in Britain actually have an established church (the Church of England being the legally protected religious arm of the state), in practice even devout religious believers like Blair are forced to try to keep religion out of their political utterances because in this profoundly secular society, religion is a big turn-off for the majority of the adult population:  as Blair's press secretary and alter ego, Alastair Campbell, hastily interjected when his master was asked about his religious beliefs, "We don't do God."

It's sad because it's another example of the steadily widening gulf between the political culture in the US and that in the rest of the west, exemplified by the Iraq war (leaving aside, if possible, the UK's culpable complicity in it), the so-called "war on terror" and its implications for civil liberties, extraordinary rendition and Guantanamo Bay, the role of religion, attitudes to capital punishment and the treatment of prisoners, demonstrative patriotism, and now the role of the US sub-prime market in bringing about the impending recession which will engulf the rest of us as well as the United States.  Alas, it's no longer the case that the rest of the civilised world looks to the US as its moral and political leader.  And I fear that the causes of this ever-widening gulf go much deeper than just the consequences of the catastrophic presidency of G W Bush:  whoever succeeds him will not be able to build a durable bridge across it. Many of us small-L liberals used to feel that we had more in common with our American cousins than with our historical enemies just across the English Channel, the French and the Germans, and even our slightly more distant historical friends, the Scandinavians and the Dutch.  I don't think that's true any more.

I stress that I don't write this in any spirit of holier-than-thou:  I view our own political (and economic and commercial and social) system in the UK as grievously flawed, and in urgent need of repairs that it's clearly not about to get.  I'm not talking only about our hideously mistaken collaboration in the Kosovo and Iraq war crimes, but also about the gross and growing inequality in our society, the subordination of human and social need to the unscrupulous demands of the market, the reduction of most of our fellow-citizens to an army of stressed, weary wage slaves, the political and constitutional illiteracy of much of our population, the poisonous effects of large parts of our unprincipled and degraded media, the cowardice, puerile tribalism and tunnel vision of most of our politicians, the subversive consequences of our still rampant class system on our schools and health care, the commercial corruption of popular culture, the emergence of football (i.e. soccer, and to a lesser degree other kinds of sport) as a national religious cult, the concerted assault on our ancient liberties on the pretext of a stupidly misrepresented terrorist threat, the disgusting and shameful state of our prisons, the collapse of family life in our inner cities and the violence, drunkenness, teen-aged pregnancies and other self-destructive anti-social behaviour that it generates, the xenophobia and sentimentalised WWII nostalgia that disfigures our patriotism, the lack (since the treacherous perversion of the Labour Party by Blair and his associates) of a major political party whose principles are founded on a generous-spirited democratic socialist philosophy, and our gruesome climate.  I could go on….  and on…

So I'm as far from proposing Britain 2008 as a role model for the United States, or indeed anyone else, as it's possible to go.  You can probably put it all down to the pessimism of old age and the universal conviction of the senile that the place is going to the dogs, to hell in a handcart, down the drain, etc.  (Except that it is.)

Sorry to be so gloomy:  it must be the time of year.

PS:  The one bright spot in the landscape for us on this side of the Atlantic seems to me to be the possibilities opened up by the growing expansion of collective action by the Europe of the EU.  Notwithstanding all its faults and occasional comical shortcomings, the European adventure has the potential for developing a genuinely humane and sophisticated alternative to the rampant free-market capitalist model to which most of the English-speaking world has capitulated since its enthusiastic adoption by the likes of Reagan, Thatcher and Blair.   Already the Union has evolved into a wholly new kind of relationship between sovereign nation-states which preserves its members' national identities and cultures while equipping them to act collectively and constructively across a wide range of issues, from climate change to third-world poverty, in a way that would be impossible for any of us acting in isolation.  Even here, though, there are sadnesses:  the further that the European Union strikes out in new and more hopeful directions, the wider the gulf separating us from the United States seems likely to become;  and the pathetic, paranoid chauvinism of large parts of our media and its accompanying political culture in Britain seem destined to continue their shabby mission of resisting every inch of the way along the road to enlightened European collective action. Still, at least it offers a faint, if flickering, gleam of light.

Brian

15 Responses

  1. Tim Weakley says:

    Thank you, Brian, for summarising so eloquently my own feelings about the present conditions of both the United, though somewhat Untied, Kingdom and the United States.  As one who has an American wife and has resided for altogether twenty years in the USA, I regard America as my second home and the only other country of which I have direct experience in which I could be comfortable, though I hear much good of Australia and New Zealand.  I am therefore especially saddened by the gutlessness exhibited since September 2001 by Congress, whose members appear collectively to be mesmerised as a mouse by a snake, terrified to speak out against the erosion of civil liberties and the constitutionally-dubious usurpation of powers by the President, for fear of appearing soft on terrorism or even downright unpatriotic.  No one seems willing to direct his voice to the citizenry in general and say 'Look here, what are we doing to ourselves?'.  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised: it's a repeat of the Macarthyite era with 'Islamic terror' instead of 'Reds under the beds' as the big bugaboo. 

     Regarding the state of Britain, words fail me.

  2. Carl Lundquist/LA says:

    It is all history, Brian.   We have a different history than Europeans.   We shared Britain's history for 180 years and then left in 1776 and have done some 230 years without you all except as foreign enemies or allies.  

    You have established churches most everywhere in Europe — still.   We were forced away from them early on — by 1830 the last disestablishment of the Congregational (Calvinist) churches of New England was accomplished.  The established Anglican Church in Virginian and the South suffered massive trauma in the wake of the Revolution — the Head of the Church. the King of England, had become a  deadly national enemy.  They recovered as the Episcopal Church and maybe as 'the power elite at prayer', but establishment was dead beyond even imagining recovery.  

    This divorced God from Caesar.  Religion became the property of voluntary associations of the people themselves in their own persons.   God was ours, not Theirs.

    No bishops sit in our Senate.   No church need consider the President as anything except the politician he is, a figure remote from their beliefs.  This opened the field to independent moral critique of administrations by clerical figures.   Preachers led the overthrow of slavery in the 19th century.  In the 20th century, Jim Crow was overthrown by another batch of clericals — including, most influentially, black evangelical preachers like ML King.    Empowered by their own individual congregations, they could take on the power of the state, and states.

    And that leads us to Barak Obama and his speech to the black Baptist congregation.  Black churches have been central to black political power in the USA.   Politicians who would reach the black community, reach out to black churches — which have been for almost 150 years the only center for black community self-organization.   White politicians make the effort, certainly black politicians would also.   Ebanezer Church has a special resonance in the black civil rights movement: it was MLK's pulpit.

    From what I have seen, Europeans see pronouncements by religious figures as pronouncements by non-democratic elements of the governing structure.   Americans see them as pronouncements by leaders of voluntary associations independent of the governing.   We may or may not see God in them, but we certainly do not see Caesar.

    Brian writes:  Thanks once again for these insights, Carl.  What you say certainly makes good sense as an explanation for the Obama religious address — and more broadly to account for the differing attitudes to religion vis-à-vis politics as between the US and (most of) western Europe.  These differences are a quite significant element, it seems to me, in the drifting apart of our two continents.  The respective attitudes to religion and the churches are not in themselves to be regretted, clearly: they are as you say a product of divergent historical experiences.  But I think the drifting apart is regrettable, even if there's not much, if anything, to be done about it.  We should still all be able to work together on common problems and aspirations, so long as we make the effort to understand the differences, and where appropriate, to respect them.  

    Incidentally I think that in Britain it's only pronouncements by bigwigs of the Church of England that are widely regarded as "pronouncements by non-democratic elements of the governing structure":  those issued by, for example, our Roman Catholic Cardinals and bishops tend to get the Mandy Rice-Davis treatment ("he would say that, wouldn't he?"), or else are ignored as irrelevant (except no doubt by Roman Catholics, one assumes).  Other clerics — rabbis, mullahs, Buddhists, other Christian sects' ministers — are listened to, if at all, with bemusement, and watched, when dressed up in their priestly or other uniforms, as if they are creatures from outer space (which I suppose in a sense they are).  I doubt if any of them are widely seen as respected authorities on political or other ethical questions, except by their own small and mostly shrinking** flocks.  Indifference rather than agnosticism or atheism is probably the default position.

    **My watchful wife has corrected me about the "mostly shrinking flocks":  RC flocks are growing rapidly mainly because of Eastern European immigration; so too are the Mullahs' congregations, largely because of the Muslim birthrate and conversions.  And evangelical Christians get huge audiences.  It's mainly the C of E that declines.

  3. Carl Lundquist/LA says:

    Your wife  describes the American situation as well as the UK.   The old line[1] Protestant denominations seem to be losing out to the 'community' with their large independent congregations (7000 parishioners is average iirc) that can use community ties to reinforce themselves.  They are gathering in the 20- and 30-somethings even in the middle classes.  However they are not so much evangelistic as communitarian.  Some are even old line[1] denominations, like Presbyterian, but play down the denominational ties.   Muslim birthrates in the USA are about the same as Christian.    Mosques are behaving much as the immigrant churches did.  No big deal in the US.  Lutherans were once immigrant churches.  Now we are old line[1] Protestant — but not shrinking.

    As far as governance is concerned, we were always more libertarian than you folks.   For one thing, the British aristocracy never came to America, not even the third sons — except as members of the British army.   Lord Baltimore and the Penns sent their agents. Lord Fairfax, Washington's good friend, was unique and quickly left in the face of the Revolution.    The cheap land of the frontier destroyed any chance for landed gentry in the US, tho the patroons[2] of the Hudson Valley gave it a try. 

    Socialism in the European, UK sense never could gain purchase in the US.  Our municipalities erected socialist enterprises – from electric and gas companies to ports and hospitals.   Our Trotskyite socialists disdained that and became extinct — taking Marx and Fabianism with them.  Europeans look at our national government  and miss the municipal and state picture almost completely.  Even The Economist  fails to grasp it completely in their generally excellent analyses of America.

    An interview I watched of Mike Huckabee pointed this out.  After listening to the Governor's opinions and record in office, the interviewer said that in European terms Huckabee came across as what would be a Social Democrat in Europe.   Huckabee laughed but did not deny it.   Americans would recognize him as a Republican progressive right out of the 1910 progressive movement led by Teddy Roosevelt and Hiram Johnson of California.   Tho he may be a creationist, he is no High Tory or Board Room Republican.  (McCain still has my vote.)

    Are we drifting apart?  I doubt it.   We are squabbling like the usual extended family, certainly.   Hell, we even used do shoot each other.  Nevertheless we have been on the same side of every important international issue since 1820 and the Monroe Doctrine.   We have supported the EU since the days of the Franco-German Coal and Steel community.   

    Rather than an Atlantic rift, I suspect we are looking at an existential crisis in the left.  The revolutions have come and gone and all that is left is ashes and the need to solve mundane problems of finance and efficiency and the nasty business of policing in a world that is no better than it has to be.  The thrill of anti-colonialism has dissolved into Robert Mugabe and assorted corrupt big men parasitizing their peoples.  

    The right is not doing all that well either.  No one wants to pay taxes but when you call 911 [999 in the UK — BLB] the cops and fire department better show up.   And we like our garbage picked up and our streets paved.  And the emergency rooms to be there when we need them.

    [1] 'Old line': That is a division in the American churchly scene.   The old line Protestant denominations are those of American equivalents of traditional European churches:  Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational (Puritan Calvinist), Lutheran, etc..   This is in contrast to Pentecostals, Jehovah Witness, Mormon, Four Square Gospel, World Wide Church of God, Southern Baptist, etc. etc, etc..   There's no obvious alternative description.  Maybe traditional?   That has problems too:  Mormonism has roots in the US as deep as, say, Lutheranism.

    [2] pa·troon n.  A landholder in New Netherland who, under Dutch colonial rule, was granted proprietary and manorial rights to a large tract of land in exchange for bringing 50 new settlers to the colony. [Dutch from French patron, master from Old French;] [American Heritage Dictionary]
    BTW the British government, when it took over New Netherlands and renamed it New York, had no problems continuing the patroon-ships, and they persisted into the 19th century when they finally collapsed and the patroons became republican financiers and businessmen.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patroon.

    Brian writes:  More good stuff from Carl, for which yet more thanks.  He has provided the explanatory footnotes at my request, for the benefit of those of us ignorant Brits who were baffled.  (But I still think we're drifting apart, even if we continue to agree on many basic problems.) 

    To which Carl replies:  Ratz.  GWB is a ‘walking dead man’ politically – the lamest of ducks.   He is history in January 2009.   You are likely to be staring at a Clinton, Obama, McCain, or Romney in the Oval Office.   The Neo-Cons and Bush people will be gone.  Even the Republicans are disowning them.   Gates, the new SecDef, is acting as if he were an independent conservator trying to straighten out a mess.   Rice at State is obviously playing a hand with bad cards as well as she can.  She will bag a prestigious foundation job.   Petraeus in Iraq is playing the game that should have been played in 2003-4 and may yet salvage something.  And then again the something may be the unraveling of the kludge that Churchill et al created when they concocted Iraq and stuck a spare Hashemite on the throne like an Indian maharajah or a German princeling.   Iraq probably makes four relatively stable countries as opposed to one big anarchy – or tyranny. 

  4. John Miles says:

    Cheer up, Brian, for goodness' sake.

    What you say isn't complete rubbish, but it's just what our fathers used to tell their sons in those cloud-cuckoo, long-gone days of the forties and fifties. And, I wouldn't mind betting, their fathers before them.

    Let's agree that England today probably retains most of its old virtues, together with all its old vices.

    Yet I think that, by and large and in the main, we are slightly more civilised than we used to be.

    Though this is obviously a very precarious judgment.

    And we should never forget that, of all the people who've ever been born, we English of our generation are way up among the luckiest.

    What of generations to come?

    Their problems will probably include global warming, exhaustion of fossil fuels and how to feed a expanding population (Mr Malthus and all that).

    I certainly don't envy them, but neither did our fathers envy us.

    Yet I can't help feeling they'll probably cope.

    Though I might be quite wrong.

    Brian writes:  Well, I'm glad you don't think what I wrote "complete rubbish":  one must take any compliment, however faint, with gratitude!  But if you seriously question my catalogue of British failings, perhaps you would like to identify which specific item or items you think invalid?  And before you do that, I recommend that you read the article by Madeleine Bunting in today's Guardian (28 Jan 08) and consider whether the picture she paints represents a decay in civility in this country, or an advance.  I'm not an unreserved admirer of Ms Bunting's writings, but here I think she hits an important nail squarely on the head, if you'll forgive the cliché.

    BTW, I of course gratefully acknowledge the many good things about life in Britain:  I wouldn't wish to live anywhere else, in spite of everything.  But in this particular post I was seeking to explain why, in lamenting western Europe's (including Britain's) accelerating drift away from the United States, I wasn't laying claim to any vast superiority in the social life of my country over that of the Americans:  I wanted to pre-empt any retort about pots remarking on the blackness of kettles.  The list of British, and European, virtues, belongs elsewhere, and it's by no means negligible.

  5. John Miles says:

    There's no great harm in banging on about some of the more obvious failings of our society, though it's probably a mistake to get too carried away..

    You don't seem to consider the possibility that our society may still be less barbaric, less nasty and less generally unfair than it was ten, fifty or even a hundred years ago.

    Yet if you're just trying to say we shouldn't preach to other people, I couldn't agree more.

    Brian writes:  Thanks, John.  No-one could argue with the proposition that "it's probably a mistake to get too carried away".  But — as you might expect — I don't accept the implication that I was.  Nor was I comparing the relative barbarity and nastiness of our society now with how it was ten, 50 or 100 years ago.  Such a comparison would perhaps make an interesting blog post, although I doubt if it could usefully be answered 'yes' or 'no':  more likely "in some ways more, in others, less".  But that was not what I was writing about in this instance.

  6. Viejo Vizcacha says:

    I agree with your assessment of religion taking over politics. Undoubtedly, always had influence on it, but lately is getting into the absurd.

    I am amazed though, at the pull religion is having on the American people. And as it happens going to bed with an 800 lbs gorilla, US’ influencing the globe on religious politics.

    I have to ask you though, how do you explain Zionist Evangelism ?

    It is the saying around here. that it’s originator Jerry Falwell, having the ear of all the presidents since Nixon on, having seized the sensible soul of our tender Georgie, had to go into great extents of imagination, to justify the 3943 American lives lost on Iraq following that thread though. Then, the point to revise would be, could Hillary or Obama operate independently, in case there is a change of guard? And, how to accomodate the rest of the world for the ensuing Armageddon?

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