Letter From Paris

Finally, A Brit Who Gets It

By From the February 2009 issue

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The glory days of anti-Americanism may have been in the 1970s, when marchers filled the streets of every European capital to protest against “neo-colonial imperialism,” but that pernicious virus is still very much with us. And not necessarily where you might expect. In Britain, the cousins pore over works with titles like Why Do People Hate America? and American Dream, Global Nightmare. Opinion leaders like Margaret Drabble, the prominent British novelist who spews leftist venom on everything middle-class and American, confesses, “My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me, like a disease. It rises up in my throat like acid reflux, that fashionable American sickness.”

Britain is also the home of the BBC World Service radio broadcaster. Funded largely with public monies by the government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, it boasts a worldwide audience and proportionate influence. (I refer here to the Beeb’s foreign radio broadcasting, not its commercial BBC America program, specially edited for the American television audience.) In my days as a roving international correspondent, I have known BBC reporters in various climes and shared tips, sources, and drinks with them. Generally they are a well-informed and thoroughly professional lot. But they can do little about the way their editors back in London treat their reporting and choose the facts that fit their editorial line, which has long been consistently critical of America. No news item is too trivial to report if it makes the U.S. look ridiculous, no disgruntled soldier back from Iraq too isolated to find and interview at length. The result is often a spiteful bias that has prompted me several times to protest in writing a particularly vicious warping of news concerning the U.S. In Britain itself the BBC as a whole has been widely criticized for its notorious leftist bias, including by some of its own management and journalists.

A typical recent example: When American troops staged a lightning raid into Syria to take out an al Qaeda staging area used to smuggle foreign jihadists into Iraq, the BBC World Service announcer spat out with audible relish that it was “a fit of pique by the Bush White House.” Much airtime was given to Syrian officials to voice righteous indignation over this “outrageous crime… an unprovoked attack on a sovereign country.” No official U.S. source was quoted to give the American side of the story, but the resourceful BBC did find someone, identified as an academic in Oklahoma, who supported its line that the raid had no other motive than President Bush’s petulant desire to punish Syria before he left office. At no time during the long report were the words "al Qaeda" pronounced. Minutes after listening to that, I tuned to a French station that aired a report from its Washington correspondent giving the American version of events and pointing out that al Qaeda used Syria for staging. When the French are fairer toward America than the BBC, you know you’re in the presence of big-time bias.

THUS IT WAS WITH SOME trepidation that I opened a new British-published book about the U.S. provocatively entitled Have a Nice Day (Short Books, London) by the BBC’s Washington-based North America editor, Justin Webb. Uh-oh, I thought, more snide observations about the overweight, gun-toting, fanatically religious ignoramuses who populate the American hinterland.

But it turns out that Webb not only loves the place and its people, he is downright offended by the deep European prejudice against America, which he likens to racism. Having lived six years in the U.S., he himself is sometimes the target of such prejudice, as when his English friends ask solicitously how he will rid his children of the dreadful American accent they have picked up. He professes to be puzzled. “America is attractive in a way no other nation has ever matched,” he writes. “Why, then, do so many foreigners persist in disliking America, misunderstanding it, trashing it?”

Webb traces the origins of anti-Americanism to long before the U.S. even became a nation, and finds--surprise!--that the French invented it in the early 18th century. It was then that salon academics like the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon declared America a primitive place fit only for degenerate life forms. Then, too, that Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac, whom Louis XIV named governor of Louisiana in 1710, reported back that “The people are a heap of the dregs of Canada.” Webb neatly rebuts this: “Europeans, with their feudal system and the cultural baggage that surrounded it, with their tightly monitored villages and their strict hierarchies, had taken 20 times as long to civilize their continent. Some Europeans still don’t get it.” 

Webb undeniably gets it. In what resembles a love letter to America, he starts with a brief but revealing contrast of basic European and American attitudes. Europeans, he says regretfully, seem to drift drearily through life, full of doubt and empty of values. Americans, on the other hand, “have a zest for life…. America is what happens when humans take their chances, seize the moment, go for it.” Well now. This guy makes us feel like cheering.

A good reporter who gives us the facts as he finds them in lively journalistic prose, Webb scrutinizes the whole, crazy-quilt American scene. From geography, which he insists explains much about the national character, to religion, guns, race, and politics, he takes on all the big topics. And he has done his legwork from one end of the country to the other.

In Arkansas he visits a prison to observe the Interfaith program run by Christian evangelicals who work to give inmates meaning and purpose in their lives, concluding that American evangelism does not conform to the bigoted stereotype of the British press. In Vermont he meets a grieving mother whose son was killed in Iraq, and yet is proud that he died so that Iraqis could have the kind of life he had enjoyed. In Minneapolis he interviews Omar, a recent immigrant from Somalia, who suffers from the cold in his new country, whose Arabic is still better than his English, and who likes to watch Al Jazeera television--but who is profoundly thankful that his daughter was able to go to college in America. In Iowa, Webb attends a caucus in Polk County and comes away with the impression that the caucus system, so incomprehensible to foreigners, is in its grassroots, bottom-up approach “American in its sheer imperviousness to the logic of the European way.”

In the Washington suburb of Georgetown he meets an elegant young woman in pearls and a power suit who shows him the Mossberg Maverick 12-gauge shotgun she keeps under her bed--and skillfully demonstrates just how she would use it should an attacker come through her door. Webb cottons on to the chasm between American and European attitudes toward guns, the one seeing a legitimate means of self-defense, the other only a killing machine. As for those who see America as a place of random violence, he retorts, “Oh, come off it. This goes to the heart of the jaundiced European view of the United States, the great myth of American nastiness. Yes, there is violence.… But there is also a tranquility and civility that most British people can only dream of.”       

WHAT DOESN'T HE LIKE? Well, one pet peeve is our penchant for euphemism, or what he calls American “linguistic timidity,” the overdone political correctness that has us saying things like “Oh my gosh” instead of something perhaps more cathartic. He also finds it silly to substitute “the holidays” for a forthright and robust “Christmas” out of misplaced fear of possibly offending someone. Then too, he perceives a continuing squeamishness about sex, which he finds, despite changes in mores, still puritanically linked to smut and sin. And, black president or not, he worries that America may not have completely worked through the racism that has plagued it for so long.

But in general, Webb is convinced that few of the world’s huddled masses will be knocking on the doors of Russia, China, or even Europe anytime soon. America is still where they want to go, the dream still the United States. (And not only the masses. A recent poll in Reader’s Digest shows that fully 52 percent of today’s relatively prosperous French citizens would move to the U.S. if they could, along with 30 percent of the British and 20 percent of Germans.) A world without American power for good would be incalculably worse off, he concludes. Not only for millions of Taiwanese, Israelis, and Afghans, but also “for all of us Europeans who know that if push comes to shove, the Yanks will bail us out, as they did our parents and theirs before them.”

Here’s hoping Justin Webb’s compatriots in general, and his BBC editors in particular--whom he has on occasion criticized publicly for treating the U.S. with “scorn and derision”--get it. For that matter (American publishers take note), many in the U.S. itself could do with this tonic reminder of what’s right about their country. 

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.