There really is something Great about America
"Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy".
- Margaret Thatcher
Note: I've rewritten this article in light of recent tragedy. It previously featured on this blog, in an earlier form here. That's one of my most popular entries of all time after it was linked to by a US website.
|The land of the free and home of the brave|
In 2011 two big events were celebrated on either side of the Atlantic. In the USA spontaneous parties began as news spread that Osama Bin Laden was dead. In the UK the nation was told to celebrate a Royal wedding. The scenes of joy in America filled me with a sense of almost unreserved admiration for a great nation whereas the state sponsored merriment in my own country provided me with a deep sense of detachment from a people who appeared as mindless zombies driven by raw unquestioning patriotism to celebrate something which did not benefit them at all.
As the street parties began I became painfully aware of how unfashionable my views are and it's important to emphasise how out of step with the broad consensus of my nation I am. At the time I was presenting a talk-show in London and the phone lines were rammed in response to my 'controversial' view that our old ally the US’s ideas were to be celebrated and ours condemned. Here it is the norm to hate the "stupid" Yanks. It has been for a long time and is almost a form of dogma. The irony of the belief that Americans are less intelligent is hammered home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer by the absurd presumption among Royalists that US fascination with a Royal Wedding is proof our system is better! I suspect they watch in the same way you might a documentary about the quaint customs of a jungle tribe who have drifted culturally in a 'different direction' and still worship fire. To me it's respectful and implies nothing more.
What’s important here though is the fact that the two alternative sides of the Atlantic were celebrating two opposing ideas. Bin Laden was seen as an evil man. He qualified as such not because of the identity given to him at birth but instead the one which he earned for himself in life. His actions and deeds defined him in the minds of Americans. On the other hand their birthplace defined them in his twisted brain. He hated them because of who they were born to be: Americans. That was enough for him. It didn't matter what they did with their lives, to him they would always be defined by their birthright. In my opinion the Royal Family's state sponsored knees up falls down clearly onto the wrong side of this debate.
"All men are created equal," Thomas Jefferson's still radical phrase from the Declaration of Independence is a direct attack on the idea of defining someone by birthright. It’s a courageous refusal to accept the "Divine Right of Kings" and instead have faith in the people themselves. It is a phrase clearly not believed, understood or accepted in my country. Some seem to make the mistake of thinking this idea is the same as the significantly less nuanced feeling that 'everybody is equal'. On the surface this seems just as good, if not better. However, give it a moment's thought: should people all be treated equally when their behavior marks them out for a unique response? Should, for example, child murderers be treated by society as you would a scientist who discovers a cure for cancer? Of course not. Should the work-shy and hardworking members of society be paid in equal measure? Some think so, I do not.
The Americans, in Times Square, were celebrating the death of a man who opposed their idea that "all men are created equal". The English in London and around the UK were, whether they knew it or not, celebrating the exact opposite of that on almost precisely the same day. This is ironic to me because the UK originated the philosophies which are encoded in the documents America is based upon. Furthermore, this irony is compounded by the fact that the Americans looked across the pond at us with respect for our quaint traditions and way of life. However, many of us looked at them while holding our noses with contempt at their "stupidity" and "gullibility". There’s a curious unearned swagger to the cult of anti-Americanism which I nowadays find as confusing as a patriot who thinks loving their country involves never being critical of it.
Perhaps their smug attitude is partly down to the recent rise of conspiracy theory in the UK. Conspiracy theorists like to think they look behind the veil of what is going on in the world by not believing the "official story". People of this mindset had a field day with the Bin Laden story. Many conspiracy theorists think they have a sort of “special knowledge” which puts them above other people, or “sheeple”. However, the cynical mistrust of Governments which gives rise to this mindset is, at core, very American. It has been allowed to incubate over there so much because of their commitment to the notion of "freedom of speech". The majority of that subculture is appropriated by people here as proof of that nation's failings but I see it as a sign of their strengths.
Again 'free speech' is something which we started here but do not have any firm commitment to. Certainly it's not enshrined in our law. I'm not saying I'd want to burn a Koran but if I did want to express myself like that I'd have to go over to the US to do so, otherwise I might face prosecution. In the US their commitment to "freedom of speech" is like ours to the Queen, quasi-religious. This is only right because “free speech” displays a level of faith in humanity to act with responsibility and dignity. As I write this the UK’s Government is preparing further press censorship in line with ‘The Leveson Enquiry’. I've worked all my adult life in broadcast radio and I can tell you there is no freedom of speech there for merry old England. The US still trembles in horror at their so-called ‘fairness doctrine’ whereas in the UK such legislation would have been nothing more than a footnote in a much bigger document.
Don’t misunderstand me here, I’ve been anti-American when gripped by the easy cynicism of a young man but this short essay is a love letter to a country I know existed once in my imagination and can only hope will one day exist in the real world. It’s the ideas behind America which I'm seeking to defend. I have no intention of ever going there as I'm always told the reality of it is nowhere near my idealised version. If you're a reader in the states this piece is intended as a reminder of those ideas and philosophy which make you appear great to a Brit who has had a change of heart after considering the evidence. If you're a reader from the UK it's intended to push you into the realms of unpopular thought and ask you to reconsider your likely stance on "the land of the free and home of the brave".
It's also important to clarify that, like many of their citizens, I'm not blind to the often damaging effects of the reality of American foreign policy. Self awareness and the ability to change course are key to my argument and it's one of the reasons I admire that nation. The term "military industrial complex" was coined as a prescient warning by one of their own, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his farewell address. You often hear external critics of the nation use it, apparently unaware of this. Anti-war sentiment played a huge part in the electoral success of President Obama and JFK. To think Americans love war as much as the big companies who sometimes pull its Government's strings is absurd. Mechanised mass murder isn't popular anywhere in the world. Just as the war in Iraq wasn't here. The point is that some of the most damning critiques of American foreign policy come from within the country itself. Noam Chomsky doesn't live in Iran, he's based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, proudly protected by the nation he criticises.
It's worth pointing out that the caricature of an American who loves guns, god and gold is just that, a caricature. Again it's most often touted by Americans themselves, angry at the failures of their own people. To all intents and purposes I am best described as an atheist. When push comes to shove I don't see any objective evidence for a God. I certainly don't think, for example, that Gods should be allowed to elect a head of state. However when I was an in the anti-American camp I laboured under the delusion that my nation had a clear seperation of church and state. The reality though is that turn of phrase is not ours. It comes from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson back in 1802:
"..I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State".
In the UK there really is no such thing, we still have unelected Bishops sitting in the Houses of Parliament, the so called, Lords Spiritual. The idea of splitting The Church away from Government may again have its roots in England but, as with most of the things I admire about the culture I've emerged from, it has been done properly in America.
Yeah, but what about slavery? They had all that bad racism in the US, the UK wins there right?
Well, I'm not so sure. As I said before what I love about the US is their self awareness, their ability to change direction and correct things when they feel they've done wrong. They did abolish slavery and their policies of racial segregation when they realised the error of their ways and now, like him or not, a black man is their President. Nothing like that is ever likely in the UK. We'll never allow a monarch of an alternative ethnicity. In truth, our mindset would have plodded on with segregation I think. Just as we have with the Royals. There's no intent to change here in the UK, we've become stagnant, clinging to past glories:
"Ooh, lets put the Great back into Great Britain," people parrot to each other as my mind shouts back: "OH JUST F--- OFF!".
Yeah but what now about their policy on gun control eh? Michael Moore made that film and it proves what idiots they all are, with their guns. I win there don’t I?
I used to think their gun policy was absurd but in fact it ties right back into the faith their founders had in humanity. Initially their guns were used to defend themselves from the tyranny of the British Empire and its tax grasping Monarchy, this is a fact not widely known by those who decry the “stupid Yanks”. I didn’t realize this until the internet allowed me to hear the uncensored US point of view. Furthermore, someone from America explained their gun policy to me thus:
Having a gun is a sign that the Government trusts the people to behave as citizens rather than slaves. A nobleman carried a sword. A peasant was not allowed one. The peasants might revolt, a nobleman will only do so if his cause is just. In short, an armed populace provides a final defence against tyranny.
There is now a full and frank debate taking place about their gun laws in light of recent tragedy. I trust their democracy to make the right decisions regarding this and have tried to avoid the unedifying spectacle of the foreign Brit smugly announcing how to improve their laws when ours still support a Queen chosen by a magic sky fairy. If only some of my fellow Brits had the good grace to hold their tongues as America endured tragedy:
When I was a child I never doubted there was something great about America. In the 80's all the best films were American and all my childhood heroes had the accent to match. As a result when I played with my toys I'd affect one myself, as best as a little English kid can. The ideas projected by those early influences still shape me to this day: freedom, justice, democracy and trying to be brave in the face of tyranny. These are all ideas I like to think I value. In fact as a kid my country and America were almost indistinguishable to me. We both spoke the same language and had stood shoulder to shoulder when facing down the cardboard cutout figure of evil represented in my family's collective memory by Adolf Hitler.
My grandparents lived in a city which was flattened by the Nazi bombs. Second only to London, Sheffield the so-called steel city of the north, still bares the scars of bombardment. Unlike our nation's capital there are some areas there which have never been considered worth properly restoring. The fact that the USA came to stop the war machine that threatened my country is still important to some.
Over the years my childhood view of the world was replaced by the easy cynicism of a teenager and, in step with most of my generation, I had a period of fashionable anti-Americanism. It seemed exciting the first time I asked of the US: "aah, but who is the real villain, is it perhaps the war monger George Bush?". My view of the world was bolstered by firece critiques from the comedian Bill Hicks which at the time I misunderstood the context of. In retrospect I think Hicks deeply loved his country and was, like me, an idealist who couldn't understand why the realities of it seemed to fall short.
I remember September 2001, it proved to me that America is not superman and can be wounded. Things change - America might not always be a world power. That won't concern the Royals. They can do business with China just as easily as they can the Americans. Perhaps their Kingdom will be more adapted to fit that style of Government, when the economic tide turns. It concerns me that if that happens those who come after us will stuggle to find anyone of any note who thinks they were created equal. It also worries me that no one will be allowed to voice that concern and their last defence against tyranny will have gone.
Please add comments whether you agree or disagree, it makes for a better article and ultimately improves my writing style.
 As if to make this point with unnecessary force we even banned one of America's talk presenters, Michael Savage, from ever entering this country. He's a man in his 60's who talks for a living. It should be seen as incredible that the full weight of the Her Majesty's Government was put behind banning him from ever paying us a visit.
 Hicks was very popular in the UK, probably more so in his lifetime than he was in the US.