Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Cracked Bell. America and the Afflictions of Liberty

The Cracked Bell
America and the Afflictions of Liberty
by Tristram Riley-Smith

In an engrossing, eminently readable book, Tristram Riley-Smith examines all the contradictions and complexities inherent in the concept of 'liberty' and describes the ways in which America’s notion of itself as the ‘Land of the Free’ has become mythologised to such an extent that it has become 'inflated and unstable.' His background as a social anthropologist is reflected in his method of arguing from practical examples, which not only enlivens the text but provides persuasive evidence for the points he makes. He pin-points the many hypocrisies and contradictions in modern American, and no aspects of social or political attitudes and customs are left unexamined.

Riley-Smith’s book ends on an optimistic note. His final opinion is that all is not lost, that there are ‘sources of illumination’ whereby the ‘cracked bell’ can be re-cast. But I had a problem understanding how these sources of illumination can be translated into actual policies.

He says that, as an anthropologist, he is ‘sceptical about the ability of one individual to change culture.’

Yes, I’d agree there. But then, while I was reading, something from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was hovering at the back of my mind:

 “Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first in one's heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. ”

This is the dilemma: if one accepts Pirsig’s thesis, cultural change has got to begin with individuals but that takes us into the realms of education – and imagination. It’s in those areas that it seems so difficult to effect meaningful changes that would lead to social and cultural change on anything like the grand scale which our current malaise demands.  I don’t have much idea of how well, or not, the American public educational system educates the majority of pupils to be critical, imaginative and informed thinkers. But I do know that the UK system as exemplified in the majority of our state-run schools is, largely, a failure in that respect. Two articles in the current issue of the London Review of Books have direct bearing on this point. They set out clearly the decline of our universities from centres of learning for its own sake into factories designed to turn out people skilled and knowledgeable only in specific areas, those areas solely validated by their practical, monetary value. This educational system is not designed to produce the sort of people likely to effect radical change in social culture.

Riley-Smith clearly sees Barack Obama as a man with the understanding and vision to help to re-cast the Cracked Bell. David Hackett Fischer, in his book, Champlain’s Dream, about the life of Samuel de Champlain, French navigator, cartographer, draughtsman, soldier, explorer, geographer, ethnologist, diplomat, and chronicler, founder of New France and Quebec City, describes the qualities which made Champlain a great leader. On his death in 1635, although his achievements were celebrated, he was mostly remembered for the manner in which he treated others and that he served purposes that were larger than himself. Champlain was a man of his time whose thinking was far removed from ours today; as Fischer says: ‘He lacked the sense of individualism and individual autonomy which is so strong in North American culture to day.’ Fischer concludes the chapter in which he describes Champlain’s final days, and explains why he was honored as a great leader, as follows:

There was nothing of equality, democracy or republicanism in Champlain’s thinking. Champlain was raised in a European world where everyone had a rank and station. Like most of his European contemporaries, he was a confirmed monarchist. More than that, he firmly believed hierarchy and hegemony were fundamental to order, which he valued in an era of violence and deep disorder.

Champlain’s ideals were distant from ours in many ways, but some of our most cherished values have grown from his. We share his belief in principled action, even if our principles are not the same. Most of us are raised to his ideal of responsibility and leadership in a large cause. We have inherited his idea of humanity even as we have transformed it in many ways. And we are dreamers too, nearly all of us.

 Obama is certainly a man or principle and his writings show that he has the imagination to dream of a better way forward. But what must he do to translate principles and dreams into the policies which could begin the re-casting of the Cracked Bell?

Robert PIRSIG Zen and and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values William Morrow and Co 1984

David Hackett Fischer Champlain’s Dream Random House 2008



billoo said...

fantastic review, C! Makes me want to get it right away (er..you couldn't lend me a tenner, could you?) :-)

I wish you'd write more!


Keep well,


Lock Smith said...

Nice post. thanks for the shared with us. twill fabric