Putting the fun in fundamentalism

Ahead of packing up his bags in the wake of the Barack Obama victory, Jonn Elledge treats himself to a unique slice of Americana: Kentucky's creationist history museum.

Imagine that Britain's favourite religious fundamentalist, Stephen Green, had, due to some catastrophic administrative error, become chief curator of the Natural History Museum.

Hold that in your mind, and you've got a pretty good mental image of the Creation Museum in Kentucky.

The museum's raison d'etre is to reconcile everything we know about prehistory - cave men, dinosaurs, fossil fuels et al - with the idea that God created the heavens and the Earth and the world is 6,000 years old.

To that end, the first thing you see on entering the museum is a tableau of animatronic cave kids playing happily with some dinosaurs.

The whole thing does a brilliant job of making fundamentalist religious dogma fun. No hellfire and brimstone here. Instead it's all tactile exhibits, bright and chatty films ("Ever wonder where canyons came from...?") and, outside, a petting zoo. I was happy to skip this part, if only because there's something distinctly sinister about two grown men wandering around a zoo on their own, but my photographer insisted, and promptly got spat on by a camel.

The museum proper begins with a series of nature exhibits, intended to highlight the wonder of god's creation. These follow a consistent pattern of fact, ambiguity, God. To whit: The world features an amazing variety of lifeforms; it's hard to understand how these all evolved in a just few billion years; ergo, God did it.

Then there's a room comparing Biblical and scientific thinking, another (warm, comforting) introducing you to scripture, and a third (dark, alienating) looking at the modern world. This is done up like an inner city crack alley, with the walls papered with secular newspaper headlines, and a scary booming voice that pipes up occasionally to give you some statistics on divorce or abortion or other modern evils.

The best bits of the exhibit, though, are left until last. For one thing, they've got a film of what the world being created in six days might actually have looked like.

Then come a succession of animatronic recreations of the book of Genesis, only with added dinosaurs. Here are Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, accompanied by lion, lamb, penguin and dinosaur. The dinosaur has huge teeth but, since the Bible says there was no flesh eating in Eden, it's a vegetarian. You can tell, because it's nibbling a pineapple.

Then comes Cain and Abel. This isn't very interesting, but does come with a helpful explanation for why incest was okay back then.

Then there's Noah, who bears a suspicious resemblance to Michael Palin. This section of the museum combines recreations of the story of the Flood with practical tips on how to build your own ark. (Use hard wood for nails, as they will expand when wet; place your door on the second floor, and use a wedge shape to make it watertight; if that fails, ask God for help. It really does say that.)

There's also a cutaway of the Ark, with dinosaurs, and a film of the flood overwhelming the world while people, quite understandably, look a bit scared. An extended version of this is available from the giftshop.

At the museum's end they ask you to sit through a 20 minute film about Jesus Christ, and tell you not to leave at the end. Afterwards, a man comes forward, hopes you learnt something and asks you to accept Christ into your life. All the way through this I felt he was staring right at me, and said as much. "But I suppose everyone feels like that," I added. "No, he really was staring right at you," replied my photographer.

To give it its dues, the Creation Museum does a great job of making scripture fun, and beats hands down any religious studies lesson I was ever put through. The right wing political dogma is kept to a minimum (there's a single line about marriage involving a man and a woman, and a few bits about abortion, but it's less than you get in the average Republican party pamphlet these days). Along the way, it offers explanations for how cavemen fit into the Bible (you try building a civilisation when suddenly you can't understand each other), and why the Earth looks like it does (the Flood did it).

But it also makes clear that Asking Questions Is Wrong, and shamelessly manipulates those with low self esteem (one voiceover asks, "If evolution means only the strongest and prettiest survive, what hope is there for me?").

Worst of all, it never does explain what happened to those bloody dinosaurs.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. He is on Twitter, almost continously, as @JonnElledge.

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Labour can be populist and English without copying Donald Trump

There's nothing deplorable about discussing the common interests of the people.

As Labour’s new populism gears up for Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent, it will be tested on voters who are, by a significant measure, more likely to see themselves as English. In the 2011 census, both constituencies scored "English" identity nearly 10 per cent higher than the English average and still 5 per cent higher than England outside of London.

It’s no surprise that both Ukip and the Tories have polled well in these places. In the 2015 general election there was strong correlation between feeling "English", or feeling "more English than British", and voting Ukip and Conservative. Indeed, amongst the "English not British" Ukip took about a third of the votes across England, and the Tories a fifth. Labour lagged below 15 per cent.

Labour’s problems may be getting worse. A recent YouGov poll, commissioned by the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, showed "Englishness" gaining at the expense of "Britishness" in the year of Brexit. At the extremes, "English not British" rose by 5 per cent (from 14 per cent to 19 per cent), with ‘British not English’ falling by a similar amount. If past relationships hold, these voters will become harder for Labour to reach.

Although most people in England would favour an English Parliament, or English MPs alone voting on English issues, these have not yet become the political demands of an explicit nationalism as we might find in Wales, Scotland or Catalonia. Indeed, there’s no actual evidence of a direct link between feeling English and the way people vote. It well be that the underlying factors that make someone feel English are also those that incline them, overwhelmingly, to vote Brexit or to support Ukip.

We may identify the drivers of English identity - the declining power of the idea of Britain, the assertiveness of devolution, rapid migration and the EU - but we know little about the idea of England than lies behind these polls. There’s almost certainly more than one: the England of Stoke Central imaginations may not be identical to the Twickenham RFU car park on international day.

One of the most persistent and perceptive observers of alienated working class voters sheds some light on why these voters are turning towards their English roots. According to The Guardian’s John Harris:

"When a lot of people said ‘I’m English’, they often meant something like, ‘I’m not middle class, and I don’t want to be…. I’m also white, and coupled with the fact that I’m working class, I feel that somehow that puts me at the bottom of the heap, not least in the context of immigration. But I am who I am, and I’m not apologising for it.'" People who said "I’m English" seemed to be saying, 'I’m from somewhere' in a ways that politicians and the media did not."

Given Labour’s history in seats where support is ebbing away, it’s reasonable to think that the party’s target must be the voters who Martin Baxter of Electoral Calculus describes as "left-wing nationalists". In this definition, "left-wing" attitudes tend to be be anti-capitalist, hostile to business, generous on benefits, support the welfare state and redistributive taxation. "Nationalist" attitudes are seen as isolationist, against immigration, disliking EU freedom of movement, thinking British means "born here" and that Britons should be put first.

For many in Labour, those nationalist attitudes might bring "a basket of deplorables" to mind.  In recent days both the Corbyn left, and centrist MPs like Alison McGovern and Wes Streeting, have warned against meeting these voters’ concerns. Progressive Labour populists must also calm those fears. But Labour will be doomed as a party of government it it can’t reach these voters (even if it does hang on in the forthcoming by-elections). The obstacles are formidable, but with the right language and framing, Labour may find an appeal that could cut through without alienating the party's more liberal support.

Just acknowledging that England, and the English, exist would be a start. The reaction to Birmingham mayoral candidate Sion Simon’s appeal to England in a campaign tweet simply emphasised how much of Labour prefers to say Britain, even when they mean England. We don’t need a swirl of St George crosses at every event; we just need to use the word in normal everyday conversation. At least we would sound like we live in the same country.

The defiant cry to be recognised and heard should trigger another Labour instinct. The demand that the nation should be run in the common interests of the people runs deep through radical history. Jeremy Corbyn reached for this with his talk of "elites rigging the system". But no ordinary English conversation ever talks about elites. Instead of "mini-me Trumpism", English Labour populism needs careful framing in the language of day-to-day talk. Labour's target should be not be the wealthy per se, but those powerful people whose behaviour undermines the national interest and by doing so undermines the rest of us.

This language of national interest, both conservatively patriotic and politically radical, meets the mood of the moment. The select committee challenges to Amazon, Google, Philip Green and Mike Ashley struck a chord precisely because they revealed something deeply true and unpleasant about this land. We can defend the national interest without invoking a racist response. Why are our railways sold to other governments, and our companies sold abroad for quick profit? Why should it be easier for a foreign gangster to buy a house in Surrey, and hide their ownership overseas, than for an English family to get their own home?

By asking what any change means to the people of England, we might bridge the divide on immigration. If the impact of migration is exacerbated by the pressure on housing and service, let Labour make it clear that the rate of immigration should not exceed the pace we can build homes for those already here, as well as any newcomers. The government must be able to expand services to meet additional needs. If every policy should work in the interests of the people of England, migration which improves our services, creates jobs and grows the economy is to be welcomed. It is hard to see a genuine liberal objection to posing the migration challenge in that way. With the exception of refugees, immigration policy cannot be designed to benefit the migrant more than the resident.

Let the test of every policy be whether it works in the interests of the people of England, or works only for a few. That’s a simple test that would appeal to widely shared values. It could be the foundation of a genuine Labour populism that speaks to England.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University