As you might have noted, I’m in London, UK, but I devote a good part of my blogging and tweeting activity to the US. Indeed, my blog stats show that I get most of my traffic from these two countries, split almost exactly evenly, with the remainder coming largely from Canada, Australia, Brazil, EU countries and India.
I’ve rarely been accused of being “anti-American” (it would be hard to make that stick), but understandably, I’ve been asked by Americans why I take such an interest in their country (or sometimes, simply told to to mind my own business).
There’s no quick, tweetable answer, so I decided to write this post.
One reason Americans even ask this question is that the American view of the world is a more insular one than the view from many other countries. Americans wonder why a Brit would be interested in their politics when they (understandably) have no interest in ours. I’m not only interested in America – my interests are global, in common with many people around the world today. I have a near-equal fascination with Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the world.
The Empire View
After the second world war, the US Empire became the biggest game in town here in Western Europe, as well as across much of the planet. Ironically, America, which had opposed European imperialism since its inception, took advantage of Europe’s weakness and “took over” some of the old European colonies, most notably those with known oil reserves. British policy in the Middle East became American policy in the Middle East. After 1990, the US became the only game in town. Anyone with an interest in global politics can’t fail but notice the American influence almost everywhere – and hence become increasingly interested in US politics. The US has military bases in over 150 countries (well over half of all world states) with more than 369,000 personnel. Again, this makes America pretty hard to ignore.
The British View
Both Britain and America made big strategic shifts after WW2. Britain, an imperial nation for centuries, was forced to give up the bulk of its Empire. At that point Britain was presented with two blocs it could ally itself with: the United States or (what was to become) the European Union – it chose to straddle both, a position it holds to this day. American troops arrived in Britain in 1942 and never left. US bases in Britain are considered sovereign US territory, and yet the British people were never consulted over this loss of sovereignty. We have semi-jokingly been referred to as the 51st state, and there’s more than a hint of truth in that, as has been demonstrated during the “war on terror”. Quite simply, decisions made in Washington affect the British people – so it’s unsurprising that we take an interest in US politics.
The Tribal View
I’m not personally Anglo Saxon (I’m of Jewish descent) but as a British citizen I’m a member of the Anglo Saxon world – and the Anglo Saxons are among the world’s most successful tribes. They dominate the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as having a powerful voice in South Africa. There is undoubtedly an unspoken tribal fraternity among these countries, based on a 1,500-year common racial and cultural history, and therefore it’s not surprising that UK and Australian troops tend to be the first to join US wars and occupations, or that cultural attitudes across the Anglo Saxon world tend to closely mirror each other. And of course, we (almost) share a language.
The Personal View
I was born in the 60s, and so my upbringing was immersed in US culture. Britain today is a great producer of TV content, and to a lesser extent, film. While a good deal of our best TV and film still comes from the US, that was even more the case in the 70s. As I came of age and took an interest in politics, Reagan came to power, and my view of America became darker as US-sponsored terrorism trampled the globe. Still the fascination remained just as strong. In the late-80s, I visited the US for the first time, and have been back many times since – the US is a far more varied, intelligent and fascinating place than it tends to project internationally. I grew up in a US-centric world, and even as that visibly shifts, I’m still a child of the 60s.
The WTF View
Let’s try to say this nicely: America does a great line in morons. While we in Britain now have a government that’s at least as radically right-wing as the Thatcher one was, our conservative politicians are decidedly centrist compared to those in America. The US has been on an endless political trajectory to the right, with the result that (from a European perspective) Americans now have two political choices at election time: right of centre, or extreme right. The American political and media scene are so corrupted with corporate money that extremism is routinely presented as common sense. While we do have extremists in Europe, few of them find a place in mainstream parties, whereas the Republican Party has become a home of extremism. The European far-right often scores worryingly well in elections, gaining from 5% to 20% of national votes, but the American far-right is routinely elected to power. We don’t have local equivalents of George W Bush, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry or the Tea Party. Perhaps the most bizarre spectacle, looking in from Europe, is the moronic – not to say frightening – mass rejection of science, from evolution through stem-cell research to climate change. The downfall of former Empires – the Arabic and Ottoman ones, for example, began when religious orthodoxy was taken more seriously by leaders than scientific thought.
200 years ago, America helped set the tone for freedom and democracy in the Western World. Let’s not pretend it led in every field – take slavery, just as one example – but the US founding fathers did represent some of the most progressive thinkers of the day. Whatever its problems, America’s delivered at least one great contribution to mankind: the first amendment to the constitution, protecting freedom of speech, religion and assembly. Since it’s so small and neat, here’s the full text:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
However moronic America’s leaders may get, that short piece of prose will prove a huge obstacle to the imposition of an American dictatorship or theocracy (though it won’t stop people from trying). For the first amendment alone, America deserves recognition for advancing the cause of freedom – even if some of its more recent contributions to that cause have been a little less helpful.