Friday, 14 November 2008

The problem of proximity

Well last week’s blog raised a real storm didn’t it? What to me seemed fairly cautious comments on Obama-mania appeared to have annoyed the man’s supporters and detractors alike. The fact that either you (or I) so badly misjudged things is actually profoundly revealing; there are major cultural differences between Britain and the States. It has occurred to me that over the next few weeks I might explore something of these differences, that have been exacerbated by the election of Barrack Obama. But before I do, I want to lay some groundwork by pointing out that a peculiar problem exists when you get two very different things that appear the same.

When you compare two organisations or countries it is tempting to be lazy and look merely at the surface. So for instance the alien might wander into both a Catholic church and an evangelical Protestant church and assume that the cleric leading the service was functionally identical and that any differences between a priest and a pastor were merely a matter of words. Now I suspect most readers of this blog will not need me to point out that actually any similarities conceal fundamental differences. A classic example which I hope will not offend is that it is all too tempting to look at Islam and Christianity and see in both cases a central figure, Jesus/Mohammed, and a holy book, the Bible/Quran. What more natural than to assume they are functionally the same? Yet in reality this is profoundly misleading. The Christian view of Jesus as the perfect revelation of God and the Eternal Word is actually far closer to how the Moslem sees the Quran. (Incidentally, some Moslems say the Quran was uncreated; a view disputed by others because it comes perilously close to the blasphemous attribution of the properties of God to something else.) Conversely, in Islam Mohammed (the earthly vessel through whom God reveals his word to mankind) is far closer in functional terms to the Bible (the earthly vessel through whom… well, you get the idea). Appearances can be deceptive.

Now I mention these cases (and I’m sure you could multiply them) because it is all too easy to see parallels and similarities within the British and American system that, at depth, do not actually exist. And this is often the source of some friction. For instance Americans often assume that, in contrast to the extraordinary reverence for the Stars and Stripes in the USA, the British are culpably careless about their own national flag. (Readers across the Atlantic may be interested to know that I have not the slightest idea where I could purchase a Union Jack even if I wanted to.) The fact is that the national flag in Britain and the States represents something totally different. In functional terms, the British equivalent of the Stars and Stripes is actually her Majesty the Queen. She, not the flag, is the emblem of ultimate authority, historical tradition and the validity of the British state. Even at the most basic level we are very different. Someone repeated the old quip that we are ‘two nations divided by a common language’. That is never truer than when we think we are talking about the same thing.

This is very much a precursor to a blog in which – if courage has not failed me – I will try to point out why the British, as a whole, are somewhat uneasy with the Republican Party. Stay tuned...