So You Think 7/7 Has Brought Britain & America Together? Think Again
IT'S PROBABLY just as well no US tennis players made it beyond the
quarter-finals at Wimbledon this year because it's evidently going to
be an uncomfortable summer for Americans in London. Despite the best
diplomatic efforts of Condoleezza Rice, who, even as rogue-state
crises proliferate, continues to dispense charm and elegance in equal
measure, the US seems to be sinking steadily deeper in British public
Listening in to Prime Minister's Questions from across the Atlantic
this week, I noticed a common theme. There was outrage that three
British bankers are facing extradition to the US; alarm that the
safety of British forces in Afghanistan is deemed threatened by US
military actions; complaints about the failure of Western (read,
principally: America's) leaders to do more about Africa.
Flipping randomly through the British press, I spy an ugly American on
every page and I don't even have to read The Guardian. In The Sunday
Times last weekend you could find Jeremy Clarkson fulminating about
America's authoritarianism and its taste for double-egg burgers. (He
may have been on to something about the first but I've lived in the
States a while now and never seen a double-egg burger. More's the
pity.) A part of John Prescott's latest troubles are caused, I
suspect, by the fact that it was a wealthy American at a Colorado
ranch with whom he was consorting an uncivilised, brash American who
was plotting to turn that avatar of British cultural achievement, the
Millennium Dome, into a casino.
More seriously, the outpouring of comment on the July 7 anniversary
seems to reflect a broad consensus that, rather than establishing any
solidarity with America, the terrorist attacks merely underlined the
differences. We British, it is universally averred, deal more calmly
and understandingly with the threat and don't go clumsily invading
To cap it all, on July 4 of all days, a YouGov poll in The Daily
Telegraph suggested the British have never had a lower regard for
America. Does this epidemic of anti-American sentiment really reflect
an historic disenchantment? Or is it just a passing phase, a rejection
of current American leadership, not the people and the nation?
That the Bush Administration is not liked in Britain is not in doubt,
but the YouGov poll plumbs new depths. One per cent yes, 1 per cent
of the British public think George W. Bush is a great world leader.
There are probably more people who think England can still win the
The poll then highlights the usual litany of things that the British
don't like about US policy the war in Iraq, torture, detention
without trial. But it purports to suggest something much worse: that
it's not just this Administration's bungled war and slightly
unsettling attitude to the rule of law that gets British goats. It's
the whole damn, four wheel-driving, McDonald's-munching,
Starbucks-slurping, Barbie-fondling lot of them. The polls found that
substantial majorities despise American society, believing it to be
divided economically and racially, violent, uncaring, ignorant.
There are some bright spots but even they make you wonder. Steven
Spielberg, who made his money making films about odd-looking creatures
from outer-space, is the most popular American. Michael Jackson, who
spent his money trying to make himself look like he belonged in one of
those films, is the least popular.
There are some methodological objections to the poll. The questions
were, shall we say, somewhat loaded. What about the questions not
asked? Do you think the world would be better off today if, say,
France or Germany were the dominant global powers? China? Russia? But
I don't doubt that overall it's a reasonable picture of current views.
A number of things are at work. First, it is not news to say that most
British don't like President Bush. Nor is it news that many have long
regarded Americans as, shall we say, not quite our class. But they
don't think the President is some sort of aberrant figure in American
society. What they dislike about him is that he represents the things
they think they know about America and have always despised its
supposedly vulgar, brash, uncultured, uncivilised character.
On top of that, America is now far more dominant in the world than it
has ever been: this not only causes certain amount of resentment, it
also just makes America an even more inviting target. Let's be honest.
Nobody I know has strong views about Latvian society, so even if
Latvia were run by the Devil's Spawn I doubt we would have strongly
negative views about it as a nation. Then, of course, there's the
media's portrayal of America in Britain anthropology lessons in an
alien culture with emphasis on the wacko (see any news report about
fat people, oil company executives, religious fundamentalists and so on).
Most British don't like much of what the US Administration is doing
now, that's clear. But consider this: Polls suggest most Americans
themselves think the Iraq war was a mistake. I would bet neither this
nor any other Administration will contemplate doing anything like it
again for a long time. Torture was outlawed by a vote in the US Senate
that was 90-9 last year. The Supreme Court a moderately conservative
institution these days has ruled that detainees at Guantanamo Bay
must be given proper legal protection in accordance with US law and
the Geneva Conventions.
You can agree or disagree with all of these positions, but you can't
argue that they're any less American than their opposites. The US is a
large, chaotic, complex, multifaceted, constantly changing society. It
defies simple characterisation. But it is its very openness, its very
willingness to examine itself and have others continually pore over
it, that makes it so easy to characterise. Americans are often
criticised for lacking nuance. The world could do with a tad more
nuance when it looks at America.
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