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Americans Are More Than Lower-Class Brits

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A common theme in blog-land over the past few months has been the persistent misperception of America as some adolescent version of Europe by opinion-writers across the Atlantic. Even some pro-American British writers appear to believe that America comprises two types only: the Anglo-Saxon gentleman and the yokel.

In the Spectator, Times of London political correspondent Matthew Parris reasonably warns his Tory compatriots that the Special Relationship will not prevent Washington from pursuing its own interests should they ever clash with Britain's. But he has a peculiar notion that Americans are like the English — only with more riff-raff, and the riff-raff more influential:

And there is a graver reason not to crave too keenly the patronage of well-born Wasps. Well-born Wasps are not the future of the United States. The Eastern Seaboard is not the future of the United States. The future of the United States will be guided by individuals and ideas of a coarser sort. Texas and California, not Vermont and Massachusetts, are the template. Be clear, Atlantic-leaning Tories, which America you are going to have to learn to love and respect.

"Well-born Wasps are not the future of the United States. The Eastern Seaboard is not the future of the United States"? Not the future, indeed — and not the present, and not quite a few decades worth of the past, my friend. And there's a bit more south and west of Boston than a population of the wrong sort of Englishmen.

Parris's views — that all is dross that is not found inside a New England drawing room — are seconded by the politically very pro-American Barbara Amiel, of the conservative British paper the Telegraph. In an article including a level-headed critique of both American and European rhetoric, Amiel recognizes what Parris does not — that the tone of America has never been set by "the upper class." Yet she still attempts to understand American behavior via the shibboleths of status peculiar to her own society.

I have sympathy for some of her criticism of American display and rhetoric, but her distaste, for example, for "how everyone from president to pauper has hand ostentatiously on heart while the national anthem is bellowed," is snobbish and parochial. The placing of the hand over the heart is, for most Americans, a gesture, simple and honest, of deeply felt emotion. A habit of taste that compels one to misperceive all sentiment as sentimentality is itself a form of ostentation.

She also implies — wrong-headedly — that if our elites, rather than the masses, set the national tone, things would be in accordance with British upper-class taste:

America has a great powerhouse of intellectuals, artists and elites, but it has always been the masses that shape the tone, voice and manners of the way all Americans dress, celebrate and work. This is not to our taste.

But our elites are no more English than the rest of us are. America, in law and governance, is the daughter of England, but it is not inhabited by Englishmen. We are crass and boorish, some of us, and some of us — yes, even from Texas and California — are fine and gallant and brave and true, without bearing any resemblance at all to a Northeasterner, let alone a Brit of a certain class.

Do the Tories Parris is scolding really think of America as an extension of a New England dinner party, or as some very large version of New Zealand? I doubt it, if they've taken the trouble to know the place and its people. To persist in seeing us merely as a reflection of Europe is, to use a phrase of Ms. Amiel's, "gauche in the extreme".

UN CHIEN ANDALOU. Reading of the "Moors" demand that Isabel and Ferdinand be dug up and repudiated, I pondered that I have no idea who my ancestors were or what they were doing 500 years ago. But surely (while they were picking lice out of their hair and vermin out of their bedclothes like all the other peasants) they were being shoved around by somebody somewhere in Europe, or points farther east. It would take extensive genetic and genealogical research to precisely identify from whom I should be demanding apologies. In the meantime I'm going to have to settle for generalized historical consternation.

CRUEL AND UNUSUAL CHILDHOOD. In a worthwhile article on the continuing debate over military tribunals, this line about Gitmo struck me: 

U.S. military officials have drawn up blueprints for a 408-bed, air-conditioned prison building that would replace the clusters of temporary, open-air cells[...]

A fine example of how what once were wants have become needs? During my childhood in sub-tropical Florida, only the well-to-do had air-conditioned homes. Now, as far as I can tell, the entire state is climate-controlled. And what was good enough for my grade-and high-schools isn't good enough for al Qaeda.

RANDOM QUOTE OF THE WEEK. "The time is past, Miss Manners dearly hopes, when Americans who wished to be thought sophisticated adopted English or French manners. The excuse for using European table manners, for example, is always that they are 'more efficient' — as if we weren't getting our fast food fast enough. Nonsense. What they are is more European." (Miss Manners, sometime in the early '80s.)

Moira Breen is a native Floridian currently living as a geek/housewife/writer in Portland, Oregon.  She produces the weblog Inappropriate Response.

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