Category Archives: Transatlantic comparison

An open letter to James Blunt from a working class American

James Blunt; photo credit: The Mirror

James Blunt; photo credit: The Mirror

Dear James Blunt,

I get it. I know what it’s like to be mocked for my accent. I too have have looked around me and found no one who could guide my career. I’ve also been told my dream is unrealistic, unattainable, and utter crap. Brother, I’ve been there.

You and I are not alike, though. You see, despite my double-barrelled surname, I am not posh. I am unabashedly and inescapably working class. But I am American. And as a working class American, buddy, we need to talk.

In your letter to Chris Bryant, the Labour MP who criticised the structural inequality which prevents people like me from breaking into the arts (while never actually criticising you personally), you wrote that you were signed in America, a land—in your eyes, at least—“where they don’t give a stuff about, or even understand what you mean by me and ‘my ilk’”. You go on to celebrate my country as a place that “exploits success,” seemingly buying into the myth of the American dream. In America, it doesn’t matter whether you’re posh or poor; if you’ve got the talent and the drive, you’re destined for greatness.

If your letter were a record, this is where that scratchy stopping sound would play.

As I said before, I get it. I was told to lose my Appalachian twang, because it sounds uneducated. I didn’t have any mentors guiding my writing career, either. My family and friends told me to focus on my day job. When you’re working class, making ends meet trumps making dreams come true. Success is measured in stability, not by-lines.

When I told my family I wanted to be a writer, they were mortified. The first to graduate university, they thought I’d be a teacher or a lawyer or a banker. And because I had no idea how to actually become a writer, I did just that. After uni, I moved to Chicago and went into mortgages, making a decent middle class living. But, as you probably know, when you’re the creative sort, a mundane day job eats away at your soul. I was miserable. And then I was made redundant.

That was one of the darkest periods of my life, in which I very nearly ended up on the streets. Benefits and God—I don’t whether you believe in either—are the only things that got me through. I didn’t have the luxury of creating, of taking chances, of making the most of a bad situation. That situation was shit, full stop, and every last ounce of energy went in to getting out of it.

Laurie Penny touched on this very point in a series of tweets this week:

 

 

That applies on either side of the Atlantic, James. America is not some mythical meritocracy. For every Bill Clinton or Beyonce we’ve got, Britain has a Margaret Thatcher or Cheryl Fernandez-Virsini. According to a Bloomberg Business report last year, America has greater wealth inequality than Britain. Meanwhile, funding for the arts is in jeopardy, with inner-city and rural schools being particularly vulnerable. These are places where students are also more likely to be poor. And in the United States, when we’re talking about who is poor, we’re disproportionately talking about people who aren’t white. In light of this year’s mayonnaise Oscars (Mayoscars?), this is more relevant than ever.

But poor white kids like me can’t relate to you either, James. You see, with your privileged background, as Laurie Penny accurately pointed out in her tweets, you were encouraged to take risks. You knew, if you failed, that you would land on your feet. For countless kids like me, that wasn’t an option. It’s impossible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you have no boots on your feet.

You talk about paying for your first guitar with money you saved from your holiday jobs. Fair dos. No one bought it for you. But you know what money from my holiday jobs went towards? Nothing, because I didn’t have holiday jobs. I had jobs, full stop, which paid for my rent, my books, my education. This is the thing, James, if you’re a working class kid with ambition, your spare money goes towards paying for university, or rent, or childcare so you can go to work. You know, so you can live.

While you had money to blow on your dreams, we had dreams of blowing our money on guitars. Or in my case, a MacBook. Which I still don’t own, by the way.

If this sounds like “envy-based” politics to you, it ain’t. I look at writers like Laurie Penny and Owen Jones, who are both roughly my age and have been astronomically more successful than me, and I have nothing but admiration. Well done, those two, I think. They’re intelligent, thoughtful, and talented. They deserve their success. But both of them recognise they’ve had privileges which helped get them there. They know their Oxbridge background counts for something, perhaps unfairly, as the Ivy League does in America. Indeed, for every Laurie and Owen on your side of the Atlantic, we have a Luke Russert and Ronan Farrow here. Both of them are incredible journalists and brilliant men, but both have benefited from institutional and economic privileges I’ll never know.

But see, James, I’m not envious. I’m aspirational. I aim to be as successful as Laurie and Owen. I look to them as role models, as folks who have blazed a trail and who have invited me to follow. I don’t beat myself up over the fact that I’m not there yet. I haven’t had the education, or the opportunities, that the two of them have. Our paths are different, and our journeys began in radically different spots on the map to “making it.” I don’t think this in any way builds myself up, nor does it take away from their successes. It’s simply a fact.

As a working class kid from Kentucky, I’ve not had the same opportunities. And despite being American, which you seem to think is a get-out-of-class-free card, I’m still encumbered by many of the same oppressions as working class Brits. And I need you to understand this.

I need you to recognise that Chris Bryant wasn’t diminishing your success, or Eddie Redmayne’s success, or anyone’s success, simply because they’re posh. I need you to understand that just because we say you have privilege doesn’t mean you didn’t earn your success. When Bryant, Penny, myself, or anyone says this, we’re talking about the systemic elimination of working class people from the arts, from journalism, from government, and from any number of professions. This isn’t personal; it’s political.

No one is saying that you didn’t work hard to get to where you are. What we’re saying is that, in terms of this race we call life, you got a head start. And all we’re asking is that you recognise that.

Warm regards,

A working class American

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All I want for Christmas is views: Skylar’s 2013 Christmas List

Santa-Wish-List

Santa baby, slip a visa under my tree for me. I’ve been an awfully good boy. Santa baby, so hurry down my chimney tonight.

If you think of all the fellas that I haven’t kissed, you’re pretty much left with Ed Balls and Phil from EastEnders, and even that’s questionable considering my blackout night in Soho this summer. But all things considered, I’ve been incredibly well behaved this year, and I think Father Christmas ought to recognise and pay up. So, in the grand tradition of Eartha Kitt, Kelly Clarkson, and the cast of TOWIE, here’s my grown-up Christmas list.

  1. David Cameron to reclaim the middle ground – I supported the Conservatives at the 2010 election because I thought David Cameron was a new type of Tory. Admittedly, it was against every political instinct I had-a lifelong Democrat here in the States, I naturally lean towards the left. Still, I’m shy on socialism, and bought into the One Nation schmalz. Cameron has lurched further to the right than a drunk American driving the M25. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and I am now left with nothing but crow for Christmas dinner. It is my hope that in 2014, Mr Cameron will bring back the Tories I believed in four years ago.
  2. BBC America to get its act together – Seriously, how many episodes of Top Gear and Star Trek can one man be expected to suffer through? Their programming is nothing but Jeremy Clarkson and Klingons, two things so similar it often feels like a marathon of pure evil. So many amazing programmes are shown on the BBC in the UK, yet we’re lucky if we get a fortnightly episode of Luther here in the US. Where’s Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Have I Got News For You, and my beloved Hebburn? How am I supposed to get my Chris Ramsey fix. Which reminds me…
  3. Chris Ramsey – in all his Geordie glory. I’d like him wrapped in a pretty bow underneath my tree, where we will pretend to be a Lady Gaga Christmas carol. Woof.

    Oh Chris, you're making me blush!

    Oh Chris, you’re making me blush!

  4. A follow from Caroline Kent – Seriously girl, what gives? You’re the funniest Brit I follow. I’m a charming gay American. We’re a match made in Chelsea. I’m not asking you to a slumber party, though if you’re keen, I have a subscription to Netflix, a couple bottles of red and a mani-pedi kit. Just throwing it out there.
  5. Nigella to claim victory on The Taste – I don’t expect Brits to be familiar with this American programme, but think of it as The Great British Bake Off meets the The Voice. Four celebrity chefs mentor contestants and then judge in a blind taste test to see who made the best dish. Nigella finished abysmally in the first series, but considering her recent tribulations, I’d very much like to see her win. There’s no sweeter cook on the planet. Personal life aside, the woman is an amazing chef, and I hope she assembles a terrific team in 2014. I’d like to see her come out on top. Think of how smug she could be the next time she sees that bastard Saatchi. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and knowing Nigella, garnished with strawberries and a chocolate glaze.
  6. For Nicole Scherzinger to come home – Okay, this is more of a selfless wish for y’all, cos we don’t want her, either. Actually, that’s mean. And a lie. For Christ’s sake, anyone who can clap, weep or dance through every single X Factor performance deserves our respect. This is a woman who sees the best in everyone, and we we miss her. Nicole, love, you’ve been in London long enough. Baby, please come home. If not for Christmas, by New Year’s night.

    Nicole, you're my only wish this year.

    Nicole, you’re my only wish this year.

  7. For Simon Cowell to go back to Britain – X Factor USA is an unmitigated disaster. Give up the ghost, buddy.
  8. Tom Daley to live happily ever after – He’s Britain’s sweetheart, isn’t he? Has there ever been a more humble, more honest 19 year old celebrity? I don’t think so. Admittedly, I never gave twinkalicious Tom much thought. But this cheeky little bugger illustrates the straightforward snide I admire about your country. Since he’s come out, Tom has shown, like much of the UK, he’s blessed with the gift of banter. I love it. I want nothing but he best for this kid.
  9. For Christmas crackers to become a thing in America – They seem so fun! I’m still not quite sure how they work, but I want to pull something other than Chris Christie apart and get candy and a glib joke.nochristmascrackers
  10. An England World Cup victory – Relax. It’s a Christmas wish list, not a kidnapper’s list of demands. A boy can dream.

Understanding that postage is expensive and the Atlantic Ocean wide, I will gladly accept cash and gift cards in lieu of any of the above. If you insist on getting me something not on this list, I look best in blue, prefer things not made by little hands, and only wear white gold or platinum.

As I await the arrival of the many presents you’re sure to send, I will wish you all a very merry Christmas. While it’s unlikely I’ll get anything on my list, I hope you get everything on yours.

Give Thanks and Pass the Pimms: 5 things I’m thankful Britain gave the world

firstthanksgiving

We all know the story. The Pilgrims, with their funny hats and boring names, set sail on the Mayflower towards the New World in search of religious freedom. What nobody ever tells you is that they went to the Netherlands for a bit, or that they didn’t really want to come, or that loads of them got dysentery and died before reaching Plymouth Rock.

We know that Squanto fed them corn, and that the three remaining Pilgrims came together with their kind Native benefactors in thanks giving for the great harvest which kept them from becoming Roanoke version 2.0. We stop there, because the mass slaughter of the native population isn’t exactly “happily ever after” unless you’re Mike Huckabee and think the heathens had it coming and turkey is best deep fried.

So that’s the first Thanksgiving.

Nobody tells you that the Pilgrims were essentially seventeenth century England’s Westboro Baptist Church, but this may explain why Britain is more evolved on issues of religion in the public sphere. They sent their crazy right wing Christians here, and their descendants went on to found Jesusland. I mean Texas. Still, whilst the British may have given us Sarah Palin’s colonial antecedents, they’ve given us loads of good stuff too. So, quickly, here are five things I’m thankful for Britain giving the world:

1. Liberty: Okay, Americans like to pretend we invented this in 1776, but we didn’t. In fact the Declaration of Independence was, outside of being a treasonous document, simply a restatement of English principles dating back to Magna Carta in 1215. Trial by jury, habeus corpus, a free press, and the right to petition were all exported by Britain to its colonies. These weren’t homespun in Boston or handcrafted in Philadelphia. The Brits gave them to us, and their legacy lives on in our Constitution.

2. Newspapers: I hesitate to put this on here, because the British government has borrowed Miley’s wrecking ball to destroy what’s left of press freedom whilst Hugh Grant  watches, twerking and sticking his tongue out in glee. But the British press is a site to behold, a beast unto itself which simply has no American equivalent. The broadsheets are still celebrated as national treasures, even while being regularly ridiculed, and magazines like Private Eye and the venerated but defunct Punch prove that satire is the best defence of democracy. Even the tabloids serve a purpose, for I am keenly interested in everything Chantelle Houghton has to say about Alex Reid’s cross dressing. As I know you are, too.

3. Understatement: “It’s drizzling,” a British friend once said to me as the hurricane hit. The Brits really know how to undercut a moment. Win an Oscar? “I got a trophy.” Elected to Parliament? “It’s a job.” Shag a royal? “His hairline’s receding.” And the great thing is THEY’RE NOT HUMBLE BRAGGING! They really do mean it. You’d think that as an American this penchant for restrained dryness would annoy me, but I actually appreciate it. I think that Americans are too prone to hyperbole, and that dry sense of humour has made me reign in my otherwise outrageous personality.

4. Lucozade: There is no better cure for a hangover than this fizzy, refreshing, hydrating miracle water. I can hardly find it in the US, but I will trek across the city if I hear a store has it stocked. Seriously, I swear by the stuff.

5. Chris Ramsey: Because this.

chris ramsey

So there’s five wonderful things that the UK gave the world, and I’m grateful for all of them. As you may have noticed, this trails off at number four, and by number five, I’ve completely given up. That’s not because I couldn’t think of anything else; there’s so much about Britain I’m thankful for. But there’s turkey on the table and wine in my glass, so I’m off to gorge myself on enough tryptophan and starches that I sleep right through Black Friday and wake up on the other side of consumerism.

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

(PS: For the record, I’m very thankful for each and every one of you who read this. I have some great supporters out there, and I am very blessed! I leave you with this video.)

Has America forgotten to remember Remembrance Day?

Saturday night I had my friend Melinda over, along with her friend Jenny, in town from Sydney. Jenny noticed the portrait of Her Majesty, a commemorative token of the Diamond Jubilee, hanging in my apartment, complete with the flags of the Commonwealth countries. We got to talking about the ties that bind not just the Commonwealth, but the Anglosphere-our common language, common law, and common struggle against fascism in the 20th century. At one point, talking about Remembrance Sunday, Jenny asked that she be reminded to set an alarm so that she could observe a minute of silence for the ANZAC forces. It passed without a beat, but it left me something to mull, and raised Jenny very highly in my own estimation.

11 November is commemorated around the globe as a day of remembrance and reflection, of honoring the sacrifices of those who fought and fight for the freedom of humanity. It’s the official end of the First World War, which was thought and hoped to be “the war to end all wars.” History tells us it was, sadly, but the precursor to Europe’s darkest days and Britain’s finest hour. I’m always touched by the sombre, dignified memorials throughout the UK and Commonwealth, the tens of thousands of people who turn out at war memorials around Britain, regular folks who every year remind the world of the struggles for freedom, lest we forget.

I won’t say that we Americans forget, but the horrors of the World Wars are certainly not as vivid in our national memory. Not to reduce this to cultural tropes, but it’s always struck me that the normally reserved Brits offer more public displays of mourning than my compatriots. After all, we routinely wear our hearts on our sleeves and our flag on our lapels. Its not uncommon to walk up to a stranger in

Prime Minister David Cameron laying a wreath at the Cenotaph. (Photo by Matthew Lloyd for Getty Images)

Prime Minister David Cameron laying a wreath at the Cenotaph. (Photo by Matthew Lloyd for Getty Images)

uniform and thank her for her service or to buy a drink for the soldier at the bar. We sing the national anthem before every sporting event, pledge allegiance to the flag before the start of every school day, and unlike when the typical Brit sings “God Save the Queen,” when an American says “God bless America,” we mean it quite literally. So you’d think we’d have a more collective tradition of honouring our veterans.

Sure, the President routinely lays a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery. But if you Google “Veterans’ Day Commemorations in Chicago,” you don’t turn up much of anything. Some museum exhibitions, a brunch at a zoo, but nothing on par with the solemn pomp in Britain. You’ll see no crowds at war memorials, you’ll hear few bells tolling at the 11th hour, and for the most part, people go on about their lives with little to no regard for what happened 95 years ago today.

That we don’t really remember may explain why a nation so willingly swaddled in its own flag doesn’t make more of an effort. It could be that America didn’t experience the horrors of having its own cities obliterated. Maybe it’s not the physical scars at all, but the psychological scars of a nation that was quite literally fighting for its very survival that keeps the horrors fresh in the British consciousness. Or perhaps it’s simply that the scars of the World Wars have healed over, but that the memories of Vietnam and Iraq are still open wounds.

It’s likely all of the above, but I think it’s something more visceral, too, something intrinsic to the American character. If you take a look at Facebook, you’ll see thousands of status’ honouring American service personnel, often tagging the soldiers in our own lives, thanking them for their service. And that’s not all so surprising. Americans are famed for that stubbornly individualistic streak, and

President Barack Obama laying a wreath at the Tom of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. (Photo by Mark Wilson for Getty Images)

President Barack Obama laying a wreath at the Tom of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. (Photo by Mark Wilson for Getty Images)

perhaps that manifests itself most poignantly on this day. In so many ways, this is more fitting for the US. The poignancy of the British commemorations is that a nation so often shy of indulging in its own nationalism, for one day of the year, recognizes the valor of its soldiers and the sacrifices they made. As America shamelessly exploits its military to stoke patriotic fervor, what makes the British commemorations so powerful would make American commemorations feel trite, redundant, or disingenuous.

Besides, it’s not Remembrance Day here. It’s Veterans Day. The name itself invokes a sense of the soldier in the singular as opposed to a collective struggle. America, though fond of jingoistic displays, on this day takes a more reserved approach. We don’t remember as a group, but as individuals, paying modest tribute to our own loved ones. We don’t thank them all. But all of us thank them.

What if Britain had a First Amendment?

There’s been so much talk about the importance of a free press and free speech lately that I feel as though I’m at a salon with Milton and Locke. In light of the Royal Charter regulating the press and furor around the Guardian’s reporting on and release of classified GCHQ intelligence documents , there’s been a lot of talk, including from former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, about the UK’s need for an American-style First Amendment. Indeed, I’ve spoken at length about my passion for the First Amendment and the freedoms it guarantees, and I realise that I can’t approach British politics through a British lens because my own perceptions are intrinsically coloured by these deeply ingrained principles.

You see, if in the canon of American civil religion the Constitution is our Bible, the First Amendment is most certainly our gospel. In one run-on sentence, the framers articulated the essence of the new nation, the core principles for which so much Yankee blood was shed and which would transform the world:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of greivances.

Now, I refuse to play the part of the arrogant American who feels Britain ought to adopt the First Amendment verbatim. Though our legal system stems from your common law, the two have understandably evolved differently since separation. I’m not even suggesting that our way is the best way. But I think it’s important to understand what the First Amendment means to Americans before discussing whether Britain ought to adopt it as its own.

The problem is, articulating the first amendment in tangible terms is a challenge. Like our taste for cold and flavourless beer and our belief that every household should be armed like South American guerillas, the First Amendment runs in our blood. We don’t really notice it on a daily basis, because it’s not something we often think about. It just is. The First Amendment is like the air around us-it isn’t really palpable; you can’t really feel it until a storm rolls in.

For that reason, it’s easier to explain what the First Amendment isn’t. It isn’t government intelligence agents ransacking a newspaper office and destroying intellectual property in an attempt to curtail publication. It isn’t sending the police to grandma’s house because she doesn’t like gay people. And it isn’t breaking up a peaceful protest and arresting a lawmaker. I’m not saying America always gets it right either. (See: my alma mater’s horrible policy on freedom of speech in e-mail ; the case of the Legal Schnauzer out of Alabama ; or all of the 1960s.) But by and large, it gets the job of protecting our liberties done.

The First Amendment doesn’t grant permission to be like Jeremy Clarkson on steroids, spouting off every inane thing that comes to mind. It doesn’t mean that you can threaten bodily harm to someone, or falsely report a crime, or the favourite example on this side of the pond, shout fire in a crowded theatre. With great freedom comes great responsibility. I think Spiderman said that, or something close to it.

So what does it all mean? I don’t bloody well know. Asking an American what the first amendment means is like asking a Canadian to define maple syrup. We know it tastes sweet, we know that we love it, and we know that it’s intrinsic to our national identity, but we can’t really tell you why. I suppose it means being able to crassly and tastelessly joke that Prince Harry got a handjob from an Abercrombie manager without fear of the guillotine. It means questioning whether your leaders are who they say they are without penalty or sanity, and it means being able to say the the most vile, repulsive things about me and yet have me defend your right to say it (while laying a verbal smackdown on you, of course).

That’s one of my biggest concerns with the British approach to hate speech. I’m choking on my words right now, but David Starkey articulated it quite well . Britain’s laws against hate speech would never survive under the First Amendment, and thank God for that. As Jonathan Rauch recently wrote in The Atlantic, the freedom to offend minorities is imperative, not only to the cause of liberty, but for the social advancement and acceptance of the minority itself-a similar, if not an exact, argument to that of Starkey. “The best society for minorities,” Rauch writes, “is not

Political cartoon by Robert Ariail. First published in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.
Political cartoon by Robert Ariail. First published in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.

 

the society that protects minorities from speech but the one that protects speech from minorities.” Indeed, its only by exposing bigotry and ignorance in the public sphere that we can attack it head on and continue to win not only legal but social equality. This applies to gay, Muslim and black Britons today as much as it applied to open disdain for the working class, suffragettes and papists in days gone by. It’s hard to attack an enemy in the shadows, and laws restricting speech push bigots into the night, where they silently seethe with contempt, stifling not only their own hatred but any chance for social growth. Or, to put it another way, you have to counter speech with more speech, not less speech.

Of course, the primary medium for speech has historically been the press. On last week’s Question Time, Paris Lees asked what made newspapers so special that they needn’t be regulated by Parliament. Well, it’s quite simple: for 300 years the British broadsheets have been the conduits of liberty and democracy, as outlined by more than 70 human rights organisations in an open letter to David Cameron. Similarly, Louise Mensch brilliantly makes the point while simultaneously taking the press to task for its own meandering failures. Laws regulate what is or isn’t shown on television, as they also do in the United States, because the First Amendment provides leeway for some censorship of material deemed contrary to public taste and decency, but it’s a fine line and one which is frequently challenged.

But saying that you can’t show nekkid people before the threshold isn’t the same as restricting what can be reported on; nobody dare argues that the journalistic integrity and independence of the BBC ought to be regulated. Likewise, as an American, the thought of a government agency-even one as loosely affiliated with Westminster as that established by the royal charter-sits very uneasy. As schoolchildren, Americans learn of John Peter Zenger, a German-American writer johnpeterzengerwho successfully defended himself against charges of libel and is widely regarded as the Ron Burgundy of the eighteenth century. The Supreme Court has upheld the freedom of the press to print the Pentagon Papers, and set the bar very high for plaintiffs to claim libel in New York Times vs Sullivan, birthing the so-called “Sullivan defence” mandating that the plaintiff prove “actual malice” was involved and intentioned, citing and strengthening press freedoms. The UK, on the other hand, has no Sullivan Defence, and it is much easier to prove libel in Britain than America. A First Amendment, though, could feasibly alter British libel law, and in the United States has continually prevented government (and any public figure) from meddling in what our newspapers report. Still, we’re by no means perfect, as evidenced by the arrest of journalists covering the Occupy movement and the treatment of Michael Hastings prior to his fiery and mysterious death led to an outpouring of shock and grief from journalists around the world, even though his family continues to insist he wasn’t murdered.

It’s for this reason that Reporters Without Borders ranked the United States three spots behind the United Kingdom in this year’s Press Freedom Index, though the US rose fifteen spots from 2012 in large part because of public outrage about the detention of the Occupy journalists. The United Kingdom, is it reasonable to say, should expect its ranking to plummet in light of the current fires of regulation and oversight the Government and Hugh Grant have stoked. David Cameron’s warnings of consequences to publications disclosing the Snowden leaks , as well comments by Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps’ on reforming the license fee, widely interpreted as a threat to cut the BBC funding unless it produced more favourable reporting on the government, are about as helpful as sending Pétroleuses or Mrs. O’Leary to put that fire out.

The debate about a free press and free speech isn’t contained to the broadsheets, though. As important as it is to protect the rights of the good and noble, it’s just as important to protect the rights of the tasteless and crude (here’s looking at you, Jack Whitehall.) In the United States, that means protecting the smut published by Larry Flynt, who recently gave an interview touching on free speech to the BBC’s Newsnight. In the United Kingdom, it’s Page 3. Despite an online petition to ban Page 3 (which, in case you’re gay or American or both, is a page in The Sun with scantily clad women), David Cameron has said he doesn’t support it, despite his admittedly noble but ultimately flawed plan to filter internet porn. That’s a good Tory, because curtailing the freedom of a paper to publish what it will and of consumers to vote with their pocketbooks is decidedly antithetical to small-c conservative principles. Oh yeah, and democracy.

A similar First Amendment argument can be made against the oft-debated banning of the burqa or niqab. This has come up a lot in the last few years, especially following France’s outright ban on full face coverings, and most recently in September, when a judge ruled that a woman could not give evidence in her own trial whilst wearing the veil. Ken Clarke seems to support it, but Baroness Warsi summed it up as un-British. “I think people should have the right to wear what they want in this country,” she said. “Women won the right on what to wear many, many decades ago.” Well, yeah. Baroness Warsi speaks pointedly of the feminist arguments, echoed earlier this fall by Laurie Penny, who drew the conclusion that this isn’t just an issue of sexism, but also of Islamophobia. But if Britain had a First Amendment, would this even be a topic of debate?

Probably not. Take, for example, the case of two Christian women who appealed to the European Court of Human Rights to be allowed to wear crosses on the job. This case would be easily decided in favor of the plaintiffs on this side of the Atlantic, as is evidenced by the prolific case law on religious freedom. Similar is the case of Celestina Mba, a Christian who was sacked for refusing to work on Sundays. She lost her appeal. Accross the pond, though, the Civil Rights Act 1964 requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for people of faith, as a nod to freedom of worship and the First Amendment.

Now, this isn’t to say Americans aren’t bigots. Duh. We’re the nation that produced Michael Savage and Mel Gibson. Look at the ongoing struggle of Muslims in Murfreesboro, Tennessee to simply have a mosque, which while being challenged on planning and zoning laws, is rife with religious subtext-and, also, less-subtle nods to Islamophobia, including the plaintiffs citing fears about “sharia law” and “terrorists.” The Tennessee Supreme Court refused to take the case, allowing for an appeal to the US Supreme Court. Then there was the furor of the pastor burning the Koran in Florida and the New York mosque built close to Ground Zero, which had striking parallels to the case of mosque being built on the eastend of London several years back.

Despite the wishes of the good denizens of Murfreesboro, the First Amendment doesn’t give way to a right to discriminate in the public sphere, though-at least not really. Your rights end where mine begin, and in 2009 I made the argument that it was right to sack a Christian registrar who refused to officiate same-sex civil partnership ceremonies. The same goes for the Christian couple that wanted to ban gay people from their bed and breakfast. If you’re offering a public service or operating in the free market, you must abide by certain rules, and one of those rules is that you gotta play fair. It’s oft said that freedom of religion is freedom from religion, which is why the Supreme Court banned school-led prayer but not prayer in schools. The distinction is fine yet clear-free exercise of religion in a public sphere is acceptable, but the public sphere exercising religion is not. Frankly, it’s always baffled me why the United Kingdom-with an established church-is so antsy about the former. (If I ever meet Owen Jones, I’ll ask him.)

Less convoluted than the muddy waters of religion, though, is the the freedom of assembly. Two years ago I was living with a rather senior member of the Occupy Chicago movement-well, as senior as a horizontal leadership structure can allow-who was arrested for refusing to leave Grant Park after hours. The Occupy folks didn’t have a permit, which led to quite a few of them spending the night in jail. Still, the right to freely assemble is often cited by those staging protests, such as the storied

Caroline Lucas, the Green party's only MP, was arrested for protesting fracking

Caroline Lucas, the Green party’s only MP, was arrested for protesting fracking

March on Washington. From what I can tell, Britain’s pretty good on this one too, and the aforementioned fracking protest with Caroline Lucas was busted for reasons similar to the Chicago Police breaking up and arresting the Grant Park occupiers. The difference seems to be that the Balcombe protesters believe the police were ‘heavy handed’, while shockingly, the folks in Grant Park thought CPD did a fair job of things. This isn’t always the case. Birmingham police turned hoses and attack dogs on children in the Civil Rights Movement, and Chicago Police notoriously brutalised protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention. And none of this has to do with the First Amendment and everything to do with alleged police brutality, though the First Amendment could feasibly be construed to ensure the people have a right to assemble in a public space. In fact, this was pretty much the mantra of the Occupy Chicago protestors, and regardless of what you think of them, the First Amendment allows a compelling argument to be made.

What’s also compelling, if only for both its blatancy and banality, is the right to petition. It’s oft overlooked in American discourse, because really, writing a Congressman isn’t nearly as flashy as giving a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and certainly less scandalous than posing on Page 3, unless of course you were writing to former Congressman Anthony Weiner. But it’s important to note that the right to petition grievances was one of the primary factors propelling the thirteen colonies to separate from the motherland. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, in the Declaration of Independence, that “…in every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury,” and provided just cause for insurrection and independence. That King-in-Parliament wouldn’t hear-or rather, validate-the concerns of the colonists was the driving force behind its inclusion in the US Bill of Rights.

What most Americans don’t realise-and would be loathed to admit-is that this right already existed under the British constitution. It’s included in the Bill of Rights 1689 (called the “English Bill of Rights” over this way). So that’s not exactly a novel American concept.

Really none of it is, as pretty much all of this has its roots in Magna Carta or subsequent acts of Parliament. But don’t tell my compatriots that, because it’ll just hurt their feelings. America likes to think it invented liberty. Of course, it didn’t. But it did codify it in a succinct and explicit way, providing the framework for American case law, in turn allowing for the growth of those freedoms, which developed in a way distinct of their British antecedents.

It’s for this reason that looking at what a First Amendment would really mean for contemporary Britain is so interesting, and frankly, needed. The roots are the same, but the blossoms quite different, and in the more than two centuries since our two countries parted ways, my side of the Atlantic has taken things on a slightly different trajectory, ensuring personal liberties over collective cohesion. This is purely anecdotal, but it seems to me the British public prefers it this way. From Question Time/Big Question audience reactions to debates about multiculturalism and secularism to broad support for the HackedOff charter (because really, that’s what it is), and even in conversations with British friends who just don’t understand why we allow the Westboro Baptist Church to picket everything from funerals to fun parks, the Brits seem to like things the way they are. And that’s fine. While I personally feel very concerned about press freedom in the UK, overall, it’s still a functioning democracy. Still, it’s an interesting notion, and as the debate over religious freedom, hate speech, and press regulation continues, I imagine one that will resurface from time to time. Best be prepared.

For an interesting, more learned, and British(!) perspective on this issue, see Jonathan Peters’ July 2012 interview with Lord Lester in The Atlantic.