God, guns and frontier myths underpinning the American agenda

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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.

Derek Bateman
Derek Bateman

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).

DISSIDENCE

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.

Hillary Clinton: machine politician
Hillary Clinton: machine politician

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.

FRONTIER MYTHS

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.

RIFLES

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.