The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by the late Douglas Adams enjoyed worldwide popularity, but like much of British pop culture parts of it were lost on those of us outside the Isles. In particular, one character, who appears human and (when the novel begins) lives on Earth but is in fact an alien, goes by the name “Ford Prefect,” selected because his early research suggested it was a common name that would be “nicely inconspicuous.” Since the Ford Prefect was released in the UK but never in the U.S., the joke — that the alien has mistaken automobiles for a dominant Earth species — goes over many American readers’ heads.
I thought of the Adams books in the wake of the London terror attacks yesterday, in particular the slogan on the front of the eponymous guidebook carried around by interstellar adventurers facing ever-more-ridiculous problems: “Don’t Panic.” It’s a version of that classically British trait, stoicism — “stiff upper lip” and all that. As Andrew Sullivan explained yesterday, “Brits regard the best response to outrage to carry on as if nothing has happened. Yes, they will fight back. But first, they will just carry on as normal.”
As Bob Tyrrell reports, by the afternoon all of London was doing just that. A Londoner emailed Kathryn Jean Lopez, “I’m writing this sitting in my office in London working as normal… The overwhelming feeling round our office is ‘Is this best they can do?’” Another emailed Sullivan, regarding the disruption in public transportation, “Work’s over but there’s little chance of getting home right now. Most of us are just going to go to the pub until the traffic has died down. It’s not callousness or indifference to carry on as normal, it’s quiet defiance.” One British blogger noted how packed the local waterholes were at two in the afternoon: “Nice one, Al Quaeda — you profess to be from a teetotal religion, and you’ve given the pub trade a massive mid-week boost.”
Notice how the Brits maintain their sense of humor (or humour, if you prefer). It calls to mind how The Weakest Link, the British game show, caused an uproar in Asia. The domineering host disparaging contestants intelligence and dismissing them with a stern “you are the weakest link — goodbye,” was, to Britons (and to many Americans), absolutely hilarious. But when the same shtick was tried in Hong Kong and Thailand, audiences were appalled. Asians come from a “face culture,” where values are driven by pride and shame and such treatment was genuinely humiliating to contestants; a Thai schoolteacher wept after losing and begged her students not to think her stupid.
Islamist terrorists also come from a face culture. They no doubt expected this attack to be humiliating and demoralizing; one Islamist website made the absurd claim that Britain was “burning with fear and terror” in the wake of the attack.
The fascist monsters are wildly mistaken. One might say that they just don’t know what a Ford Prefect is.