Politics the American Way

Mar 25, 2011 No Comments

An Englishman’s Observations

By Owen Bubbers

Balderdash, bugger, bollocks and bloody hell! These are the words that every American savours when in the presence of an Englishman.  I could go further, tickling your surprisingly generous disposition toward a former colonial oppressor by letting slip that I have had the pleasure of taking tea with Her Majesty the Queen.  Alas, this would be a lie and indeed this article could continue as nothing more than a litany of whimsical anecdotes that, whilst charming, has been done to death.

Instead, allow me to share an Englishman’s observations of America as I have found it; that ‘city on a hill’ which to the rest of the world radiates a mysterious cocktail of hope: bewilderment, enlightenment, arrogance, generosity and anger.  I am challenged by the question: to what extent does the United States understand how it is perceived – and I’m not just talking about the Osama’s and al-Zarqawi’s of the world.  In Europe, alas, it is chic to knock America down with an air of superiority, as though the assurance that comes with belonging to an ancient, windswept society denotes a knowing wisdom that only time can carve.  It is now cliché to say that the Iraq war confirmed this perception of a hot-headed super power eager to go romping off into the desert for democracy and glory.  The unfortunate Bush “crusade” comment and “mission accomplished” banner revealed a naiveté and a lacking of mature judgement that had many Europeans quietly scoffing as the insurgency quickly gathered pace.  Of course millions of Americans were equally angered by their government’s actions but these dissenting voices could barely be heard across the ocean.

On the flip side, it seems clear that many Americans, no matter what their opinion of the impending invasion, felt betrayed by the open reluctance of European counterparts to offer their diplomatic and military support during a time of perceived national and international need.  Old French-US ‘freedom fries’ hostility aside, just why were numerous European nations seemingly lack lustre in their desire to engage with this post 9/11 reality, even if only to ensure their own security?

For me, one metaphor has proved enlightening in explaining the difference, not just in this particular decision-making but in the context of a deeper national character that influences government action.  It is simple, even obvious but is a true likeness according to my own experience as an old-time London lad in America.  Picture a middle-aged and slightly chubby-around-the-middle man; a little like the sardonic uncle we all tend to have.  He’s seen a thing or two of life, been around the block and offers you a wry look as you chide him for his lack of care or understanding on the latest issue to have captured your heart.  He is both generous and accommodating but has been there before.

Now imagine this new kid: feisty and confident, a tower of physical strength.  He challenges with relish the powers that be, eager to head out and make his mark upon the world – trusting in the rightness of his cause and that others too will admire his uniqueness.  This spry new addition to the world community is indeed full of recent experiences but perhaps has yet to fully develop an emotional maturity with which to temper that power.  Democrats, I warned you this was a simplistic concept but it is not far from the truth as I see it.

This Christmas I visited the wonderful city of Nuremberg in Germany, and, walking the cobbled streets, I was struck by the amount of pure ‘ancientness’ surrounding me – the 12th century knights’ tombs, 13th century castles and cathedrals.  Just think, as these were coming into being Richard the Lionheart and Saladin were duelling for control of Jerusalem, William the Conqueror had only recently invaded England and it would be another three hundred years before Elizabeth I came to the throne and defeated the Spanish Armada.  Indeed, in my home town, the church I used to attend is over 1,000 years old – almost beyond imagination – and somehow that sense of permanence translates into a drier and more measured view of the world.  Perhaps a little too measured?  In contrast, on a recent visit to Georgetown I was proudly told that the Colonial House Museum was believed to be the oldest structure in the entire District of Columbia – built in 1765 no less.  I do not wish to overcook this metaphor, but just take a moment to ponder the extent of this difference and how it impacts our respective countries today.

I for one feel drawn to America and its politics precisely because it unashamedly exudes a refreshing vitality.  For all the cynicism, partisanship and media pundits who offer nothing but negativity, I sense a capacity for change and growth amongst people.  There is still a fundamental willingness to invest in what could be, both in the politicians who carry their lofty ideals and the political process that must implement them.

Maybe this is all just an obsession with the greener grass but I cannot say the same for British politics.  Although I know many Americans who would argue the same thing for their own country, I feel that we have entered a permanently poisoned arena in which our representatives are desperate to prove their need to exist, even if it be on the level of the sewer rat, to an electorate that has turned apathy and suspicion into an art form.  If you add our need for self loathing into the mix (note, for example that our Union Jack flag is synonymous not with national pride but rather far-right fascism) I sense that the public’s complaints just cannot be resolved because they have reneged on any willingness to play their part in the political process.  When asked if I would like to enter British politics one day, I cannot help but feel that the race has already been lost and that little potential remains to change minds for the better.  You guys may be bloodied but you’re also unbowed and that feisty spirit sure counts for a lot.

Spring 2010

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