This morning I was reading a wonderful and witty Longreads article:
“Tea, Biscuits and Empire: The Long Con of Britishness.”
The writer, Laurie Penny, a Briton reluctantly locked down in California, begins by looking at the mythic dimensions of being British and the way these myths have captivated Americans — and Britons — in stories and film, from King Arthur to Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Who, Monty Python to Downton Abbey; stories that picture an idealized version of Britain versus the reality. She contrasts the mythic Britain where class and racism are ignored or insignificant and everyone pulls together with a rather painful look at the actual reality, as in her revisionary telling of the story of heroic Londoners surviving the Blitz in the underground, people who were first denied entrance with barricades and flooded into the underground desperate for shelter after the government had casually left the building of shelters to local government or private companies. Not so very unlike these days, when those who have no means to do otherwise are forced to keep working without any real protection while exposed to COVID-19.
The U.S. also has its own mythic dimension that is collapsing right now, a parallel fantasy of heroic democracy and freedom for everyone that is being skewered on the reality of racism, genocide, immigration, and classism, a long lynching reign of terror for the nonwhite and/or noncompliant that props up the “land of the free” fairytale construct now sinking under the weight of too much horrifying reality roiling to the surface.
I wanted to quote part of what Penny says in her essay:
“. . . I’m in quarantine in California, watching my home country implode into proto-oligarchic incoherence in the middle of a global pandemic and worrying about my friends and loved ones in London. Meanwhile, my American friends are detoxing from the rolling panic-attack of the news by rewatching Downton Abbey, The Crown, and Belgravia.
But there is a narrative chasm between the twee and borderless dreamscape of fantasy Britain and actual, material Britain, where rents are rising and racists are running brave. The chasm is wide, and a lot of people are falling into it. The omnishambles of British politics is what happens when you get scared and mean and retreat into the fairytales you tell about yourself. When you can no longer live within your own contradictions. When you want to hold on to the belief that Britain is the land of Jane Austen and John Lennon and Sir Winston Churchill, the war hero who has been repeatedly voted the greatest Englishman of all time. When you want to forget that Britain is also the land of Cecil Rhodes and Oswald Mosley and Sir Winston Churchill, the brutal colonial administrator who sanctioned the building of the first concentration camps and condemned millions of Indians to death by starvation. These are not contradictions, even though the drive to separate them is cracking the country apart. If you love your country and don’t own its difficulties and its violence, you don’t actually love your country . . .
What happened to the Londoners who ignored the barricades and sheltered in the underground? They are subsumed into the myth, with no mention that officially, they weren’t supposed to go there.
“Eventually it was adopted into the propaganda effort and became part of the official mythos of the Blitz, but the official story leaves out the struggle. It leaves out the part about desperate people, abandoned by their government, in fear of their lives, doing what they had to — and what should have been done from the start — to take care of each other.
What Penny writes about has me reflecting on the nature of how it’s so easy to look only at the world in a way we are comfortable with. Everything gets pulled into reinforcing the dominant story, ignoring that there are other threads, other voices, struggling to survive against suppression.
Particularly for white Euro-Americans like me, facing the dark and tragic underside of the cultural fantasies that we soothe ourselves with and even defend violently as reality seems essential healing work right now.
To confront the fantasy world of the “land of the free” that is propped up by racism means letting go of what never really has been, whether it’s here in the U.S. or in that mythic Britain we love to imagine as our ancestral exemplar. Yet as Penny describes, there are so many acts of simple care and compassion, acts transcending isolation and cruel judgments, that aren’t imagined. Can we begin to build a grounded new framework for human lives that starts by recognizing how damaged and traumatized we are and how we bandage ourselves in fantasies that substitute for engaging our genuine creative power to heal and grow? Can we begin to love the world, ourselves, and each other without illusion and stop the increasingly destructive and lethal path we have followed to this bitter end?