Category: American exceptionalism

Royal visit has me longing for home

PHOTO: Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge visit the Somba K'e Civic Plaza on day 6 of the Royal Couple's North American Tour, July 5 2011 in Yellowknife, Canada.By Alan Bean

I have been too busy to blog this week, but I couldn’t resist this story. You may ask what a royal tour has to do with criminal justice reform. Very little, I expect, although I am clever enough to come up with something if I had a mind to.

I am blogging about Kate and William’s royal tour because it pleases me.

For one thing, Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne a few years before I was born and, though I am 58 years old, she has been the only British monarch I have known. When you grow up singing "God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen(to the tune of My Country ‘Tis of Thee) it gets into your bones (whether you like it or not).

This lovely photographic essay from the Washington Post shows the royal couple taking in a little calf roping at the Calgary Stampede and attending the Dene Games in Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories. I was born in Calgary in 1953 and the Bean family moved to Yellowknife three years later. I remember my dad taking my sister and I to the Calgary Stampede during a summer vacation when I was a little kid. He wouldn’t spring for cowboy boots, but I did get a cowboy hat, and I wore it to bed that night.

I remember William’s grandfather, Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, creating quite a stir a generation ago when he was presented with the inevitable cowboy hat during a visit to Calgary. “Thank you very much," said the Prince. “I think I have six or seven of these now. Perhaps I’ll use this one for a planter.”

That didn’t go down well in Cow Town.

There is another story about Prince Phillip dining at Calgary’s glorious Palicer Hotel back in the mid fifties (when he was about the age William is now). According to legend, a hotel waitress, while removing Phillip’s dinner plate, whispered, “Keep your fork, Prince, we’re havin’ pie.”

I don’t get back to Canada much these days.  My parents are both long dead and my sister, Carol, spends half the year in Texas.  But everyone needs a sense of home, and places like Calgary, Edmonton and Yellowknife are about as close as I can get.  A return visit to Yellowknife after almost fifty years is high on my bucket list.

Calgary's Bow River Valley

Last year, while in Calgary for the funeral of my aunt, Iris Garner, I stopped by the old home of the now defunct Baptist Leadership Training School, an institution I attended in 1971.   It had been fully forty years since I last walked to the nearby park overlooking the gorgeous Bow River valley.  The view of the river hadn’t changed a bit, but I hardly resembled the callow youth who once looked out over the scene.  I have rarely felt more orphaned and adrift.

So I guess, in the end, these rambling thoughts do relate to this blog’s primary theme.  Everybody needs a sense of place, everybody needs to belong to a people.  Friends of Justice works in the American South, a region occupied by rooted people with a strong sense of belonging.  What happens when a proud people is made synonymous with bigotry and hate?  Issues of culpability aside, how deep does the fear, loss and resentment go?

The spirit and spirituality of mass incarceration is a plant native to the southland that has been nourished for decades by the deepest kind of alienation and outrage.  People felt as if the glorious narrative that had given them a sense of people and place had been desecrated.  The sense of loss was palpable.  This is why Ronald Reagan launched his election campaign in 1980 in Neshoba County, the place where, 16 years earlier, three civil rights leaders had been murdered.  Reagan was opposed to the civil rights movement, but he was hardly a son of the South.  His advisers knew, however, that a rich deposit of racial resentment was waiting to be mined in places like Neshoba County.  People had lost their story and they desperately wanted it back.  Reagan promised to deliver.  The promise was kept.

Sign announcing the 2011 Neshoba County Fair

I understand these emotions.  I grew up in one country and I live in another.  Calgary, Alberta and Fort Worth Texas have a lot in common, but I never really feel at home in Texas.  Nor would I feel at home if I returned to my native Canada.  Like Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.”

When Tea Partiers say they want their country back they are longing for an old, old story.  They want to feel part of an exceptional, virtuous and boot-leather-tough nation where everyone shares the same values and pursues the same goals.  That kind of America never existed in reality; but it lives in memory nonetheless.  The nation people want to regain exists in the form of narrative mythology, and this story about restoring a noble, resolute and unified America is the most potent force in contemporary politics.

There is no sense decrying or endlessly deconstructing the narrative that animates our ideological opposites.  We need a narrative of our own.  We don’t need a story about the nation we once were; we need a story about the nation the better angels of our national nature have always aspired to be.  We need to start talking about a country where there is no us and them; a nation where there are no surplus, throw-away people.
We need to start talking about a nation of broken people where broken people can be redeemed.
According to reporter Jeremy van Loon, Prince William characterized Canada as that kind of country.

Prince William praised Canada’s “extraordinary potential” and the nation’s values of “freedom and compassion” at the end of a nine-day tour of the country with his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge.  “Canada is not just a great union of provinces and territories, it is a great union of peoples from many different backgrounds who have come together to make this a model — and a magnet — for those who value freedom, enterprise, tolerance and compassion,” he said today in Calgary.

 I’m not sure Canada, or any other country, deserves such high praise.  The prince was being complimentary.  But don’t we want to live in that kind of country?  When we tap into that desire, the movement to end mass incarceration will begin.

Rick Perry’s Jesus politics

By Alan Bean

A couple of years ago, Rick Perry made headlines by hinting that, if the Obama administration didn’t change its low-down ways, Texans might start thinking about secession.  Now the Texas governor is raising eyebrows nationwide by calling America to a day of prayer and fasting he calls “The Response”.

According to the event’s promotional video, a plethora of plagues has driven the nation to its knees: economic collapse, violence, perversion, division, abuse, natural disaster, terrorism, depression, addiction and fear. (more…)

European Union supports commutation for Troy Davis

Baronness Catherine Ashton

By Alan BeanNo one was particularly surprised when Jesse Jackson called on the state of Georgia to commute the death sentence against Troy Davis.  Now the European Union is going to bat for Davis.  According to the Canadian Press, the EU is concerned that an innocent man may soon be scheduled for execution.

Popes and former presidents have previously gone to bat for Mr. Davis and this isn’t the first time the European Union has expressed its concerns about the case.  International outrage over this case is understandable–the United States is the only western democracy that uses the death penalty.  It’s a key ingredient of what Sarah Palin calls “that American exceptionalism”.  (more…)

NT Wright: Osama bin Laden and the myth of redemptive violence

By N.T. Wright

N. T.  (Tom) Wright, formerly Bishop of Durham, is now Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Scotland’s University of St Andrews

Osama bin Laden and the myth of redemptive violence

Consider the following scenario. A group of IRA terrorists carry out a bombing raid in London. People are killed and wounded. The group escapes, first to Ireland, then to the United States, where they disappear into the sympathetic hinterland of a country where IRA leaders have in the past been welcomed at the White House. Britain cannot extradite them, because of the gross imbalance of the relevant treaty. So far, this is not far from the truth.But now imagine that the British government, seeing the murderers escape justice, sends an aircraft carrier (always supposing we’ve still got any) to the Nova Scotia coast. From there, unannounced, two helicopters fly in under the radar to the Boston suburb where the terrorists are holed up. They carry out a daring raid, killing the (unarmed) leaders and making their escape. Westminster celebrates; Washington is furious.

What’s the difference between this and the recent events in Pakistan? Answer: American exceptionalism. America is allowed to do it, but the rest of us are not. By what right? Who says? (more…)

Feeding the market for American mythology

By Alan Bean

Two articles grabbed my attention this morning.  The first deals with fairy tales about the Christian origins of America; the second addresses civil war fairy tales (hint: it had nothing to do with slavery).

Every trained historian, regardless of personal ideology, knows that America was founded by Deists and high church Protestants who were desperate to save their fledgling nation from European-style religious wars.  Hence the separation of church and state.

Similarly, you would be hard pressed to find a single person who has studied American history at the graduate level who would argue that Southern slavery was irrelevant to the civil war.  Unfortunately, the sentimental attachment to Christian-America and the confederate Lost Cause is so passionate that elaborate mythologies arise unbidden to satisfy the demand. 

Over at Talk to Action, Chris Rodda begins a jaw-dropping post thusly: (more…)

Caring for the stranger

By Alan Bean

Deuteronomy 10: 12-19

“So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.  Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the LORD your God, the earth with all that is in it, yet the LORD set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today.

Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Why must we love strangers?  Because we are all strange in one way or another.  With the exception of Native Americans, there are no homegrown Americans; we all came here from somewhere else. (more…)