There is a long list of foreigners who have travelled across America and attempted to explain the United States to their European readers. The greatest of them all, Alexis de Tocqueville, observed the sensitivities of the inhabitants. ‘The Americans in their intercourse with strangers’, he wrote, ‘appear impatient of the smallest censure and insatiable of praise.’
Jonathan Freedland’s censures are small. His subtitle reveals his theme – how Britain can take back the American Dream: how the British, who helped invent America, can resurrect themselves by bringing back home the best of America, its inventiveness, its lack of class resentment, its openness to change and new ideas, and a political system which, according to Freedland, values the people’s voice in democracy.
In the course of four years in the United States working for the Washington Post, the Guardian and the BBC, Freedland has swallowed the American Dream whole, with a double helping of cream. He writes eloquently of how America had become a dirty word for many in Britain during the Reagan years, with ‘a witless actor’ as President, a nation (we were told) that was ‘crass, poorly educated, obsessed with money, riven by race, plagued by extremism, and filled with people who either eat too much or exercise to the point of fanaticism. They lack irony, kill each other for a nickel, invade small countries, and require a credit card before they will treat the sick.’
As Freedland acknowledges, there is some truth in all of this, as with most stereotypes, but the condescending British view of upstart America misses the true spirit and inventiveness of the most successful nation in history. As a Harvard-educated friend once lectured me, ‘Everything you can say about America is true. And so is the opposite.’ In other words, for every observation about crass, poorly educated, violent Americans, you have to counter with another observation about the intellectual vitality of the sharpest minds in every field of human endeavour, who put men on the moon, have created America’s own classical music in jazz, and dominate our increasingly hared culture through movies, television, computer software and scientific discovery.
Freedland pursues his theme with vigour: that Britain has lost its way in mediocrity, while the United States is so superior that we should get out and grab what is good in America to transform British society. While the US national anthem and flag are a unifying source of pride, he argues, many Britons remain uneasy that the Union Jack has become the property of skinheads and the far Right. ‘God Save the Queen’, as he puts it, ‘is not about us, but her. “Send her victorious, happy and glorious … “‘ We lack, in his analysis, the patriotism of common purpose, wallowing in a nostalgic past, echoing Churchill during the Battle of Britain in believing that ‘this was [our] finest hour.’ Our best years are behind us, while those of the United States are still ahead.
In constructing his account, Freedland has walked the right treecs, talked to the right people, seen the exercise of American power, from small towns and grass-roots movements up to the White House. He has the intellectual spine to advance his arguments with humour and purpose, including a list of ten steps that would transform British society into a more perfect union. He wants a written constitution, a classless society, more power given to local groups, a ‘Culture of Rights’, and an end to the dictatorship of the executive through the government’s control of Parliament.
But despite Freedland’s energy and enthusiasm, l can’t help thinking that Britain simply is not nearly as useless as he claims, and the American political and social model not nearly so attractive. At one point he appears to argue that even the O J Simpson trial – one of the most divisive moments in recent US history – has its plus points, which he describes as part of ‘a national conversation about race’. This is like saying the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was part of an international conversation about nuclear energy. Nor is American society as virtuously class-free as Freedland argues. It just shows class distinctions in a different way, from George Bush’s astonishment that there are bar code scanners in supermarkets, to the dismissal of one of Bill Clinton’s alleged sex partners as ‘trailer park trash’. Or as one of my American neighbour told me, ‘low class is to be fat, racist or a smoker’.
In any event, Freedland opens up a vital debate about Britain’s future at a time of transition. Americans have grabbed the best from other cultures, everything from pizza to pot noodles, and made them definitively their own. Can Britain work the same miracle by grabbing the best bits of the American Dream?
Joe Queenan’s America is a different country altogether. Queenan, a writer living in New York State, spent the first forty-five years of his life pursuing high culture, from the opera to the fanciest foreign films. His midlife crisis is to dive into the ‘culture of the masses’, the sultans of schlock, from Liberace to Michael Bolton, Tom Clancy novels to TV talk shows and Joe Pesci movies. The result is a laugh-out-loud guide to why the British need not go to great lengths to grab bits of American culture. It is already here, playing at a cinema near you.