All Come to Look For America

As an officially registered Friend of America, I have some dark thoughts about our cousins in the USA. It isn’t that I haven’t tried to understand the motivations and mindset of the self-styled ‘greatest democracy on earth’ (surely, that’s India?). Growing up in the fifties and sixties, America was bright – colour television! – breezy and smart. We had American pen pals who sent packages at Christmas loaded with candy. We were goggle-eyed at their cinematic culture, our love of adventure and cowboys implanted from the velvet seats of the Picture House. Apart from my Scottish football annuals – and I still have the 1961 edition complete with England 9 Scotland 3 – my favourite books were cartoon stories of Gene Autry, the Cisco Kid and Hopalong Cassidy. Favourite TV? – Champion the Wonder Horse. At the time British television offered me the Wooden Tops…

When I took a sabbatical from the Glasgow Herald in the late seventies, I wangled a flight with British Airways to New York. Like many, my first glimpse of the Manhattan skyline lit a flame that’s never died. I wandered the downtown canyons like a country boy come to Glesca wi’ ma big Kilmarnock bunnet.

I’ve returned several times for presidential elections and to make radio documentaries, but most memorably in 1991 as a guest of the US Information Agency, a now disbanded body created by Eisenhower to promote America’s world view – in other words propaganda. If you’re hoping I was recruited by the CIA, I hate to disappoint.

I crisscrossed the states for a month in a group of journalists from twenty countries from Chile to Zimbabwe, Nepal to Thailand. We were indeed subject to material that fits the propaganda bill. It was the time of the first Gulf War so we went to the State Department, got a briefing from a general at the Pentagon, met the management of Voice of America and got the government line from an academic. The interesting thing was: we didn’t buy it. The poor witnesses were bombarded with challenging questions from journalists whose own lives in South America, Asia and Africa had been touched, often disastrously, by American foreign policy. We caused such a stir at the Pentagon that we appeared in the pages of the radical magazine Mother Jones in which I was quoted (political editor of Scotland on Sunday).

Were our American ‘handlers’ furious? Far from it. They loved the rows we engendered and the anger many of us displayed straight to the face of official America. Then I realised they were also opening us up to another side of the US – progressive, liberal, internationalist America which objected to military interventions. We had dinner with a professor whose dissidence over Iraq had earned him an arrest and conviction. He was going to jail the following week. In San Francisco we met the other side of the dream, the homeless and the AIDS victims. The experience changed my view which tended to see the States in one dimensional terms. The depth of distaste liberal Americans held for their own government was underlined when I later spent time in Washington where it was hard to find anybody outside the Republican right who fully supported the Bush presidency.

Yet it seems this alternative America gets buried in the blizzard of machine politics surrounding elections. Hillary Clinton doesn’t represent it. I suppose Bernie Saunders kind of did. The effect of course is we see a tiresome shouting match with hysterical partisans chanting slogans. I think coverage of the presidential contest demeans the nation. It is so shallow, it embarrasses the whole country.

So what goes wrong? Well, in such an outspoken and opinionated country, the intellectual and the considerate often get shouted down and crowded out. If you watch the networks they give you the tabloid perspective, the noisy overview. One of the aspects I enjoyed best at election time was watching C-Span, which was a live TV service before online live video streaming. (It now is digitised). It was often a single fixed camera in a room with maybe four experts and an interested audience at, say, Georgetown University. You could sit in the hotel room and effectively eavesdrop on nuanced, informed debate on subjects never touched by the mainstream broadcasts.

But the viewing figures were tiny. The danger with professional messaging is that content is relegated in favour of sound bite and point-scoring. If you screech about believing in God or holding a gun in your cold dead hand, you get an instant, mass reaction. Nuanced argument requires patience and concentration. There just isn’t time for it no matter how many months the campaign runs.

I wonder if this may be connected to the birth of the nation, a mere 240 years ago, and events which still resonate, however bizarrely. The folk memory of early settlers still runs through the unconscious of many Americans. The myths of the frontier (like cowboys) echo down the ages. The story of the struggle of the first arrivals who brought God and the Gun is like their Bannockburn (or Waterloo). And it’s comparatively recent, as well as compounded today by images of God-fearing and gun-toting in pretty much every movie made in Hollywood.

I’ve been reading The Pilgrims by Sam Fitzgerald detailing the arrival of the first waves of European settlers including the hardy souls on the Mayflower, among them William Bradford who became governor of the Plymouth Colony. I think the following passages sum up my dark thoughts about the States today with their religious fundamentalism, a seemingly casual relationship with violence and a reliance on personal independence. See what you think.

‘…the Pilgrims’ treatment of the Quakers was mild in comparison to the extreme measures taken by the Puritans. Quakers caught by Puritans were flogged, branded with hot irons, had their ears cut off, their eyes put out, were stripped of all their possessions and even put to death.

‘…(Bradford) took a bold step. From here on each family would have its own plot for planting corn. They would be responsible for their crop and whatever they produced would belong to them. The effect was instantaneous. Everyone became much more industrious. Women and children who had complained they were too weak to work in the fields eagerly tended their crops. More corn got planted and more got harvested.’

In the first we see the Puritans who followed the original Pilgrims descending to medieval brutality against fellow Europeans who worshipped differently – Christian compassion indeed. But the Pilgrims themselves banished those who failed their dogmatic tests and they killed. Local natives were massacred – women, children, the lot. In today’s religious zealotry, which afflicts so much of the USA, we hear the argument of an eye for an eye. We see doctors murdered by the so–called God fearing outside abortion clinics. How often have we seen the personal Armageddon of a gun slaughter to express disaffection? We hear how one religion – Islam – must be banned from the country. The case for the Mexican wall is another fundamentalist example. Childish and simplistic, it degrades all those it seeks to banish and all those who support it.

The adherence to guns as a routine part of life follows on from the days when a firearm was as necessary as a knife, a fire and a water source. On Channel4 this week a documentary in an Ohio gunshop showed how people are training their children how to shoot. Men are taking home assault rifles (‘my wife will kill me for this!’). A revolver is sold to a woman as having the safest trigger lock (‘when you come home with the groceries you can put it on the worktop without the fear of it going off.’) The Old Testament religion of the born again Christians and the fetishising of guns represent a weirdly similar mirror image of jihadis – simultaneously devout and tooled-up.

The second quote from the book comes after a description of the dismal attempts to stave off starvation in the early years when everything was done on a communal basis. In theory it should work but human nature kicked in and those who worked hardest resented doing so for those who didn’t. There were malingers – and elderly – who didn’t contribute so much but took the benefits. So Bradford listened and threw out one of the Christian principles the Pilgrims adhered to – universal sharing. At a stroke and in every succeeding year, the self-interest and individualism of each family drove better harvests when they worked for themselves. They went from famine to prosperity. It’s an uncanny echo of the individualism of America which rewards ambition and enterprise and rejects the communality of, for example, fair taxation and public health provision.

It’s a theory anyway…that somehow, for all the surface progress in technological sophistication, at base the fundamentals of Pilgrim America still run deep. Like river courses, they may change direction over time, but down the centuries the water still flows the same way.

The difference is, the Pilgrims needed guns to hunt and defend. They needed God in a pre-science age which was to give rise to the witch hunts of Salem. And they adhered, in their primitive ways, to a higher purpose – the building of a new country. Quite what America is reaching for right now, I’m at a loss to know.

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14 thoughts on “All Come to Look For America

  1. ‘Quite what America is reaching for right now, I’m at a loss to know’.

    The End?

  2. “Every country gets the politics it deserves . . .”

    America deserves better than this.

  3. ‘Quite what America is reaching for right now, I’m at a loss to know.’

    I think we’ll find out shortly.

    Spent some time living in the states as a young fella. They’re still a young country and still looking for themselves in many respects. I got the feeling they weren’t aware of their own amazing potential. They’re just people, and like people the world over looking for their future, there will be as many horrendous screw ups as glorious successes.

    Their system of government and those who steward this system (their own establishment) have presented the American voter with one of the most dismal of choices in American political history. I don’t envy them that choice one little bit and the rest of the world will have to live with the decision. Its not my place anyroads to tell folk in another land which way to vote, though a ‘none of the above’ option sounds fairly appealing about now.

    America’s choice in candidate today is apparently between greed or hatred and there’s nothing the rest of the world, or indeed the American voter can now do about it in the short term. What we all hope for, is that there is a longer term for the American public to ensure that such a dark day in their politics is not repeated.

    Good luck to our friends across the pond.

  4. A two party system that requires billions to take part in. (electoral college WTF!).


    A two party system that takes 10’s of millions to take part in (FPTP WTF!).

    Trump or May/Farage?

    It might be a young nation, but England wants what it has to offer in stupidity.

  5. Ah the wonder horse.
    Does everyone know his name yet?

  6. Another couplet from the same Paul Simon song:-
    ” I’m empty and aching and
    I don’t know why.”
    I have relatives in America, as do many Scots/Irish/Welsh/English from these shores, so we at least have a tenuous link to what’s happening over there.
    I also have relatives in Vancouver and Toronto, part of the great West of Scotland diaspora to the Americas in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties as successive Westminster Governments destroyed industrial Scotland.
    We too used to receive ‘parcels’ from America at Christmas stuffed full of plastic toys, soldiers, cap guns, and the Prize of Prizes, DC Comics in COLOUR.
    If only I had held on to these Superman, Batman, and Flash Comics, I’d have a pension for life!
    But that was then, when my Aunt, Uncle, and three cousins posed in front of their big Yankee car, in front of their Pennsylvanian bought house, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in Technicolour was the Promised Land.
    Nowadays through TV Verite we know differently. US Industry has been decimated, millions are on the dole or in low paid zero hours contracts. The slum ‘Projects’ feature is many a TV cop show. Desolation Row.
    However the 1% who own the world’s wealth are well represented in America, land of the free, home of the brave, Sweet Land of Liberty,as long as you can pay for it.
    And this is the social and economic model which May, Johnson, Ruth, Kezia, and Wullie wish to introduce here. The UK, 51st US State.
    Privatise hospitals, schools, prisons, well, everything. If you can’t pay, there’s always charity, or do without.
    Yesterday’s obscene cuts in benefits, disability payments, and housing benefits of between £50 and £120 per week is heralded as a good thing because it will incentivise people to go into work.
    Christ on a bike. where’s my gun?
    I’m empty and aching, but, unlike Paul Simon, I do know why.

  7. “If you’re hoping I was recruited by the CIA, I hate to disappoint”.

    You were – you just didn’t realise it. It’s called being an ‘asset”.

  8. Welcome to the eighties… again.

  9. So the folks of the USA tell the establishment politicians and the establishment media to get lost. Soon the folks of Scotland will tell the Westminster establishment and britnat media to get lost. Meanwhile Scotland should hold talks with Russia.

  10. Surely the failure of the U.S, and indeed the world media, to shoehorn Hillary Clinton into the White House,
    must rank as the greatest P.R disaster in history.
    Anybody else think this bodes well for Indyref2?

  11. “So the folks of the USA tell the establishment politicians and the establishment media to get lost. Soon the folks of Scotland will tell the Westminster establishment and britnat media to get lost. Meanwhile Scotland should hold talks with Russia.”

    Sad to say it but we, the ‘Scots’, had our chance and what did the majority here do? They cowed down before their ‘betters’ and failed to take the opportunity. The product of 300 years of being ground down, who knows but sad and dare I say it predictable? Anyway I hope you are right but there are still plenty of apologists in this place wailing we are ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’…………

  12. Re your big Kilmarnock Bunnet – What WAS the trick played on you by Sandy Lane?

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