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Separation of Powers

Two views of the United States.


Obviously, the United States is a dreadful place. Much of it, as William Cobbett noted to his dismay, swelters half the year under a humidity so extreme that most of life has to be lived indoors. When one does venture out, there is really nowhere to go, since what legacy there was has been mainly burnt to the ground by war or accident. Those wooden constructions don’t survive long and don’t enjoy the sacral protection of Norwegian stave churches.

There is always the countryside, except that there isn’t, because, astoundingly, most of the vast original forest cover has been cut down to erect all the flimsy timber houses. The second-generation spindly trees do not invite one either to exploration or basking, like ancient oaks or beeches.

Yes, there is a certain pleasure in driving your convertible over the rickety bridges across the shallow creeks, but should you get out to stretch your legs, you will not be able to stretch them very far. In all that huge space there are no ancient pedestrian rights of way, any more than there is any common land to speak of. Across the Atlantic, the Whigs finally disposed of these crucial parts of the Anglo-Saxon legacy. You will probably be shot if you venture across the fields, unless you are local to the area and carrying a gun yourself.

Yes, there are the many National and Regional Parks. But they were deliberately cleared of their human inhabitants or unwelcome species. Even the sublime turns out to be manicured. And while there are now many paths or “trails” to be found, they lead to no welcome hostelries where the walker may refresh both body and spirit and hear some other traveller’s tales. No: every hiker is a pretend pioneer, reliant on her rucksack for provender.

Replenishment is allowed only to the car driver, who doesn’t need it, else he will grow still plumper. And once more woe betide him if he be a stranger: then he will be subject to a thousand glares in the more authentic if shabby rural joints, and the only alternative is recourse to the restaurant chains whose products will poison him. All the attractive wayside taverns with welcoming hostesses went under to capitalist competition long ago.

One’s best option is to stay at home or stick around campus if you are the kind of student or professor who can happily bask in its virtual contentment forever; in its bubble dream-world of downloaded European culture. Otherwise, out in the streets and back in the wooden houses, one will have to face the most concealed open secret there has ever been: American technology is very poor.

It’s manifest of course in all those pendulous wires and leaning posts that seem to render every small-town street like something from a Western, but also to be experienced in the unreliable Third World-standard electric grid that causes frequent power cuts and takes longer to toast your bread than civilized norms elsewhere. Or in the archaic top-loading wash tubs that occasionally mangle your clothes.

Given that history and nature are not to be had, that futurism turns out to be confined to California, and that home carries imminent perils like short-circuiting or flooding in your basement, there’s not much else to do but shop.

But that is really not as easy as it is elsewhere. The food supply is compromised: milk is not really milk and vegetables are displayed under constant waterfalls that rot them to the core. Everything is pulped up with added fats and sugars, such that it is no surprise that all food in American restaurants tastes vaguely of caramel. Finding decent grub to feed your offspring will take you a whole day of driving along congested highways through a randomized and chaotically cluttered urban landscape to many different venues.

Beyond food it gets harder: shops might be sited anywhere and for any reason, as if predictable custom were not really an issue and as if every retail outlet were just an expression of its owner’s idiosyncratic personality. Best really, these days, to stick to online purchasing. In actual shops, one will endlessly face the claim that “No, sir, we have never stocked what you are looking for,” when you know that they had a supply of it only last week. For in the United States, the land of the (primitive) future, there is no past, only present utopia, and so even the most recent past must be endlessly denied.

To escape all this tedium and frustration there is always the road trip. But you will be exhausted long before you have escaped from monotony: that unvarying geology and topology for hundreds upon hundreds of miles. Yet more spindly trees and wooden shacks. Little variety even of building styles and materials; no beckoning spires and towers to guide you. Centrifugal dispersion centers you everywhere such that you remain entirely lost.

And somehow nature, out there through your air-conditioned car window, does not seem quite right, as if it were only a Hollywood backdrop in its strange brownish sepia tones that don’t seem translucent to a normal sun. Maybe there is only studio lighting? What can really be wrong? Ah, yes! That is it: all the natives have been removed: you are always traversing a scene of genocide.

Basically, you had better focus upon survival. But then we know all about that. Extremely difficult, unless you are moderately well-off with a decent college degree and even then precarious, given the absence of normal civilized health care, consistently universal educational provision and social services, or sane modes of policing and reliable courts. Close to impossible if you are poor and uneducated, which is considerably more likely if you are also black.

Fleeing elsewhere in despair might now be advisable. Yet most of the time you will find that elsewhere has scarcely been heard of, and the modes of accessing it are very restricted and tightly guarded, even if the advent of the cellular phone and computer has made this mode of securitization much more difficult, with the resulting political discomforts we all know.

Surely you have only come to this country long ago, or only yesterday, in order to leave the depravity of history behind? You now inhabit perfection: but only the bland smiles permanently on everyone’s faces would let you know that. The reasons for these smiles you will never discover. Inquiry would be impossible, like any real conversation. For as Tocqueville noted, the land of unlimited free expression is also the most conformist there has ever been. Prevailing opinion rules and everyone freely agrees only to agree to the current orthodoxy—which of course has never been otherwise. In consequence, stasis and torpor reign everywhere: events are never going to occur.

Nothing seems to have any weight and yet a lightness weighs heavily upon you. Not even fashion diverts you, as in Britain, so fashion-obsessed. For the norms also of clothing only change to remain fundamentally the same, to maintain the same codings which flatten everything out in a mode that now extends even to merged gender.

From the outset, as we know, the escaped Whigs designed everything to ensure deadlock: a conspiracy against the people known hilariously as the “separation of powers,” in order to ensure that a mock-divided elite of commercialized land and finance would sustain their pale pastoral fantasy of an arcadia with no villages or peasants, throughout all perpetuity. Lesser villains followed in their wake: alongside the authentically desperate, the misfits and chancers seeking to escape ever further west beyond the reach of the law.

Always incipient anarchy and mafia-governance compromised by crime has been the upshot: this can seep back to corrupt also the old countries, as suggested by Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear.

A very strange mixture of Norfolk with Naples results: the kind of thing that only occurs to one in nightmares, and yet one can (or could till recently) travel there by plane. It is a place where all the fixed place-names of Britain and some other parts of Europe seem to have been shuffled in a sorcerer’s hat and thrown down without reason in other arrangements upon an alien baize. They are interspersed with non-names that rarely echo topography or the annihilated local past. Towards nightfall you trundle lonely into Nowheresville looking for the nearest uninviting motel.

Yet the United States is nonetheless fascinating. It has a positive appeal all its own. What can account for that, amidst all these stale horrors?

Above all, it is the way the people stand out. In Europe too many people luxuriate in an absorbing background which excuses them from any effort to entertain or even be polite. In North America it is just the opposite: it is continuously understood that reality, however uninviting, must be both remade and compensated for by personal interaction.

In consequence, a pioneering genius for forming almost instant new communities still persists. Contemporaries constantly shape the “class of” whatever year or place they find themselves in and these connections are long maintained. Since identity, legacy and location are more precarious, ancestry is carefully cultivated, studied, and guarded. American families live within long stories, as if they were all aristocratic. They know ultimately where they came from and what has happened since, whereas if your people have lived in Devon since the Stone Age the past is just a vague blur, like the distant mists over Dartmoor.

The search for community and for new integrations of various pasts informs American religion and its real spirit of ecumenism. Local parish churches may be lost, and yet American churches often know that part of their missionary task is to shape the most basic human society, as it was for the first missionaries to pagan Western Europe.

This spirit helps inform local democracy. Street- and small town-level participation and cooperation is frequently more vibrant than the creaking Enlightenment machinery of state and federal politicking (and today, more attuned to urgent environmental issues). It can ensure many pockets, large and small, of better public transportation, social services, preventive healthcare, and standards of food and hygiene.

Nor is everything about the enlightened republican legacy to be viewed negatively. The sense that republican virtue depends upon education and that such education should be rounded and not specialized, and linked to the ethical question of how to live your life, strikingly and impressively survives. And in this case the republican ethos and the religious one tend to reinforce each other, however much they have also recently clashed.

The open settler spirit and self-improving imperative combine to encourage a proper confidence that believes in the democratic self-worth of all. It tends to produce people unafraid to confess their ignorance and therefore often more capable of learning than many British youngsters, if the conformist spirit does not stifle their creativity—which the British love of eccentricity can obstinately sustain. But I prefer every time the American naïveté, which is open to discovery and is happy to confess its longings and impulses, to the tight British closure and reserved pretence to a certainty that proves far too often a sham.

American empiricism is after all more in the original Baconian spirit: it is prepared to acknowledge the reality of the strange and interesting, whereas English empiricism is not such at all: it has dogmatically decided in advance that all it can do is quantify and re-arrange the predictably tedious and drab. Similarly, American Pragmatism at its best is not just English utilitarianism: it is ready to discover that “what works” is not calculable or reducible to mass sensory contentment. It can be the surprise of the arriving real.

These strongly human values after all inform and qualify an environment that is sometimes tedious. One may have to travel far, but the very monotony can intoxicate with minuscule variations and a sense that you, also, are travelling through an area for the first time, without maps, which Americans never seemed to use (the proper ones are reserved to the Army) before the onset of sat-navs. Nudging one’s way at relaxed speed, on cushioned suspension, one welcomes the very provisionality and improvisation of the reliefs that may greet one in places like Ruckersville on Route 29 out of the core of Virginia on a seeming backroad that is in fact the route to the very Capitol itself.

And eventually, after many long miles, the shifts are immense: nothing elsewhere quite resembles the Appalachian fusion of the wild and consoling, whose endless stretch is part of both its excitement and its relaxation, like an infinite couch. What can match the uneasy border plantation lushness of the Rio Grande Valley, or the unearthly sand sublimity, cut through by stark gorges and sprinkled with thorny gaudiness, of the Big Bend National Park further upstate?

On these margins, as in many places elsewhere, the Latin legacy turns out to be as characteristic as the Saxon one: the very romance of the Wild West, of the Missions, of the lounging verandahs and architectural curlicues. Into the Puritan lands of the log cabins there floats up after all, on the river-boats and into the cities, the strains of something more grand and operatic, always already fused with the African, and democratically dispersed into jazz, blues, musicals, town-college sports, rodeos, and horse racing festivals.

And even the northern states have their own mode of compensating fantasy. The Puritans brought with them from the older Cambridge also a humanist, Hermetic, and Platonic legacy that would later mingle with Jewish and Catholic ones. One sees this in the cryptic and haunted legacy of the best of American literature: in Brockden Brown, in Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Paul Auster, Charles Olson, and even Lovecraft, as much as in the curious philosophy of C.S. Pierce and the already postmodern modernist avant la lettre music of Charles Ives.

Sometimes, this fuses with the Masonic Enlightenment which can blankly repel in Alexandria and yet draws one in, with something of a pagan thrill, to the various temples of Boston, so near the wharf-sides and the always just-arrived, still-whaling waves of the North Atlantic. Meanwhile, the early gothic skyscrapers of Chicago are a celebration not so much of commerce as of civic and guild life updated, just as their iron girders do not preclude symbolic ornament. New York itself really is Gotham City: one giant gothic castle in which all may dwell, but from which none may escape. It is also a huge temple: but to the Joker money or to a fused Hasidic, Italian Catholic and High Episcopalian loyalist God? That is the question it poses to you as you wander in the curiously Jurassic Central Park.

What is the real lesson of this duality? I discovered it in the pristinely-preserved small towns of Virginia that still have real high streets, with their beautifully simple architecture, ornamental in its very austerity, some still retaining their old hardware stores where one can enjoy a milk-shake upon a high-stool, or a genuine rural restaurant where one lunches upon delicious meatloaf and collard greens. I discovered it when an old man said to me one day in a vast mall: “This is as alien to me, sir, as I can see it is for you.”

The real lesson is that the United States was once much more European, before it abandoned other small towns like Staunton, Virginia, to the fate of being a living museum in favor of the trailing outskirts of dilapidation that have become the most undesired recent American export.

Certainly the genocide, the Whig stasis, the indifference to nature, the triumph of commercial conformity were present from the outset. But American culture in the nineteenth century remained a creative offshoot of the European and especially the British, as with the supreme Melville: a culture later sustained by the essentially American T.S. Eliot.

Most crucially, its more perilous, individualist, and frontier tendencies were severely reined back once all lands had been settled and more or less civilized after 1900. Often under Catholic influence, especially Irish and Italian, European norms—constitutional government, collective solidarity, town and country planning, efficient mass transport and corporate co-operation of industry, unions and state—were installed.

The problem, as Robert Putnam argues in his new book Upswing, is that ever since the Hippy Sixties and Reaganite Eighties a course of hyper-Americanism has been entered upon, with the two libertarian currents fused in Silicon Valley. By contrast, romantic, esoteric, Latin and the best of Saxon co-operative America (as exemplified by a figure like Lewis Mumford, inspired by the Scots environmentalist Patrick Geddes), has been denied, in favour of the most extreme mode of liberal individualism, fixated at once upon the fictionally archaic and pre-civic, and upon futuristic fantasies of a will that triumphs even over our embodied humanity.

There is an America called lost, a non-place into which it has increasingly strayed. But there is another America that was once found and can be re-founded. After all, the Age of the Mall is already over after Covid, even if we must fear a new drift into the virtual. But there is hope. It looks increasingly as if Britain, after Brexit, may suffer the fate of Greece, living on only in memory of its faded influence. It is the United States that appears more like perennial Rome, never vanished from the political or the cultural horizon.

The pioneer spirit has been wandering in the wilderness for half a century. But the same spirit has the capacity to discover its vast home once again and to rebuild it.

John Milbank is emeritus professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham.