Talkin’ About My Generation

Watching the Parkland students eloquently disembowel the gun lobby, commentators have hopefully heralded the rise of “Generation Z” and their adept social-media handling running rings around the rest of us.

All of this prompted my wife to ask the question: What happened to our generation?

I, the native Brit, asked her what she meant. What about our generation?

Where and when I grew up we didn’t name the generations so much. In my teens in the mid- to late-’80s (I think that’s when it was) I have recollections of my church hosting a visiting American speaker who asked “how many Generation Xers” were present in the service. I’d never heard the term before, and neither had most other people judging from the show of no hands that he received. He had to define both that and “Baby Boomer” before he could make whatever his point was.

I knew the words “Baby Boom” from school history textbooks on the end of the Second World War, but the idea that the people born then (in my mind, up to about 1956 or so would probably account for a post-war Baby Boom) constituted some sort of social or cultural group was as alien to me as the idea that I was a member of the same generation as people born in 1964 most of a decade before me.

I not only didn’t think of myself as Generation X, I didn’t even know what it meant.

Cue the Dr. Who music and cut to the present day and I know what Generation X, Baby Boomer and Millennial mean now in the common American vocabulary. Piecing it together from usage wasn’t that hard, though it did require a few minor leaps of imagination. But I didn’t know what my wife meant about “what happened to our generation?”

“As the Generation X church, we were always told that we were a special generation,” my wife informed me. The idea apparently being that since we were the first generation born after the Roe vs. Wade court decision legalised abortion, that we were “survivors”, a “Moses generation” who were destined for greatness. “Greatness” apparently being defined in terms of victory in the American Culture Wars between Christian morality and the advance of the Left.

“What have we actually done?”. We haven’t overturned Roe vs. Wade, or reversed the spread of evolutionism or whatever else the American Baby Boomer Christians told us we were destined to do.

My wife remembers that at the same time she was being told her generation was special and significant, they were being denigrated as “slackers” and chided for being “no shows” to their parents’ Culture War battlefronts.

I opined that I didn’t think this was fair. Who gave the Boomer church the right to set the spiritual priorities of our generation? Maybe God had other plans. What tasks did we set ourselves to accomplish? How are we doing on those?

When she mentioned the “special generation” theory, it sounded vaguely familiar, including the abortion reference. It may well be that this was what that visiting preacher was trying to say, but I have no idea now, of course.

Looking up the different generational names to confirm that I’d pieced together my understanding correctly, I was struck by how much the cultural associations seem to be primarily American. This is understandable; the terms are American in origin. But I don’t really see myself in the Amerocentric Generation X category (subset Christian), and I definitely don’t see the British church of my parents’ generation in the American picture of “Baby Boomer (subset Christian)”.

The Roe vs. Wade decision didn’t actually affect my country, so how that’s supposed to make British Generation X a “special generation” is anybody’s guess, but give the guy points for trying even if he hadn’t thought it all the way through. I like being told my generation has an important spiritual role to play as much as the next person.

Be that as it may, apart from maybe this one guy, I don’t remember the spiritual leaders of my parents’ generation telling us that we were a special and chosen generation. In that, perhaps I missed out, but if it came with a load of baggage and expectations of “here are your targets. Go forth and be good foot soldiers in our war”, I’m just as pleased I wasn’t told I was part of a generation with a powerful destiny.

The fact of the matter is that the Culture Wars of the United States have no real parallel in the British political and spiritual landscape. If there was an anti-hippie counter-revolution in the British church that called for a return to respect for authority and traditional patriarchal values, I’ve never once heard about it. The church in Britain, almost without exception, to this day teaches that God made the world but He probably used evolution to do it. It’s a non-issue and vanishingly few people care. The abortion issue simply doesn’t register on anyone’s set of priorities; certainly not on the priorities of any of the major political parties, for all that there are legions of American Christians who make it their sole defining issue. Homosexuality – yeah, we lost that one in the public sphere. I hope we lost it a little more graciously than the American church are losing it on this side of the Atlantic, but that’s probably a vain hope.

We had other priorities, like Anglican bishops publically proclaiming disbelief in basic Christian doctrine like the bodily resurrection of Christ or the Virgin Birth, in a state church apparently spiritually dead from the neck up.

Maybe God has a special purpose for the American Generation X “survivor generation”. I don’t know. I do think He’s more likely to tell the generation themselves what that purpose is, though, rather than have a destiny imposed on them from the Boomer church’s priorities.

In Britain, many of us believed we were a generation with a special purpose in that we would be the generation who would see the return of Christ, coming on the clouds and in great glory. I’m personally convinced that every generation of Christ’s followers ought to live as though that were true, but the fact of the matter is that we do not know when the Lord will return. I remember many of us setting ourselves the task of finishing the work, completing the Great Commission of taking the whole Gospel to every nation and tribe and people and language, but whether that was just because I was looking to be part of a missions organisation at the time I couldn’t say.

How are we doing on that self-appointed task? Well, it’s not finished yet, but the last few decades have seen significant progress.  We’ll find out from the light of Eternity, once the Lord wraps up Time.

Did God set that goal for Generation X, for my generation? I have no idea, but taking the Gospel to every nation seems to me a more directly Biblical goal somehow than “winning the Culture Wars” or “Taking Back America” or whatever. We’re going to obey the last command of Christ. We’re going to be the generation that gets it done.  We hope.

Not to disparage the priorities of our parents, but maybe we weren’t showing up to the Culture Wars because we’re focused on the whole world and not just a single country, no matter how spiritually significant that country is (and let’s face it, America has played a huge role in global Christianity, especially in the English-speaking world, and mostly for good not ill).

I honestly don’t know how to analyse my generation’s spiritual contribution. We place far less importance on Boomer priorities of passing righteous laws and legally restraining supposedly anti-Christian groups; we’re cynical about the effectiveness of trying to legislate people into morality, and some of us doubt whether some of these groups are really as dangerous to Christian civilisation as we’ve been informed. But perhaps that was never our fight.

My wife made the comment that our generation never had a huge protest movement. The Sixties (at least in America) had the Civil Rights campaign and Martin Luther King, Generation Z have the nascent anti-gun lobby protests, Millennials have… the Occupy Wall Street movement? I don’t know. But what do we have?

In Britain, what I remember of student protest movements from my generation were the end of the anti-Apartheid protests focused on South Africa, or animal rights (which might be a particularly British focus), or fair trade, or campaigns to end hunger and deal with the cycle of poverty and starvation in Africa.

I have no idea what American students were activising about, but it seems to me that one of the common threads here is that we want justice for the whole world. It’d be interesting to find out whether this carries through to our American counterparts.

But to an extent, because our social and cultural situation wasn’t like America’s, because British Christian Baby Boomers weren’t fighting American Culture Wars, because a lot of our shared experiences weren’t also shared by Americans, I’d expect there to be some differences. I’d actually like to see a Brit-focused study looking at the shared experiences of British members of the different so-called generations. It’s even possible that the demographics look different and the generations are divided up differently; certainly there’s enough uncertainty and dispute as to when precisely one generation ends and the next begins even solely in the US data that it seems clear we’re just drawing arbitrary lines.

Personally I think that encompassing a whole 20-year period in a single sociocultural “generation” may be pushing it; what “shared experience and perspective” is someone born at the end of that period supposed to have with someone 20 years their senior? They could just about be parent and child, for goodness’ sake!

And yet, they’re convenient labels for people of particular ages, and it’s true that the shared experiences of a generation do tend to mould people of a similar age in a similar way. If you’re a pre-teen child when 9/11 happens, you’ll probably react in a broadly similar way to other preteen children, for example, and that will probably be substantially different to how someone who’s an adult at the time reacts.

What happened to Generation X? I don’t know. I never had another generation’s expectations held up as a standard for me to cleave to, but apparently many of my American peers did. How God will judge my generation’s accomplishments is the important question, and right now I’m still back on whether God has a particular task for my generation and what that might be if He does.

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What If We Treated Guns Like We Do Cars?

Second Amendment rights advocates often want to tell you that guns aren’t the problem; that you can kill someone with a car or a knife, that there are far more deaths from motor accidents than gun deaths, that the police define a car as a deadly weapon. And no-one is crying out for cars to be restricted.

Okay, I’ll bite. What if we treated firearms in exactly the same way we treat motor vehicles?

In the US, before you can legally sit behind the wheel of a car and drive it solo, you have to pass a driving test and get a drivers’ licence. Typically, as I understand it, one will take a drivers’ education course which will teach you to safely and competently operate a motor vehicle.

If you want to drive a car, that’s one kind of licence. If you also want to ride a motorbike, that’s another licence with a separate test. If you want to drive a large commercial vehicle like a truck, the Commercial Driver’s Licence (CDL) is a separate and additional test and documentation with numerous additional facets and requirements allowing you to do things like transport hazardous cargo or particularly heavy goods or outsize loads.

Analogising to the firearms situation, if you want to be legally able to carry a gun, you should have to do a “firearms education” course and pass a gun safety test that confirms a minimum basic competency in firing it as well as knowledge of basic gun safety protocols. If you want a small-calibre handgun, that’s one kind of licence. If you want a hunting longarm, that’s another kind. If you want a high-calbre pistol like a Magnum or something, that’s another licence. There would be a minimum age requirement to do the firearms education course; we don’t let 7-year-olds learn to drive, do we? The states, or perhaps even individual communities, should probably set this lower age requirement for themselves.  Maybe we should be looking at a firearms licence similar to a drivers’ licence.  Just an idea.

On top of the licencing of drivers, motor vehicles themselves are individually registered with the state, taxed and inspected annually to make sure they meet basic safety standards. While the emissions test has no parallel in firearms, the idea that as a matter of course all guns will be registered with the state and taxed would probably send most gun owners into a flat spin. Nothing causes foaming at the mouth of your average Second Amendment activist than the words “gun registry”. “Then they’ll know exactly where to come when they come for our guns!” is the common refrain.

And yet, why? We register our cars, and only the most deranged of paranoids would suggest that the government is coming to take those away by force.  The right of freedom of movement is part of the First Amendment, and no-one suggests that the regulations we have around car ownership, registration and licencing are an infringement.

The idea that the government is going to take away guns by force is easily the most intractable of American political myths, and yet recent unwillingness to pass even the most basic commonsense gun safety laws and contrarian willingness to further loosen existing gun laws on the part of most of the current crop of politicians suggests that the reverse, if anything, is truer. Politicians seem unwilling to do even basic things like banning the bump stock devices that simulate fully automatic fire in a semiautomatic weapon; and yet you believe these same politicians are just waiting to pounce and forcibly take your guns.

I do not see that the “law-abiding gun owners” that the NRA and other firearms groups tout as the salvation of America have anything to fear from a gun registry.

Motor vehicles require fuel, which is taxed. In other countries like my native UK, it’s taxed quite a lot. Should we tax ammunition, and have the resulting funds channeled into mental health and/or a fund to help the victims of mass shootings? That might be appropriate.

I’m not necessarily saying “this is what we ought to do about gun safety”. But on the other hand, there are some interesting ideas here. In addition to repairing and extending the background check system that the NRA have paid their pet politicians to break and bend the proper functioning of (so that they can say “see, background checks don’t work”?), some of this might at least serve as a point of discussion.

If you want to point out how cars are also deadly weapons, it’s instructive to consider how comparatively regulated our driving is compared to what seems to be the case for firearms.  At the very least, it’s something to think about.

Strangelove 2017

Quit Worrying And Love The Gun?

In my 12 years of living in America, few things have made me feel my foreignness quite so much as the Second Amendment and its surrounding gun culture.

My birth nation the United Kingdom doesn’t have anything like an equivalent of the Second Amendment, and firearms, while not actually outlawed, are far less prevalent in society. Guns are so proportionally few in number, in fact, that most of our police officers are routinely unarmed apart from a (currently nightstick-style) truncheon, as they have been since the founding of Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police force in the Victorian era.

It’s something I often use as an example when people here in Texas ask me about the land of my birth. “Is it very different over there?” they ask, and one of the things I’m likely to bring up is “well, carrying a concealed weapon is a crime, and even most of our police don’t have guns”. Some people here in Texas seem not to know what to do with this information. “If the police aren’t armed, who has the guns?” one man asked, apparently expecting me to say “the criminals” or something. He really didn’t know how to handle the idea that guns aren’t endemic and that we wouldn’t generally consider owning firearms a right.

Obviously, I’ve struggled long and hard with that sort of bafflement operating in reverse. The insane rate of gun deaths in America. The Second Amendment itself. The fact that even after the deadliest mass shooting in US history the government is unable to pass even rudimentary commonsense legislation restricting some of the more lethal hardware available, or to close the loophole in the law allowing people to avoid background checks when acquiring a gun through private sale.

It doesn’t take a genius to wonder whether America’s gun violence problems are directly connected to America’s Second Amendment to its Constitution.
If you’re going to tell people they have a right to juggle with chainsaws, you shouldn’t be surprised if hospitals are constantly having to patch up those who are less than expert at it. It does sort of beg the question of
why, though, and I’ve struggled for a long time to come to some sort of understanding of what the purpose and reasoning behind the Second Amendment are.

Various not entirely helpful theories are propounded by gun rights advocates. “The Second guarantees the First” is a common bumper-sticker justification for the Amendment, putting forth the idea that the right of individual citizens to bear arms is what stops the government from infringing on the rights listed in the First Amendment: freedom of conscience, of speech, of movement and of association.

While it’s in some ways an attractive theory, especially given the notoriously suspicious general American attitude to authority and government, to me it falls flat, in part because I am a foreigner. My native country has never felt the need to tell its citizens they have a right to go armed, neither has any other developed nation of which I’m aware. If the right of citizens to bear arms is what holds governments back from tyranny, we ought to see a far higher incidence of tyranny among non-American nations, with them scoring far lower on the international freedom indices used to compare the amount of freedom possessed by citizens across national borders. Whereas in fact some developed nations with extremely restrictive gun laws continually score higher than the United States in political freedoms granted their citizens.

Some people put forth the idea that it’s the knowledge that US citizens own 30% of the world’s guns in just 3% of the world’s population that restrains other countries from attacking. I’m not sure why these people have such a low opinion of what’s generally acknowledged as the world’s most powerful military – certainly the most technological – but apparently we can’t guarantee that the US military could successfully hold off an invasion. This sort of Red Dawn fantasy was a little ridiculous when that film came out during the Cold War, and it doesn’t seem any more sensible to me today in 2017.

It is a little more in line with what my considered reading of the Second Amendment suggests that the framers of the Constitution believed it was for, though.

Of necessity I’ve had to become familiar with the text of the Amendment, such that I can now quote it verbatim: “A well-regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state, the right to bear arms shall not be infringed”.

I’ve gone through various interpretations and failures to understand this phrasing, including investigating to find out what on earth a militia is and what it has to do with anything. I don’t want to reprise the whole development of my thought on the matter here, but my understanding of a militia is that it was a type of 17th- and 18th-Century temporary military unit composed of farmboys and hunters and basically anyone who had a weapon and hadn’t been press-ganged already. In Europe, militia were notorious for their general indiscipline, battlefield cowardice and off-field brutality. If you were using militia, it was because you had nothing else

And yet in America, the idea of militia dovetailed with the Founding Fathers’ concept of the citizen-soldier who would take up arms in defence of nation and family and then return once more to their fields to take up the plough.

It certainly seems as though the colonists didn’t want a permanent standing army. I guess their experiences with the sorts of British Redcoats that the French would later nickname “les Goddamns” made them so suspicious of armies that they wanted no truck with any of it. They wanted a militia, not an army. Soldiers with nothing to do only lend themselves to oppression.

In this context the Second Amendment makes perfect sense. If your national defence is resting on militia, it’s a borderline treasonable offence to take away the weapons that make a militia possible.

It does rather make the Second Amendment the obsolete artifact of history that I always suspected it was, though.

Why there’s still a Second Amendment today, when there’s an entire permanent US military on which America spends more money than some countries’ entire GDP, seems like merely the inherent conservatism of Americans and their reverence for and reluctance to re-examine the basic provisions of their Constitution.

The fact that the people have apparently a Constitutionally-guaranteed right to own killing weapons doesn’t necessarily make it a given that a majority of people are going to, though. There are all sorts of quaint, archaic laws on the books, not only in the UK where I grew up but all over the world including America, banning and permitting all manner of improbabilities, but the mere fact that they’re on the books doesn’t mean anyone’s really paying attention to them.

No, to answer this we turn to the other imponderable of American culture: as a gun-owning friend once put it, “Americans, we love our guns”.

It’s taken me even longer to assimilate this truth than it took to come to an understanding of what the Second Amendment thinks it’s for. “We love our guns”.

I could recognise easily enough that it did in fact seem to be the case. One only has to look at the numbers. But it made no sense to me, particularly the staunchly pro-gun stance of many Christians. How could anyone who follows the Prince of Peace want anything to do with promoting the ownership of weapons whose primary purpose is to kill?

Obviously they must be ignorant. Or brainwashed by the gun manufacturers’ NRA mouthpiece. Or just supporting gun rights because it’s a conservative cause and American Christianity has become overwhelmingly identified with the political Right.

I suspect that this may be more than a little unfair. I still struggle with the idea that a genuine Bible-believing Christian might feel justified, in certain circumstances, in taking the life of another person when Christ died for them just like He died for me, but I recognise that I seem to be in a distinct minority holding that view here in America.

The scary thing is that my gun-loving friend was right. Americans really do love their guns, and it’s not necessarily because of stereotypical Yank cultural ignorance or personal bloodyminded stupidity.

I’m coming to the conclusion that gun advocates really don’t see guns in the same way, that the gun has a dramatically different symbolic value to most people in the United States than it does for me.

To me, a gun is a killing weapon, end of story. Gun rights advocates, at least in my experience, like to bring up the fact that the police define a car as a deadly weapon, or that you can kill someone with a length of steel pipe or a hammer, or that the 9/11 terrorists killed so many not with a gun but with an aeroplane. It’s not the gun, they claim, it’s what it’s used for.

Whether this doesn’t imply that US society as a whole is sick and violent is a question I choose to leave open right now, but in my mind there’s a difference between a car, which is intended as a means of transport to get from point A to point B but which occasionally gets abused as a weapon, and a gun, whose entire purpose is to shoot a bullet at a target and to kill what it shoots. There can be reasonable uses of this killing capability, for example hunting to feed one’s family, but at the end of the day a gun is made to do one thing: to kill.

More, guns make it easy to kill. You can kill someone with a knife, but you have to be much closer to them and use a lot more effort. In my thinking the ability to kill with the crook of a finger is a terrible power to wield, one that I wouldn’t trust myself with. To place that power in the hands of the meanest, most prejudiced and violent knuckle-dragging troglodyte seems like inviting horror.

I’m not trying to say that all gun owners are prejudiced knuckle-draggers, but by their nature as instruments of violence, guns would seem to attract the violent and appeal to the base killing instinct. A person who is peaceable and placid by nature would seem to have less inherent interest in acquiring a firearm.

Guns, to me, are by their very nature death-dealing devices of inherent designed potential for violence, and it’s this perspective that’s stymied me for so long in assimilating “we love our guns”. How could any rational, reasonable person possibly love a tool of violence and death?

It’s possible, even likely, that I’m being a little double-minded in this, because I have a thing for swords. Objectively, a sword is at least as much a tool of violence and death, but in my defence it’s not a current tool of violence and death, so that in the modern gunpowder age a sword is more or less a prop, a decoration, an anachronism owned for its symbolic value rather than its cutting-edge (sorry) killing technology.

To me, swords are symbolically associated with knighthood and the Mediaeval code of chivalry, with its virtues of honour, integrity, faith and the protection of the weak. Only a very distant secondarily are they a functional weapon, unlike the gun, which is purely and simply a functional weapon and has absolutely no mystique or positive symbolic value to me at all. Indeed, it almost stands in opposition to the sword as a symbol of the coarser, less spiritual and refined values of the modern age.

Is it possible that other people might imbue the gun with positive symbolic value? That ownership of a gun might for some be less about owning a death-dealing weapon and more about some intangible value like personal liberty or self-reliance?

Well, duh.

Of course other people of other cultures place different significance on things. Though the idea’s usually found in reference to “primitive” cultures, I suspect most cultures actually have certain totem objects imbued with strong symbolic value, like the British Crown Jewels or the American bald eagle.

The situation is complicated in the case of guns because the gun is a currently-employed killing weapon and has all of those associations as well, but it’s well within the bounds of probability that for the people about whom I most wonder at their enthusiasm for firearms ownership, the gun isn’t merely a killing device; it has a symbolic meaning that’s completely outside my ken.

Commentators on the gun issue in America frequently use words and phrases like “freedom”, “independence”, “self-reliance”, “rugged ability to take care of things oneself”. In the past, this might as well have been Martian for all it touched me. Not only do I not associate the gun with any of that, but I don’t even consider some of those to be important. Or even virtues.

Yeah, I’m a foreigner. Did you expect me to be an American with this accent?

Independence isn’t that important to me on a personal level. I’m more into the idea of interdependence, mutuality, cooperation. The “rugged self-reliance” that takes care of business without needing anyone else seems almost psychologically unbalanced and basically futile: macho posturing that more often than not creates a big problem whenever it tries to solve a small one. If guns are symbolic of this, count me basically uninterested.

I guess the gun-rights advocates are right, at least in my personal case. I really don’t share your values. In my case it actually does make me unAmerican, but there seem to be plenty of people in the States that are at least as nonplussed by the apparent love of the gun as I am. The people who, after a horrific mass shooting like Las Vegas, reopen the historically futile debate over firearms with calls for tighter regulation of these intrinsically dangerous weapons. The people who fight against the depressing knowledge that there will be another mass shooting just as bad as this last one if not worse.  The people who advocate for what I’d describe as rational and reasonable legal control.

Because a gun isn’t just a symbol of rugged individualism. It’s a deadly weapon, by its very nature an instrument of violent death. The dichotomy of this dual nature as both weapon and symbol is a pretty good summary of the American gun debate. And “Americans, we love our guns” finally seems to have an answer for why? that makes an ounce of sense.

Americans probably don’t love guns because they are twisted closet-sociopaths who love violence and death, though you could certainly make a case that the USA as a whole is fairly violence-obsessed. It just might be that there are important symbolic values for many Americans connected with owning a gun, and that they love guns because guns represent a value they cherish.

I’m probably never going to personally love guns. Neither they nor their ownership hold positive symbolic value to me, and even the values I’m told are associated with them are mostly not ones I place particular emphasis on. Freedom is good, for instance, but my freedom is necessarily limited by law, morality, courtesy and the common freedoms of everyone else. My self-image and identity aren’t bound up in owning a weapon. At least, not this weapon; I’d still love to get a broadsword. But even there, I’m quite able to live my life without one.

As a Christian, I question whether our self-image and identity ought to be so wrapped up in weapon ownership rather than Christ, but when I can lay down forever my desire to have a sword, then I can frame the identity-marker of gun possession as possible idolatry. I question whether the values expressed in the symbology of the gun are ones we ought to be promoting as Christians, but that’s not quite the same issue.

I don’t think I’ll ever see the Second Amendment as anything more than a historical artifact or ever really share in this great American obsession, but perhaps in finally grasping the value and symbolic aspects of the issue I can better understand that chimerical and seemingly unnatural beast, the Christian gun-rights advocate.  Or even just the gun rights advocate, no matter the rest of their functioning belief system.

Independence Planet

A cross-post from my LEGO blog Square Feet today.  This seemed appropriate in both places.


It’s quite out-of-the-ordinary for me to be building a Fourth of July-themed LEGO model.

Although I live in the United States, I was born and raised in the United Kingdom, and American Independence Day is the single US public holiday I’ve had the hardest time getting my heart around.

In all honesty, Britain in 1776 doesn’t look to me like the “tyranny” of you Americans’ popular belief, based as it is on half-remembered childhood school lessons. We had pre-Revolutionary (and later post-Revolutionary) France sitting next door inviting comparison, and besides that the citizens of the American colonies seem to have had in large part a lighter burden than those of the mother country. “British tyranny”, as you so delightfully put it, hardly seems fair.

It’s taken most of a decade now to get past my offended national pride at this seemingly mentally-lazy accusation of “tyranny”, together with my secret fear that you Americans might be still holding a sort of grudge about it all with your closely-held popular memories of your Paul Reveres, your Boston Tea-Parties and your “rockets’ red glare” (from missiles fired by one of our warships, as I can’t quite ever forget).

Really, the Fourth of July is a weird time to be a Brit in America, if you have any sense or knowledge of history. I love America, but I love my homeland too, and it’s difficult to enter into the spirit of a holiday which persists in painting my home country as the villain.

For all that my country of birth and my country of residence are now staunch allies, such that your Red, White and Blue flies proudly beside ours, and the idea that we might be deadly enemies is frankly ridiculous; still, every Fourth of July I’m reminded that it was not always so.

However, in recent years I’ve been far better about not working myself into a frenzy over it in the run-up to the Day itself, finding ways to love America even on the Fourth of July that don’t feel like I’m being subtly asked to reject the land of my birth.

Really, it’s nothing anyone else has ever said or done. This is my own love of my homeland running headlong into the reality that it was that country that those early Americans had to fight to gain their independence. I’m quite happy to celebrate American independence; what I feel sometimes like I’m probably not going to be allowed is permission to love my other country too, even on the Fourth when you memorialise that former enmity.

Silly? Maybe. Weirdly insecure? For certain. Neurotic? Perhaps.

Rather English, though. We never want to impose on anyone; I wouldn’t dream of sounding a discordant note of Britannic pride in the midst of the United States’ birthday celebration. Hence my annual patriotic neurosis.

Really, though, I have been getting better. The War of Independence isn’t exactly current affairs even in the UK where it’s so much closer to 2017 than to 1066, and no-one is asking me to choose sides for battle. I’m gradually realising that it really is a free country (still); I don’t need the nation’s permission to be British even on the Fourth.

And there’s much to love about America, land of liberty, welcomer of those “huddled masses” and home of opportunity and an inventiveness that has blessed the world with so many wonderful devices.

America really is great, and not even Donald Trump can take away that proud legacy.

Hence this build.

A deliberate homage to that famous image of the Flag-raising on Iwo Jima, it uses some of my new red and white LEGO Classic Space astronauts, and my slightly older blue Classic astronaut.

Indeed, the whole build owes itself to the way I had my new astronauts arranged on my son’s LEGO display shelves. Independence Day rapidly approaching, it occurred to me that the visual combination of red, white and blue astronauts was very patriotic. “I’m sure I could do something with that, for this holiday I’m actually beginning to come to terms with”.

Thoughts turned to that famous USMC image, and the rest is as you see.

Have a happy Independence Day, everyone.

Americhristmas: The 10 Most Surprising Things About American Holiday Traditions

Christmas is one of the holidays with the most commonality between Britain and the US. We both encapsulate the Northern European traditions of trees and snow and reindeer and so on. But there are some surprising differences. Some of these that particularly flummoxed or amazed me when I first encountered them are as follows:

  1. What, no Boxing Day? American companies are rather Scroogelike in the amount of holidays, public or otherwise, that they give their employees. Whereas in England, the 26th is a public holiday as well, I was most distressed to learn that here in America I was expected back at work bright and early, fully functional and ready to be a productive little cog in the machine. Seriously, does anyone really expect to get much done on the day after the biggest holiday of the year? I get more time off for Thanksgiving than I do for Christ’s birth most years, and last time Christmas fell on a Saturday I got the Saturday off (it’s usually a workday for me) and that was it. Conservatives moan that “companies can’t afford it”, but given the bonuses they pay their executives, I’m more convinced it’s “won’t” than “can’t”. Very surprising, and unpleasantly so.

  1. Food Differences. The familiar mince pies, Christmas pudding and Christmas cake don’t really exist here, but make room for cookies. Hundreds of the things, sugared, iced and cut into seasonal shapes. The potatoes served with the turkey are likely to be mashed, not roasted (you people have no idea what you’re missing), the turkey might get deep-fried, and the green vegetable accompaniment is beans, not Brussels sprouts. Chocolate coins in the Christmas stocking isn’t the done thing, but candy canes hung on the Christmas tree might be.

  1. Candied Sweet Potatoes. Top of my personal list of “what on earth were you thinking?” foods, this one is so weird it needs its own category. Sweet potato was a nonexistent vegetable in my growing up, and I really wasn’t sure about something that had the consistency of stringy regular potato but a sweet flavour. But to mash it up and bake it in a pan with marshmallow on top, and then insist that it belongs on the same plate as turkey? No, you people are strange. I like you, but this food crosses too many boundaries for me. I’d never even suspected the existence of a food (not a condiment like apple sauce with pork or cranberry sauce with turkey, but a food) that was sweet but a “dinner” food and not a dessert. That’s a line I don’t personally cross. Like your weird jello salads, this I’ll pass on.

  2. HanukChristKwanzFestivus. When I first arrived in the States, I hadn’t yet tumbled to what inveterate particularists Americans are. When I was growing up, Christmas was Christmas. I’d vaguely heard of Hanukkah by the time I moved to the States as an almost thirty-year-old, but other than that it was a Jewish festival around Christmas time, I didn’t know anything about it. It didn’t, and still doesn’t, have a very high profile in the country of my birth. Jews, and even Muslims, are as likely to wish you a happy Christmas as anyone else. But what on earth’s a Kwanzaa? A Festivus? Come on; you’re making these up. Kwanzaa, I’m informed, is essentially Christmas for black people who think Christmas is too white and European; Festivus is Christmas for militant atheists. This is America. Everyone’s got to have their own holiday catering specifically to them. Now, I understand that if you’re Hindu you probably want to celebrate Diwali rather than Christmas, and if you’re a Jew you probably want to celebrate Hanukkah. But these have an actual history and don’t seem to be fabricated out of whole cloth simply because we like having a holiday and there are things we object to about the majority one. I guess the early Christians’ adoption of the Saturnalia for Christmas was something like this originally, but given the basic nonexistence of Kwanzaa in the UK and the very definite existence of a thriving black and African community, I wonder whether stuff like Kwanzaa is really as “African” as it’s claimed.

  3. Musical Differences. I talked about this last post, but it’s worth mentioning again. The carols have different tunes in many instances (Away In A Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Angels From the Realms of Glory, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear). The secular music is totally different. And there are some different carols, too. I was particularly surprised by Angels We Have Heard On High, which has our tune for Angels from the Realms of Glory (mostly) but different words, and the complete absence of Once In Royal David’s City.

  4. There’s No Such Thing As Tacky Decorations. Whether it’s the tree or the house, American notions of proper decorating are like themselves: bold, loud, overpowering and individual. Nothing is so cheesy or tacky that some American won’t put it on his front lawn, whether the 12ft tall inflatable Nativity scene, the dinosaur Santa giving presents to all the little T-rexes, the zombie Santa, the upside-down Santa that hangs by a toe from the gutter, or whatever else. Coming from a part of Britain that was relentlessly middle class and the last thing anyone wanted to be accused of was of being tacky, it was rather surprising. Tree ornaments are similar. No-one would make patriotic or state (if we had them) tree ornaments in Britain, but you see them all the time here, blazoned with the Stars and Stripes, or the Confederate flag if you’re of a mind, or football teams, TV shows, whatever. Express yourself. It’s the American thing to do, and if anyone doesn’t like it, it’s the American thing that they can kiss your… Ahem.

  5. So few Christmas cards. Ok, Britain goes a little overboard with Christmas cards. You get them from everyone, and you’re supposed to give them to everyone. They make special Christmas card display hangers that you can pin up to 100+ cards to apiece, and people regularly need several per room in their house. Think US valentine cards, raised to the power of ten and at Christmas time. And when I say everyone gives them to everyone, I mean it. I got Christmas cards at school from kids with names like Anwar Islam and Rakesh Patel. But we didn’t usually send or give cards to immediate family. By contrast, my wife’s family did cards for one another, and a few closer friends and church people, and that’s it. As my family know, I’m particularly disorganised about cards, and at $2 a card to mail them internationally, it gets expensive, but I always feel particularly guilty that I’m not doing it right, no matter what we do.

  6. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: the Movie. Yes, I mean the 1964 vintage one. We all know the song, even in the wilds of Britain, but not only had I never seen the film (still haven’t, in fact), I had never even suspected its existence. This “classic” American Christmas film apparently has a distinctly North American audience; it hasn’t been shown on British TV that I know about or remember any time in my life of fortysomething years. This, Frosty the Snowman (which I’ve never seen either), and a couple of others I don’t recall off the top of my head are basically unknown. We have our own Christmas TV classics (The Snowman), but typically what I recall being shown on TV on Christmas day were popular mainstream films like The Empire Strikes Back. Of the classic American holiday films, I’ve seen A Charlie Brown Christmas and maybe a couple of others. “Classic” for me is sometimes code for “not watchable on merit; needs added nostalgia”.

  7. Eggnog. To go from a country in which it’s a marginal, slightly strange alcoholic cocktail involving real eggs (at least, that’s what I thought “egg nog” was when I got here) to a country in which it’s a vanillaish creamy soft drink demanded by the masses and used as a flavouring in seasonal chocolates and stuff is fairly eyeblinking. I’d never drunk eggnog of either incarnation before I moved to the States. To hear what I always thought was an alcoholic drink craved loudly by my resolutely teetotal father-in-law was something of a shock. Eggnog is big business here, consumed by the pint and lapped up with relish. I don’t personally care for it; you can have my share. But how in demand it is and how much a Christmas flavour it’s considered to be here was certainly surprising.

  8. We Wish You A Sober Christmas. America has its share of holiday drinking, but it seems to be of things that would be drunk anyway, like regular beer or wine. There seems little of the holiday sherry or the alcohol-soaked desserts or the mulled wine that you have to prepare or buy specially. Hot apple cider in the US means warmed spiced apple juice, not the alcoholic drink that is the only meaning of “cider” in the UK. American Christmas is designed for kids, so there’s no alcohol on show, there’s masses of sugar, and everything is very G-rated (U or Uc, in British film classification parlance). Britain’s a bit more European; alcohol is a part of life and we don’t feel any particular need to hide it from our children. The sooner they treat it as something to drink sensibly, but just something to drink, the better off they’ll be. Including at Christmas, with our sherry and our mulled wine and our brandy-soaked Christmas puddings that you set alight at the table, and our brandy butter. We’re really not a nation of alcoholics, but alcohol is definitely more embedded into the Christmas festivities than it is in the US.

Anyway, that’s my list. I’ve probably forgotten a few, but those are the main ones that caught me out. Enjoy your Christmas preparations; I’m back to mine.

Kyrie Eleison

And now I have to somehow find a way to explain to my children that the Presidency-elect of the United States of America belongs to an arrogant sex predator who brags about sexually assaulting women, cheating on his multiple spouses and being completely uninvolved in raising his children, who mocks the disabled, cheats his employees out of their wages, apparently thinks that the reason we have nuclear weapons is so that we can use them, and doesn’t think he’s done anything that needs God’s forgiveness.

Worse, I have to somehow explain that self-proclaimed evangelical Christians voted for him in droves because apparently God doesn’t care about anything except abortion and the US Supreme Court.

May God have mercy on us all.

My dad texted the single comment from his home in the UK:  “Disaster for the world”.

I think for me the most hopeful thing of the election night coverage was Glenn Beck’s comments about listening to one another.  Normally I don’t have a lot of time for his brand of screaming conservative rants, but what this seems to amount to is “Dear God, what have we done?  What have I done?”

Glenn Beck, arch-Republican of arch-Republicans, said that.  There might be hope yet for sense to break out.

I have my doubts, though, when members of my church claim “he’s not saying anything we aren’t thinking”, when I know pastors who think Hillary Clinton is “worse than Jezebel” (what on earth has she done to deserve that dubious accolade?  She’s not exactly killing Christians left, right and centre the way Jezebel killed YHWH’s prophets).  Good grief, if you’re thinking what Trump is saying, all I can say is that you need to know Jesus.  Badly.

And yet, God is still good.  He’s still sovereign.  He is still in the business of redeeming lives from darkness and sending His Holy Spirit to convict the world with regard to sin and righteousness and judgment.  He doesn’t need a righteous President in order to build His Kingdom; He built His Kingdom under Nero and Domitian and Stalin and Hitler and builds it today under Kim Jong Un and Hu Jintao and even Ayatollah Khomeini, in spite of the political powers-that-be in the various nation-states around the world that persecute His followers.  He is still able to build His Kingdom here in the United States despite us having elected ourselves a crude and unpleasant troll with anger management issues.

I will not fear.  I will trust in the Lord and continue to do good.  He is my shield and my strength and my song.

Remember, Remember

Remember, remember the 5th of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot

I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot.

People in the UK don’t have fireworks on the Fourth of July. That much ought to be obvious, but I’ve met enough Americans that just don’t stop and think long enough to really realise this on a conscious level.

Anyway, our fireworks happen on the fifth of November, and for a different reason.

November 5th in Britain is vastly different, weatherwise, from July 4th in Texas. It’s cold and damp; not actually freezing (mostly), but weather for wearing coats and gloves and for having bonfires. Which you can actually do, usually, because unlike Texas, the British Isles are not a disguised desert in which rain is a legendary creature rarer than the chimaera. Trying to set a bonfire in Texas around the Fourth of July is asking to set the entire state alight. No exaggeration.

The bonfire also provides a welcome break from the cold and dark of a British November, but that’s not its primary reason for existing.

Just like the fireworks, and like the Liberty Bell and the Easter Egg, the bonfire is a symbol connected intrinsically to the reason we have a celebration at all.

(Incidentally, Brits definitely get the better deal with Easter Eggs. American Easter Eggs are small, plastic, and filled with various artificial-tasting American candies. British Easter Eggs are a hollow shell only slightly smaller than an ostrich egg, made out of chocolate (actual chocolate, too, not that awful Hersheys rubbish) and filled with vastly better-tasting British sweets. No contest)

Anyway…

The difference in history behind the US and UK fireworks days is emblematic of the difference in basal attitude between our two countries towards government. And with a US election just around the corner, it seemed an appropriate subject.

The Fourth of July is, of course, an Independence Day. In popular American myth, it’s the day when the heroic American patriots told the evil British tyrants that they weren’t having it any more, dumped perfectly good tea into Boston harbour and shot at the Redcoats until they all went home in disgrace. Give it a couple of hundred years more and Paul Revere will ride through town at midnight distributing presents of ammunition to all the good little redneck boys and girls.

Um, excuse me. I shouldn’t be facetious. This is serious stuff. The birth of a new nation by telling its former colonial power to butt out, and making it stick. The wisdom and foresight of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with its Bill of Rights.

The point I’m trying to make is that the essence of the Fourth of July is the celebration of independence. From whom? Well, we’ll look at that in a minute.

The Fifth of November, by contrast, celebrates the failure of an act of terrorism. I should probably explain a little for the benefit of my non-British readership.

The potted popular version is that back in the age when Europeans had long and bloody wars over which variety of Christian they were going to be, a group of Roman Catholic conspirators led by, or at least aided and abetted by, Guy Fawkes, plotted to blow up the overwhelmingly Protestant Parliament while the equally Protestant King James I (of England and VI of Scotland) was visiting. (Yes, the king visits Parliament. By tradition the Sovereign has to ask Parliament’s permission to enter; he or she may not do so merely as a matter of right).

The conspirators smuggled barrels of gunpowder into the chambers below the central House, where the aforementioned Guy Fawkes was to wait until he heard the sounds of Parliament in session above, light the fuse and make his getaway.

The scheme might have succeeded, leaving a power vacuum in which most of the powerful Protestant Lords were dead and the closest claimant to the throne was a Catholic prepared to unleash a new round of Bloody Mary’s burnings and torturings of Protestant heretics. British Protestants don’t have a spotless record when it comes to treatment of Catholics, but at least the official persecution stopped short of massed burnings at the stake.

It might have succeeded. The fact that it didn’t was due to the fact that a couple of the conspirators tried to warn four prominent Catholic Members of Parliament not to attend that day, and the four, whether from putting their country ahead of their religious allegiance or from a simple rejection of these violent means, in turn informed the King.

Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed and his ring of co-conspirators was apprehended. And for his act of treason against the lawful Sovereign and Government, he was put to death by burning. (It was a savage age in many ways, and the people were incensed. No pun intended).

Hence the bonfire, to remember his death, and the fireworks, to remember the Gunpowder Plot.

The point here is that the essence of the Fifth of November is the celebration of the preservation of government, and that’s the big difference.

For Britons, by and large, government is generally viewed as benign. Its purpose is to restrain lawlessness and allow decent ordinary people to live out their lives in relative peace. The Royal Family is emblematic of this; the friendly, cosy, limited authority of a good father or mother in a family, extended to the scale of a nation. The Sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland isn’t considered “the Father of the Nation” in the way the Tsars of Russia were, but it’s a metaphor. National government is fatherly, motherly, a close, familial authority which is, when the chips are down, for you, not against you.

This mindset might as well be Martian to most Americans (though if anything, Jupiter ought to be considered Britain’s presiding planetary power. King of the gods, and all that. Jupiterian, perhaps). The basal American attitude to government is that it’s at best a necessary evil. I sometimes suspect that a lot of Republicans are only narrowly removed from outright anarchism, but even a lot of Democrats seem to have a base-level distrust of government that even the most ardently republican (note the small “r”) Brit doesn’t.

Government seems to be viewed as the enemy. Necessary, perhaps, but needing to be caged and imprisoned and limited and controlled in order to keep the blighters honest. Give them the chance and they’ll turn on you in a heartbeat, eviscerate you and eat your lungs. The US political system of checks and balances is an institutionalised version of this mistrust of authority; no one agency has all of the power, because government is by nature untrustworthy.

Even at our most strongly pro-democracy, most Brits maintain a subliminal belief that the institution of government itself is basically trustworthy. While this is not true of any particular government or group of politicians (most of them, in fact, could do with having their feet held to the fire to keep the blighters honest), the integrity of the institution of governmental authority itself is not up for question. On some level, we trust government to at least try to act for the good of the country and its people, whether or not we trust the people involved to recognise what the good of the country is.

Americans are largely the inverse of this. They might place trust in individual political figures or parties, but the system itself, the institution, the nature of authority, is that it is an enemy and capable of great and nefarious evil. We’re free Americans! No-one tells us what to do! Hooah!

The Fourth of July celebrates freedom from the evil forces of government, embodied in the “foreign tyranny” (personally disputed on both counts, but let’s not get into that) of British rule.

The Fifth of November celebrates preservation of the government from evil forces. It’s a significant difference.

And on that note, I’ll leave all you Americans to go and vote on Tuesday, and all you Brits to reflect on the strange mindset that leads many Americans to vote the way they do. And I can’t even shoot up a single firework here in Texas to celebrate the day, because they’re not allowed to the general public within city limits.