Tuesday, April 13, 2004
I have arrived safely in the US. The journey was relatively uneventful and I am not too tired after all of the travelling. Unfortunately I have a lot of work to do while I am here. I am hoping to start and finish at least a couple of essays whilst I am over. I was not expecting to have internet access, but am quite relieved to have it after all. From my limited contact with the American media, they are not always the best at conveying what is happening in the rest of the world. This historic event, for example, has probably passed without mention in most American papers. At least they do not seem to be as obscene as the British press. Within the States there seems to be less exposure to other cultures. In British cities like Stoke, one is always meeting with people who have moved in from outside, people with very different cultures and values. When war occurs in Europe or the Middle East we will have many immigrants from those societies. Islam probably has a far more visible presence in the UK than in America. It is harder to be a patriot in Britain than in America. Flying the flag is often interpreted as a provocative act and so you do not see that many flags except when soccer is being played (personally, I am far more interested in playing football than watching it). After the fall of the Empire we seem to have a guilt complex that plagues us. It is hard to be proud to be English. We have lost our innocence and the colour seems to have drained from the once glorious flag. I have only been to the US once before, but this time, as last time, the first thing that strikes you is the space. In the States you realize how cramped Britain and Europe actually are. The roads, the shopping centres, the houses - everything is so much bigger. The wealth strikes you as well; the standard of living for many seems quite a bit higher than that which exists where I live in the UK. One gets the impression that travelling is much easier; the roads seem less congested than those in the UK and fuel is very cheap. The cities can seem very strange. One is struck by an absence of history, something that we can so easily take for granted in Europe. Everything is so new that I can understand why many Americans might struggle to appreciate the degree to which cultures can live in the shadow of their past in the 'old world'. I would find it hard to live with this. The cities can often feel more like mechanisms than organisms - they do not feel as if they have grown over many hundreds of years from small settlements. It may just be me, but this can leave me wondering where the soul of the planned city actually lies. Parallel streets and houses arranged in blocks may be good for navigation, but it can leave one feeling cold and removed in some sense from humanity. Life is separated into its various component parts and these parts are separated from each other into various areas of the city. Rather than interpenetrating each other the various elements of our lives become detached from each other and the human soul dies with the soul of the city. Life is segmented into religious and secular, business and pleasure, etc. I have found it interesting that, in certain cities in the world (Britain included), people have begun to respond to this by seeking to appropriate the urban landscape as a form of playground. I think that this might well prove to be very healthy thing in the long run both for us and for our cities. I sometimes wonder whether we have failed to realize the degree to which city planning is a religious endeavour. Perhaps the Scriptural teaching on geography, architecture and sacred space has something to teach us in this area. The areas in which we live can have great impact upon our ways of thinking. The soulless modern city which often lacks a clear public square, where anonymity and rootlessness prevail can often be man's attempt to escape God. I don't believe it to be a conincidence that many sins that thrive in cities do not take root in other areas in the same way. Man is seeking to create an environment that does not force the fact of God upon him. The patterns of nature are muted and man's providence replaces that of God. A mechanistic structure can serve this purpose far more than an organic structure. For one, the mechanistic structure fails to understand the soul of man, which cannot be atomized into constituent elements like a machine without killing it. I am sure that the feeling of the death of the soul is integrally related to the loneliness that one can feel in many modern cities. The mechanistic structure also fails to confront man with history, something greater than himself to which he is to some degree accountable. Living without concern about the past or future is far harder in a city with a castle and cathedral in the centre than in one without. Of course, living in Stoke-on-Trent, I am hardly the person to be talking about all of this! I'm not sure that this should necessarily reflect bad on Americans in general. My picture is somewhat onesided. Many Americans that I have come across place a far higher premium on history than we do in the UK. The mere fact that American cities are younger than European cities is hardly something to hold against them. Furthermore, the things that I have mentioned above can be observed in many European cities as well. Many European cities are cold and soulless. However, the presence of the work of our forefathers from the past can serve to curb our generation's nihilistic tendencies from achieving fuller expression. Despite all of these things, I do like America a lot. Americans are often far nicer people than us Brits. You might call us 'reserved'; I think that the correct word, all too often, is 'unfriendly'. There is also a 'buzz' in America that does not quite exist in the same way in Britain. One feels that there are still open possibilities, frontiers to be explored, etc. Perhaps this has something to do with the issue of space that I mentioned above. Horizons are far less cluttered in America. Again, if America can be faulted for naivete in its youth, Europe must be blamed for cynicism in its age. One wonders how things will change in the coming decades. The threat of terror on domestic soil is well known to many Europeans and has affected us in a number of ways; one wonders what it will do to America. These are some somewhat disjointed thoughts from my very limited impressions of America. Given more exposure I will probably recant pretty much everything that I have said here, but at the moment these are my thoughts, for what they are worth. I would love to hear what others think on this.