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December 26, 2005 || 4:28 pm
Arguing about America at Christmas dinner

It's not, let's face it, the best time to argue about America; around the turkey and booze, with my very left-wing family and myself, whose love affair with the USA has yet to end. I'm not sure how it started but I do know that I came perilously close to thumping my mother for a comment at an inopportune moment.

How to defend, as I try to do regularly, a country that many of my fellow British citizens denounce as evil? My problem is chiefly that they are often right in what they say. When the charges of racism come up, for example, I can't say that no, there is none. When they say, vis-a-vis Bush-Kerry 04, that Americans vote on personality not policy, they are right. Anti-gay - tick. Religious in the face of reason - tick. Sometimes, in the thick of one of these arguments, I feel like I need a new AA - America-lovers Anonymous. 'Yes, I know its the most bigoted and stupid country in the world, but I just can't kick the habit'.

My problem - and this does not comfort anyone who is black or gay - is that I'm not sure how important all of these 'national characteristics' are. (Let's leave aside, for a moment, the fact that they are not really national characteristics at all, because most of my defence of America is centered on Alabama, a place where they certainly do apply.) My experience of America has been about personal relationships across racial and sectarian boundaries, culture, landscape. To me, the States still has space within it for people's personal dreams to be fulfilled, and space where, if you want to come into a community and you are willing to listen and learn, dropping preconceptions and ideological baggage, you can find extraordinary generosity. America does still dream, yearning - beyond the materialism that is perceived on this side of the Atlantic - for better times, utopias, magic. It does still reward hard work, and also charity, volunteering, a personal involvement with the needy.

But there is no middle ground or shared assumptions that I have found to enable me to make this argument to the anti-Americans here. We simply speak two different languages about nationhood and value. The arguments that merely turn the coin back onto the UK - i.e., how can we talk about prejudice when we still have such a rigid sense of class, that we are racist too, that we too have our hidden and nasty underbelly of popular political thought - are weak and irrelevant. I sound - as I have just done here - like a hopelessly romantic apologist if I try to explain the everyday experience of living in a small town in the Deep South.

Perhaps there just isn't, ironically, a common language to describe two such different nations and cultures - and perhaps now, when feelings are running so high here among the 'old left' against the USA, it isn't the time to try. But reading even the most painful of American literature, they still manage to convey something of what America's soul - or souls, plural, for its essence is also in pluralism - is. And I'm not sure why it is so unacceptable to fall in love with somewhere that is still difficult, contradictory, even enraging sometimes - and whatever rage some of us here feel towards the USA at times, it is nothing compared to the rage that many Americans feel towards their government and institutions.

But until I find a better way to explain, I'm stuck with the unusual position of being, apparently, the most right-wing person around the table...



Is what you experienced in Alabama, a big part of the American dream, do you think?

“personal relationships across racial and sectarian boundaries, culture, landscape” could describe many communities – do you think the space to dream is unique to the US or just felt more strongly there?

“if you want to come into a community and you are willing to listen and learn, dropping preconceptions and ideological baggage, you can find extraordinary generosity…”

This sounds to me like you are talking about the human spirit/condition. And could apply to a town in the US, a village in China or maybe even the UK ?

People are annoyed with “big” “corporate” America and with the big government policies they don’t have control over or a major say in. I don’t think people hate the communities or the people in America – do they?

By Anonymous Ben, at 12:22 pm  

well - a lot of conversations I have here show that 'people' genuinely do think that the American people themselves are racist, stupid and ultra-conservative and therefore hateful. A lot of british people say, with no hesitation, 'I hate Americans' and 'I could never live there among all those people who are so awful and bigoted, how can you possibly like them?' which is a difficult argument for me to fight, because I had a lot of kind treatment from people who, if I started to talk about race, politics or religion, I would get into very hot water with. Even my parents, when they came to visit me, automatically hated the white community and loved all the black people - they couldn't stand what they saw as the incredibly segregated society in the South, while I had lots of white friends and went to tacitly white bars and so forth - which makes me sound like a collaborator, except if you live there you learn that it's not that simple. But to lots of British people, I should have been boycotting the whole white community there.

and, to answer one of your other points, I do think that the space to dream is felt stronger in the US than in Europe, certainly (China etc I am not qualified to judge on) - a factor not only of its history but also the physical landscape, the vast distances that mean that if you want to remake yourself, you can do so with little fear of prejudgement by where you land, or of any 'past' catching up with you. the culture and landscape are all about personal myths, independence, self-made men; whereas in Europe, our (however distant) feudal past is strong in terms of our sense of class distinction, barriers, even being considered and considering oneself 'working class' when, like a Beckham, you are a millionaire.

but to take the other point of view, of course one discovers truths about the human condition when away from 'home' - being an outsider makes things always clearer - so yes, many of these comments are true, perhaps, to many places where one is not at home, and therefore bound by overfamiliar social structures. But the USA (meaning, the non-Native American USA) is built as a country for outsiders so I do think it, culturally, has a different way of dealing with these kinds of people.

By Blogger HL, at 3:38 pm  

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