A View from Afar, with Rory Fenton

Author Emily Dietle

My focus is on state-church separation & social issues. I'm an avid reader, and feel that one of our most valuable tools is the free movement of information and ideas. | @emilyhasbooks

According to statistics, the vast majority who frequent this blog are from within the United States. Often, we Americans can become so steeped in our own media and local paradigms, that it becomes challenging to see a clear image of ourselves as a nation. In this blog series, you will be offered a ‘view from afar’ by atheists abroad, with their take on our politics and religious culture. Read the full series: Martin S. PribbleShelley SegalSylvia BroeckxTylzenRory Fenton, and Roger Ivan Hart.

The sixth in this series comes from Rory Fenton, a London based physics student and Dialogue Officer for the British Humanist Association. @roryfenton roryfenton.com

Rory Fenton

I think America, to many Brits, is quite an enigma. We gobble up the country’s culture from music to movies and Macintosh to Mc Nuggets and yet we still never cease to be amazed by the place. From the outside looking in, it seems a quantum superposition of crazy, cool, do-whatever-and-whomever-you-want and crazy, traditional, do-as-the-Good-Book-tells-you somehow forming the one country. And I think it’s that part that’s so interesting to the outside world, and to me, the fact that you still manage be a single country without killing the hell out of each other. Nowhere is this more apparent than in America’s museums.

I spent last summer Fulbright-ing in Philadelphia and NYC doing my favourite thing- visiting a lot of museums. What struck me more than anything, from the National Constitution Centre to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum was the presence of not mere facts but of a story; a shared story to which visitors were expected to relate. In the UK we mumble our way through the idea of “Britishness”- other than “tea” and “queuing”, we can’t really agree on what makes us “us”. So in British museums you’ll find a collection of treasures but it’s really left up to the visitor to determine the story that links them together; the good guys, the bad guys and where they themselves fit into it all. Not so in America.

Take the National Constitution Centre. The museum sets out the story of America with constant reference to “we,” not “they.” The visitor is shown a story- their story. The tour culminates in the Freedom Rising presentation, a stirring live talk accompanied with emotive music and images. We see the first pilgrims arrive on American soil and their troubles with the wicked British (#awkward). We see a NASA shuttle take off, King’s dream speech and the fall of the Berlin wall all accompanied by a welling string orchestra as our presenter tells us the importance of “We, the people.” It beats the hell out of tea and queuing.

This is a story that seems embedded in the hearts of most Americans, be they Republican or Democrat. There is plenty of good in this. It means that Americans of all shapes and sizes still speak the same “language” and have the same reference point. But it doesn’t seem without its drawbacks. It can be taken advantage of, such as with the Tea Party movement and at times requires a selective reading of history (Freedom Rising made no mention of Native Americans or African slaves, for example).

In spite of its flaws, I like it. Stories are important, more than anything else- more than our education, jobs, neighbourhood- we are our stories; the human experiences that make us who we are, the things that could happen to anyone of us. Acknowledging this, the American Story is a powerful idea, giving each American at least that one thing in common. It’s much easier, of course, when your country is so young but I think we can have a go at one in the UK nonetheless. We too have shared values- why not celebrate that? America may well have something to teach us here.