Are Americans Uniquely Insular and Ill-Informed?
I wonder how many times a day Britons hear something nasty said about them on American radio and television or written about them in the American press, and how many expatriate Britons living abroad are confronted by aggressive Brit-haters.
In the past month I have been making careful note of incidents I feel are anti-American; why, you may ask, am I “at it” yet again and why is this being published in Pajamas Media? I feel it is important for Americans to understand what they might encounter on a 2009 Christmas trip abroad in order to avoid what the former CNN London bureau chief Walt Rodgers describes in his excellent October 15 editorial in the Christian Science Monitor. He recounts an incident in which an American accent roused someone’s ire and violence ensued. Also, it is important for Americans who do business abroad to appreciate that the accent is not a ticket to happiness or success even in the milieu of Euro-Obama euphoria. Furthermore, the extremely influential BBC television and radio programs Any Questions (I have been a panelist on this show several times and have tried to defend the honor of the United States of America) and Question Time often promulgate misconceptions about the United States and Israel that go uncorrected.
So what? Well, in order for people like myself who live here and who wish to avoid a heart attack, it is unfortunate that so much rubbish about America and Americans is stated as fact in the media and then one is relentlessly assaulted by an enraged Briton or European.
This happened in early November at London Mayor Boris Johnson’s all-day conference on Olympics 2012 and the arts. At the end of the day I went to the reception and a tousle-haired young man came over to me and started asking me questions peppered with “Yeh?” His name is Tom and he is a cultural affairs aide to Mayor Johnson. I have no idea why, but he really laid into me.
He went into that mode that I call “climate change rage” and started berating me about humanity and other lifeforms having a finite time on earth because of what Americans had done to demolish the planet. I mentioned the 10,000 young men under the earth at Omaha Beach who died in their teens to help demolish the Third Reich, but he kept on raging about carbon emissions and the United States destroying the environment. I gave him what I like to call the “Donald Rumsfeld riff.” At his legendary Pentagon press conferences Rummy used to observe that when you look down on North and South Korea at night, you see darkness in the north and millions of lights in the south; in which country would you prefer to live? That imagery made no impact on Tom.
I tried to extricate myself from this unpleasant assault, but he continued to rant at me about the damage the United States has done to the world. I asked him if he would prefer the lights to go out and the entire working population of the U.S. to stop laboring 24/7 and just languish hungry and unemployed en masse. He was puzzled. I said, “If you think a highly industrialized society in which everyone works a long day with an hour for lunch and two weeks’ vacation a year is a bad thing, then maybe the U.S. should take on European working practices.”
I admitted that air conditioning, which is not part of European or British daily life, has indeed made a negative impact on the American environment, but 75% of greenhouse gases come from other places like India, China, and Russia. Do those countries have an Environmental Protection Agency? Hate them or love them, what overseas nation has produced consumer advocates like Ralph Nader or Al Gore? I told him that my late father searched for a “clean” car forty-five years ago when he decided on a Volvo! At that point I could see Tom shrinking. Nonetheless the whole encounter left me feeling short of breath and in need of a good cardiologist. If you are traveling to Europe, have facts at your fingertips.
On Thursday, November 5, on BBC television’s Question Time, the former London police commissioner Sir Ian Blair noted that he had been to California for a wedding and except for the British MP expenses scandal “most Americans don’t know anything about what happens outside America.” This angered me. It is a misconception. I watch NBC Nightly News at 11:30 p.m. London time and if I can I stay up for CBS at 12:30 and ABC at 1:35. Then comes Anderson Cooper; sometimes I watch O’Reilly and Hannity. My impression is that Americans are exposed to overseas news every day. Inasmuch as Americans are losing their brethren most days of the year in Iraq and Afghanistan, they know something about the outside world. Whether one likes Obama or not, it was those “insular” Americans who elected a son of Kenya.
How much do Britons know about events in the United States or even in nearby France, Spain, or Eastern Europe? Likewise do Europeans eagerly soak up American news? You can be sure nobody I encountered in the first week of November over here on the other side of the pond knew about the Obama-crushing local elections. I even had to explain the Fort Hood atrocity to several individuals. When I appeared on BBC’s Any Questions? the audience was a gracious and lively one, but the significant American elections and Fort Hood did not enter the fifty-minute discourse at all. When I suggested that the internet is the Wild West in the context of how much sexual content children encounter, the host, Jonathan Dimbleby, said “Yes, and the east coast schools aren’t the Wild West?” (I would like to hear from PJM readers whose kids are going to decent schools on the American east coast. My alma mater, the Philadelphia High School for Girls, was and is a far cry from the Wild West.)
In the Evening Standard of October 30, sportscaster John Inverdale wrote about the shame of Andre Agassi. (To the great sorrow of BBC viewers who adored the late Dan Maskell, “the voice of Wimbledon,” Inverdale now hosts the annual tournament and has yet to learn that a match is not a “game.”) Inverdale writes about Agassi’s recent drug hell and hatred of tennis, asserting that America is laissez-faire about most sporting drug problems. He then says, “No doubt all sorts of sanctimonious Oprah Winfrey garbage will be spouted by various American do-gooders over the next few days.” Actually, John, I try to watch American television at least once a day and when the Agassi news broke it did not take up one-tenth as much space as the coverage of American troops being killed overseas and the string of bombings in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
So, if you are visiting Europe these next few weeks and the locals take you to task for being provincial, dumb, and full of Oprah garbage, ask them if they know what Arbor Day is, ask them to locate Vermont, ask them what the University of Nebraska Press is known for, and finally ask them what two landmark bills Obama signed in the last week of October. Tee hee.