What if a group of armed citizens seized a bird reserve in the Lake District and proclaimed their right to cut down trees and graze cattle on public land for free? It is actually unthinkable, on so many levels. And yet this is more or less what has happened as a militia group led by Ammon Bundy seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon on 2 January. They’re still there, as the law enforcement agencies deal with them gently, letting pressure from local residents undermine the occupiers’ resolve. Such incidents are rare in the US, but not unthinkable, and that reveals a lot about the difference between our nations.
Of course Oregon is not like the Lake District. In the US West the Federal government owns huge tracts of land, and regulates, and charges for, its use by farmers and loggers and many others. In our National Parks the government places onerous regulations on private landowners. But that is even worse, probably, from the point of view of the Oregon protesters. They are building their case on an American idea that citizens should be self-sufficient, and that government agencies are violation of basic rights and freedoms.
That idea, of course, comes from America’s frontier history. Back in the 19th Century, and earlier, the settlers mostly did have to be self sufficient. The whole appeal of film dramas such as Westerns builds on this. These frontiers have only formed a minority of the American nation, of course, and yet they command a special place in the American soul, for those of European (i.e. white) heritage. We may imagine how those of native American or African, and even Hispanic heritage work on a different version of how America came to be what it is. The European settlers came out to America to be free of oppressive governments. It is hardly a coincidence that movements like the Oregon protestors are white, and tend to have racist tinge.
Descendents of the Europeans who stayed behind have an utterly different outlook – though that racist tinge is there too, overlaid by an often intense nationalism, which has been subsumed by American nationalism in their descendents. For us government is part of our everyday lives. For some it represents the democratic will of the people; for others it a perhaps regrettable necessity. But we crave the order governments create, and feel that such things as welfare safety nets are part of what it means to be civilised.
And this is as true of the English as it is of their French and German cousins. Some English like to think that they are culturally apart from the rest of Europe (a delusion that their Scots compatriots in Britain tend not to share). We hear talk about common law and Anglo Saxon freedoms. And it is true that the English and British are different in many ways from other Europeans. But then so are the French, the Germans, the Danes, the Spanish, the Czechs, and so on. The idea that the British are uniquely different is a misconception. And a huge amount of history and culture binds us together as Europeans, and separates us from the United States in particular. Our attitude to the role of the state demonstrates that more clearly than anything else. Remember that many Americans feel that free ownership of military weapons is a fundamental right, and a vital protection. Europeans think that’s nuts.
That gulf between Europe and the US is clearly seen in US politics. Republican politicians only have point to Europe or Canada (which follows many European attitudes) to scare their supporters. To them these places are self evidently awful places to live in. Which puzzles, Europeans and Canadians profoundly. What is so wrong which lower levels of poverty, better health outcomes, longer holidays, and a lower chance of dying a violent death? We (and they) just don’t get it.
But two notes of caution for Europeans. First is that the US is not monolithic. I have already pointed out that many Americans do not share this anti-state vision – and the proportion of non-whites in the country is rising. That, perhaps, explains much of the violent polarisation in the country’s politics at present. Most Americans think that the Oregon protestors are crazies; that includes most people who live near Malheur. It’s always a good rule to avoid national generalisations; that is as true of Americans as it is of anybody else.
The second note of caution is that there is a positive side to this American idea of self-sufficiency, alongside its delusional aspect. It makes Americans more entrepreneurial and innovative. Americans can rightly point to their extraordinarily strong economic performance. And I think it helps to question what state agencies do and what they are for – though, I should add, I don’t think that US government agencies are any less inefficient than European ones. Closer scrutiny does not necessarily lead to improved performance.
But personally, I am very comfortable in my European skin, much as I admire so much about America. And those Oregon protestors sum it up why quite nicely.