Who’s Afraid Of Americans?

Beth and I were walking along Brooklyn’s Hicks Street on Monday. As we were poached by the early July heat, and boxed out by a solipsist and her two massive dogs, I was moved to remark: “I am regretting our move less by the hour.”

I’ve been much exercised by thoughts of national identity this week. It’s been increasingly needful that I remind myself of the mantra I deliver to self-satisfied Brits:

You’re talking about a country with the size and population of Europe. Everything’s here. The good and the bad.

Stroke Bloke contemplates having won the lottery of life

Sceptics can crack open a copy of Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America for illustration, and an indication that non-conformist thought and intellectualism have a long and healthy history in the States, Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck be damned. Please.

The tendency of United Kingdom citizens to generalize about the Yanks is evident in a story that crops up annually on Radio 4 (still, I assume). The latest batch of American students have rolled into Oxford and/or Cambridge and been required to attend classes in how to queue. I was reminded of this story as we waited in the long, snaking immigration line at Edinburgh Airport. To rub it in, Beth noticed that it sounded like the line was solely populated by our American cousins. Perhaps because nothing could be heard over Southern men yelling at each other about college football, as conversation.

I say, old bean, how long do you think we’ll be queuing?

Researching this post, I found it was hard to find the details of the Oxbridge queuers story. That’s because it’s a myth, even if that didn’t stop me hearing it every year as the academic year began. Perhaps because there’s a ring of truth to it. I did, however find this beautifully observed piece: How the Brits queue and how the Americans stand in line. The description of how Brits queue is spot on:

To an outsider this is group of people have no system: they’re just standing about, waiting.

What the outsider won’t have realised is that every time a Brit joins the waiting game they will have clocked their position: a mental note of their space and their arrival time is taken, and then the waiting begins….

When the bus arrives… [we] move in a quiet and orderly fashion – eyes down. Every last person at the bus stop will get on in the right order, in the order that they arrived at the bus stop. Because that’s fair.

Many times, I’ve joined a communal line or queue at, say, CVS, only to be part of a group that is told to form a separate line at each checkout. OK, not that many times, because this story assumes that there is more than one checkout open at CVS. Ha! No doubt we’re being ordered around because some wanker has done research indicating that this is the most economically efficient way to queue, in some wanker time and motion study. From my days studying law and economic theory in Philadelphia, though, I can remember how surprised many of my fellow students were that economic satisfaction and value could be ascribed to concepts like fairness and altruism. Like, presumably, said wanker.

Maybe, and I’m speculating here, this is because it’s easier to use broadly painted economic theories to hammer the idea of common goods in a society that prides itself in and mythologises its hardy individualism. Of course, as a child of Thatcher’s Britain, I’m familiar with this tactic. Even it never really took in Scotland. Why is it, then, that — speaking of broad brushes — the Scots queue more fairly, and walk less self-absorbedly? I’m guessing that it’s partly a question of climate, and partly a question of geography. In the cold and the wind and the rain, if the group left the less fortunate to their own devices, it would be reduced to a wee clan-lette in pretty short order. And questions of fairness and altruism are more vital when you’re part of the society that’s potentially subject to oppression, rather than the wielder of the iron fist.

A wee clanlette

Strangely allied to this mythology of individualism is a sense that, if you can’t follow the majority, then screw you, buddy. I fear a large number of Americans (not you, obviously) would be surprised to learn how much of the American system of government and the Constitution is grounded in attempts to avoid the tyranny of the majority. An important concept when you’re escaping the rule of the largest empire (by area) the world has ever seen; less important when you’re a superpower. In the latter case, it seems that a certain homogeneity is imposed in order to maintain the national identity. Perhaps this is why, to my great surprise, it is easier to be a vegetarian in the land of deep-fried haggis than in the land of the free.

Fry the bastards!

A final transatlantic difference for now…. Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head — correctly described last night by Danny Baker (@prodnose) as “the greatest Beatles book ever written” — kicks off by discussing how the traditions of British and American popular music differ. He writes that the fringe theatre and art school tradition of English (and Scottish) pop exemplified by The Beatles, The Who and The Kinks (and The Sensational Alex Harvey Band), and carried on by the likes of XTC and Blur (and Franz Ferdinand and Davy Henderson, in his various incarnations), allows for a certain indulgence of “fantasy and creative artifice,” and a “concomitant boredom with ‘authenticity’ and ‘honesty’ in art.” In American popular music, these last two values have historically been valued above all others. Go here for a more in depth and nuanced discussion than we can indulge here.

He’s Afraid Of Americans

“Stroke Bloke,” I hear you cry, “we’re 926 words in. What has this got to do with strokes?” Why on earth are you counting the words? Also, plenty.

I think that one of the many factors allowing for the relative success of my recovery has been my luck to be a kilt-wearing, cricket-loving New Yorker. A dash of Scottish bloody-mindedness, a soupcon of the British stiff upper lip and appreciation of absurdity, and a big dollop of American optimism and New York scrappiness turns out to be the perfect recipe for recovery. What a happy coincidence!

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6 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid Of Americans?

  1. Only a wanker from the UK would presume to claim that he can “walk less self-absorbedly” than anyone else. You know what you can do with your broad brush.

    YOU CAN TAKE IT BACK TO SCOTLAND WITH YOU AND paint a lovely vista, I bet there are a lot of them along the coast.

    1. Hey! Walked past the Edinburgh All Saints today, and thought of you. I’ve had most of my hair shaved off, too. ‘Cos, what’s the point now? Hope all’s well. Looking forward to seeing you on this end.

  2. I don’t want to hear any complaints about how people walk and queue from either long-urbanized, industrialized landmass. I want to punch people on a daily basis.

    1. Ah, you’ve stirred unpleasant memories. I think Beth us going to send me back to Thailand to punch people who won’t walk on escalators.

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