Oh, to see ourselves as others see us!

I am grateful to Mr. Roach of Dallas for sending me his very informative article about the origins and broad-based agenda of American Paleoconservatives. Here is a link: http://takimag.com/article/what_is_paleoconservatism The piece is very rational, very well-reasoned and well written. I don’t disagree with everything he writes, but as he notes, I am rather more liberal in my views than he is. In addition, my perceptions about the States are different from his own, particularly as I come from a different continent.

My view of America is that of an outsider, though one who has visited the States on several occasions and who for several years was married to an American citizen. I studied American sociology at University and like everyone else in the West have spent a lifetime listening to American music, watching American movies, drinking American soft drinks and [on occasion] eating American fast-food. I hear about the doings of America at home and in the wider world, daily on the News. In addition, I follow American elections as they unfold. In short, the United States of America is in not only on my mind quite a fair bit but in my field of vision nearly all the time. I won’t say I am an expert on America, I’m not, but I feel that I know enough about the country and it’s people to have an opinion.

The UK is probably the United States’ closest ally in the “war on terror” and though as George Bernard Shaw once remarked “we are divided by a common language” we can communicate with each other in slightly different versions of English. On visits to the States I have found Americans almost universally charming, welcoming and polite but often woefully unaware of the world around them. Many Americans for example expect London to be a city of swirling fogs, where characters like Sherlock Holmes prowl the streets.

Sherlock Holmes in a London fog

I remember visiting Boston some years ago and having the following conversation in a bar.

You aint from round here?

No, I’m not. I’m from the UK.

Where?

England.

So, you’re Irish then.

No, I’m from England. I’m English.

So, you’re Irish then…

OK. That is a bit unfair. There are plenty of ignorant British people and you can’t generalise from the particular, but it was emblematic of a view of the world that is shared by many Americans; “you ain’t from round here, are you?” The implication being that you are being judged from a limited world view and found wanting. You aren’t the same as me, so you can’t be as good as me.

I was talking to a Swedish exchange student to the States some years ago who told me the following story. She stayed for three months with a nice, middle class American family in the suburbs of a big city. She really enjoyed her time and got on well with her hosts. When it was time to return home, the father of the family drew her aside and said “well, now you have experienced the United States tell me truthfully, which country do you prefer; America or Sweden?” She replied “Sweden, definitely”. He was mortally offended and she was confused. He had asked for an honest opinion and she had given it. The implication of his question was of course that the best of all countries must be, by definition the United States. All her host wanted was confirmation of what he already knew.

There is a similar strain of thought in some parts of the UK that was reflected in the British TV Series The League of Gentlemen. A man goes into a shop in rural mid Wales. He wants to buy something but is told “this is a local shop for local people. We don’t want your kind around here”. The difference between the US and the UK in the current age is that the United States has for many years taken on the role of the world’s policeman and has tried to mould very different parts of the world after its own image, seeing itself as the example of a free and democratic nation. You can argue whether this is a good thing or not, but my perception is that many of the American politicians wanting to recreate the world in the image of the USA and many of the men and women asked to undertake the task have little knowledge of different cultures. If they do, they judge them often as inferior to that of America.

A Local Shop For Local People

Until 9/11 something like 80% of Americans did not own passports and a report published in march 2010 http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08891.pdf puts the figure of passport ownership at 28%. This compares with 70% of Britons according the UK Passport Service http://www.ips.gov.uk/cps/rde/xchg/ips_live/hs.xsl/index.htm . A cynic might say, that’s because we all want to get out of the country because the summer weather is so bad, but I think it is more to do with a desire to see and experience difference, even if only a different kind of beer…

The world you watch on TV, even on The History Channel is very different from the real world and the only way you can really know it is to get out there and experience it.

For the time being, the United States is the most powerful country in the world [just like Britain was in the 19th Century] and is affecting the entire world culturally, economically and politically. Don’t forget that the current economic crisis is very much the product of Wall Street and the effect of sub-prime mortgages going sour. As such, it has a responsibility to act with care, with responsibility and with respect towards other countries and other cultures.

Why America has engaged in so many world conflicts is an interesting question. It could be that such involvement has given a boost to the American economy. It could be because American politicians feel that they have a duty to bring American values to the less developed parts of the globe or  it could be that America feels threatened by cultural and ideological difference.

The Great American Melting Pot principle was that to be a good citizen, you had to lose the cultural baggage of your original country and embrace Americanism. In recent years, immigrants to the States have held on to more of that heritage and as Mr. Roach suggests, this poses a threat or possibly even a challenge to a traditional view of what it is to be an American citizen.

If I have understood Mr. Roach correctly, Paleoconservatives believe that the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union provided an opportunity for the United States to substantially reduce America’s foreign policy commitment unlike the Neoconservative administration of George W. Bush that sought “new dragons to slay”. After 9/11 this resulted in ongoing involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and closer links to Israel.  In my view, the effect of these actions has resulted in increased world tension and growing fears in the minds of many Americans about the world that lies outside of their portals.

So, I have sympathy for an American political movement that recommends a strategic withdrawal from the world’s trouble spots but feel that proponents should travel outside of their country with open eyes and speak with and learn from those whom they fear the most. We should remember that George W. Bush was a man who did not own a Passport until he became President…

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About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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6 Responses to Oh, to see ourselves as others see us!

  1. charlespaxton says:

    There are many interesting points raised here, and in your previous posts, Steve. Alongside our Commonwealth friends, the US is Britain’s closest ally and American culture and technology is in sight much of the time here in England, as it is in most other countries. I feel that what leaders say shouldn’t be confused with what their populations think – most Americans I have met could be characterised as good neighbours – being kind, hard working, sensitive, generous, polite and morally upright. So I agree with you there.

    As for UScentricity and ignorance of world geography, it’s worth noting the following points, perhaps?

    a) the US is huge – they have so much home geography to study that perhaps not enough emphasis is made at school on matters of international geography. But if it is generally felt in the US that things get pretty ‘loco’ south of their border, well, who’s doing anything much in central and south America to promote a better image to Americans back home in the US?

    b) and could they get their message heard if they tried? Americans are bombarded with competitive advertising – messages about other cultures would have a tough time getting through and have to compete in terms of perceived validity to the audience with matters of more pressing concern. It would be very expensive to promote wider geographical and cultural understanding – because you’d be competing for airtime with everything else. There are so many channels that the chances of anyone actually seeing your broadcast are slim. There aren’t enough pages in USA TODAY. Bad news travels further than good news, too.

    I feel it is very important that we recognize how complex and diverse the world really is and how the richness of the far greater and more complex reality can be reduced through media focus on issues that politicians or media organizations wish to elevate at any particular point in time. There are often tensions between what is said in order to retain cohesion, support or achieve goals at home and what is best to retain or engender good relations internationally.

    Like any other country, America needs to reiterate its cultural reinforcement at home to retain its national cohesion and integrity, but these messages must be considerate – as they travel and have influence beyond their immediate intentions, leaders need to be diplomatic – unless they deliberately wish to break existing rapport – or perceptions of rapport with other countries.

    I think it’s fair to say that the previous “neocon” administration came across internationally very poorly, as limelight centred on the negativity a lot of the really positive things were eclipsed by baser ones for almost a decade. It will take a while for the air to clear. I think the neocons harmed America’s reputation, but they were not at as representative of the population at large as many foreigners may be led to believe.

    Sorry, I rambled on a bit.

  2. Mr. Roach says:

    Americans are probably, naturally, isolationist and a bit ignorant of the rest of the world. Our schools do much to stifle intellectual curiosity, as too, paradoxically, does the concept of diversity. We’re told to celebrate diversity, but truly confronting diversity naturally includes appraisals of differences, some for the worse, i.e., the burqa or the African clitorectomy or the endemic poverty and corruption of Africa. And I think Americans who travel overseas for summers abroad and what not are so ignorant of basic history that they do not get as much from these trips as they might otherwise; they are instead swimming in the global “mass culture” of dance clubs, sports, and drinking.

    I do think America has the most in common with the UK, particularly the classically liberal UK of yesteryear. We’re in a way like a time machine, where the old values and the old language of the UK survived (much like Quebecois French is more akin to 18th Century French). The old UK even more than today was very self consciously distinct from the Continent.

    Anyway, I do like to remember that our founding, our language, and our people are historically groudned in and derived from Europe and that this is why our histories have often crossed paths.

    I even defended France from the calumnies of the neocons!

    http://mansizedtarget.wordpress.com/2004/12/07/france-bashing/

    Anyway, thanks for the link and I invite you to poke around my blog to learn what this branch of conservatism has to say. In truth, I believe my views are closer to the 30-40% self-identified conservatives in America than the bellicose ramblings of officialdom, i.e., the GOP establishment and its court intellectuals, the neoconservatives.

  3. stevehollier says:

    Thank you Charles for your thoughtful and insightful comments. You are quite right to point out that the opinions of a county’s leader are not to be confused with feelings its people. I first travelled to what was then Yugoslavia in 1976 where a met and socialised with many young Russians. It destroyed once and for all any negative image I might have had of people from Communist countries. The bottom line was that they were young, I was young and all we wanted to do was have fun together.

    Again you are right about the size of the US. Britain can just about fit inside California and the States is really half a continent however, Australia is a continent [or at least most of its land mass] but that doesn’t hinder Australians travelling abroad. They are great world travellers and about the same proportion of them hold passports as in the UK [about 70%].

    As far as the “locos” of South America are concerned, I hate to bring him up but Hugo Chaves is one [democratically elected] leader who does stand out. He has helped bring about universal, free health care for every Venezuelan citizen, encouraged the development of worker owned co-operatives and was instrumental in setting up the Union of South American Nations, modelled on the European Union. He is a figure feared and despised my many in the United States precisely because he supports a model of economic development which is unlike that practiced there. Don’t get me wrong, I have my reservations about him regarding politically motivated arrests and curtailments to freedom of expression but I think that on balance, he is a force for good in that country.

    The issue you raise about openness towards other cultural perspectives is an interesting one. I think the widely held belief that The American Way is morally superior to any other system and that the United States is without doubt the best country in the world goes to the heart of the matter. I think those beliefs would not be substantially affected by television and advertising campaigns. In the same way that anybody who enters tertiary education is changed by the experience, I think the only way American people will broaden their mental horizons is by broadening their physical ones. To work and to travel outside of ones comfort zone [and not as a member of the armed forces], to be completely immersed in a different culture throws your own cultural background into high relief. That’s why I lingered so long on the issue of passport ownership for without one of those, you won’t even be able to slip into Canada or Mexico for the weekend these days…

    Yes, politicians use the media for their own ends. Remember Tony Blair going on about “weapons of mass destruction” when he wanted Parliament to back involvement of the UK in the war on Iraq?

    I was wondering if I had been too hard on George W. Bush’s administration so I thought I would check to see what major pieces of legislation were passed between 2000 and 2008. During his period in office he pushed through a $1.8 trillion tax cut that befitted the already wealthy substantially more than those on low incomes. He supported the deregulation of the Banking industry that allowed companies like Goldman Sachs to rack up bad debts through the sale of sub-prime mortgages that finally tipped the world into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. He was a self-styled War President who lhas seen the prestige of the United States plummet in the eyes of the world to a level below that in the darkest days of the Vietnam war. So no, I don’t think I have been unfair.

    It is said that opposition parties never win elections, it is governments that lose them. On that basis, George W. Bush lost the 2008 Presidential election for the Republican party, even though he wasn’t a candidate.

    I think that at heart, the vast majority of people in the United States are conservative by British standards [both those who vote Republican and those who don’t], hardworking, honest and warmhearted. I have enjoyed all of the visits I have made to America and have loved travelling though the beautiful mountains and plains, the valleys and the forests. I am not anti-American and I want to see a strong America as a balance to China, Europe and the emerging economic giants of Latin America.

    All countries are different and each has to find its own path towards the future. Let us hope that the future for the United States is based on open mindedness, moderation and an acceptance of difference.

  4. No, you weren’t unfair to G.W. Bush, nor have you been to Tony Blair. Well said Steve and may that better future that you envision unfold soon! I hate to sound starry-eyed and please don’t laugh, Steve, Hugh and Mr. Roach, but I think that there’s ample scope for the widespread adoption of the clean-cut values and decency as evidenced in the first Star Trek series. That’s not a bad model of behaviour for the 21st Century and beyond – inclusive, admirable and way ahead of its time.

  5. stevehollier says:

    Yes are absolutely right, Charles. I have been a lifelong fan of Star Trek and watched all the subsequent movies. I’m all for world government, altruism and anti-racism.

    Here is what Wikipedia says about Gene Rodenberry’s intentions:-

    “Roddenberry intended the show to have a highly progressive political agenda reflective of the emerging counter-culture of the youth movement, though he was not fully forthcoming to the networks about this. He wanted Star Trek to show mankind what it might develop into, if only it would learn from the lessons of the past, most specifically by ending violence. An extreme example are the Vulcans, who had a very violent past but learned to control their emotions. His efforts were somewhat thwarted by the network’s concerns over marketability, e.g., they were opposed to Roddenberry’s insistence on a racially diverse crew of the Enterprise.”

    Live long and prosper!

  6. Wesley Mcgranor says:

    You all succumbed to the counterculture agenda; more severe then we did. The assimulation principle is based on nativism and those that didn’t fit the bill are degenerate–yet still americentric in their perspective. With the exceptions of course of those that bring a total old world culture and its character here with no intention on losing it. As a consequence of that requirement and loss of culture; comes the consumerism you address as the now the societal definition. With the neoconservative plan of the new world order–wich is an extention of the left’s globalization; comes intervening in the name of it. Understand that i am marginal–as all paleoconservatives are.

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