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.

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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.

Happy Birthday America

Maybe I just found the key to being able to truly enter in to Fourth of July celebrations in a way that has eluded me so far.

On Father’s Day I wrote about the apparent American obsession with the father-figure, and connected it to the War of Independence. And here’s my thought:

If America is the “child” in that relationship, and Britain is the “father”, maybe I can approach Independence Day as…

My child’s birthday.

I don’t necessarily like or enjoy everything that my child does. I’m not completely like my child, nor am I expected to be. We’re different people, and that’s ok. I can still celebrate them and their birthday.

And like with a physical child, there was blood and pain on both sides during the birth process, but now there’s a new human in the world. That’s reason for celebration.

The analogy breaks down regarding postnatal care. Perhaps a better one would be the Rite of Passage: the ceremonies some cultures have in which a boy becomes a man.

Very often there’s blood and pain in those, too. It’s a severing of parental authority, a child becoming an adult and taking their place in the world of adults.

The Western world has lost the idea of the Rite of Passage. I’ve seen some attempts to manufacture one, and they look contrived and artificial. But birthdays? Birthdays we have.

So Happy Birthday, America!

A Clash of Patriotisms

(Source:Wikipedia)

I think maybe this year I’m actually mentally ready for the Fourth of July.

I can never quite tell until the day itself, of course. There have been other years during the almost 9 years I’ve lived in the States when I’ve thought I was prepared and then found myself getting uncomfortable. This year, perhaps it’ll be different.

The Fourth of July isn’t Independence Day for me so much as Day of Feeling Weird About My Country.

It’s not anything anyone does, or says, really. Some of my friends will make jokes about it, but if the situations were reversed I’d almost certainly do the same. Some good-natured teasing isn’t going to kill me or harm my country.

No, my problems are almost entirely internal. It’s that it’s a very weird and slightly uncomfortable thing to be a Brit in America on Independence Day.

The American Revolution never even registered on the history I learned at school, but pure mental self-defence has meant that I’ve had to learn about it since coming to the US.

The Revolutionary War looms large in American popular culture. There’s probably no comparable historical event in British popular culture that everyone will immediately gravitate to (World War Two and the Battle of Britain, perhaps, but not even that has the same overwhelming prominence in British national sentiment). What this means is that the war is part of American founding mythology (not in the sense of “untrue” but in the sense of “powerful story”) and consequently is surrounded by a lot of populism, half-remembered facts and lazy thinking.

Being a Brit, and a Brit with some knowledge of my country’s history, I hear some of the American assumed knowledge about the War of Independence and I question. It doesn’t seem to add up.

To give you some examples:

“British tyranny” said like it’s a universally-acknowledged fact. I know what you’ve been told, but it’s difficult to see my country as a tyranny in that period when we have pre-revolutionary France to compare it with.

George III. I’m probably the only one who can still remember the 10-second scene in The Patriot, close to the beginning of the film, in which you see the colonials burning an effigy of King George III. A blink-and-you’d-miss-it moment entirely incidental to the plot, but I can still remember my visceral shock and distaste. That’s my king you’re burning in effigy. I guess this is the reaction of most good Americans to seeing someone burn the Stars and Stripes.

Yes, monarchism really does run that deep in me. And George III is far from the worst king we’ve ever saddled ourselves with. I’d accept the “tyrant” label for a number of others, including Henry VIII, but George III looks more like Good King George than the monster of American myth, even stacked up against some of his contemporaries (Robespierre and the last of the Louises of France show us the true face of tyranny).

My country, the Bad Guys. Ahem. From the perspective of British history, 1776 is a lot closer to 2014 than it is to 1066, and that’s discounting everything prior to William the Conqueror. We could just as easily go back to Julius Caesar’s landing in 50BC as “the start of British history”. By 1776, just about every national institution of government was in place, and in a recogniseably modern form. You don’t think we’re evil bad guys now (Hollywood aside. To them, the English are the only nationality it’s permissible to hate). What changed?

“We Put An End To The British Empire”. This is just lazy thinking. Actually, most of what became the British Empire wasn’t annexed until after the loss of the Thirteen Colonies, and some have seen their loss as providing some of the impetus behind the rise of empire. America didn’t put an end to the Empire. We did that ourselves after World War Two.

Hey, I can’t even hear the US National Anthem without being aware that the “rockets’ red glare” illuminating the Flag came from unguided missiles fired from one of my country’s warships.

Suffice it to say, even without anyone saying anything, it makes the Fourth of July rather interesting inside my head.

I love my country, and I love America too. Most of the time these two loves coexist peacefully, if not in active cooperation. We are, after all, staunch allies, having a close partnership that Britain calls “the Special Relationship”.

And yet at least once a year I’m reminded that we were once enemies.

In purely historical terms, from the American perspective I can understand how George III looks bad. Britain in her imperial days seemed at times to have a peculiar genius for selecting precisely the worst possible people to be colonial administrators, and this was often the case in the American colonies. When all you know about the King is the manner of people he selects as his representatives, well… The rest is history.

Similarly, compared to the situation in France, or even mainland Britain, the American colonials had it pretty good, with an abundance of freedom and relatively low tax burden. But they weren’t comparing their situation with France or the motherland, they were comparing it with the distracted days of the wars with France, during which time the British government didn’t much care what the Americans did as long as they flew a British flag and not a French one. In those days, laws were winked at as often as not, and it’s all too easy to see their subsequent actual enforcement as a crackdown.

I get this intellectually, but it hasn’t helped so far with my emotional reactions to the Fourth of July.

This year may be different. I may yet forgive the city of Boston for its criminal waste of perfectly good tea and come to a place of peace. But when so much of American popular patriotism references the Revolutionary War, it’s difficult to put down my crown loyalist defensiveness and enter in.