Commentary Magazine


On a Letter from London

Geoff Dyer’s column “My American Friends” in the New York Times is hitting my mailbox from every direction at once. If you’ve not read it, you should: it’s fun. It’s got, of course, a few swipes at George W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, and Tony Blair, but it’s really a love letter from Britain to the United States. Dyer points out that many of the British clichés voiced about America reflect either ignorance or a barely-disguised, liberal-elite desire to bring the U.S. down a peg or two because, as too many Britons are grumpy and desperate to feel superior about something, Americans must be made out to be inferior.

He’s certainly right about the grumpiness. I’ve written about this myself, pointing out that “Britain is a more self-absorbed, less expansive, society than it was in the post-war era, and while it is more prosperous, it is also less happy and less sure of itself.” The Economist writes this week along the same lines, noting the British, of all the citizens of the advanced democracies, are among the least satisfied with the state of their nation. Of course, given the parlous condition of Britain’s economy, their dissatisfaction may be a sign of rationality, but Dyer is not alone in thinking that it’s not just the economy getting Britain down.

My own reaction to Dyer’s piece is twofold. First, I do think he’s onto something when he writes that Americans have better manners and are more freespoken because “deep down, everyone is agreed on the premise that America is better than anyplace else.” Of course, traditional American openness isn’t based just on this: the fact that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, and relatively classless, has a lot to do with it. But it is easier to be civil when you’re optimistic about your nation and inclined -– partially because of religious faith -– to think well of your fellow man than it is if you think poorly of everyone.

But it’s just not true that “everyone is agreed” on the premise that the U.S. is best. The President’s oft-quoted remark that “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism” implies that, at best, he has a distinctly posmodern approach to this belief. If everyone thinks they’re special, then presumably no one really is. The poorly hidden declinism of his administration, which implies that the greatest service the U.S. can do the world is to plan a graceful exit from its role as the hegemon, also clashes with Dyer’s assessment. For my part, I think Dyer’s got a better grasp of the American people, and of reality, than Obama does, and that Obama’s unexceptional approach will be what trips him up.

Second, in the British context, Dyer is a bit glib when he argues that, because Britain’s Muslims are among the most unsatisfied in Europe, this proves that they’ve assimilated very well — in that they’re just as unhappy as everyone else. But again, he’s not totally wrong. The traditional American approach to assimilation was to be proud of the United States, to invite immigrants to restrict their Old World customs to their private lives, and to expect them to conform publicly to existing American norms and beliefs. As bin Laden might have expected, that “strong horse” approach was quite attractive: being invited to join a self-confident, assertive, and successful community is a great compliment because it implies that you, yourself, possess those qualities and will be welcomed as an equal.

Britain has done the opposite: it has tried the “weak horse” approach, consisting of lots of multiculturalism and plenty of welfare payments. Again, not surprising, this hasn’t worked terribly well: there are few reasons to want to join a community that beats itself up so relentlessly. Where Dyer is totally wrong is when he writes that “the qualities that make us indubitably British . . . are no longer conducive to Greatness.” According to Dyer, those qualities consist mostly of a mustn’t-grumble spirit that allows the British public to put up with poor quality service and to accept apologies as a substitute for actual improvements.

But this has nothing to do with the qualities the British actually displayed in the formative era of British identity, the late-Hanoverian to mid-Victorian era. Britons in those days were relentless improvers -– in the quality of government, in public services, in industry, and through charity. Not for nothing did Asa Briggs title his great history of the era “The Age of Improvement.

One of those improvements, of course, was in British manners, where Dyer now celebrates the U.S. and gripes about the U.K. But English manners before the Victorian era were nothing special: only in the nineteenth century did the idea take hold that Britain was a nation of line-formers, of forthright “manly” speakers, and of courteous, “evenin’ all” bobbies. Maybe what made Britain British above all in that era was its political pride: in the Commons, in its freedom of the press and of trade, in its religious toleration, in its limited and liberal government, and in its contributions to the spread of civilization. Those are all still great qualities. The problem is that, since the 1960s, too many Britons have forgotten about them, or even cooperated in slandering or traducing them, which in turn has made the problem of assimilation -– or simply maintaining social order -– a lot more formidable.

What Dyer is basically and accurately complaining about is the collapse of the Victorian model in Britain; he is basically praising its partial survival in the U.S. He’s not wrong to dismiss the febrile leftism that has taken its place. But in one sense, his complaints are part of the problem because the model is so far gone that even a sympathetic and obviously careful observer like Dyer no longer recognizes that it ever existed in the first place.

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