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London Feels the Bern

04/02/2016 13:07 GMT | Updated 03/02/2017 10:12 GMT

Sometimes, you need a historian. As I sat in the packed meeting organized by the London for Bernie group, it was impossible not to feel inspired by the gathering: expat Americans celebrating Bernie's Iowa caucus success, UK supporters drawing comparisons with Corbyn, Labour and Momentum. Together we talked strategy and discussed substantive questions relating to Bernie's platform. But for me, it was the sense of history brought to the meeting by Larry Sanders and Owen Jones that made me feel most hopeful. Larry spoke movingly of his brother's political journey, while Owen put on his historian's cap and, in some detail, reminded Americans of our own progressive past.

Ours is a rich history of radicalism, labour and union struggles, socialist thought and experiment, abolitionism, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, anti-war activism, feminism, LGBT campaigns, and more recently, Occupy and Black Lives Matter. Search any of these relevant terms and you will find that Americans have been busy and impressive from the start. These battles have been researched and recorded by generations of historians and activists. The record is there, even if it has largely been suppressed by our mainstream media and our own political parties and leaders.

When you tire of reading history, turn to our playwrights, novelists and poets; our blues, folk, soul and jazz artists; our sporting heroes. Look at our independent cinema or the dissident subtexts buried in classic Hollywood film. There are hundreds of gems to uncover along the way, small and large finds that will leave any American wondering how we have allowed so much to be erased from our vision of ourselves and our best efforts as a people and nation.

Let's take just one modest example. Yip Harburg, the great lyricist behind dozens of classic songs including the much-loved Over the Rainbow, was a socialist. Americans celebrate the song year after year, with every broadcast of The Wizard of Oz, but few of us pause to remember that Harburg was blacklisted for twelve years. We forget too that this son of immigrants also penned the anthem of the Great Depression, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? And finally, if it's true that the favourite of evangelical Republicans, Ted Cruz, broke into a rendition of Over the Rainbow at an Iowa campaign event last year, then clearly he was unaware of two further facts: the song's long association with gay pride, and Harburg's atheism. Every so often, when I tire of the religious right and its repeated attempts to drag God into our political discourse - or more specifically, to undermine women's healthcare and reproductive rights - then I turn to one of Harburg's poems and smile:

ATHEIST

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree;

And only God who makes the tree

Also makes the fools like me.

But only fools like me, you see,

Can make a God, who makes a tree.

I thought about Yip Harburg as I sat listening to the speakers at the London for Bernie meeting. And it struck me that one of the most inspiring aspects of the Sanders campaign is that it has created a space for these lost histories of American hope and radicalism. In his own political career, Bernie Sanders has clearly drawn strength from these and his candidacy may help return them to our discourse.

Traveling home on the tube after the meeting, I thought about how long I have been an expat. More than half my life. Seeing America from the outside, knowing something of its domestic and foreign policy abuses, gazing upon its deep and growing inequalities, regularly hearing the views and perceptions of non-Americans, I have become deeply critical of my homeland. But - and this too is part of the expat experience - I have also fallen more deeply in love with it. I love it like no other place. I love its history, its promise, its cultural daring and complexity.

In an interview for the Paris Review, James Baldwin articulated a profound understanding of the conflicted love of country that sometimes takes root in those who leave:

I think that it is a spiritual disaster to pretend that one doesn't love one's country. You may disapprove of it, you may be forced to leave it, you may live your whole life as a battle, yet I don't think you can escape it. There isn't any other place to go--you don't pull up your roots and put them down someplace else. At least not in a single lifetime, or, if you do, you'll be aware of precisely what it means, knowing that your real roots are always elsewhere. If you try to pretend you don't see the immediate reality that formed you, I think you'll go blind.

Since 9/11, such expressions of conflicted love for America, whether by residents or expats, have been largely shut down by our mainstream politics and media cultures. The suppression of our radical histories has proceeded apace. Activists who work to recover them are regularly derided by the love it or leave it brigades. But when that happens, we can reach into history and find Baldwin again: "I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually." (Notes of a Native Son, 1955)

It is my hope that the movement forming around the Bernie Sanders campaign is beginning to create a more hospitable space for the historical knowledge of our struggles. That knowledge may inform the embattled present and our efforts to bring about a fairer and more inclusive America. It may help us to find our criticism, but also our love.