The Word Rabbit

Information

This article was written on 01 Jun 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

America and Britain: the key difference

The difference between British people and American people is that we know the world is ruinously flawed and the Americans want to remake it, better than before, in their own image. This is a vast and appalling generalisation, of course. I follow hundreds of Americans on Twitter, all of whom have a clear insight into the intellectual characteristics of their country and British people, especially Scots, who are savagely idealistic, often for the new Scotland which has every chance of emerging from the ashes of Vote Leave’s victory in the referendum. But it does hold some truth.

British people, generally, know that life is a hard and unpleasant place that seeks to liberate you from your dreams and wearily pull the wings off the butterfly that you’ve spent years assembling. In fact, we don’t just know this, we accept it as an article of faith and embrace the people who reflect it back to us with a kind of unblinking clarity. If you want to go back into history, look at Thomas Hardy, who never created a character who was allowed to hope and dream without thwarting him and smashing his life into a thousand pieces. There are others.

Look at ‘The Office.’ In the UK, this was about the savage death of hope on an industrial estate in Slough where people led trapped and thwarted lives and where anyone with a brain knew with a certain terrible clarity that they were doomed to a life of misery. The stupid people, of course, were happy with their lot. In the American version of The Office, optimism and a belief in the redemptive power of human experience have crept in and the programme is different in hidden but very fundamental ways.

Staying with sitcoms, the Americans created ‘Friends,’ in which a selection of beautiful people lived essentially successful lives in a very large apartment in downtown Manhattan and had a really rather nice time of things. The British created ‘Peep Show,’ named after a place where you go for a quick wank while watching a girl with dead eyes and a bored expression pretending to enjoy herself in bed. The two characters are unlikable idiots and the series ends, with eerie echoes of Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ with them trapped in the same circumstances they were in before, thinking the same thoughts and, seemingly, having learned nothing.

There are examples of where people have tried to Americanise some British things by force and where it doesn’t really work. The Premier League, for instance, or football more generally, now has obscene amounts of money swilling around it brought in by foreign owners and has been transfigured into the most godawful pantomime. Trophies are presented with fireworks, there’s music when someone scores, possibly to disguise the fact that there isn’t much cheering, and even Man United, the club of Busby and the Babes, are now owned by Americans who clearly see the whole enterprise as an enormous cash cow. Irony has died a death and we’re left with spectacle.

Americans, of course, also know that life is obscene and perverse. To return to comedy, there are examples of American comedies that are savagely insightful, not least ‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,’ in which the main characters are all losers who have various hideous personality flaws and whose lives never, ever show signs of transcending their circumstances. Predictably, viewing figures are not high, but that’s because they seem to need to pretend that everything is fine. No, it’s better than fine. They’re on the cusp of a new golden age if they can only change X or Y about themselves or other people and then everything will be brilliant.

This is where the American Dream comes in. Of course, like all dreams, it’s a lie. The British can stand up and say that, because self-delusion doesn’t have such a high currency here, but just enough Americans believe that to keep them getting out of bed and working dead-end jobs and living dead-end lives because the American Dream says that tomorrow is just around the corner. Famous people are held up as exemplars of this and the mindset is going to sweep Donald Trump into the White House in November: well, that and an appeal to a kind of reverse American Dream in which you did have all these things but some foreigners and Muslims took them off you. I have no idea why this resonates, but it clearly does.

If you read some of the works of Barbara Ehrenreich, in which she looks at the back-breaking work  many Americans do just to keep themselves above the poverty line, you realise that the sole purpose of the American Dream is to give people a sustaining lie that they can tell themselves in the morning, one which says that by the evening, their lives will be better. Of course, it isn’t. It’s still just as terrible, but then you tell yourself the lie tomorrow and the whole process goes around on an endless loop – until you have the last illness that you don’t get up from.

The difference, apart from the fact that we still have a few, feeble remnants of a Welfare State and a National Health Service which has a couple of years at most to live, is that we know this and will say it openly. Life is a terrible, sad pantomime with moments of shattering, transcendent joy whose real purpose might be to make the rest of it look more bloody awful than it was before. You can’t live without hope, not entirely, and these moments sustain you. Americans know this deep down in their souls, which is why some of them try and live their lives by the kind of positive thinking quote that could easily fit on a sticker. It’s still the same life, but they pretend it isn’t.

I’m asked when, if I’m a Christian and I do volunteer work out on the streets, I can possibly be so much of a nihilist. There’s no contradiction at all. We are, all of us, absolutely buggered. The exception to this is the people on the top of the social food chain who are doing perfectly well but who really don’t matter – and, of course, are going to die just like the rest of us. What I’m doing as a Street Pastor is trying to help people who are momentarily more buggered than I am but who are still drowning slowly in the same ooze we all are. I’m just trying to help them drown slower. There is no final redemption in the way that we might hope – just staging posts on the way to the meeting with the Ultimate.

If this sounds depressive, it isn’t. This is really all we have, this life. It’s up to us to make of it what we can in the moments when we aren’t paddling desperately to stay afloat. This realisation, which I suppose you could characterise as realising that the American version of life is wrong, is liberating because it sets you free from dissatisfaction. My world, as it exists now is very, very small. I used to tell myself that it had to be bigger and grander, like other people, which, of course, it doesn’t. I told myself that I had to be involved in campaigns and activism to matter, like other people, which, of course, I don’t. I’m not, I realise for perhaps the first time in my life, dissatisfied. Life doesn’t care whether you’re happy, so you may as well be because it’s a nicer way to pass the time. Life is what it is, in the words of the Desiderata, for all its ‘sham, drudgery and broken dreams.’ Just don’t, please, expect me to pretend that it’s fantastic, because that really is an imaginative leap too far.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.