Why has the death of a man across the Atlantic, at the hands of a police force equipped with immeasurably more guns than our own, in a country with a very different history of race relations, become a topic of such consuming interest in Britain? It is not as though the United States is the only superpower in which terrible things are currently happening.
Why, if people in Britain feel that they have a moral responsibility to march against Donald Trump, are they not also breaking the lockdown to protest the crushing of liberty in Hong Kong — a city that was, unlike America, a British colony as recently as 1997? Why, when the death of a black man in Minneapolis can provoke such anguish among minorities here, has the detention of a million Muslims in Xinjiang — and a systematic attempt by the Chinese government at cultural genocide — failed to provoke a matching storm?
Why, when China has come to rival the United States as an economic, a military, a geopolitical power, does the outside world continue to find America — Trump, racist cops, and all — so very much more interesting? What is it about the murder of George Floyd, in a year hardly lacking in tragedy and suffering, that has struck a chord so resonant that it has briefly toppled even coronavirus from the top of the news?
Britain has been in hock now to American narratives for at least a century. Sharing as we do a common language with Hollywood, we have always been readier than other nations to be seduced by its mythologies. Today, in an era of computer games and box sets, these mythologies have become more potent, more influential than ever. If it is true, as Bruno Maçães has brilliantly argued, that life in the United States today “continuously emphasises its own artificiality in a way that reminds participants that, deep down, they are experiencing a story”, then the challenge of disentangling fiction from reality becomes all the more difficult. The racist cop, the innocent victim, the violence-shadowed city: these are stories that we experience simultaneously as reports on the news and as series on Netflix.
Donald Trump, a malevolent huckster straight out of Gotham City, is a president perfectly in tune with these disorienting, disturbing times. He is not the only person, however, to have bent reality to his own purposes, moulding it to fashion a narrative in which, like Joker, he can then star as the hero. Dystopia in America is not merely an expression of cultural pessimism. It is also — be it in the form of movies, TV shows or computer games — a brilliantly successful consumer product. That the streets of New York and Los Angeles currently resemble scenes from science fiction as much as they do TV footage from 1968 enables anyone taking to them to feel that they are entering a narrative with its own internal grammar, its own teleology. Fighting evil, sticking it to the bad guys, taking on a super-villain: who would not want to be part of such a story?
Yet if we in Britain feel familiar with America’s self-mythologising in a way that we do not with those of any other country, it is clear that there is more to the motivation of those who marched through London and Manchester this week than a longing — Cliff Richard-like — to feel themselves part of something bigger and more compelling. There are stories older than HBO, older than Hollywood, older even than the United States itself, that are part of the common heritage of Britain and America: stories that continue to shape the assumptions and ideals of both.
When the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for the New World, they did so because they saw their own reflection in the book of Exodus. If England, which they had left 15 years before, had been Egypt, and Holland, where they had settled, the wilderness, then the land that awaited them across the ocean could only be a Promised Land. Planting their colony on the shores of New England, the Pilgrims did so as people who knew themselves the protagonists of a story already written. From that moment on, it was the destiny of America to serve as a palimpsest, inscribed upon by generation after generation of people who, believing themselves actors in biblical narratives, believed themselves as well protagonists in a mighty cosmic drama.
The God who had brought his Chosen People out of slavery in Egypt, and whose son had washed feet and suffered a death of humiliating agony — so redeeming all of humanity from servitude — was not a God who necessarily promised easy solace. To wallow in moral complacency was to risk betraying His purposes. This was why, repeatedly over the course of American history, a summons to repentance, an awakening to a sense of grace, would be experienced as a mass movement capable of sweeping across state after state.
“Two persons while preaching were so overcome with the Sence of the wrath of God ready to fall on them that they died away with fear and sorrow and were with Difficult bro’t to again, and when Sermon was Ended a great Number Cryed out in such anguish as I never See it.”
So a Connecticut lawyer in 1741 described the impact of what in due course was commemorated as the Great Awakening: the first in a long series of Awakenings that served to join America and Britain in a shared sense of spiritual fervour.
This was the tradition that Martin Luther King, in the 1950s, employing his unrivalled mastery of the Bible and its cadences, invoked to rouse white pastors and their congregations from their moral slumbers. The day before his murder, he gave a sermon in which he declared himself ready to die in the cause of redeeming his people from the chains of the slavery into which their ancestors had been brought. “Like anybody,” he told his listeners, “I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.”
The allusion, of course, was to Moses: the great prophet who, guided by God, had led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, and then, before he died, climbed Mount Nebo to gaze across at Canaan, the promised land he was destined never to enter. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
Today, although Martin Luther King’s people may remain stranded in the wilderness, the Bible no longer structures the dread and the dreamings of Americans in the way that once it did. The book which for King had been a supreme inspiration has chiefly played a role in the current crisis as a prop held upside down by President Trump. Yet the tracks of Christian theology, as Nietzsche once complained, wind everywhere.
“The measure of a man’s compassion for the lowly and the suffering comes to be the measure of the loftiness of his soul.” It was this — the lesson taught by the redemption of the Children of Israel from slavery, and by the death of Christ on the cross — that Nietzsche had always most despised about Christianity. Two millennia on, and the discovery made by Christ’s earliest followers — that to be a victim can be a source of power — has brought thousands onto the streets of America and Britain alike.
Steeped in the language of intersectionality and postcolonial studies though the protests may be, the slogans derive ultimately from a much more venerable source. A dread of damnation, a yearning to be gathered into the ranks of the elect, a desperation to be cleansed of original sin, had long provided the surest and most fertile seedbed for the ideals of the American people. Repeatedly, over the course of their history, preachers had sought to awaken them to a sense of their guilt, and to offer them salvation. Now, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, there are summons to a similar awakening.
As minorities mass on the banks of the Jordan to attempt yet again to ford the river, white liberals — often literally kneeling and raising their hands in prayer as they do so — confess their sins and beg for absolution. Only through repentance, their conveners preach, is there any prospect of obtaining salvation. The activists, however, are not merely addressing those gathered before them. Their gaze, as the gaze of preachers in America has always been, right from the very first voyages of the Puritans across the Atlantic to New England, is fixed on the world beyond. Their summons is to sinners everywhere — in London as in New York, in Amsterdam as in Los Angeles. Their ambition is to serve as a city on a hill.