Magazine article The Spectator

Serving God and Mammon

Magazine article The Spectator

Serving God and Mammon

Article excerpt

The Cracked Bell

by Tristram Riley-Smith

Constable, £8.99, pp. 288

ISBN 9781849011044

£7.19 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

People have written books about America long before the United States declared itself, and we may be forgiven for asking if we really need another.

Doesn't America already loom large enough in our world; hasn't it all been said before? Well, yes and no. There's a sense in which we're all Americans now because that country is ourselves writ large or - as America might see it - set free. And although much of what is said here may have been said before, it's rarely been said as concisely and well. Nor have the paradoxes that divide, and unite, that great country been so carefully and sympathetically delineated.

Tristram Riley-Smith takes his title from the famous Liberty Bell, allegedly rung when the Declaration of Independence was read out. It cracked in 1846 and the crack is now as renowned as the bell itself.

They even put it on US postage stamps.

But to Riley-Smith it symbolises the English ideal of freedom which was transported to America and there inflated and distorted by a radical form of individualism . . . now undermining and afflicting the very society it was intended to underpin.

This elevation of freedom too often leads to selfishness and anarchy, and even to its opposite, the kind of social coercion exemplified by political correctness.

Riley-Smith traces the crack through seven great themes of American life:

identity, consumerism, belief, innovation, wilderness, war and peace, freedom and conformity.

He begins by asking who the Americans are. A mixture, as we know: about 1 per cent Native American, 10 per cent AfricanAmerican, 15 per cent Hispanic, the rest mostly of European origin (though there are growing Asian communities and the US is home to the second largest Arab community outside the Middle East).

This resulted not in the expected rich stew but in what one commentator called 'a bunch of individual plates of foods or ingredients that don't want to even touch each other.' The issue of identity, says Riley-Smith, 'lies like a watermark inside the fibre of the national existence.' For Americans, identity is both first-person singular and plural, like an optical puzzle in which the image switches before your eyes. You can't just be American; you're black, white, Hispanic American or whatever. Obama's promise of a post-racial America is a long way from fulfilment.

What do Americans do? Well, they shop.

Their 20 feet of shelf-space per head is ten times that of the UK, ubiquitous advertising generates almost as much as the giant defence industry and Wal-Mart has a turnover greater than Pakistan's:

The spirit of consumerism - aerated by the Jeffersonian mandate to pursue 'happiness' - falls like kerosene on the torch of liberty.

You can get anything, but the cost is that you become what you own. Americans work harder for it (longer hours, anyway - 395 a year more than in the UK) and they give more away - 2.1 per cent of GDP, which exceeds the advertising revenue. Yet inner-city poverty and violence continue unabated, and the national infrastructure - health provision, transport and communications - is often wanting. …

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