J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The View from London

Seven years ago, I was visiting London to do research in Great Britain’s National Archives. It was less than six weeks after the al-Qaeda hijacker attacks on New York and Washington. I remember eating dinner one evening at a Thai restaurant in the Richmond neighborhood. After the staff heard my accent and asked where I was from, they spontaneously told me how sorry they were for the losses that the U.S. of A. had suffered that September. That evening I represented all of America, and they wished to stand with me.

In February 2003, I was in London again, visiting the British Museum. This time, when an elderly lady heard my accent, she spontaneously expressed regret at the Bush-Cheney administration’s insistence on invading Iraq. And she wasn’t the only local who brought up that topic. Once again, I was a representative for all of America, but this time the emotion was worry. Some of the largest anti-war political demonstrations in history were taking place in Europe that season, as well as some of the largest anti-war protests in the U.S. since the Vietnam War. They had no effect on the administration, and we’ve seen the outcome of its decisions.

I’ve been writing about how the American Revolution broke the U.S. of A. away from the European aristocratic tradition. From the start, the new republic in North America was a model to reformers elsewhere in the world. Many of the U.S. of A.’s early innovations—a written constitution with divided and overlapping powers, a bill of rights to constrain federal power, judges empowered to overturn laws, religious freedom—have been adopted by almost every other industrialized democracy.

Yet people outside America have also long seen our country as talking a better game than we actually play. B.B.C. World Service’s new radio documentary “America’s First Principles,” built around the life and ideas of Thomas Jefferson, displays that split view: the U.S. of A.’s inspiring ideals, and the less inspiring practice. In those two visits to London in October 2001 and February 2003, I saw public sentiment about America had changed from widespread sympathy to deep concern. (And then I got back to the States and discovered from the newspapers that we had somehow gone to war with the French.)

Which brings me to the recent essay on our election by Boris Johnson, the Conservative Mayor of London, in the Telegraph:

Democracy and capitalism are the two great pillars of the American idea.

To have rocked one of those pillars may be regarded as a misfortune.

To have damaged the reputation of both, at home and abroad, is a pretty stunning achievement for an American president. . . . it is not clear how America under McCain would recover her standing in the eyes of the world. . . .

Obama deserves to win because he seems talented, compassionate, and because he offers the hope of rejuvenating the greatest country on earth in the eyes of the rest of us. All those are sufficient reasons for desiring his victory.

And then there is the final, additional reason, the glaring reason, and that is race. . . . If Obama wins, he will have established that being black is as relevant to your ability to do a hard job as being left-handed or ginger-haired, and he will have re-established America’s claim to be the last, best hope of Earth.

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