Americans are doing a good job of misunderstanding Britain
A RESTAURANT critic for the New York Times informs us that, on returning to London after a ten-year absence, he was astonished to discover that the local restaurants have moved beyond “porridge and boiled mutton”. Robert Draper has been widely mocked for this nonsense. What next on his list of amazing discoveries? That kings can no longer behead people at will? That not all Britons live in castles? That suits of armour have fallen out of favour? But Mr Draper is not alone: I’ve noticed a recent surge in American-sourced gibberish about Britain. This rubbish is bipartisan: the left and the right are equally guilty. And it is driven by the same psychological force: the desire to project your own fears onto the convenient (English-speaking) canvas that is Britain. But the two sides project exactly the opposite fears onto Britain: the left argues that it is falling apart because it’s rejecting globalisation while the right worries that it’s falling apart because it’s too keen on globalisation.
The New York Times has run a series of articles on the evils of Brexit Britain. Britain is divided into two nations—a wealthy south and a Dickensian north. The country voted to leave the European Union out of a fit of racism-tinged nostalgia. Britain is no longer a “brave galleon, banners waving, trumpets blaring”, as Steven Erlanger wrote in his farewell to the country that had been his home for two long spells as a foreign correspondent. Instead, it is “a modest-sized ship on the global ocean”.
Having voted to leave the European Union, it is unmoored, heading to nowhere, while on deck, fire has broken out and the captain—poor Theresa May—is lashed to the mast, without the authority to decide whether to turn to port or to starboard, let alone do what one imagines she knows would be best, which is to turn around and head back to shore.
I think Brexit is a colossal mistake—and a colossal mistake, moreover, that reflects all sorts of deeper problems with the country, not least the concentration of economic activity in the south-east. But there’s also some good news: Britain has some of the lowest unemployment in Europe (and has been sucking in people from abroad for years); Britain has seen support for the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party fall at a time when support for other European far-right parties has been surging; Britons find time to attend literary festivals, pop festivals and even restaurants between rounds of self-flagellation.
If the left specialises in despair, the right specialises in terror. The Drudge Report frequently links to articles that focus on the sphincter-tightening side of British life. There’s the epidemic of knife crimes that has left the streets of London (and other cities) foaming with much blood. There is the rise of “no-go areas”, where the authorities fear to tread and sharia law holds sway. Steve Emerson, Fox News’s terrorism expert, even told the network that “there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in”. The town of Rotherham has indeed endured an appalling grooming scandal where a gang of mainly Pakistani men preyed on teenage white girls. But anyone who enters America’s right-wing media world learns that Britain is governed by a bunch of politically correct ninnies who are allowing large chunks of the country’s cities to be run by Muslim fanatics/grooming gangs/knife-wielding yardies.
The obvious retort to this is—how dare you! Britain’s problems with disorder are insignificant compared with America’s. Knife crime is a serious problem, but pales into insignificance beside American gun crime. The worst parts of British cities are safer than the worst parts of American cities. But that hasn’t stopped leading Americans from embracing the Britain-as-catastrophe argument. Donald Trump, who has a voracious appetite for right-wing media, reportedly raised the problem of “no-go areas” during a conversation with Theresa May. He also told this year’s annual meeting of the National Rifle Association that knife crime in London, “which has unbelievably tough gun laws” is so bad that a prestigious London hospital, “right in the middle”, is now like a “war zone for horrible stabbing wounds…there’s blood all over the floor of this hospital”. Mr Trump then stabbed the air several times and muttered “knives, knives, knives”. During Mr Trump’s visit to Britain’s knife capital two months later the American embassy stoked Americans’ fears by issuing a travel advisory, urging its citizens to “exercise caution if unexpectedly in the vicinity of large gatherings that may become violent”.
The problem is two-sided. The British media focuses overwhelmingly on the dark side of America: the prevalence of gun crime; the devastation of the Rust Belt; the fact that some Americans are idiotic enough to believe in God. Britain has produced a species of journalist—step forward Sacha Baron Cohen and Louis Theroux—that specialise in poking fun at Americans (and taking grotesque advantage of their politeness). I’m sure plenty of British versions of the hapless Mr Draper have written articles marvelling at the fact that you can buy things other than McDonalds in America’s big cities if you try really hard.
The to-ing and fro-ing of nonsense across the Atlantic raises a bigger point about journalism: if journalists can’t be relied upon to get their close cousins right—that is countries with which they share a common language and a common culture—how can they be trusted to get more exotic countries right? Journalists have always indulged in projection: stringing loose generalisations together to produce a word picture that tells you more about the anxieties of the writer than it does about the subject that is being written about. But this problem is far worse in the age of the internet. Aggregation sites only pick up the most extreme articles. And readers of aggregation sites fix on those articles as proofs of their basic prejudices—that the revolt against globalisation is destroying a once-great country or that Muslim gangs are tearing Britain apart.