Friday, September 02, 2005

Vol-in-Law: Us Brits Just Don't Get It

The British media often discusses "anti-Americanism" in Britain, but my impression is that this is a phenomenon largely confined to a relatively small minority (albeit a bit larger these days). The average, non-Muslim, non-Chattering Class Brit has a lot of goodwill towards America. But whether we see ourselves as Americaphiles or not (and I certainly do), one thing we are almost universally guilty of is a strange kind of rose-tinted spectacles view of the USA, an erroneous assumption that America and Americans are really just like us, only larger.

This error often leaves us baffled and confused when we come across instances where it just isn't the case. I remember my first trip to the USA, a bit lost at Toronto airport and trying to attract the attention of a US airline official in the standard British manner. You think we're all stiff-upper-lip? Hah. The standard way of successfully dealing with authority in the UK whenever there' s a difficulty is to appear a bit distressed, and thus receive the deserved sympathy and attention (Vol Abroad calls it "supplicating yourself") . Imagine my surprise - and that of the other Brits nearby, some of them doing the same thing - when the airline official 'blanked' us, just turned and walked away. I now know not to do that again.
If you want to get anywhere with American officialdom, you have to stay calm, be polite and assured, minimise any actual distress. When Vol Abroad, relatively newly arrived in the UK, repeatedly tried this with the UK Inland Revenue (tax office), it took her over 7 months to get her tax sorted out, in which time she was getting _no tax allowance_ - ie they were taking several hundred pounds extra from her pay every month. Since, whenever she contacted them, she was polite & showed no sign of distress, they assumed there wasn't really a problem, so they did nothing. Now she knows better, but she still doesn't like it.

This came to mind because as Brits, it's very hard for us to understand what was happening in New Orleans. Why were many people in the US apparently more worried about looting from grocery stores than about people dying in their thousands? Why hadn't the civic authorities evacuated the city? Why were lots of people running around with guns? To us it makes no sense.
Brits are raised, still, to be deferential to authority. The Welfare State increased this natural tendency. All our really ornery citizens - sorry, "subjects" - emigrated to the colonies. In case of disaster, natural or man-made, our instinct is to look to men & women in uniforms to help us, to swiftly & efficiently sort things out. What's equally important, the men & women in uniform expect this, too. Wearing an official uniform in the UK - say, police - confers a sort of easy authority and self-assurance on the wearer that in the US just isn't the case. Vol Abroad was amazed the first time she saw the British police in action at Heathrow Airport, persuading a mouthy vagrant drunk to come with them. Persuading verbally - Vol Abroad had expected a handcuffing at very least, more likely a mild truncheoning. She was equally surprised at my lack of surprise. The myth of Dixon of Dock Green, the fictional, perfect TV policeman is very strong here. No one wants our police routinely armed - not even the police, because that air of authority, that self belief, is better than any gun.
I come from Northern Ireland, where the police all carried SMGs & wore flak jackets, yet I still buy into this myth.

I hope it doesn't die.

1 comment:

Vol-in-Law said...

Heard on Sky News just now:

"This is no third world country. This is Mississppi".