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.