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America and the myths of Britishness – putting the boot on the other foot

June 20, 2020
Cast of Downton Abbey

I can diss my country, but nobody else can. That might be my first reaction when I read something critical of Britain by a foreign writer. And of course it’s totally not the case. Anyone can diss anyone else’s country. Otherwise, where would we be? No travel writing, no global perspective, and for me, the most grievous loss: no opportunity to pour scorn on Donald Trump.

But when I write about Britain, I sometimes feel like an angry teenager raging against my parents, their values, their aspirations and their pretensions. I might love them dearly, but they’re so…..wrong!

I detected the whiff of a similar anger when I came across an article by a Laurie Penny, British writer who spends much of her time in America. The piece is published in Longreads, a website for  – you guessed it – long articles. The introduction to Penny’s article gives you a flavour:

In “Tea, Biscuits, and Empire: The Long Con of Britishness,” Penny, with trademark vigor and wit, confronts Britain’s unsavory past and its unpalatable present as a former world power, reduced to exporting the fantasy of posh whiteness portrayed on shows like The Crown and Downton Abbey. “The plain truth is that Britain had, until quite recently, the largest and most powerful empire the world had ever known. We don’t have it anymore, and we miss it. Of course we miss it. It made us rich, it made us important, and all the ugly violent parts happened terribly far away and could be ignored with a little rewriting of our history.”

That just about sums it up, with a waspish glee suggesting that whoever wrote the intro heartily agrees with the author.

Penny writes with scorn about the myth and the reality of Britain. About the myth, of imperial elegance (as in Downton), of the plucky underdog (as in the Blitz), and of the manners, charm and traditions that so impress our gullible cousins across the Atlantic.

Then the reality as she sees it. The stale cucumber sandwiches of a second-rate, post-colonial nation. A hopeless government that has screwed up and lied its way through the COVID crisis. The cruelty and disrespect we show to migrants who keep the country running. The illusions of the ideologues who are dragging us out of the European Union. Our desperate affection for the National Health Service, even as successive governments have whittled it away in pursuit of a long-term goal of privatised health. The rise of extremism at both ends of the political spectrum. The decline of formerly robust regional centres brought about by the disenfranchisement and defunding of local government. Institutional racism, crumbling infrastructure and bad teeth. And, of course, the rain.

But then I realise that what I’ve just written is not Penny speaking. It’s me, though I would usually temper such a bowel-voiding of contempt with the upsides, of which there are many.

The author is gracious enough to point out that without the myth, she and many other Brits in America – especially those who work in the entertainment business, and others who cover for their mediocrity with their cut-glass British accents – would be out of a living.

But what of America? Are we not just as taken in by the American myths as they are with ours? More, I would suggest. In fact we are suffused with Americana, as anyone who looks around them and consumes its products and its culture will know.

So let’s take a brief look at American myths and realities.

But before we go there, what qualifies me to write of such things? Perhaps the fact that I’ve been a partner in an American business for the past twenty years that has, at various times,employed hundreds of people. Also perhaps that I’ve travelled fairly extensively throughout the country both for business and pleasure.

The travel experience has taught me how ridiculous it is to talk of America, as opposed to many Americas. Just as in our own little way we British are many countries, four nations and a host of local cultures.

Is it therefore fair to generalise about either country? On one level no, but about the myths, yes. Because myth is belief by another name. And everyone in America can believe in the myth of the land of opportunity, just as we British can believe in our courage, tolerance and sense of fair play. But just as we believe in our own myths, even while the realities are forced down our throats by the likes of Laurie Penny, we often believe in different myths about other countries.

For me, having travelled so much in America, sometimes it’s hard to tell when the myth made so pervasive by movies, TV and literature stops and reality begins. Did I really drive a few miles out of ultra-modern Raleigh into the North Carolina countryside and see shacks with old people sitting on their porches looking out on tobacco fields, or am I remembering a movie set in the 1930s? Were those threatening streets I’ve walked down in New York actually a memory of the 15th Precinct in NYPD Blue? And were the whales I saw off the coast by Baltimore a figment of my imagination inspired by some natural history programme?

In those cases, no, but when we think of America, how much are we reliant on the genius of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Steven Bochco for our views on America? Or Donald Trump, John F Kennedy, Neil Armstrong, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain or Edgar Allen Poe?

So perhaps we should be talking about the America we would like to admire and love, and then the country that presents itself on a daily basis, either in person or through what we read and see across so many media.

So what of the country that I love and admire? The music, from bluegrass to blues, from the Grateful Dead to the jazz of New Orleans. When I see it, which is not always, the optimism, the innovation and the ambition. When encounter it, which is also not always, the welcoming spirit, the curiosity and the generosity. Then of course there are the wildernesses, those parts of America not tamed and modified by those who wish to profit from them.

And the country that presents itself to the rest of the world? I might have said different fifty years ago. Then I would be talking about Vietnam, civil rights and moon rockets. Now I see meanness of spirit, fear, exceptionalism, paranoia, a willingness to let the needy sink. I see Donald Trump, the religious right, goons with rifles parading in front of statehouses and, of course, police. I see conspiracy theories, hate tweets and the frantic efforts of writers, musicians, lawyers and politicians to reverse the effect that Trump and his people have had on the tradition of reasoned discourse.

I still hope for good things from America. When I see Cagney, I look for Jimmy Stewart. When I see Don Corleone, I look for Dick Winters or Amelia Earhart. And when I see a policeman with his knee on the neck of a black man, I see another helping to clear the airway of a choking 11-month-old child.

So should we discard the myths and only look coldly at ourselves as we really are? I’m not so sure.

The thing about the myths we propagate about our own countries, however broad-brush and unrealistic they might be, is that we do try to live up to them, and we hold people to account when they fall below the positive self-image that many of those myths bestow on us. When Americans say “we should be better than this”, they’re judging themselves against the myths of freedom, can-do spirit, generosity and kindness to strangers. Likewise when we British ask ourselves whatever happened to our tolerance and sense of fair play, we’re not just looking at the rules of cricket and the Englishman’s castle. We’re measuring ourselves against who we think we are.

Three years ago, when Donald Trump was elected president, I vowed that I would not revisit the country until he was no longer president. If I was an American, I might well make a similar vow to stay away from Britain for as long as Boris Johnson and his third-rate cronies remained in government. Nobody in America will give a second thought about my absence, though we would miss the Americans who come to our country to breathe in our myths. After all, we’re the supplicants these days.

I believe that America will survive Trump, just as I believe that over the next few years my country will emerge from the current chaos a better place: in reality fairer, more outward-looking, more tolerant and more constructively engaged with its neighbours.

Neither country is currently the cesspit that its critics would like to suggest. I love my country and most Americans love theirs. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement – in fact, lots of it.

Downton Abbey may well stand for another hundred years, and so will the Statue of Liberty. And yes, we shall overcome. And keep overcoming.

But only if we look at our history square in the face, choose our myths carefully, and work hard to live up to them.

  1. Andrew Robinson permalink

    She lost me at “vigor”.

    You’re lucky, Steve. “My” country for you is only one – the father, the son and the HG, aka the United Kingdom, Britain and, heaven forbid, “In-ger-lund”.

    I have two countries to defend, plus the Golf Club that is the EU ! And none of them is “mine”.

    • As Jesus should have said in the Eleventh Commandment, Blessed be the citizens of Nowhere!

      • Andrew Robinson permalink

        Thou shalt not covet thy neighbo(u)r’s testament…..!

      • True, but one can paraphrase it!

  2. deborah a moggio permalink

    Your take on what is happening here is generally both interesting and apropos.
    My concern for many years has been how willing much if not most of the rest of the world is willing to accept from us a world view that is fantasy at best and toxic at worst.
    While I know we weren’t the first nor the last, I do hope we shall not forever be branded as the worst. I do hope however, no worse comes.

    • Plenty to say about your comment, but will have to wait until tomorrow.

    • Debby, I think that few people outside the US see the country as “the worst”. Perhaps some in Iraq, where the wounds are still fresh. For the rest of us, and I’m sure I can even include countries like China and Russia, where envy comes into play, the dominant relationship is akin to that which often exists between close family members:love/hate. Or perhaps admiration and resentment. Perhaps in the era of Trump, disappointment also features, that a country so proud of its values should elect a despicable, amoral rogue for president. But by and large, I suspect that the vast majority of foreign onlookers hope for the best from America, but these days aren’t surprised by the worst. S

  3. deborah a moggio permalink

    thanks for your kind words.

    I think I meant playing the role of world’s leader.
    I think the rest of the world is still ready to view the American people as not so awful (though how they can continue that conceit when they meet American tourists is difficult to fathom), but as a world leader, well, there, Trump trumps all. We have been going down hill for a long time, of course. Trump did not rise full blown from the brow of Adams after all (I mean Abigail, John’s wife).
    So why were all the other countries so often willing to follow us down the rabbit hole? How many times does one follow the leader and pay the price while the leader has already moved on to the next Ponzi scheme before one catches on? Does it really take a Trump to wake us all up?

    I’m sure I’ve told you about Mr. Stone, father of a college friend of my eldest sister. His words come to me often. After a couple of hours of entertaining me, and putting up with me, as we discussed and solved the world’s problems (I was a wise old woman of 11 years) he said, “remember, when you are feeling alone and isolated, unable to understand how ALL the rest of the world seems to see things in a way that you see as wrong, and missing the point of what you see, remember– the average American is below average.”
    This was offered as comfort, and for a number of years it helped. Not because I thought I was always right, but because I couldn’t understand how I could be so special. One only had to be at 51%, not so very special at all.
    Frankly, however, now the comfort I return to more and more often is,
    I’m old, I shall die soon.

    • Thanks Debby. I wish I could remember wise words spoken to me when I was 11. That’s a lovely quote. Please don’t go soon, first because you would surely want to live to see things get better, and second because I would miss your wise and occasionally spiky comments that make writing my blog worthwhile! S

  4. deborah a moggio permalink

    oh my! you do make me blush!
    and that was one trick I’d never learned.

  5. Interesting to read these comments, not least because they touch upon something that perplexes me most about America – the dehumanisation and stridency of the English language as spoken by many Americans. So many of the people you see being interviewed or featured on newscasts seem to be talking AT people, not TO them, and in tones of such grating dissonance that its painful to hear.

    In large part, America seems to have lost its humanity, never more so than in the article that has been circulating for some years about why Trump could never be British.

    The brutish echelons of visored and armored law-enforcement agents confronting peaceful demonstrations are the physical manifestation of America’s dehumanised conversations, no matter how many noble law enforcement officers with kindly inclinations may be forced to adopt the intimidating stances.

    Words matter, and how they are used even more so.

    I know Debbie having met through a mutual love of language, and her perspicacity fills me with hope. This forum seems to be her natural habitat.

    • Thanks Doug

      You make an interesting distinction between talking at and talking to. The difference as I see it is that “talking to” involves the essential component of active listening – being aware of the audience, picking up nuances of response, such as body language. Funnily enough, Trump seems to do that quite well in his rallies, although his standard technique is call and response, akin to those used in pantomime and church services. Talking to is the equivalent of a full frontal assault – guns blazing regardless of the targets and the obstacles.

      I often used Barack Obama as an example of active listening in my communications workshops. Whatever one thinks of his politics and achievements, it’s difficult to deny the power of his oratory, not only in set-piece speeches but also in less formal, off-the-cuff-settings. One moment will never leave me. You will probably remember it. That was when he went to Charleston to attend the funeral of a pastor who died in a mass shooting by a white kid. In a perfect demonstration of empathy, both with the mourners and the event, he repeated the word “grace”, with his characteristic pauses, and then began to sing Amazing Grace. And as he did so, the faces of the mourners lit up, they stood up and joined him in the singing. What a statement! He later said that he’d been to so many funerals of shooting victims that he’d ran out of words. So he sang a song of repentance and forgiveness. For me this was not an empty gesture from an experienced politician. It came from the heart. How different from Trump’s wordless pose with the bible outside the church in Washington.

      But you’re right. The talking at phenomenon is interesting. I think it comes from anger. Angry speeches can be powerful and impressive, but anger allows no nuance. And anger comes from fear and frustration.

      Ah well. I’m delighted that you, Debby and others are turning this blog into some kind of a forum. It makes it all worthwhile.

  6. deborah a moggio permalink

    What about talking WITH? Where does that fit in?
    Shouldn’t that be the aim, in these parlous times?

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