Cross­ing Amer­ica’s heart

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Mills

PLAXICO Bur­ress, the wide re­ceiver for the New York Gi­ants, scored the win­ning touch­down in the re­cent Su­per Bowl, slip­ping past his op­po­nent and run­ning right to the cor­ner of the scor­ing zone to catch the beau­ti­fully lofted pass from his quar­ter­back. With only 35 sec­onds left on the clock, the game was won. In the few mo­ments be­fore he was en­gulfed by team­mates, Bur­ress marked the oc­ca­sion as only a 195cm, 105kg Gi­ant might. He clutched the foot­ball to his chest, knelt down on one knee and bowed his head. He prayed.

Of course many so­ci­eties have sports stars who praise the Lord in pub­lic. But in Jour­neys , Don Wat­son makes a com­pelling case that in the US re­li­gion — specif­i­cally, evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian­ity — is ‘‘ in the front lines of just about ev­ery­thing’’: foot­ball teams, ju­di­cial ap­point­ments, rodeos, elec­tions, com­bat forces in Iraq, ra­dio talk­back, and the White House.

Wat­son sees re­li­gion at the fore­front of the bun­gled re­lief ef­fort in New Or­leans af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, where in the ab­sence of fed­eral agen­cies it was the teams of evan­gel­i­cal vol­un­teers who handed out the food and blan­kets. Along with private com­pa­nies that com­peted for Ka­t­rina re­con­struc­tion con­tracts, the churches saw the op­por­tu­nity, as Wat­son points out, for new busi­ness.

And re­li­gion is cer­tainly at the fore­front in Colorado Springs, where, with a pop­u­la­tion of 350,000, Wat­son iden­ti­fies more than 80 dif­fer­ent re­li­gious or­gan­i­sa­tions op­er­at­ing hun­dreds of places of wor­ship: Catholic and main­stream Protes­tant; a dozen Assem­blies of God; two dozen Charis­matic; nine Churches of God in Christ; an­other 20 Nazarenes and Pen­te­costals; plus James Dob­son’s Fo­cus on the Fam­ily and Ted Hag­gard’s New Life Church.

His­to­rian ( Cale­do­nia Aus­tralis ), Paul Keat­ing speech­writer and bi­og­ra­pher ( Rec­ol­lec­tions of a Bleed­ing Heart ), and anti- jar­gon cam­paigner ( Death Sen­tence ), Wat­son has now turned to travel writ­ing, un­der­tak­ing for this book a quirky per­sonal sur­vey of con­tem­po­rary Amer­ica by train, or at least of those parts of the coun­try still ser­viced by Am­trak; the rest he fills out by rental car.

His itin­er­ary, ap­par­ently quite ran­dom, criss­crosses a huge rec­tan­gle of heart­land de­fined ap­prox­i­mately by Ohio and Ore­gon, New Mex­ico and Ge­or­gia, in­clud­ing a name­less spot in Arkansas that is ‘‘ a sort of town that seemed to be more of a car park than any­thing else’’. He dis­cov­ers Chat­tanooga has no train ser­vice. He avoids New Eng­land and the At­lantic coast en­tirely, is more ex­cited by Omaha than New York, and sees a huge il­lu­mi­nated cross on the night sky­line out­side Crump, Ten­nessee. He lis­tens to a lot of talk­back ra­dio.

Wat­son chose train travel be­cause it of­fered him ‘‘ a way of peer­ing into the United States like a wood­worm bor­ing a tiny groove in the bark of the repub­lic’’, and in mak­ing this un­fash­ion­able choice he joins a re­spected genre of travel writ­ing: the ami­able but sharp- eyed nar­ra­tor mov­ing un­hur­riedly through the heart­land of a for­eign coun­try.

Alexis de Toc­queville pi­o­neered the genre with Democ­racy in Amer­ica ( 1835). Aus­tralian jour­nal­ist Robert Haupt did a Rus­sian ver­sion 10 years ago, float­ing down the Volga in Last Boat to As­trakhan .

The key to the genre is to get be­yond the big cities. Avoid the celebri­ties. Ob­serve the real peo­ple with their private faces on. Wat­son cer­tainly passes this test.

He meets no na­tional politi­cians, talks al­most ex­clu­sively to train pas­sen­gers, and over­hears mo­bile phone con­ver­sa­tions ga­lore, scrib­bling them down in the guise of writ­ing post­cards.

So what did he see and hear? At one level there is the re­minder that Amer­ica, even ob­scure parts of the hin­ter­land, is so familiar to us through movies and pop­u­lar mu­sic. When he ar­rives in Oklahoma, Wat­son sings the mu­si­cal. In Wy­oming, his map ‘‘ reads like an old TV guide; af­ter Cheyenne I thought I’d see Laramie’’. ( Sadly, he vis­its Abi­lene but fails to croon the Ge­orge Hamil­ton clas­sic). At an­other level, there is the re­al­i­sa­tion of pro­found dif­fer­ence. Aus­tralians have cause to re­gret the heart­less treat­ment of the Stolen Gen­er­a­tions; but it is hard to see how an apol­ogy might re­dress the whole­sale slaugh­ter Amer­i­cans have in­flicted on each other.

Wat­son cites gen­eral William Te­cum­seh Sher­man, vet­eran of the Semi­nole Wars against the Na­tive Amer­i­cans in Florida, who af­ter scorch­ing the earth of Ge­or­gia dur­ing the Civil War and burn­ing At­lanta to the ground, then went back to fight­ing In­di­ans. He com­ments: ‘‘ There’s vi­o­lence in Sher­man’s photo. Sher­man’s is the face of the United States in its mil­i­tary ac­tion. ‘ Shock and awe’ might be traced to Sher­man.’’

If there is a face of mil­i­tary Aus­tralia, it might be hard like John Monash, or weary like Ed­ward Dun­lop, but hardly vi­o­lent.

Wat­son says he first ap­pre­ci­ated the para­dox of the US back in the 1960s as a stu­dent rad­i­cal. Vi­cious white mobs in the south were Amer­i­can, but so were Martin Luther King and the free­dom marchers. Slave- own­ing Jef­fer­son was Amer­i­can. The most ar­tic­u­late crit­ics of Amer­ica were Amer­i­can. ( He also states Neil Young is Amer­i­can, but Cana­di­ans are used to that.)

‘‘ On the United States of Amer­ica my senses swing like a door with no latch,’’ he ad­mits, and the para­dox pro­vides the ten­sion that holds his book to­gether, just as the com­plex in­ter­play of re­li­gion, pa­tri­o­tism, cap­i­tal­ism and the fron­tier, each of­fer­ing a dif­fer­ent form of lib­erty, are held to­gether in ten­sion as in­te­gral parts of the ‘‘ one na­tion un­der God’’.

As he lis­tens first to the shock jocks con­grat­u­lat­ing Amer­i­can troops on killing a cer­tain num­ber of the en­emy — ‘‘ they sound like voices from an ear­lier civil­i­sa­tion, from the cru­sades or Rome, or like al- Qa’ida’’ — and then lis­tens to the talk­back ‘‘ jammed with peo­ple want­ing to talk about their feel­ings, their pain, their sym­pa­thy, their love, their wish for clo­sure’’, he con­cludes: ‘‘ The United States is like a marsh­mal­low: soft and down­right gooey on the inside, toasted to ti­ta­nium hard­ness on the out­side.’’ Per­haps Wat­son spends too long lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio. On the sur­face his nar­ra­tive at times seems no more than a se­ries of anec­dotes, amus­ing but in­con­se­quen­tial. But grad­u­ally, pointil­list- style, the grabs of con­ver­sa­tion and glimpses of back­yards and prairies ac­cu­mu­late into a por­trait of a great and com­plex so­ci­ety, ad­mirable and ter­ri­ble in equal parts. Stephen Mills is the au­thor of The Hawke Years: The Story from the Inside.

Un­fash­ion­able choice: Don Wat­son did most of his trav­el­ling through the US by train

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