Giving thanks to America this Thanksgiving
Microsoft, fast food, the First Amendment, the Second Amendment (the one on bearing arms): should we be grateful to the US for these things?
Thanksgiving is the time of year when Americans eat turkey, mash and pumpkin pie, and give thanks ‘with grateful hearts’ for ‘the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness’, as George Washington put it in his General Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789.
But whatever Americans might be thinking about and thanking their nation for this holiday season, the rest of the world is feeling a bit more downbeat about the US of A. Whether it is harsh criticism of President George W Bush and his foreign policy, the handwringing over Hollywood’s dominance of our cinema screens, the US-born burgers and fries that are apparently making us all obese, or the fact that Americans just seem to speak too loudly… it often seems that the word ‘America’ is uttered with a bit of a sneer these days.
We at the Manifesto Club are not particularly interested in giving thanks to God, and certainly not to the current Bush administration. But as an organisation dedicated to celebrating the human potential, and working out how best to organise society so that everyone’s potential for creativity and knowledge can be realised, we actually think there is a lot to celebrate about the American way of life.
America is the ‘Land of the Free’, the first great modern republic, the inspirer of revolutions across the modern world. America is a nation built on the dreams and aspirations of immigrants from around the globe – and however hard recent American governments have tried formally to restrict the free flow of people across their borders, the US economy continues to be powered by ‘foreigners’ seeking greater freedom and prosperity than they could find in their place of birth. And America still dominates world culture, turning out some brilliant films, TV shows, popular music and art.
The Manifesto Club is hosting an event – Thanksgiving: thanks for what? – to generate a more critical debate about the meaning of America today. We have invited a wide range of cultural commentators, journalists, politicos and Manifesto Club members to take part in a ‘balloon debate’. America, we say, is a great balloon that is slowly sinking to Earth – so which of its principles, rights, politics and culture should we hold on to, and which should we throw overboard so that America can carry on its upward trajectory in the twenty-first century?
Speakers will champion such contested American ideals as the right to bear arms, consumer choice and mass production, spreading democracy around the world, the First Amendment, Microsoft, popular culture, the separation of church and state and, of course, fast food. The audience will then get the chance to interrogate their arguments before voting on what stays and what goes.
To give you a taste of what’s in store, speakers Chris Atkins, Daniel Ben-Ami, Kevin Yuill, Rob Lyons and Theresa Clifford give a taster of their arguments below.
Chris Atkins on the First Amendment:
The USA entrenches freedom of speech in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which rightly elevates it as the most important of our basic rights. It is therefore a sad irony that the ‘war against terror’, which is being waged by the USA and Britain, has resulted in the steady erosion of free speech all over the world, including right here in the UK.
In Britain, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act bans political demonstrations outside the Houses of Parliament without special authorisation from the police; Section 44 stop and search is routinely used to hassle peaceful protesters; and as is being seen in a recent case that is going before the courts, the police are openly assaulting journalists on political demonstrations, and then hiding behind the excuse of ‘security’.
Elsewhere in the world, despots are borrowing the rhetoric of ‘fighting terrorism’ to excuse the stifling of dissent on a grander scale. Mugabe has banned protests in Zimbabwe, and Musharraf – who is backed by the USA – is engaging in a brutal crackdown on his political opponents by branding them all ‘terrorists’.
The real tragedy comes whenever free speech and human rights organisations try to call these odious regimes to account; they can simply laugh at these British and American-based NGOs and say: ‘Tu coque!’ – ‘You do it too.’ It is time to put the case once more for the First Amendment, and for free speech more broadly.
Chris Atkins is director of Taking Liberties.
Kevin Yuill on the Second Amendment:
Each time the news of an American shooting, especially a school shooting, reaches across the Atlantic, the British media emit a collective high-pitched hysterical scream. The guilty parties always seem to be America’s gun culture and the Second Amendment, which allows Americans access to weapons, ‘the right to bear arms’. ‘It’s barmy’, the media sagely conclude.
Rationality is urgently needed to combat this clearly emotional outburst. First, cut out the fetishisation. Firearms, like any other tool, are not in and of themselves dangerous. Handled responsibly, they are no more dangerous than many other household items, and are far less dangerous than cars. Let’s get guns in perspective. According to the Centers for Disease Control in the US, 11,624 homicides were committed using firearms in 2004. Compare this to deaths by unintentional poisoning (20,590), unintentional falls (18,807), or death by unintentional suffocation, drowning and fire (12,531). A Million Mom March against oysters or ladders? Not likely.
Second, let us put to bed the myth that the number of available guns bears a direct relationship with homicide rates. Yes, the United States does have higher gun ownership and a higher homicide rate than the UK, but strict gun controls operate in the Philippines and Mexico and both of those countries have higher homicide rates than America. Meanwhile, Israel and Switzerland have higher adult gun ownership rates than America, and far lower homicide rates. Nationally, Washington DC, which banned handguns, has a murder rate of 80 per 100,000. In Arlington, Virginia – just across the Potomac and with almost no controls on guns – the rate is 1.6 per 100,000. In Glasgow, the rate is 5.6 per 100,000.
Third, there is a direct relationship between gun rights and democracy. A democratic, egalitarian society allows its citizens to own guns. A fearful society takes guns away from those it most fears. In Britain, real controls over firearms came only with a scare about Bolshevism. The 1920 Firearms Act introduced a registration system and allowed local police forces to deny a licence to anyone who was ‘unfitted to be trusted with a firearm’. The 1968 Gun Control Act in the United States reflected fears about groups like the Black Panthers, who had formed militias and marched through the streets. First, they feared the working class, later they feared racial minorities, now there is a fear of just about everyone. These are the real reasons for gun controls. It is really about who is behind the gun, not the gun itself.
Kevin Yuill is lecturer in American studies at the University of Sunderland. He is the author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action, published by Rowman & Littlefield.
Daniel Ben-Ami on mass production and consumption:
Stuff is good, but choices are even better. America has led the world in the creation of a mass consumer society. Many of the goods that we now take for granted – the washing machine, the fridge, the vacuum cleaner and, most importantly, the car – became mass consumer items in America in the 1920s. Europe did not begin to catch up until after the Second World War.
Such items, and many others of more recent origin, have played a key role in improving the quality of our lives. Where would we be without them? Imagine if we had to clean all our clothes by hand or travel everywhere on foot or by public transport. And what about more recent consumer items such as the personal computer and the mobile phone? And where would we be without the internet? We could still live and function without such things, but our lives would be impoverished.
Even more important than mass consumption is our ability to mass produce – indeed, the former depends on the latter. The fact that Europe, following America’s lead, has become so productive gives us many more real choices in our lives. The time we have to spend doing gruelling physical work or mundane domestic chores has been dramatically reduced. This leaves us with more free time and more energy to do more rewarding things, such as engaging in art or culture, participating in sport, or taking part in debates.
If only the rest of the world, especially still under-developed parts of the Third World, was more like America.
Daniel Ben-Ami is a financial journalist and author based in London. Visit his website here.
Rob Lyons on fast food:
We can thank Thanksgiving for the TV Dinner. The ‘TV Dinner’ was a brand of frozen ready meal invented in 1953 by CA Swanson, a major American food company. The story goes that they had massively overestimated how many turkeys they would need to meet Thanksgiving demand. How to get rid of the excess?
The company realised that packaging the whole Thanksgiving meal on one, compartmentalised aluminium tray that you could pop in the oven, then tuck into in front of the television, might be popular with customers. They reckoned they would sell 5,000 in the first year. They sold 10million. As one wag wrote in the Christian Science Monitor a couple of years ago: they came, they thawed, they conquered.
Then there’s the man who invented mass production of frozen food in 1923 – Clarence Birdseye. (Unfortunately, Birdseye wasn’t a ship’s captain with a gnarly voice and a crew of child pirates who ate fish fingers all the time, but an American inventor.) By being able to store food until it is required, we’ve been able to get away from the drudgery of the daily shop.
The king of fast food was Ray Kroc, who realised that the restaurant set up by the McDonald brothers in California in the Fifties would fit in with the American desire to eat out, but without the formality that Europeans were used to. He worked with, then bought out, the brothers and through a ruthless approach to sales and a thoroughly efficient operation, McDonald’s gave people quick, cheap, tasty food and revolutionised the food business.
For all the snootiness of food critics, and the panics about obesity, fast food has freed people – and that pretty much means women – from the need to spend hours in the kitchen. It means we have affordable, hot food anywhere, anytime. For every evening I’ve needed a snack while rolling home merry, for every TV show I’d have missed if I’d had to cook instead of waiting for the microwave to go ‘ping’, I’d like to salute these great American pioneers.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
Theresa Clifford on Microsoft:
A lot of prejudice is projected against Microsoft these days. This is despite the fact that Microsoft has revolutionised the computer world by bringing desktop software into millions of offices and homes across the globe. At the same time, Microsoft has productised and standardised software development, making the adoption of software much easier and cheaper for everyone.
But rather than Microsoft’s contribution to society being seen as a positive thing, there are widespread demands for legislation against its supposed stranglehold over the IT industry. Microsoft even faces accusations of ‘Digital Imperialism’. Some critics liken Microsoft to a drug pusher, giving out free software to less-developed countries in order to get them hooked for life.
What all of this ignores is that there is nothing forcing people to choose Microsoft products. People do have a choice, and they are going for Microsoft. Microsoft does not have a stranglehold over technology – it is simply the dominant player in the market.
In the past, capitalism was seen as a dog-eat-dog, competitive world. Now it seems if your competitors are doing better than you, you can just go running to the courts and shout ‘It’s all so unfair!’ We should not demonise Microsoft just because it is successful; as a result of Microsoft’s success, we have been able to change our everyday lives for the better. We should be arguing for more companies like Microsoft. With this kind of success comes economic prosperity – and with such prosperity comes social, scientific and technological progress that bring benefits for all of us.
Theresa Clifford is Sales and Marketing Director at cScape.
Thanksgiving: thanks for what? The above authors, and others, will be taking part in the Manifesto Club debate on America at 7pm on Thursday 22 November, at the Queen Boadicea pub in Islington, London. For event details click here.