Michael Moorcock writes in praise of the Texan preference for bolshie individualism over social conformity, and hails the true ‘fundamentalism’ of the US Constitution
Lost Pines, Texas
This year in the US they’re holding an election and I’m planning to become an American citizen. Happily, as a dual national, I can now also remain a loyal subject of the Queen. It’s as if, after the Declaration of Independence, the British shook hands with the colonists and said, ‘Jolly good, chaps. Great idea! Now let’s just beg to differ on a few details and carry on as normal, shall we?’ Of course, the power’s shifted a bit since then, but when I was in Marin County, California, last autumn, almost the entire population turned out to cheer the Prince of Wales touring organic farms and attending a local church.
In spite of being a strong supporter of a traditional House of Lords, I like the idea of voting for a senator. A constitutional monarchy and a constitutional republic are more opposed on paper than in practice. Both are perfectly good ways of running a democracy.
In spite of a streak of radicalism which finds strong resonances in the work of that great English-American Tom Paine, I’m inclined to support the status quo in both our great nations. In Texas, before Tom Delay’s gerrymandering gave me a congressman who was a threatened Democrat hundreds of miles away in the Rio Grande valley, I was represented by nominal Republican Ron Paul, a libertarian who voted consistently against his party. True to the principles of John Quincy Adams, who advised his fellow Americans not to seek foreign monsters to slay, he voted against the Iraq war. He has also voted against laws to make you wear seat-belts and crash helmets and he disapproves firmly of universal healthcare.
While I don’t hold with most of Ron Paul’s ideas, he represents some of my idealism about America. He started off as a Democrat. They were reasonably upset, having invested campaign funds in him, when he changed parties. Some of us are strategic voters; Mr Paul is a strategic representative. Some regard him as a turncoat. Others see nothing wrong in his position, given his often-stated principles as a constitutional fundamentalist. In England we make inviolable deals with a monarch representing the state (from the Magna Carta to the BBC). In the USA we make deals guaranteed by the Founding Fathers.
Of course, I like the sound of a charter beginning ‘We, the People…’ and a declaration beginning ‘When, in the Course of human events…’. But on a practical level I’ve been paying taxes long enough to get social security and Medicare, so I think it’s time I had some representation. Recently I’ve been in Louisiana, seeing how courageous and generous in the face of disaster so many Americans can be, and how inefficient central government is. In Texas I’m associated with a Bill of Rights defence organisation with members in all states, founded to keep a check on any abuse of power resulting from laws introduced after the shock of 9/11. Americans, despite the naive stereotype preferred in Europe, value their liberty and understand how thoroughly the Constitution enshrines it. Any threat to the Constitution, and people of all parties begin banding together. Our group runs the spectrum from Republican and Democrat to socialist, liberal and left or right libertarian. In this area we’re principally Christian. Membership elsewhere includes Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Confucians and proselytising atheists.
There is a deep-rooted constitutionalist tradition in American politics which Europeans sometimes fail to appreciate. It’s why political radicals of the Left will defend the Second Amendment rather more vigorously than Brits defended their own slightly more limited right to keep and bear arms (see the British Bill of Rights, 1689, modified to include Catholics circa 1850). It explains the concept of a citizen army, and why it is so important to support it. It explains why kindly, nature-loving men try to teach their children how to hunt and live off the land. It explains why a concealed handgun law, which allows me, should I wish, to hide a licensed .38 about my person, has actually worked to reduce gun crime and burglary in Texas. Car-jacking, a fashionable crime when I first arrived in the West, is now almost unheard of. Gun crime is down almost 5 per cent in Austin, my nearest city. This doesn’t make me want to come out and demonstrate against Michael Moore, but it does put some of his documentaries in a slightly different perspective.
I first moved from London and Oxfordshire to this area of Texas that looks like the Cotswolds but supports 16 different deadly snakes, not to mention poisonous spiders and scorpions, because I wanted to be near relations and didn’t want to settle in one of those New England enclaves so many Brits seem to think representative of the US. I wanted to learn why Americans weren’t some sort of failed Europeans. I already knew most Americans displayed a surprising lack of knowledge about Europe, but I wanted to find out what it was that Europeans don’t know about America (they think they know a lot and actually know very little). I wanted to find out why 70 per cent of Americans have never cared to own a passport. Admittedly, I also wanted to understand and experience real American life with all its advantages and drawbacks. I moved here because it seemed the Clinton administration was about to put through some kind of national health plan (I’m now more in favour of individual state health plans), while Ann Richards, then a popular Democrat governor of Texas, was bent on improving Austin’s public transport and building a TGV system between Dallas and Galveston.
Between the time I settled here and 2000, a great many former Texan Democrats voted a straight Republican ticket. As a result, though popular, Richards was replaced by George W. Bush whose record was reassuring only to Texas’s powerful energy and insurance companies. But at least I got the experience I was after. I am certainly not living in a liberal enclave. Almost everyone I know keeps a gun in their car, attends one of this town’s many churches and voted for Bush, at least the first time around. The Iraq war was, until recently, strongly supported. Now the flags flying from car antennae are a bit faded, and while the belligerent bumper stickers have largely disappeared, Support Our Troops is still more likely to be seen than Troops Out Now (which, admittedly, is beginning to mean the same thing).
Shortly after I arrived here I was sitting in a cowboy bar, full of guys in big boots and hats who were drinking beer, smoking Camels and listening to Randy Travis on the jukebox. In conversation, I mentioned how, in the recent UK election, I had voted ‘socialist’ (that is, for NuLabor). I can’t swear that the jukebox stopped playing, but there was a distinct hush in the bar. Then a 6ft6 cowboy in a vast black stetson strolled towards me, jingling as he walked. I knew I probably wasn’t going to get killed, but I wasn’t otherwise optimistic. As he loomed over me I wondered unhappily if I could afford the dental work I was surely going to need. A bottle of Shiner Bock in one fist, he reached towards me with the other. His massive hand fell on my shoulder. He looked me up and down. I prepared for the worst. In this bar the UN was usually dismissed as a communist institution and ‘socialism’ meant the authoritarian rule of a centralised government imposed by Washington. I consoled myself that at least I had spoken up, like Gary Cooper. The bar seemed to disappear into the distance. The two of us stood face to face in the expectant silence.
He drew breath. I steadied myself as best I could, prepared for the preliminary invective. Then a slow smile creased his weather-tanned face. ‘Michael,’ he r
umbled approvingly, ‘yore a troo Texan.’ I could hope for no finer praise. That’s how I learnt that Texans will always support bolshie individualism over social conformity.
Lately I’ve been learning a lot more as Americans, disturbed by the failures of the Bush administration to support their interests, fall back increasingly on a fundamentalism deeper than anything the religious Right taps into, which is exemplified by Paine’s Common Sense, Jefferson’s practical idealism and Sam Adams’s checks and balances. It makes their kind of freedom worth fighting for. I’m looking forward to voting in the coming elections. I have a feeling that Americans will be putting their house in order rather sooner than the British, because once the People realise there is a problem, We are usually surprisingly quick to fix it.
Michael Moorcock’s The Vengeance of Rome is published by Jonathan Cape.