Neil Clark is a fierce critic of US foreign policy, but he detests the ignorant anti-Americanism of left-liberals
‘I am 25, a graduate who has travelled extensively after university and a Labour voter. To people of my type, across Europe and the English-speaking world, Americans are a laughing-stock, known mainly for their vacuous culture and profound ignorance. We all have a “dumb Yank” story on our travels. This is why Americans are so hated by us on the Left, however much we condemn the outrages.’ Such were the thoughts of Thomas Smith of Bristol, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph not long after the events of 11 September.
I am 35 — ten years older than Smith. I am also a graduate, and I, too, have travelled ‘extensively’ — to more than 30 countries at the latest count. I, too, consider myself to be ‘on the Left’, although, unlike Thomas Smith, I actually stopped voting Labour when, in 1995, it ditched Clause Four and thereby ceased to be a party of the Left. Why, then, when our backgrounds and viewpoints appear so similar, did I feel such anger and indignation on reading Smith’s letter?
It would be nice to think that Smith’s views are just the unrepresentative opinions of a rather arrogant and puffed-up young man. Yet sadly, he is probably right when he talks about how people of his ‘type’ see Americans.
Although Smith’s assertions, thankfully, did not go unchallenged by American readers of the Telegraph, one can only wonder what greater commotion would have been caused had our young Bristolian used the term ‘dumb’ to describe, for example, Nigerians or Pakistanis instead of Americans. If he had done so, he would probably have been visited by officers of the Commission for Racial Equality, and all prospects of a glittering postgraduate career would have been nipped in the bud.
The ‘Left’ of Thomas Smith, though, while preaching equality and brotherly love between all races, conveniently does allow for exceptions. All men are equal; all men, that is, except Americans, Serbs, white Africans and Protestants from Northern Ireland. Those unfortunate enough to be members of these groups can be freely called all the names under the sun without fear of opprobrium.
This explains how Polly Toynbee, the grande dame of political correctness, can get away with calling Serbs ‘dysfunctional’ and in ‘need of re-education’, and how left-liberal commentators can routinely label Ulster Protestants as ‘bigoted’ and ‘narrow-minded’ with impunity. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe can yell ‘Africa is for the Africans’ without a single letter of protest in the Guardian. Were a ‘right-wing’ European politician to make similar comments about Europe, indignant readers would be sending in their emails within seconds.
After the events of 11 September, it has been the Americans’ turn to be on the receiving end of the particularly nasty form of racism of the Left. Much of this nastiness is, I believe, due to an insidious form of left-wing snobbery based on a complete misconception of many aspects of American life and society.
A good example of this condescension is the British Left’s knee-jerk opposition to the death penalty. How can any country or its citizens be regarded as civilised as long as it maintains capital punishment? America still has capital punishment, ergo, America isn’t civilised. A correspondent to my local newspaper made this very point the day after the WTC bombings: George Bush had no right to talk about the attacks as constituting an ‘attack on civilisation’ while ‘black men waited on death row’. The concept of individual responsibility, and that those on death row might actually be guilty of the crimes they are charged with, does not occur to the bleeding-heart left-liberal conscience. The fact that there is not a single credible example of a person wrongfully executed in America under the modern code also, it seems, counts for little.
Linked to prejudice against the death penalty is the general misunderstanding about crime in the US, with the image persisting of a land where life is cheap and arguments routinely settled down the barrel of a shotgun. Violent crime is undeniably a problem in most American inner cities; yet, away from them, the US suffers from significantly less crime than the UK. One is now twice as likely to be robbed, assaulted or have a vehicle stolen in New Labour Britain than in the wicked ‘Wild West’. New York, under the ‘zero tolerance’ policies of Mayor Giuliani (loudly criticised at the time by those on the Left as ‘unworkable’), was transformed in a remarkably short time into a city relatively free of crime, aggressive begging and other undesirable activities. London, by contrast, under the aegis of leftist-liberals, has gone in completely the opposite direction. You are now more likely to be mugged, raped or murdered in Hyde Park than in Central Park — something that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, and an unpalatable fact for apologists for modern Britain.
Then there is the ‘vacuous culture’ argument, so beloved by intellectual snobs of the Left when discussing America. True, much of contemporary US culture is ‘vacuous’, particularly the pap emanating from the Hollywood conveyor-belt. Yet American culture is not just the Californian motion-picture industry. I wonder if Thomas Smith has ever heard of, or indeed read, Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder and Paul Bowles, three of the finest writers of the 20th century? Or, if he prefers more modern literature: Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth? Have those who denigrate American culture ever seen a play by Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, or listened to a symphony by Copland or Bernstein? The greatest film of the 20th century, Citizen Kane, was American, as was the greatest pop album, Pet Sounds. Any nation that gives the world Sergeant Bilko, Burt Bacharach and the Beach Boys can surely be forgiven the occasional Eminem and Jerry Lewis.
As in the case of crime rates, it ill behoves any citizen of these Ali G-infested islands to berate the US for their ‘vacuous culture’ when we boast some of the worst tabloid newspapers in the Western world, and our TV listings abound with soap operas, game shows and bone-headed fly-on-the-wall documentaries. It was Britain that exported The Weakest Link and Anne Robinson to America, and not vice versa.
Another popular left-wing gripe about America is, of course, that all Americans are money-obsessed and commercialism permeates all aspects of society. It is undeniably true that a particularly aggressive form of capitalism does operate in America, and few of us, of whatever political persuasion, find the spectacle of ambulance-chasing lawyers particularly edifying. However, this is only one half of the picture.
Strict competition laws ensure, as Janet Daley has pointed out in the Daily Telegraph on several occasions, that consumers are immeasurably better off in the US than in Britain. Despite the US’s considerably higher wage levels, it is hard, if not impossible, to think of any item which can be bought at a lower price in Britain. Not only do Americans pay lower prices; they also receive better service. Vivien Leigh, exiled to America in the 1940s, may have loathed Hollywood, yet was still taken aback by ‘the politeness of men in garages’. Sixty years on, little has changed. In Britain, by contrast, ripping off the consumer seems part of the fun for all concerned, from our privatised utility companies through to the plumber who charges £400 for a Christmas Eve call-out. And unlike in the US, service rarely comes with a willing smile; more often than not with a snarl and a grossly inflated bill.
Moving on to the dreary ‘Dumb Yanks’ jibe, I write as one who has taught both American and British students for more than ten years. While it is true that knowledge of European geography is not usually the American student’s strong point, once again, one can’t really press this too hard when only 8 per cent of our own schoolchildren have heard of Winston Churchill and 12 per cent believe Tony Blair to be a football player. And while we castigate Americans for their ignorance of Europe, how many Britons can name the capital of Nebraska, or know which states border Iowa?
All in all, unthinking attacks by the Left on Americans are not only nasty but they don’t add up. Does that mean, then, that we all have to love Uncle Sam? Not a bit of it. I have written thousands of words condemning US foreign policy, most of which were considered too strong to be published in mainstream publications. I have organised petitions for the indictment of Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright as war criminals for their role in the illegal bombing of Yugoslavia, and have taken part in vigils and demonstrations outside US embassies at home and abroad. I have resolutely opposed President Bush’s never-ending ‘war against terrorism’ since day one, and am appalled at the prospect of forthcoming US military strikes against Iraq.
Yet I have never personalised the strong feelings I have regarding US foreign policy into attacks on individual Americans or Americans in general. Refraining from doing so does not constitute a cop out or appeasement of the enemy. Slobodan Milosevic, a man who has more cause than most to feel bitter about Uncle Sam, shows that he understands this nuance perfectly when, after a long, arduous day at his US-financed show trial, he unwinds each evening with his collection of Hemingway’s works and his Frank Sinatra CDs. Similarly, no more scathing critiques of American society have been written than Brave New World and After Many a Summer, yet their author, Aldous Huxley, liked America and Americans so much that he spent the last 30 years of his life living in California. By the same token, there have been few more devastating critics of US foreign policy than Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and Ramsey Clark, American citizens all.
It is important for all of us who share that distinguished triumvirate’s world view to continue to break bread with individual Americans, for it is not with individual Americans, or indeed with America in general, that our argument lies. If we do otherwise, and start to label whole nationalities as ‘dumb’ and ‘ignorant’, we are already one small step away from the undeniably racist mindset of those who perpetrated the atrocities in Manhattan 12 months ago. By all means refer to US foreign policy as ‘dumb’, Mr Smith, but please not its people.
Neil Clark is a tutor in history and politics at Oxford Tutorial College.