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Three Men and their Fathers
Last uploaded : Wednesday 9th Jul 2008 at 02:07
Contributed by : Carol Gould


19 June 2008


This week Senator Barack Obama delivered a speech in California to a large African American church congregation, setting out his vision for black men. The speech was electrifying. He evoked boos and cackles from a section of his electorate dismayed to find that he could ’pander to the white mentality.’ The speech would not have been seen by many in Britain unless one lives in a parallel universe as I do, glued to American television on cable until the early summer dawn begins to break. What was notable about the speech was that Obama was addressing a problem that causes great discomfort in the black community: the role of the father in a child’s fundamental development. In other words, the omnipresence of the male parent will render the child a ‘mensch,’ and absence will make the heart grow bitter and violent.

The junior senator from Illinois reminded the somewhat discomfited crowd that his own father had abandoned him when he was two years old. His mother later remarried, he told them, but he never shed the scars of paternal abandonment.

Like my fellow Philadelphian Bill Cosby, the entertainer much maligned and even shunned by a wide section of black America , Obama delivered some home truths in his speech, reminding the audience that a juvenile delinquent is in fact the product of delinquent fatherhood. Here in Britain the plague of knife crime, not confined to one community but crossing most ethnic and racial backgrounds, has burgeoned alongside the breakdown of the family.

The central focus of most Anglo-Jewish households is the nightly dinner table and weekly study for Bar Mitzvah from the age of ten; it would be difficult to find Jewish children anywhere but at home on a Friday night, when many in other communities are out generating ASBOs. (Notwithstanding the anger in the British media about Obama and other candidates addressing AIPAC, the American Israel lobby, the day after the primaries ended a fortnight ago, the American Jewish community is regarded as a model for others and in turn other groups look to them for the ‘magic formula’ that keeps their youth off the streets. The omnipresent Jewish father is integral to the ‘peace in the street’ in that community.)

In fairness to the African American community, church is central to life and thousands of young people have been kept away from gang and drug culture through the tireless efforts of the Baptist Church across the United States. Richard Dawkins, eat your heart out.

Obama’s speech coincided with the publication of an editorial by Gill Hornby in ‘The Daily Telegraph’ entitled ‘ Father’s Day -- the worst thing American President Richard Nixon did.’ Hornby blames America for Halloween, Mothering Sunday and Father’s Day. She resents the holiday that celebrates fatherhood and makes an unfortunate reference to going ‘back to the coalface;’ I do not believe she deliberately set out to trivialise the memory of coal miners, but angry bloggers did write in to remind her that Father’s Day was created to honour the 361 miners, mostly fathers and poor immigrants who lost their lives in a 1908 coalface explosion in Moongah, West Virginia.

Despite the USA's reputation for violence, vulgarity and crassness, their children still flock to church and synagogue and to sports practice, and family life, which includes Father's Day, is still important. Having lived in the United Kingdom for thirty-three years I have watched family life disintegrate; churchgoing is regarded as an aberration. My American friends have no idea what an ASBO is, have rarely come across eleven-year-olds running about with knives and drinking alcohol, and have never experienced football violence and racism as we had recently at Stamford Bridge when the Israeli coach was running Chelsea. At huge US sporting events (100,000 people) the supporters of opposing teams sit together peacefully, unlike in Europe and UK. Fans bring their babies and grannies and there is hardly a cop in sight as they are never needed.

What has this to do with Father's Day? Well, Halloween and other national observances in the USA are more than just a reason to go shopping. I spent my childhood in USA and every national observance, be it Memorial day, Veterans' Day ( the Americans honour and value their vets more than we do, that is for sure) President's Day, Flag Day, Arbor Day, Martin Luther King Day, Independence Day or Thanksgiving, is a reason to be with family and the media make sure children know what these days signify; the schools prepare children to know the meaning of these commemorations ahead of the holiday.

Finally, everyone, and I mean everyone from Left wing to gay to black to white to Irish to Italian etc goes to church. This has nothing whatsoever to do with Evangelism. Church and synagogue are essential parts of a person's life in the community, and as such Mothering Sunday and Father's Day fit into that mould. In our tiny little green and pleasant land of Great Britain we now have more youth knife crime than in many cities in the gigantic USA. We could learn heaps from Americans.

As an expatriate American who for thirty-three years has from time to time been crippled by almost unendurable pangs of homesickness, I have passed through a sad week, when one of the great father-son broadcasting icons of America, the decent Tim Russert, died suddenly at 58. He is as well known in the USA as are Paxman or Dimbleby here. Sitting on a bus yesterday I looked at my watch and knew that in Washington at that very moment Tim’s memory was being honoured at the Kennedy Centre by the great and the good including Barack Obama, John McCain and the Clintons, as well as by his elementary school teacher, a nun, and by ordinary Washingtonians. His book about his father came out exactly a year ago on Father's Day. One book in his trilogy about his dad was 'Wisdom of Our Fathers.' ‘Big Russ,‘ his father, who started life as a refuse collector, had become as beloved and legendary to Americans as the anchorman himself.

Barack Obama's powerful book is 'Dreams of My Father' and John McCain's book is 'Faith of our Fathers.' Fathers went off and fought to save us all from Hitler. Fathers take their daughters out and keep them fit with -- as mine did -- punishing baseball practice. Fathers take their sons to sport; perhaps if more British fathers would take their sons and daughters to tennis lessons instead of allowing them to roam Piccadilly Circus in a haze of juvenile inebriation, we would have a Wimbledon champion.

Right now I am making a film about the Britons still searching for their Canadian and GI fathers. One of the GI babies I am filming has been searching for her father for fifty years, and when she met two African-American veterans I had brought to Britain for a reunion she said she would like to make them her ‘honorary daddies’ as she wept in their arms. My own father, a civilised and accomplished man whose own impoverished father died when he was only twelve and who was raised by my grandmother, shaped who I am and was a stunning role model.

My late father worked by day and studied at night, eventually becoming a respected marine design engineer; because of him I have had a lifelong passion for Brunel, Faraday and Benjamin Franklin lore. Throughout his long life, however, he carried with him a cloud of melancholy generated by the loss of his own dad. Fathers, and for that matter, grandfathers deserve to be honoured one day of the year. Gill Hornby struck a nerve with many because fathers are a deep ingredient of one’s identity.

Gill Hornby seems to have a narrow view of family life and writes an erroneous history of American holidays; in the same weekend in which Tim Russert died, leaving so young a son, and in which Barack Obama reminded fathers of their obligations, Flag Day was celebrated across America. How I wish we in the UK would have pride in the Union Jack. We have become an egocentric society in which both fathers and mothers are no longer the centre of a child's life; patriotism and religious faith are ridiculed and middle-class, well-dressed adults riot as they did in Manchester a fortnight ago, beating up policemen. Before blaming America for the misery of Halloween and Father's Day, Gill should look to this nation's deteriorating social fabric and see what positive images America can offer.

Link to Gill hornby article:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2008/06/14/do1403.xml .

Carol Gould’s new book, ‘Don’t Tread on Me -- anti-Americanism Abroad’ is to be published in the UK and USA in October. Her novel about the British women of Air Transport Auxiliary, ‘Spitfire Girls’ (Black Ace Books 1998) is to be published by Random House-Arrow in the UK in 2009. She edits ‘Current Viewpoint’ and is a Sky News commentator on American politics.


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