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November 18, 2008

Defending America: it's only the "bad" bits of America which are worth defending, argues Richard D. North

Posted by Richard D. North

Have A Nice Day
by Justin Webb
London: Short Books, 2008
Hardback: £14.99

The American Future
by Simon Schama
BBC2, October/November, 2008

Stephen Fry in America
by Stephen Fry
BBC 1, October/November 2008

In Defence of America
by Bronwen Maddox
London: Duckworth Overlook, 2008
Hardback: £12.99

What these offerings mostly miss
The English liberal mind, especially when it turns to politics, is attracted to America. It is dazzled by the light, but drawn in by the darkness. And then it collects itself by sneering at the boyish vulgarity of the US.

Rather than cherry-picking the conveniently attractive or familiar bits, it seems valuable to remember that America is as foreign as France or Russia, those other revolutionary countries. In all the voices we met in the current TV mania to explain America, the sharpest was Apple's English designer, Jonathan Ive, in the last and by far the best of Stephen Fry's shows. He remarked that America is not a cynical place. Except, he might have added, that there is an even greater scepticism about government in the US than anywhere else.

Not having not such a nice day
You know Justin Webb's style of writing if you know his style of broadcasting. It's quite attractive, really. He is bouncy, confident, confidential and very slightly wheedling. I hadn't made up my mind to dislike his book until I was half way through it. After that, it was easy.

Justin Webb is the senior BBC man in the US and we've heard an awful lot of him in the 2008 presidential campaign. To be fair to him, he seemed to convey a certain respect for John McCain. In particular, he seemed moved by McCain's connection with American military veterans. But then, McCain was always the Republican who suited what we might call liberal European sensibilities. Damn it, he suited mine. Anyway, he was up against The One, whose election was not so much a coronation as an ascension. Mr Webb could not have predicted that within a book's deadlines, but was right to say that the presidential election is crucially about an assessment of character. We can guess (Mr Webb doesn't speculate) that McCain might have failed that even if he had been up against a human being.

Where Justin Webb seems useless is in his portrayal of American vigour. He rightly notes that the place is big and dangerous and that this is formative. He understands that the unifying feature of the country is the self-sufficiency that this size has produced. He seems to understand the American belief in the merit of success. Henry James wrote to William (it might have been the other way round) about the elemental blur of American modernity: I think this meant that Americans were unafraid to make something bigger than themselves.

But I don't think Mr Webb has quite internalised the sheer force of American acceptance of the need to avoid failure. This is the dark and energising side of American optimism. It explains the Goth in Gotham City.

Those shockable pioneers
Mr Webb fails us in several other ways, and again in spite of nearly getting there. Far too late in the book, and too briefly, he says that Americans are terribly shockable. And in the next breath he says that they will remain cursed by what Simon Schama calls the Original Sin of slavery and racism. Whilst Mr Webb acknowledges that men like Bill Cosby lay much of the blame for America's malaise at the door of black people themselves (in particular, black men), this polite BBC man doesn't begin to get his hands dirty with discussing the issue as it deserves.

As an ordinarily sweary European, Mr Webb finds the language of political correctness spectacularly numbing. He's right, it is. As Stephen Fry seeks to capture this essential American fact, the large cabbie lapses throughout his shows to an awed, "Oh my!". Mr Webb for his part notes that "Gosh!" is a poor substitute for "God!".

But Webb doesn't press this stuff home any more than he is useful on race. He doesn't notice the links between these issues. I have met many Americans who are appalled by the moral failure of the American black. Sure, their view is judgmental. But the point is that for many Americans, not getting with the programme is an elementary, un-American failing. What could be worse than not accepting the American challenge and instead becoming a large part of the failure of the American dream?

This reminds us that the European thinks society ought to fix the black problem; the Americans think that each black person ought to.

Those parochial cosmopolitans
America is an immigrant country in which the cosmopolitan remains parochial. The country's countrified land-locked mid-states are as politely puritanical as the villages whence their inhabitants sprang. Its citified coastal states have determined on a political politeness for fear of mayhem. And then, in all parts, there are people who burst out of these constraints, sometimes gloriously, and sometimes in depressed, drugged and drunken rebellion. Wouldn't you? I'm a bit Tourettesish in loose Britain and in the US I often feel like an unexploded bomb. But I feel small too: I am not as big-boned as an American. I can be energised by the place one moment and overwhelmed the next.

The European liberal mind cannot begin to like or defend America except by blanking out the majority of America which is not remotely European. It is not merely that almost all Americans are self-reliant, in a way which denies essential European habits of mind. It is more that most American thinking is less cluttered. It is less complex. Edith Wharton said the American mind had no foreground: I think she meant that it lacked nuance.

The results can be peculiar. For instance, the Constitution enshrines free speech, so this preternaturally courteous country is locked in endless rows about the right to offend. There is also something very American about certainty. The European liberal mind thinks it safe only to believe in what science declares to be beyond doubt. As to the rest, a nuanced scepticism is likely to keep one safe. That will do for many Americans, the ones the Europeans like.

But others like the certainty of moral codes or scripture or made-up creeds, and they feel less need to refer to others as they settle on these beliefs. This diversity of certainty is offensive to the European mind, for whom these matters have been settled consensually.

When Justin Webb defends America he is really telling us how many Americans are quite like us, but more polite and hard-working. The millions of Americans who are polite and hard-working but not really like us at all seem to be more or less off his radar or marked as clearly hazardous or ridiculous. I suspect that he isn't crazy about the unhinged Americans who populate much of the best of American culture. That all these are authentically American means that his defence of the place is way too partial - I mean, patchy - to work.

The cabbie keeps talking
Stephen Fry's mindset is not very different from Mr Webb's. As he takes us on his taxi-ride around the US, he is not ostensibly defending the place, though in his accompanying notes (in interviews and on his website) that seems to be his mission. It is easier to warm to Mr Fry's account. He seems a nice old thing. But he has a striking narrowness of mind, best exemplified by the disdain with which he passed by Miami as too horrid to detain him. He sneers too easily. I doubt that he is quite as clever as he thinks, though he clearly has a good memory and has an intense middlebrow love of science.

He redeemed himself by sometimes saying the unexpected. He obviously relished aspects of the American mind which don't seem to charm Mr Webb. So Fry takes us to Los Alamos and does thrill to the sheer boldness of the nuclear vision. And he does see the point of cruising Lake Powell, Arizona in a big fat houseboat. But for much of the time he seems to be falling into the very trap he says he wants to avoid: he introduces various American curiosities and responds to them as a true liberal child of Hampstead, London, England, Europe.

Schama = genius minus logic
Simon Schama's series seems much less defensible than the other enterprises. If your Big Idea is that you're going to be clever, it's a pity if you can't proceed in a roughly logical way. The shows' notion was to unleash a giant mind on America’s past so as to see its present and future more clearly. Actually it was a love letter to Barack Obama, but never mind.

The first episode explained how various American agricultural and conservation luminaries pointed out early in the 20th century that water would be scarce and needed harvesting. They were ignored, so the West became a dustbowl. And somehow, according to Professor Schama, ignoring those early greens has produced the effect that the Colorado River is over-mined and global warming will produce a new disaster.

Professor Schama ignores the way the Dustbowl experience taught people how to farm in ways which far exceeded the expectations of the people who said the West couldn't grow much. Sure, America still wastes water, but it may sip it when it decides it needs to. Indeed, the process has already started, as a contributor points out.

No-one knows the carrying capacity of the American West. But the big point is that historically hardly anyone guessed that burning fossil fuels might create a huge problem. Sure, it may be difficult to survive the global warming experience, but there isn't much in America's history which can teach us how to do so.

Except of course, the lesson Schama probably doesn't like: that one goes on crashing through the barriers which constrain us. American realism takes the form of not being bullied by reality. This is why America and the old Soviet Union were so well-matched, though the US had efficiency and honesty on its side. And, sure, America may well have to refine its founding belief that plenitude is the nation's birthright. But it may usefully retain the American naivety that produces solutions.

Schama at war
I thought Schama's case on America's militarism bizarre. It was a moody bleat about the horrors of war. These are self-evident and teach us very little. It was also an account of an arcane historical row about whether the US should have a standing army. Yawn.

Then we got stuck into Schama's argument that wars which are wrongly conceived and badly executed are likely be less moral than noble wars cleverly executed. I always try to yawn when a solipsism is rammed down my throat. Given Schama's liberal prejudices, it was obvious that Bush The Younger's Iraq war was in the disaster category. Schama lined up various nice military vets who agreed with this argument, and we were supposed to believe that this made his case. Blimey. (As Justin Webb and I are both too inclined to write.)

Schama at prayer
The episode on religion made rather similar moves. In the 60s the young Schama was struck by the conviction, courage and faith of black activists. The churches and gospel were crucial to the liberation movement. And so it is now with Obama, noted Schama. So that's alright then.

Along the way, Simon Schama noted that the white evangelicals have been important to Republican politics, and he implied that it was the Democrats' turn to draw on the religious well. Of course, the obvious point would be that it is bizarre that in the twenty-first century anyone should believe that God might be biddable as to which side of America's politics He might favour, if any. One prays to be in line with God's wishes, not to have Him fall in with one's own. McCain was attractive in getting that right.

To be fair to Simon Schama, he spoke to a white mega-Church preacher who said that he wasn't into political preaching. Actually, the preacher's point was rather Republican: the state can't solve much and so praying for this or that party might be a diversion of spiritual resources. Again to be fair to both our authors, Justin Webb had been rather good on this territory. He was of course bemused by American religiosity, but also noted that its writ was nowhere near a powerful as its voice was loud. Just powerful enough, though, our authors note, for McCain to make the mistake of running with Sarah Palin.

Thank goodness for Sarah Palin. Without her, many liberal Americans and their apologists would be forced to see that McCain was their man.

A less American US
Here's the rub. It is possible that the US will become rather less exceptional, and a bit more European, or Australian, or whatever. Globalisation may be like that. If and when America does become more ordinary, we will lose a lot that we love about the place. The musicals, the pioneering social movements, the making of modernity, the willingness to fight huge wars for the right causes, the openness to immigration. The universities. The Wire, The Sopranos, The West Wing, Curb Your Enthusiasm. And yes, remembering Top Gear, the giant, throbbing V8 engine. Who knows? The US has yet to become as oriental and as Latin as it is going to be, and we have no idea what that will be like.

A full-on defence
There is only one big thought which links Bronwen Maddox with Justin Webb and it is that defending America is much easier if you take George W. Bush out of the equation. However, it is only Ms Maddox who bothers to see the continuities between Bush and the presidents who preceded him. She goes further, saying some continuity between him and his successors won't go amiss. Thus, appearances to the contrary, President Clinton was no more serious than Bush in bucking American realities about climate change.

Similarly, Bush's unilateralism was neither exceptional nor total, nor without merit. Bronwen Maddox goes very much further than would be considered polite in Hampstead in defending recent American foreign policy. She draws the line at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, but otherwise sees merit or at least decent intention in what America has done. I am a tad more enthusiastic - perhaps less reasonable or sensible - but cannot fault this trim, valuable, coherent book.

Bronwen Maddox's view is not that of a propagandist and still less of a perverse one. She seems to want to take an unflinching look at the country she loves. And she begins in the right place: she is reluctant to pick and choose what to cringe over. That is surely the point: it's only the "bad" bits of America which are worth defending. And the bad bits are interwoven very tightly with the best.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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solipsism? Maybe Schama *is* a solipsist, but the point scarcely seems relevant. Possibly you mean a truism, or even a tautology?

Posted by: pedant2007 at November 24, 2008 04:37 AM
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