Sunday, 4 May 2008

Religion, guns and country lanes

(first posted 20th April)

Obama's "wobble" may be over now, though we shan't know until the Pennsylvania primary. It was strange to hear what he'd done wrong. He'd suggested that some small-town Americans were defending the values of gun-ownership and religion out of frustration and bitterness. It didn't seem an unusual or controversial statement. Of course people who see jobs vanish and communities under threat look for shared values, often rooted in an imagined past. And it's easier to place blame on outsiders and newcomers than to analyse the problems of global economics or the defects of big corporations.

But many United States citizens see small-town America as part of their essential identity. Small towns are the inheritors of the pioneers or the settler villages where, according to myth, the white inhabitants needed guns to fight off attacks from marauding natives. The barbarity with which native villages were destroyed and crops uprooted is less well known and I've never heard an American cite Washington's command to employ terror as a weapon against native men, women and children.

Obama didn't address the complexity of history. He certainly didn't talk about massacres and violence. He simply suggested that small-town Americans were not perfect - and was instantly accused of elitism. Columnists suggested that this might lose him the nomination or the election. He had offended against the vision America has of itself.

United States myth-making is potent and piecemeal. Hollywood contributes, and advertising, and the sonorous phrases of the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address and the Pledge of Allegiance. The Pledge, recited daily by schoolchildren facing the flag, was, like the others, adopted, defended and altered when the United States felt itself at risk. Until 1942 it could involve a salute with the right arm outstretched and raised slightly above the shoulder with the palm facing down. This pose ended only when the U.S. entered the Second World War. It was evidently awkward that American schoolchildren declaiming "One country! One language! One flag!" looked strikingly similar to little Nazis.

I learnt about Britain from biscuit tins and Quality Street boxes. Tudor houses and pretty villages meant England. So did the redcoated soldier standing just behind a woman in a purple bonnet and fancy dress. England was a stagecoach drawn up outside a country inn. Scotland was bright tartan, castles and bagpipes. It was highly improbable and soldiers were expected to die for it. "There'll always be an England/ While there's a country lane," the song went.

I'd never seen a country lane, though I knew the paths through Richmond Park. Nobody put bright modern council estates on biscuit tins. Perhaps the government would take more care of council estates and the people who live there if they saw them as essential England.

I wonder what bitterness is inspired by our myths of an England that never was.

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