United States of America

There is usually a tune going around my head. This week it is The Who’s ‘We won’t get fooled again’. The trouble is, we all too easily get fooled again. Just read history.

I have never quite understood the concept of the ‘American Dream’. This is partly because whatever the dream might be for some, it is clearly a nightmare for others. Look, for example, at the statistics for gun crime, health inequalities and the gulf between the rich and poor. Land of the free and home of the brave? I wish.

But, lest it appear that prejudice should filter a much wider reality, it is indisputable that if you can succeed in the USA, you will understand freedom differently from those who fail.

What is more important this week is not arguments about the fulfilment or otherwise of the great American Promise (rooted in a narrative of Exodus-related exceptionalism), but, rather, whether the oft-repeated dominant myths of American self-understanding any longer bear the weight of reality. Seen from this side of the Atlantic (with a great love for American friends and great admiration for much of what the United States stand for), however, the real world is leaving behind elements of American self-identity and exposing its deep myths as somewhat shallow fables.

Donald Trump

It appears that many Americans regret having voted for Donald Trump. Apparently, they believed his promises of magic restoration of greatness without asking questions of his empty rhetoric. His misogyny, amorality, financial track record, sexual behaviour, narcissism and nepotism (to name but a few of the obvious challenges) would have ruled out the candidacy of any other semi-reputable politician for the Presidency of the United States of America. His subsequent lying, shamelessness, vindictiveness and inhabiting of some ‘alternative reality’ (in which things that happened didn’t happen and things that didn’t happen did happen; in which things he said he didn’t say and things he didn’t say he did say) cannot have come as a disappointing revelation to anyone with half a brain or ears to hear. His espousal of the alt-right has not come as news. His condemnation of anyone and anything he sees as a challenge to himself (Obama, for instance) is weighed against his silence in the face of inconvenient truth or facts.

Yet, none of this is a surprise. It was all there to be seen before he was elected. How on earth did the Christian Right even conceive of the possibility of backing a man who can’t put a sentence together and who epitomises narcissistic amorality? If Hillary Clinton couldn’t be trusted because of her handling of an email server (or because Americans had had enough of political dynasties), by what stretch of moral imagination could Trump have been thought of as a cleaner, brighter alternative? To which base values did he appeal?

Donald Trump is the most consistent politician America has seen. Nothing that is happening now – the testosterone competition with North Korea’s leader, NATO, Russia, for example – is new or surprising. It was all there to be seen. Either it was seen and approved of (which says something of the moral sense of the people who voted for him) or something blinded good people to the reality of what was put before them.


This has now reached a head in the violence of Charlottesville. Or, perhaps, less the violence and more the evident brazen impunity of the White Supremacists in waving their swastika flags, being accompanied by heavily armed militias, parading with torches, Nazi salutes and shouts of ‘Heil Trump’. This open bravado, provocative and blatant, is only possible because the fascists believe they can get away with it – or might even get approval from the top. The response to Trump’s lack of condemnation (or ‘naming’ them) published in The Daily Stormer makes it abundantly clear that they think Trump is beholden to their dogmas.

Trump’s unwillingness to name the offenders is not helped by White House clarifications that he included all perpetrators in his condemnation of violence. Contrary to protestations that he intended to include them in a general condemnation, he has said nothing specific. He attacks anyone and everyone – even his own colleagues – on Twitter; but the two he never mentions are (a) Wladimir Putin and (b) the white supremacists/nationalists. Join the dots – it isn’t hard.

(For another time: Trump has managed to grant to Putin what Soviet/Russian powers failed to achieve over seventy years: the destabilisation of the western alliance. Putin must think his birthday comes every day. I will return to this another time, but for a country that obsesses about its own security it is astonishing that they seem blind to what is happening internationally.)

Here again Trump is not being inconsistent. This is who he is and how he has been since his campaign began. There is nothing surprising here. The surprise is simply that people are surprised.

The future

Social media and the commentariat are ablaze with references to the rise of Hitler, the insidious corruption of political language and the potential imminence of nuclear war. It is easy to be dramatic and read into the present from the past in ways that are convenient, if hysterical. Images of judges in England on the front page of the Daily Mail, branded ‘Enemies of the People’ during the Brexit debate may rightly be paralleled with pictures in Der Beobachter of judges in 1930s Germany being branded ‘Traitors’. There are times when pointing out the parallel at the very least raises our moral antennae to the dangers of normalising language or behaviour that is corrupting.

However, there are moments in history where a tipping point is reached and it matters that people stand up and challenge the danger. This is one of them. Charlottesville is only one (relatively small) town in an enormous country, and most of the USA will have been as horrified as the rest of us at what they witnessed this weekend; but, the images coming out of this one place become iconic of a deeper malaise. People are right to look for consistency in the rampant condemnations and criticisms of their President in his favoured medium Twitter. If he damns Islamic terrorists and wet liberals for their actions, we can expect him to damn right-wing militias and neo-Nazi criminals when they walk his streets and drive cars into ordinary people. Silence.

In Berlin it is possible to do what a friend of mine who lives there calls the ‘death and genocide tour’ of places of significance. But, perhaps the most important place to visit is the relatively new Museum of Topography, built close to the site of the demolished Gestapo HQ. This museum documents the slow corruption of civil life and political discourse. It tracks the normalisation (the gradual acceptance of compromise) of corruption in public language, behaviour and institutional life. That is what made Nazism possible and, even, probable.

And that is the question standing before the American political establishment today. Does democracy matter? Furthermore, do truth-telling, truth-owning, public honesty and the integrity of language matter any longer? Is there no place for shame in today’s conflicted world?

There will be a million analyses of this situation. I write simply to get some thoughts into words. As a Christian leader, not oblivious to similar challenges here (consider the acceptability of multiple lies during the Brexit campaign and the brazen impunity of those who told them), I applaud my brothers and sisters in the USA who stand against the corruptions described above. I am proud that Christians (among many others) stood against the wickednesses of Charlottesville. But, I remain incredulous that evangelical Christian leaders, Bible in hand, can remain supportive of the President and administration that is corrupting their country. When will the Republican Party take responsibility, stop wringing their hands, and stand against this regime that will be able to do little without their support?

Reading the September copy of The Atlantic, an American magazine I hadn’t previously attended to, I am struck by the common challenges of Britain, the USA and Germany. If, as we frequently read, emerging democratic countries mark their progress economically and politically by a growing middle class, how should such established democracies maintain their own middle classes?

In an interesting article by one Don Peck entitled ‘Can the middle class be saved?’, a range of statistics are examined that indicate the decline of the middle classes in the USA. As in the UK, the rich are riding out what Peck calls the ‘Great Recession’ and doing OK out of it; the middle class is being squeezed; the category of the poor is increasing. Citigroup studies from as far back as 2005 speak of ‘the rich and the rest’.

The article covers a range of analyses and offers suggestions for growing the middle classes – some of which sound very familiar. The most interesting for a non-economist like me have to do with education. You have to read the whole article to get the whole picture, but Peck is clear that American schools need to get away from the target culture in which achievement is gauged purely by tests which then determine the teaching goals in schools. He states that: “Among the more pernicious aspects of the meritocracy as we now understand it in the United States is the equation of merit with test-taking success, and the corresponding belief that those who struggle in the classroom should expect to achieve little outside it. Progress along the meritocratic path has become measurable from a very early age. This is narrow way of looking at human potential, and it badly underserves a large portion of the population.”

Later he goes on to observe: “‘Vocational training’ programs have a bad name in the United States, in part because many people assume they close off the possibility of higher education. But, in fact, career-academy students go on to earn a postsecondary credential at the same rate as other high-school students. What’s more, they develop firmer roots in the job market, whether or not they go on to college or community college. One recent major study showed that on average, men who attended career academies were earning significantly more than those who attended regular high schools, both four and eight years after graduation. They were also 33 percent more likely to be married and 36 percent less likely to be absentee fathers.”

Does this say anything to us about longer-term investment needs in the UK in order to turn around the sort of young people who we recently saw expressing their lack of investment in their own society (with all the familiar consequences in relation to employment, family stability, etc.)?

I have always deplored the move begun thirty years ago to homogenise higher education by allowing every institution to become a university and, therefore, removing the honourable distinction between academic and ‘vocational’ educational paths. Polytechnics were important and distinctive institutions and differed in aim and culture from universities. This only helped the demise of dignity in practical professions and manual labour. Apprenticeships began to disappear in the push for instant qualification.

In countries like Germany the distinction has been maintained. If we were able to invest in the recovery of this distinction in the UK, we might create a longer-term culture and mentality – incentive, even – for young people to be valued for what they can do and not according to criteria which do not do justice to everyone.

Those statistics regarding consequent marital and family stability bear some reflection.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Philadelphia, USA

I have just visited a small town in Pennsylvania called Intercourse. Its tourist blurb encourages us to ‘Slow down the hurry’. Er… OK…

Intercourse is in the heart of Amish country and that’s why we went there. Apart from the fact that the drive over there was beautiful, what you meet is a very strange juxtaposition of vastly different cultures.

The Amish wear particular clothing (the women a dress with white apron before marriage and a black one after marriage; the men wear white shirt and black trousers with braces (suspenders) and buttons – no zips are allowed). They refuse to use electricity and drive horse-drawn buggies instead of cars. Their refusal to move with the modern world comes from their religious tradition rooted in the 17th century.

They are visited and gawped at by tourists who romanticise the Amish lifestyle (as if it were simply yet another ‘lifestyle choice’ towards personal fulfilment) and locals who complain that the Amish don’t pay taxes, but use the roads, etc. So, buggy rides by strange-looking Amish are a tourist ‘must’, and the shops are full of Amish produce. And the tills are electronic.

Some of the visual contrasts are stark. For example, I didn’t spot any obese Amish, but they were being patronised by some very large non-Amish in very large vehicles. I would love to get inside the head of the Amish and know what the tourists look like to a people who work extremely hard, live a fairly simple life and try to keep themselves to themselves. How do they sustain their values and integrity when confronted every day by the rewards of affluence and consumption, then exploit that consumer thirst for the sake of their own economic well-being?

I think I brought to this a rather simplistic assumption that simple people would be purer than they perhaps actually are. It was odd to see a couple of Amish women get in a large vehicle and drive off. It was somehow odder to see young Amish people with plain, functional clothing and modern (expensive-looking – but what would I know?) trainers.

I like the idea of people retaining a culture that defies or implicitly challenges the values and priorities of the rest of the world. I admire the singular tenacity of a people who want as little distraction from their love of God, family, home and hard work, but engage as far as possible with that alien world around them. But I don’t want to collude in some of the romanticism I saw which holds up the Amish life as one of peaceful simplicity: working hundreds of acres with a horse-pulled plough might lead to peaceful sleep for the workers, but it wouldn’t be most people’s idea of a nice life.

However, I just wonder if the experience with the Amish has anything to say to how we approach Travellers in the UK – or any other cultures who see the world differently. Or does it really all come down to whether they pay taxes or not?

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Philadelphia, USA

I have only known Washington through the epic series The West Wing. We spent a year watching it from the first episode to the last. Having visited Washington DC for the first time today, I will now have to watch it all again.

What struck me when we arrived this morning was the scale and beauty of the place. You can tell this city was designed to be the capital: symmetry around a central axis, but the most stable triangle holding together the Capitol (legislature), the White House (executive presidency) and the Supreme Court (judiciary) – which can all be seen at once from just to the south of the Washington Memorial. Look west and your eye is taken to the huge reminder of the fragility of the Union, the Lincoln Memorial.

Paris shows the hand of a single mind: Haussmann. Berlin pivots on its axis (from Unter den Linden through the Brandenburger Tor). If Hitler had had his way, both Berlin and Linz would have become enormous memorials to hubris and a monstrous ego. The only other place I have seen that shows such singular design is Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan. Here, too, the man responsible for holding the country through the transition from Communism to free market Capitalism (and doing rather well out of it in more ways than one) has designed his capital on an axis that is breathtaking in its ambition.

Nursultan Nazarbayev decided to move the capital from the beautiful Almaty in the south (prone to earthquakes and too close to expansionist China) and build on what had originally been the village of Aqmola (Kazakh for ‘White grave’ – not the best name for a new capital city) and later became Tselinograd. Since the capital moved north some ten or fifteen years ago the President’s ambitious building programme has gradually and determinedly been realised. It isn’t pretty, and it’s pretty confused in terms of its mixture of styles – but it is symmetrical and grand and imposing.

However, the link between Astana (which actually means ‘capital city’ – not exactly imaginative) and Washington DC – to my mind, at least – is the ubiquity of a search for or assertion of identity. Astana has essentially three styles of modern architecture: Islamic, Soviet and (what I call) ‘Dubai’. It is as if this young country – of which so many of it’s young people are hugely proud, building a new future – is trying to decide who it is: the nomadic horse people of Genghis Khan, a peaceful Islamic (though in a rather ‘keep it quiet and unobtrusive’ sort of way), or a modern, confident Islamic buffer state between the fanatics down south (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan), the imperialists up north (Russia) and the expansionists to the right and down a bit (China). The architecture betrays the search for which origins will eventually define Kazakhstan’s identity: they will work out who they are and who they might become by where they decide they have come from.

What struck me about Washington was the emphasis on ‘greatness’, grandeur, self-justification (and I mean that neutrally, not pejoratively). And the ubiquity of conflict. Every memorial seems to speak of conflict won or lost. It seemed poignant to me as a visitor that the two most powerful memorials were those closest to the Lincoln Memorial – Korea and Vietnam – and both of those were lost. More to the point, tens of thousands of lives were lost – and it isn’t obvious to younger generations what the point of these wars was.

As I watched so many young people reflected in the stone and the engraved names of those lost and missing in Vietnam between 1959 and 1975, I was haunted by the enormity of the loss. Not only the Americans, but hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians and others. It reminded me of when I visited the memorial to the fallen in the ten-year Soviet Afghan campaign (1979-89) in Astana and I saw the mothers still weeping at the sight of their sons’ names etched into the stone.

What was it all for?

I loved Washington. It is beautiful, confident, friendly (despite the snarly policewoman I asked for information – a mistake I won’t make again). The wide avenues are stunning. The vistas are breathtaking, the architecture pleasingly classical (mostly), the sense of space and pace relaxing. But I also found myself wondering what researchers will be making of it all in a thousand years. Will they be seeing the place as we do when we look at the ruins of Rome or Greece and wonder what happened?

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Washington DC, USA

I can’t believe what I have been reading in the newspapers today. The Times led on Obama’s inaugural speech, observing that it wasn’t his best. Apparently, he did not rise to the heights of rhetoric we have come to expect.

What sort of pompous irrelevant nonsense is this? I realise that journalists need to adopt observer status, but how detached do you have to be to think that judgement on the entertainment value of his speech is of the highest priority?

Obama faces some of the most difficult and testing crises of any US President in the last century and used his inaugural speech to issue a sobering reality check amid the euphoria surrounding his accession to power. He did the right thing in not winding people up with the inspiring cadences of rhetorical manipulation – had he done so, the same journalists would have criticised him for being triumphalistic or arrogant in the face of the challenges being faced by ordinary Americans and people around the world.

Obama got it right. He was sober and frank. He told people the situation is tough and will be both demanding and costly. He showed resolution and commitment. But he forced people to be realistic and to leave behind the fantasies that have driven the generalities propogated by his predecessor. The times are tough and the situation serious; this demanded a serious and measured initial statement. And that is what Obama gave the world.

Times journalists can think what they want about his speech. They can even give him stars or marks out of ten, if it makes them feel better. But – frankly – who cares what they think when the guy in question is doing the business. It costs the critics nothing to write their judgements on the speech of a man who has just assumed the mantle of overwhelming responsibility. Why don’t the journalists consider the relative poverty of their pontifications and let us make our own minds up?

Today I am a divided man. I am at the beautiful Lee Abbey in Devon, looking out over the wild sea and thinking holy thoughts (sometimes). But the world is watching Barack Obama being inaugurated and I can’t get mobile phone reception or a broadband internet connection. There’s probably a telly somewhere, but it seems that ‘retreat’ is supposed to mean ‘retreat’. Oh well.

When I drove up the hill earlier to get a mobile signal for my phone messages I got a text message from a friend in New York who said that the churches will now be losing more worshippers as everyone there seems to be pinning all their unreasonable adulation on Obama. This isn’t the first time I have heard stuff about Obama that has made me wince with pity.

Obama comes into office in the face of unprecedented crises: two unwinnable wars, the challenge of Iran, the scandal of Gaza and Israel’s behaviour there, and the collapse of the banking system with the global plunge into economic recession. No wonder people want a saviour who will sort it all out – and Obama seems a nice, clever chap, doesn’t he.

But the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent warnings about the search for a saviour should be heeded. There is no hero capable of sorting this lot out singlehandedly and Obama will fail on a number of counts. I hope people will be merciful to him and give him the space to fail as well as succeed. The search for a saviour always ends in tears and our memories are short when we romanticise the ‘saviours’ of the past.

Last night I was reading Nikita Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR in February 1956 in which he denounced the cult of the individual nurtured by Stalin. Stalin applied his massive and insecure ego to the elimination of millions and the attempt to portray himself as the sole saviour of the Soviet Empire. It is estimated that he was responsible for the deaths of up to 30 million people. Yet last year he was in the running for ‘top Russian’ – despite the fact that he was Georgian. People forget very easily.

This is not new. One of the reasons the Israelites of the Old Testament were required to establish annual festivals(see Deuteronomy 26, for example) was to make sure they didn’t forget their origins and their story. If they became prosperous, they would forget that they had once been slaves and might begin to treat others as such. Guess what happened.

The weight of expectation on Obama is heavy. The weight of unreasonable fantasy on his shoulders is immeasurable. We should pray for him and hs family and pray for mercy as well as strength in integrity. God bless him.