ONTD Political

A Point of View: The British and their bizarre view of Americans.

9:28 am - 01/06/2013
We lap up their culture, adopt their economics and are obsessed with the "special relationship". So why do British people have such a confused - even negative - view of Americans, asks writer Will Self.

Full article under the cut...

In 1976 my American mother took me to see Tom Stoppard's two short plays, Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land. The former was a rather prescient - or possibly only perennial - farce about libidinous politicos and a prurient press.

The latter - which, in an act of dramatic tmesis was inserted between the two halves of Dirty Linen - was a brief two-hander the playwright had penned in support of his friend Ed Berman, a theatrical impresario and community activist who, at the time, was having difficulties with his British residency. (Yes, strange to relate, there was a time when Americans were viewed by the Home Office as dangerously radical.)

Anyway, in New-Found-Land an older and a younger civil servant take it in turns to extol the virtues - cultural, political, natural - of the United States.

At the climax of this competitive laudation, the younger civil servant drops his trousers to reveal stars and stripes boxer shorts, while crying out orgasmically: "Oh! My America! My New Found Land!"

The laughter of the 1970s audience, I think, bore uneasy witness to the complexity of Stoppard's farcical vision. On the one hand, he was ridiculing a certain sort of British stuffiness that delights in putting down all things American as cheap, brash and overly sexualised. On the other hand, he was satirising the tendency for those self-same Brits to be politically in thrall to Uncle Sam, overshadowed by his mighty global reach.

Almost 40 years on, not a lot has altered in our relationship with God's own country.

The same ambivalence shapes our response to almost everything that comes across the pond. This ambivalence would be just comprehensible were it to follow some sort of regular pattern, with - following Stoppard - the cultural repulsion of British conservatives neatly offset by their political attraction and the British left responding contrarily by loving to rock 'n' roll, while decrying the depredations of what is now the sole global superpower.

But in fact the British conception of America remains hopelessly confused. Love and hate are intimately co-mingled, and there is no single cultural artefact or presidential utterance that doesn't set off a dissonant chain reaction in the heart and mind of the average Briton, whatever his or her political standpoint.

We've only to look back over 2012 at the way in which we have responded to events across the pond to appreciate quite how messed-up this relationship is. For a start there was the long run-in to the November re-election of President Obama. The spectacle of US democracy in action is at once ridiculed and revered over here.

Looked at one way it is an unholy combination of demagoguery and plutocracy, what with its pork-barrelling politicians soliciting corporate donations for prime time television advertising.

Looked at another, it has the folksy honesty of a town hall meeting writ very large indeed. Aspirants to public office in the US may well dissimulate, but in a wide-open cultural landscape, with only the occasional ironic outcropping, there's hardly anywhere for them to hide.

Whatever the systemic failures of the US electoral process - and these are legion - and despite the fickleness, apathy and bigotry the electorate demonstrates, the view from the UK is that every presidential run-off has an epochal character.

Somewhere in the troubling intersection between the American dream and the nightmarish patriotism engendered by Manifest Destiny, we sense their collective self-belief. What they do in the privacy of the voting booth genuinely matters, both to them and us.

The protracted agony of the Syrian people as the Assad regime collapses in slow motion, the bloody stalemate in Israel-Palestine, the ructions in Egypt and the conniptions in Iran - throughout 2012, whenever our troubled gaze has alighted on one of these sore spots, we've been told that no balm can be applied until the voters in the bellwether states have made up their minds.

Since the Suez Crisis of 1956 when the British government was told by President Eisenhower in no uncertain terms that for them the imperial project was over, our national self-worth has been predicated, in a large part, on a rearguard action to save face.

The dilatory nature of the UK's relationship with the European Union often seems like the behaviour of someone stood up on a date, who cannot summon the willpower to walk away from the failed rendezvous and into the arms of the girl next door.

And the American expression "date" is undoubtedly the mot juste here. For even in a year notable for its concerted attempts by the British to get our family jewels out of hock - what with the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics - the prevailing wind of change has continued to blow from the west.

New Apple product launches and franchised television talent shows, Hollywood-financed blockbusters and new economic nostrums, the appetite for all things and ways American remains as ravenous now as it was when Bill Haley and his Comets rocked around the clock.

And, as with all ravenous appetites, it can never be sated, only provoke a troubling indigestion. Since the staging of Stoppard's New-Found-Land, the great British public has increasingly had the opportunity to witness the object of their profound ambivalence in the flesh, as well as on celluloid. But far from greater intimacy leading to increased understanding, all those fly-drives to Florida and whistle-stop tours of Yosemite have only widened the gulf.

For, once we've gotten over our initial amazement at the size of everything - from mountains, to prairies, to portions of food - a still more bewildering syndrome afflicts us.

This can be seen most clearly with those British intellectuals - ranging across the political spectrum from the late Christopher Hitchens to the still extant Niall Ferguson - who, having paddled up the Potomac in their pith helmets, then went crazily native. Once established in the US, and with its objective reality restored to actual size, the British immigrant discovers its people.

More specifically, while by no means able to form close bonds with all 311 million of them, he finds that such is their variety and contrariety, that there are plenty who are not only simpatico, but are also effectively indistinguishable from those he has left behind in Blighty.

So, while from afar America may seem, to the Briton, a bewildering and Brobdingnagian phenomenon, close up and personal, the Americans themselves take on the more familiar Lilliputian lineaments of his own countrymen and women.

Of course, neither perception is anything but delusory. East is east and west is west, and while the twain may meet, this doesn't make them part of the same main. Despite their perverse habit of speaking our language fluently, Americans employ its vocabulary in radically different ways. Just as in spite of our wholesale consumption of their cultural product - including their neo-liberal economic policies - we British retain a pesky sense of our own national branding.

I think, at root, the problem is one of mirroring.

They say "aluminum", we say "aluminium", but both can be shiny and reflective surfaces. So, no matter how intently we examine the US, we cannot help but see our own features staring back at us. This phenomenon simply doesn't occur when we look at the French, the Vietnamese or the South Africans - all remain properly other.

Only America and the Americans have this ability to derange us with their capacity to reflect our own image. Not that they do this intentionally, really, it's something we do to ourselves. And it follows that what we also do to ourselves is to relentlessly equate America with Americans, and the US government with its electorate - conflations we wouldn't dream of making in the case of the German or Greek peoples.

Perhaps once we finally smash the mirror we will be able both to see the US for what it is, and face ourselves shorn of that post-imperial body dysmorphia that continues to make successive British governments punch above their weight on the international stage.

Still, I wouldn't want to bet on it. Not, that is, while British civil servants still hide their stars and stripes pants beneath their pinstripe trousers.

Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20857972

OP: I think I enjoy this article. Half of the time I can't tell what the bloody hell he's going on about though!
the_physicist 6th-Jan-2013 08:07 pm (UTC)

i get what he's saying, but the it's rather pointless as the only way that can be accomplished is if either nation start talking a different language. the anglosphere will have special ties and see itself differently no matter what as long as one language is held in common, because language is not just a means of communication, a language is also a means of culture.
shishmish 6th-Jan-2013 08:24 pm (UTC)
Were the US Elections not ridiculed and revered by the Americans themselves? I find that hard to believe. And of course we Brits are going to be in awe in some aspects - the way the US does politics is hugely different to how we do it; there is much more fan-fair and theatrics involved compared to our hum-drum politics/elections (although when it was announced we had a coalition the UK went nuts). Some of the stuff the candidates got up to would more than likely never be allowed here in the UK.
keeni84 6th-Jan-2013 09:42 pm (UTC)
Prime Minister's Questions confused me for the longest time. I couldn't believe it was real. I wish we had something like this in the US.

shishmish 6th-Jan-2013 10:00 pm (UTC)
PMQs can be hit or miss, but when it's a hit it's classic. One of my favourites that comes to mind is this moment from Vince Cable. It made news headlines in pretty much every newspaper. Have you ever come across Question Time? That has some classic moments.

That and I have the entire The Thick of It boxset to watch :D and now I crave Have I Got News For You to come back. ALL THE POLITICAL SATIRE.

Edited at 2013-01-06 10:02 pm (UTC)
keeni84 6th-Jan-2013 10:44 pm (UTC)
OMG thank you for the links! I had never really heard of Question Time, as most of what I watch from UK politics comes from C-SPAN.
shishmish 6th-Jan-2013 10:57 pm (UTC)
Question Time is brilliant - it has a mix of celebrities, politicians and people involved with organisations/charities etc. I had a google for a clip and came across this New York 9/11 edition I never knew happened.
jenny_jenkins 7th-Jan-2013 01:12 am (UTC)
We have it in Canada too. Premiers have the same thing. I used to attend the BC legislature on Friday afternoon to watch Joy MacPhail and Jenny Kwan destroy our Premier.

It was delicious. Those two were awesome.
lozbabie 7th-Jan-2013 03:04 am (UTC)
We have it in Australia too. It's how Julia Gillards misogyny speech came about.

It wouldn't work in America as the cabinet don't sit in the house of reps or senate. Cabinet ministers have to be from within parliament. An argument could be made that the American system is better in that regard b
jenny_jenkins 7th-Jan-2013 03:12 am (UTC)
I've always thought it could be both ways.

On the one hand: better - wider pool of talent.

On the other - (although accountable to Congress) worse - not as directly accountable to voters.

Elizabeth May, my MP, is leader of the Greens. She ran in my riding and took out Gary Lunn, a cabinet minister. We'd been wanting to ditch that poisonous dwarf for years. It was glorious.

On the other hand, 4 years before, she'd run against the Foreign Affairs minister and lost because people in that riding are apparently sort of dim.
strixluna 6th-Jan-2013 08:55 pm (UTC)
I've long held that Americans are simply Brits who talk funny. Or at least that's what it felt like growing up in rural New England.
zinnia_rose 7th-Jan-2013 04:33 am (UTC)
Hey now, the Brits are the ones who talk funny. ;)
rebness 6th-Jan-2013 10:05 pm (UTC)
I disagree, but that's probably because we move in different social circles. The people I knew were deeply interested (and yes, reverential to a degree) with regard to the US election. Of course we mocked Romney, but we also cheered on Obama and admired that if nothing else, the Americans don't seem to drown in apathy the way our own voters do.

I'm not touching this apparent dislike for Americans, French or German people. I'd say we have a healthy amount of disdain for how 'true' the special relationship - which never seems to benefit the UK - is, but again, the people I know don't tend to hate the rest of Europe or dislike Americans above outrage at a misplaced u or z here and there.

My point is, it's hard to speak for the UK as a whole, let alone an age group or social class. And I say this as a young professional in Liverpool.
rebness 6th-Jan-2013 10:43 pm (UTC)
Ah, good. You're very gracious! :)

It's more that Americans (or at least, the ones I'm friends with) are really politically motivated, and knew far more about what the people they were backing stood for than I've ever really seen any British person (again, only in my own circles) be. There were moments of outstanding stupidity, of course, but when we consider the fiasco that was our own last general election -- welp.

I prefer the American voting system in general. Our own needs an overhaul, but (rather inevitably) that seems to be on a backburner for now.

I think it's easy to dismiss what seems to us to be America's starry-eyed idealism, but when we just can't seem to get our own house in order, I think Obama winning out and the general way in which the election ran somehow caught positive attention from a lot of us here.

Again, I'm generalising here, but the truth is I don't want to make blanket statements about our own system nor that of the US without being able to back it up (having been proved wrong in something I'd presumed just the other day, ha!)
mollywobbles867 6th-Jan-2013 09:16 pm (UTC)
I feel bad for this guy's thesaurus and the abuse it endured for this article.
otana 6th-Jan-2013 09:17 pm (UTC)
Right? I gave up after a few paragraphs because it stank of trying too hard.
lastrega 7th-Jan-2013 09:11 am (UTC)

Way too many words for the few ideas contained in it.
the_physicist 6th-Jan-2013 09:20 pm (UTC)

i think it was to make up for lack of any substance.
darth_eldritch 6th-Jan-2013 09:31 pm (UTC)
I couldn't read it. I stopped after a couple of paragraphs.
keeni84 6th-Jan-2013 09:44 pm (UTC)
rebness 6th-Jan-2013 10:01 pm (UTC)
You should try reading one of his books. Dorian was excruciating.
evilnel 6th-Jan-2013 11:40 pm (UTC)
I feel like the point of this article was really 'Brits have a better vocabulary than Americans even if we speak the same language.' :)
girly123 7th-Jan-2013 01:35 am (UTC)
lol, this.
romp 7th-Jan-2013 03:45 am (UTC)
zeonchar 7th-Jan-2013 06:58 am (UTC)
I know, I had to start skimming after a couple of paragraphs.
anjak_j 8th-Jan-2013 04:45 pm (UTC)
Likewise. That was a whole lot of big words to say very little.
ultraelectric 6th-Jan-2013 09:47 pm (UTC)
So, I was expecting a nice article, and I had to stop because I felt insanely stupid because some of the words used I've never heard of.
othellia 6th-Jan-2013 09:54 pm (UTC)
Did he basically say that the UK is trapped by the US in a parasitic death grip that came about because our nations are too similar?

Well, in regards to the similarity... NO SHIT, SHERLOCK. And to put the blame on us like that is like blaming the UK for colonizing America in the first place. You know, the whole WASP thing? White Anglo-Saxon protestant? And even taking into account the massive wave of non-British immigrants in the 1900's to mix up our demographics, that doesn't change the fact that it tends to be the older families that dominate politics, the market, etc.

And the one solution they propose is not to become less similar, but to realize that we aren't similar, even though this author already admitted that we are?

cherrylng 7th-Jan-2013 04:29 am (UTC)
I was stuck in so many rarely used words in my dictionary that I just ended up thinking about a SATW comic and let myself be laughing till silly.

battle cry
ljtaylor 7th-Jan-2013 09:32 am (UTC)
As with several others here, I lost track when he brought in the word "tmesis". But this did remind me of something: what is the basis for the American stereotype of Brits having bad teeth? I've heard a few theories, one being that we shun cosmetic dentistry and the other, that we're poor. Can anyone enlighten me?
ljtaylor 8th-Jan-2013 09:08 am (UTC)
ahaha "we can probably replace it with much funnier jokes about their oppressive Orwellian state anyway. Your life is not your own; that shit's hilarious!"
keestone 7th-Jan-2013 01:07 pm (UTC)
It's an unholy mix of outdated stereotypes (pre-NHS dentistry standards, differing pick-up of fluoridation), differing cultural class (and health) markers (in the US dental health is not just a sign of health, but also of having the money for preventative care and to get problems fixed thanks to it all being private . . . and therefore Hollywood goes overboard with it as a marker of beauty, but that's not really representative of the general population), and the fact that if you drink a lot of tea it tends to stain.

There's probably some genetics in there as well. Some people are just genetically disposed to have softer enamel. (I'm kind of guessing and extrapolating here from studies I don't have at hand about an Irish genetic predisposition to heart disease -- sorry, don't have links to the articles. Of course, the more heterogeneous a population gets, the less likely this is to be an overall factor.)

But apparently it's not just a US stereotype of the UK, since bad teeth are called "dientes ingles" in Mexico.
ljtaylor 7th-Jan-2013 02:18 pm (UTC)
Fun facts, thanks! My dad has soft enamel and he inherited it from my grandfather, who had all of his teeth removed when he was 21. Incidentally, my dentist chum informs me this was a really trendy thing to do at that time - and since my grandad had to have two or three fillings every time he went to the dentist, he was getting pretty fed up of his teeth anyway.

Myself, I have strong teeth, but I ate a lot of toothpaste as a kid which means I have white staining from the flouride. Maybe the excessive tea consumption of my adulthood will even that out ;)
ljtaylor 8th-Jan-2013 09:04 am (UTC)
*edit* I thought Gmail hadn't posted my original reply. Well! I hope you enjoyed my above comment re-written.

Edited at 2013-01-08 09:06 am (UTC)
keestone 8th-Jan-2013 09:50 am (UTC)
Ha ha. I've got pretty strong enamel myself (not a single cavity till I was 31), but my teeth were horribly crooked and after 6 or so years of braces I still have TMJD. Crooked teeth can mess you up. On the other side, my partner's family seems to have much softer enamel, and it seems to have come from his Liverpudlian dad's side of the family. Anecdata FTW.

I have to admit, I started buying whitening toothpaste after I noticed the tea staining I was getting after moving across the pond. I had a pretty ingrained eeeewwww! reaction, even knowing exactly what it was and that my dental hygiene wasn't bad.
captaintrash 9th-Jan-2013 10:59 pm (UTC)
I think the general attitude among Americans is that Brits shun cosmetic dentistry, yes. I don't think money plays much of a role; lots of Americans view England is more upper and middle class than us, overall, though obviously that's not true. As an American I've never understood why people in this country are so obsessed with straight, white teeth-- I guess it demonstrates wealth and "personal hygiene" or whatever, but I've always been happy with my super crooked but healthy teeth.
evildevil 7th-Jan-2013 12:09 pm (UTC)
what kind of foreign language am I reading????
mimblexwimble 7th-Jan-2013 07:18 pm (UTC)
Holy overcompensation Batman.
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