I have nothing to envy except envy itself: Five Cheers for Embattled America.

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Today, I was reading a comment posted on Quora. The leading question was: What Do Britons Envy Most About the US? To which – and I am sorry to resort to the social media art of backbiting – this particular member of Quora’s burgeoning commentariat decided to put down his Daily Mail for a moment to consider the question. If i may add, with a degree of ignorance I have long suspected in my fellow countryman, but hitherto have been unable to prove. This one’s a game changer.

His answer – hardly surprising coming from a reader of a newspaper with a long and illustrious history of jingoism, xenophobia, and acute insular-mindedness – left me wondering two things :

Firstly, whether this man had actually ever travelled anywhere beyond the house he so proudly owns; and secondly, what is it I envy most about America.

Returning momentarily to the Quora contributor, he went about answering the question of envy by singularly failing to address the meaning of what was being asked. So what does the average Briton envy most about America? Well, it helps to know the place by means other than what is daily reported in his favourite Little Britain news rag. His answer? To paraphrase: I’ve just had a full English breakfast and now I’m resting contentedly with coffee and tabloid in hand, admiring the four walls of the house I own outright (as if Americans don’t own homes). Then, for good measure, he throws in a little mockingly-good dose of British sarcasm about how he wished he’d had all that American Free-Dumb (as if Britons own sarcasm).

Upon reading this, I bristle with uncustomary outrage, as i am not an American. However, I think a little part of me might be. My mind is busy thinking, just because a man can enjoy digesting an English breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausage, beans, and fried tomatoes, accompanied by 100 pages of right-wing tabloid bile, and all within the comfort of one’s own home, does in no way negate America’s dizzying roadside attractions. 

Comparisons are dangerous when you have little idea what it is you are comparing. In the case of UK-US country comparisons, chalk and cheese.

Does he know that the US is not so much a country as it is a continent? If he cared to step out of his zone de comfort and board a plane to the four far flung corners of the continental United States – Anchorage to the Florida Keys, San Diego to Cape Cod – he might tone down his prejudices a bit.  

Ach! Why should I care what others think? Their loss, my gain. The more of them remain at home admiring the wallpaper, the more of America I’ve got all to myself. So, back to the matter in hand: what do i envy most about the United States of America? That is to say, what do they have that we don’t? That I don’t possess?

Well, turns out, a lot.

For format’s sake, here’s my top five:

  1. World-class National Parks, some the size of English counties. These are designated wild places. Mother nature’s property portfolio. They contain wilderness that belongs to no one in particular and to everyone in general. See Yosemite valley and weep, just as the great Scots-American pioneer, John Muir, did. And that’s just one of many parks that range across thousands of miles from Denali NP in Alaska to the Big Bend in Texas, from Sequoia NP in California to Acadia NP in Maine. Although the designation ‘National Park’ has been awarded to 63 sites across the US, there are literally hundreds more state parks, national monuments, national forests, and so on and so forth. One could spend the multi-millennial lifetime of a redwood tree exploring them, and probably still not reach the end. America’s national parks are some of the greatest entities ever created, and humanity didn’t have to create a damn thing doing so.
  2. It would be naive to state that the US is a classless society, but it would also be a gross overstatement to say that it’s anywhere near as class-conscious as England. There is a proud tradition of meritocracy in the US, which harks back to the days of huddled, squalid masses pouring off the Atlantic liners in search of a better life in a new world. In the US, aristocracy is a term loosely applied to old New England families, and Hollywood film stars. In Britain, aristocracy is real and to this day responsible for walling off vast swathes of land for personal gain. A land grab and power consolidation that has gone on for centuries. This deference to the landed gentry shows no sign of abating, even in the face of 20th century political progress. America’s anti-monarchical revolution of 1776 had its origins in English dissident, radical liberalism. It was then joined by a republican France to become a place where, if you were white and Northern European, the average person was thrust centre stage, and the inalienable right of kings tossed out. Suddenly, we were all kings in a savage land.
  3. Abundant sunlight that mottles a stunning geographical diversity. They used to rhapsodise about the sun never setting on the British empire, as the empire stretched across all time zones. Well, if it’s mizzle in Maine, you can bet Texas will be toasted by UV. If clouds reign over Kalamazoo, rest assured, winter sunlight will dazzle downtown Denver. Fog in Philly? Photons in ‘Frisco. You see the alliteration? Dazzling, isn’t it? Maybe, but it don’t dazzle like downtown Daytona. Who loves the sun? Not just the Velvet Underground.
  4. On the Road right through American popular culture. The tradition of hitting the road, Jack, and not coming back no more, is enshrined not only in American literary culture, but in real life, too. I have a friend from New Jersey. One day, he decided to follow his doctor sister to Las Vegas, a mere 2,000 miles away. Hopped into a car, and headed west. Stopped here and there along the way, but kept going. Within a week he had gone from icy winter to a hot desert where he picked up work as a wilderness guide, in no time. Americans, unlike Brexit Brits, have choices. And believe me, many – through restlessness or desperation – pack up their bindlestiffs and seek emigration within their own nation. They can quit some insufferable place and start again somewhere utterly different, which really just nourishes the soul, and keeps that wonderful literary tradition going strong (see the award-winner Nomadland for a case in point).
  5. Wilderness. Unashamedly, I keep coming back to it. America’s untouched places, which I have seen in the flesh, and continue to see shining in my mind’s eye, are truly a thing of wonder. The Pacific Crest Trail alone runs for 2,650 miles from an iconic bridge on the Washington/British Columbia border, to the Mexican border. The trail bisects some of the greatest wilderness on Earth. Americans, seeking spiritual solutions for materialist problems, set out on the trail. 5 months later they emerge changed forever and for the better, having read the signs that nature put before them. Meanwhile, where do we Brits go for a spot of soul-washing? Wherever it is, we can be sure of encountering signs of a different kind along the way: Private/No Entry/Keep Out/No Trespassing….you get the idea. Envy might be a deadly sin, but nowhere near as deadly as that old assassin, ignorance.

Too Good To Be True

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That ol’ devil called greed is back again. Many feared the worst while others dreamed of a new, kinder dawn. But oh no no, sir! No sooner is full lockdown eased, untimely death is no longer news. And why? Because that she-devil, the economy, is back. No sooner has its mouth been welded shut than its teeth are glistening at the prospect of new blood.

Turn on the news and talk of rekindling a lost love for nature, or for that matter stopping to reflect on human suffering and the slow torture of social isolation, has been superseded by dire prognostications of poor industrial output, negative deficits, and looming recession. Figures in the billions (£) are banded around where only last week the figures were reserved for the dead. Yes, I’m afraid it’s time to rally together in a final push over the top to be mown down not by the bullets of the Bosch but by debt, overconsumption and more reckless environmental despoliation.

vikings

However, this national obsession with wealth accumulation has substantial precedent when seen over the arc of history. The very name Britannia came into being as a nomenclature given by Roman imperial planners (Britanicus, I think, was one of the Julio-Claudean line of rulers). The island was finally absorbed into the Romanosphere in the mid-first century not for magnanimous reasons but because it was known since Phoenician times for its lucrative silver, tin, lead and gold mines. Then, following the departing legions, Jutes, Angles and Saxons came not for magnanimous reasons but because in that fertile soil lay wealth and prosperity. Following them, the dreaded Danes, who arrived in the 790s on raiding parties along the North Sea coast. Not for magnanimous reasons did they emerge on the flat horizon, but to plunder the treasures known to be held in the abbeys. Following them the Normans, who didn’t raise a psychotic militia for magnanimous reasons but to spill blood onto land they knew would bring a crop of splendiferous wealth. During the civil war in the 1640s, a genuine attempt was made at levelling the appalling inequalities of serfdom in the late middle ages. But again that was snuffed out again by the forces of avarice. The Bank of England would be established forty years after the failures of English republicanism just to underscore the direction the country was heading in. In that century too, The East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company consolidated their royally-sanctioned gains to become the Multi-Nationals of their day. Following the failures of political equality in England, the notion of republicanism as the only force for egalitarianism was then left to France and the inchoate United States. In the years following the Seven Years War with France, by the mid-1700s the British empire had become the most profitable venture in the history of the world. Its adherence to the doctrine of greed, masqueraded as mercantilism, became set in stone, an article of faith.

Top-questions-answers-East-India-Company

And so it is that the country, as it appears today, finds itself true to its atavistic self. In other words, its socio-cultural DNA had been inherited from a long lineage. Other than the blip following both world wars when some kind of radical redistribution of wealth had to be sought to avoid a civilisational collapse, Britain has proven herself more adept at pursuing riches by any means possible than it has for coming up with novel ways of how people can co-exist harmoniously with each other and with the ecology that still clings to the land’s surface. It wasn’t for want of clever men and women that naked economics trumped high ideals. Those big ideas the so-called deep state (the power behind the power) encouraged our philosophers to debate, providing their conclusions arrived at a natural law of supply and demand, and of how man is shaped by self-evolving and universal economic forces than – as was the case in revolutionary France – how economic forces could be shaped by man and altered to reflect a fairer society. Utilitarianism, a dominant thought system in the very acquisitive nineteenth century was a excellent case in point. The greatest happiness for the greatest number lent itself well as a doctrine to England earning the sobriquet of a nation of shopkeepers.

Industrial Revolution

In the southern parts of this island, we are still wedded to the idea that economics of unlimited growth in a world bound by physical limits determines levels of happiness. No doubt it is better to be a rich man in a cold country than a poor man in a warm one. However, the great mechanisms of how we interact with tradable commodities continue to dominate thinking in informing the consensus. Lockdown was a chance to redress that imbalance. It was a unique opportunity for the average Joe to hop off the spinning wheel for a while and to try seeing life – and what he/she values from it – from a wholly different perspective. This perfect convergence of variables (that is to say, unusually great weather, government providing a blanket of financial support to the majority, as well as the stillness in the air that permitted us to think long and hard) gave the millions upon millions of conscripts fighting as footsoldiers and corporals in the boom and bust economic war the chance to think again about what they wanted out of their country. Unfortunately, like the Christmas Day short truce of 1914 where British and German soldiers showed their mutual enmity by getting together for a game of football and a post-match drink, this too is a false dawn. Like those men who knew, through a simple game of football, they had more in common with one another than with the chiefs of staff who sent them to the front in the first place, this cosy little interregnum that some have been enjoying of late is too dangerous to continue. The unfair society harnessed by the economics of naked aggression and unlimited growth cannot survive the neglect and contempt it is being shown at present.

1914-christmas-truce

The second age of the robber barons is not over yet. But a few more pandemic lockdowns might just do the trick. And not unlike the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, a spring clean of the people (i.e. a serious trimming of human numbers leading to a radical restructuring of the socioeconomic order) may just give the downtrodden a glimmer of hope. And a chance to rise up alongside a damned and damaged natural world from the scorched earth of a long and unfruitful economic obsession.

 

 

Springtime Of Our Lockdown

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While we wither indoors, out there something profound is happening. Nature is back with a bloom. Can anyone remember it being so resplendent? So full of seasonal promise?

I’m asking myself how an annual event can seem to take on another dimension. Yet spring is springing with a wicked spring in its tail. Animals have returned to wander down paths long blocked to them. Goats window shopping in abandoned Welsh seaside towns; boars doing the passeggiata down silent streets in Bergamo; dolphins nosing around now crystal-clear canals in Venice in the absence of gondoliers sticking their bloody oars in everywhere. Hell! Even the tender shoots of first budding look that bit more sharp-suited, greener than usual. The sky, not so anaemic. The signs, far from being ominous to any life form other than us, are encouraging. If this is what the world’s end looks like, I’m signing up to it. The whole thing is beginning to feel like a massive teleological event: a reckoning that pits us against each other, and ourselves. What did Churchill once say? “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Can it be that Humanity pulls off a civilisational coup, foreclosing on the disastrous Age of Kali (see William Dalrymple’s 1998 travelogue for explanation, or else anyone of eight hundred million Hindus) for a gentler, more enlightened epoch? Could the pandemic be the hidden catalyst for it? Probably not, but the thought is a fitting one given the wonder show that nature puts on while we succumb to fear of personal extinction in our homes under the curfew of self-isolation. While a wholesale regeneration of purity in nature at the expense of human resource rape-&-pillage might be a bit much to hope for, certainly the lockdown can generate a paradigm shift in how people work, and in how we spend our few precious days on this Earth.

Yesterday I stopped by a glade of glistening wild garlic by the roadside. Ordinarily, cars would be humming past with such regularity that no one in their right mind would have pulled over on their bicycles to pick a bunch of nature’s own – a little crop of green goodness that went into the making of wild garlic pesto. In the absence of pandemic, would i have so much as done this? No. Am I better for having done so? Categorically, yes.

This reckoning, by which one refers to a near cessation of frenzied (and highly destructive) activity, which has come to characterise the Human Project over the past forty years, enables a beleaguered and frankly overwhelmed world a chance to hit reset. That great ferris wheel of civilisation that turns ever faster, drawing in and spitting out hapless human victims all the time, has ground to a halt for (shall we say) a spot of maintenance. While it lays motionless, finally we get the chance to stop being mesmerised by its whirring circulation, and start taking in the 360 degree view that was perilously neglected all the while.

Now is the springtime of our being (unless you live in the southern hemisphere in which case you’re on for a revolutionary autumn). Those who are in the gutter looking up at stars over cities that are not only shining but coruscating for the first time in the modern age, will they necessarily want a straight return to an orange-sodium sky above their heads, planes roaring overhead? Those realising that the job they are doing from home unexpectedly through lockdown can be done from home post-lockdown, will they desire an immediate return to crammed commuter lines full of sleepy, barely-approachable worker drones? All of us who may take our one hour of daily exercise (which in reality morphs into about four as the conditions are so favourable, and as time has taken on a more elastic property), we who can stroll down lanes untrammelled by the impatient thud of footsteps, do we want necessarily to cash in the quietude for a ride on the capitalist wheel of fortune again?

The spectre of death clears the field. If there were ever a moment to stop and smell the roses, it is now. If there were ever a moment to ask ourselves: what do each of us want from this fleeting life, and what are we prepared to leave behind when the fire goes out? Now is the time. A gift has been offered to us in the form of mass global quarantining. From this renewal nature may stand a fighting chance while for our part we may gain absolution from mass collective sin. Now I don’t quite know what kind of force is behind these weird developments, but whatever orchestrated them is giving Humanity an open window for opportunity to refashion ourselves into a life force that goes with the seasons, instead of one that signifies such damage and ecological destruction that the seasons themselves cease to be what they were. That window will all but certainly blow shut with the first shunt of summer wind against the pane. While we’re all locked down, let’s make room for the other tenants that call Earth their home, too. When the time comes to fling open our doors again, let goodness flow out and everywhere.

Get Covid Done!

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He didn’t see this one coming. To be fair, no one did, but other nations saw it before it was too late and were able to act. Now that roughly 20% of humanity is officially in lockdown, there are few things either The Boris or The Donald want more than for Covid-19 to disappear up its own spiky protein. But not necessarily for compassionate reasons. Rather, British and American decision makers, laden down by their unique political histories involving liberty and personal freedom, plus economic histories involving conquest and greed, are desperate to get back to the business of business as usual. Discomfort shows in their every contradictory pronouncement. For Trump, Covid-19 threatens to undermine his masterplan to Make America Great Again. Extrapolations on the data are already making for disturbing reading in the Oval Office. Be gone! Or we’ll find a way to switch back on the Christmas lights, with or without you – that’s the underlying message. By forcing Covid-19 into a hasty exit from the world stage, the Twenty-First Century’s first pandemic becomes an artefact of the past, an irritant, allowing the engine of Industrial Capitalism to crank up again.

I’ve heard it said that this mass quarantining, with all the supply-chain grogginess accompanying it, will contain a hidden bounce. We’ll learn through it to curtail our insatiability for goods, we’ll slow down, start taking in our immediate surrounds, take stock of what it’s all about. Nature, hating vacuums, will step in again, guiding us onto the right track.

But the cynic in me thinks the opposite will happen. The bounce we’ll see will represent another existential threat to life on earth because the global capitalist system will go into overdrive to compensate for lost productivity we see right now. As happened in the decade following the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu, the world made strides of unimaginable distance (even to the point of pioneering the very cure that nailed infection: antibiotics). In 1929, the world economy overheated and Wall St. imploded, just to underline the Capitalist frenzy that was the 1920s, which was supposed to have been an era stopped in its pre-1914 tracks. I thought the whole point of the industrial and microbial mass killing of the 1910s was that in the 20s the world would to be cowed by the horror of what they had experienced: sent homewards to think again. Logic determines that the high-rev 1920’s that did eventuate should never have been. We should have been slowed into digesting the shock of living through an aftermath of 100 million dead by Influenza, on top of the 20 million killed in the Great War. Instead the opposite happened. Where the late 1910s whimpered, the 1920s roared. That was the lesson humanity learned: not to eat humble pie, but to throw it back in the world’s face.

The 1918-19 influenza preyed on mainly the young (unlike this one): killing upwards of 100 million of them when world population was about one quarter of what it is today. On an interesting note, to match Spanish Flu’s global death rate, this one would have to claim upwards of 400 million lives. Irrespective of however many lives this virus will ultimately take relative to 1918-1919, one thing’s for sure: players of influence in world affairs will ensure the 2020s will roar like the 1920s. The same industries that devise global networks of fantastic intricacy and infectious energy are ready and primed for action. As soon as it can, the global supply chain will. Though flummoxed by this global pandemonium, industry is spring-loaded, and when this virus runs its course, production will go into interstellar overdrive.

In short, we’ll be picking off natural resources at a rate that’ll equate to where we’d be had this so-called ‘Chinese Virus’ never broken out in the first place, in that sinister live market in Wuhan. The Government here in the UK tarried more than most, not wanting to disrupt civic and, more importantly, commercial life. Laying down curfews while turning off the mercantile-financial tap, is not how affairs are conducted on these stubborn and defiant isles. Britain, above all other nations, is historically bound to the idea of a liberty that each person supposedly wears under their soul. Liberal democracy rests upon consent between ruler and ruled. Lack of consent is taken to be authoritarianism, a next step to despotism with the bloody curfews and martial law that denotes. This notion of multi-party consent runs strongly along an historical arc that reaches back even further than the Magna Carta and into the mists of our Celtic and Anglo-Saxon past. Telling people unconditionally that they must remain indoors is even more anathema to the governing class than it is to a broad swathe of the population who don’t much appreciate being told what to do.

Boris Johnson is a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian. He is an arch advocate of liberty in conduct, providing that conduct does not impinge negatively on others. And therein lies the rub. His dilemma is knowing that liberty of conduct very obviously involves impinging negatively on others by the mere act of standing within six feet of them. Johnson must have delivered his emergency measures with heavy heart. And his moral conflict reveals itself in the mixed reaction of the people he governs who are right now getting out and enjoying the sunshine of early spring. They’ll take their chances, thank you very much. Even if that means a brush with Coronavirus.

On the first day of national lockdown – possibly the first mass quarantine in modern history – I personally witnessed a populace so unmoved by the spectre of mass infection, so determined to get out to feel washed by the warmth of a sun that seemed to abandon us last September, as to render the whole seriousness a joke. From my home on the water by the canal towpath leading out of Bath, England, hundreds came my way. A near unbroken stream of cyclists, joggers, dog walkers, lovers, couples, and nature lovers went past all contented to be engaged in the very thing they most wanted to do. And as the day progressed the crowds grew in number until quite breezily potential hosts eclipsed one another going in opposite directions. You’d have thought it was a bank holiday.

We”re now on day two, and the crowds have yet to abate while the sun clings on.

Those who pass by in their multitudes are a stolid and resilient people, although not daft enough to risk compromising their health, well not knowingly. Except they’ve seen the gathering storm, so why do they risk making a mockery out of the famous tea towel mantra of Carry On and Keep Calm? Selfishness is undoubtedly an aspect of this because who is out there reminding the Great British Public that it’s not themselves they risk harming by turning their one daily allowance of exercise into a three-hour stroll with picnic on the side? But there lurks something beneath the brittle mantle of selfish inconsideration. It’s the liberty, stupid!

The tradition of English and American liberalism in so imbued in our respective political cultures that suffocating the virus by the act of imposing belated curfews, and even drafting in the army to enforce a national lockdown, will be a tough sell to a begrudging population (in American election year) who are all for stamping out sickness for a return to normal but without compromising their right to free will and consumer choice too much. When governments in London and Washington start doing the modern equivalent of posting decrees on town halls and church doors across the land, a liberty-spoilt people will want to see that their personal sacrifices were worth the effort of not going outdoors on sunny days. You can’t always see that with disease, pestilence and plague. Furthermore, if life-threatening illness has never factored into your life, why give up a good, long stroll along the canal on a fine spring day when the songbirds are trilling happily for the sake of a vulnerable stranger whose contraction of Covid-19 cannot be scientifically traced back to you, you who might carry it without symptoms?

Trump and Johnson, perhaps more than other world leaders, desire a speedy and tidy end to this drawn-out mess. They see the collapse of the global free-trade mercantilist system as the worst kind of pandemic. Investors are losing money; distribution centres lie stocked and undelivered. The wheels are coming off the bus one by one. It doesn’t matter that the passengers aboard the bus are catching something nasty, for the point is that it’s the bus that counts, and not the passengers it carries. Where there’s money to be made, unnamed figures of policy influence don’t fancy Covid-19 to turn into another Brexit paralysis, even if that means the cities like London and New York feel the sting in the tail of the Covid-19 scorpion: a disproportionate outbreak due to deep ambivalence about making NYC into the city that sleeps all the time. Libertarianism will take a hit. A beautiful idea rendered pointless by the need to be ordered where to go and when. Johnson and Trump are deeply wedded to the principles of libertarianism and will be loathe to rule without it.

When all is said and done, Johnson and Trump just want to get Covid done!