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February 16, 2011

The Ashes and Arizona: an observation on colonial cultures - or why England is preferable to the United States or Australia

Posted by Lincoln Allison

In my opinion the most cheerful event of the first week of 2011 was the England cricket team's completion of an impressive 3-1 victory over Australia in test cricket. And the most miserable was the assassination by Jared Loughner of his congressional representative and at least five other people. On the face of it there is nothing in common between these events; arguably, it is distasteful to mention them in the same paragraph. But I do think that the debates about them do have something in common which ought to be remarked.

It is doubtful whether a rational account could be given of Loughner's motives, but accounts of their context have emphasised the "vitriol" and "hatred" which now exist in American political life. Observations about the state of such debate are, naturally, also part of the debate.

The central problem with American politics, one might casually observe, is the impossibility of having a debate in what, in England, we would think of as a normal consequentialist style. Thus the issue of healthcare is not about calculating costs, death rates etc; it is about "socialism", American identity and the long-term direction of change. It must resort to fundamental principles and to - of all things - the views of a body of intelligent but normally mortal men who lived in the eighteenth century. Thus the phenomenon of "Tea Party" politics and the stridency and despair which they assume. A simple, boring reform, which could be reversed if it turns out badly, as most reforms do, becomes something which seems to threaten existence itself - or, at least, identity.

It is as if many Americans carry an internalised "Committee on Un-American Activities" round in their heads, making them so sensitive to breaches of Americanism that it hurts, that their very personal identity is in doubt. Every debate is about who we are and where we are going. The nation is a political and ethical project and if you are opposed to my construction of this project then you are opposed to my very being. I think this permeates every level of American political life.

I have mates who are Communists and republicans; of course, I'd try to shoot them if there were a civil war in which they attempted to impose their ideas, but I'm generally relieved that this is not the case. Most importantly, I don't regard them as un-English - not even the European federalists. I also have a wife who agrees with me about very little. But friends in American universities tell me stories of academics who have studiously ignored them for years because of an opinion expressed about Afro-American identity or US policy in the Middle East. Most people can handle disagreement, but not when it seems to deny their identity.

What on earth has this to do with England playing Australia at cricket? The answer becomes clear if you read the press and web comments about England's overwhelming victory. It isn't Australian to be stuffed by the Poms: the constant message is that is not who we are. The tone of many comments (though not all) suggests that some sort of defining national project has been betrayed by the current team. Legend has it that when Alan Border as Australian captain was faced with a number three batsman who thought he had flu and ought to be held back he (Border) asked for "an Australian" to take his place. "Australians" in this sense are virile and invincible; they have bluer eyes and bigger knives than the rest of us and they are not overweight wusses pampered by the nanny state at all. New Zealanders, incidentally, are even worse, at least in relation to rugby, as was exemplified by their hysterical reaction to defeat in the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

Make victory - or virtue - a part of your identity and you are in big trouble when you lose or virtue goes missing. It generates bitterness and confusion and a desperate search for those to blame. Also a kind of playground patriotism: there are several sites and columns in Australia which have said things like "We'll just go back to our beautiful beaches and warm climate and lovely cold beer and leave the Poms to their damp little over-crowded island". It is, after all, the nature of colonial identity that it must be better. "We" can't just be a bunch of shysters who speak somebody else's language and have somebody else's culture in our bones who have washed up on this particular shore and chased the natives away. We must be better in our purposes, "the last, best hope", "a shining city on a hill", "Paradise". No "we're shit and we know we are" for us, no Barmy Army who are prepared to travel thousands of miles to see the team lose.

Which is why, fond as I am of America and Australia, I can't stay there all that long before I want to be back in England or France where you can just be English or French without having any particular virtue or ideology. And you can accept that your fellow citizens are as English or French as you are without having to respect them or agree with them. Incidentally, Australia: good beer should never be cold and minus 8 degrees, which we had over Christmas, is infinitely more fun than plus 38 (which my Aussie relatives had) as well as being more appropriate.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is My Father's Bookcase: A Version of the History of Ideas.

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'A simple, boring reform, which could be reversed if it turns out badly, as most reforms do..'

Ah, but it won't be reversed - none of them ever are. I don't blame Americans for their fear of the slippery slope to Socialism.

Posted by: Robert Sharpe at February 23, 2011 01:56 PM
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