If a time comes when the United States no longer is the, or merely a, world superpower (we should all strive for that not to happen or at least anytime soon), let’s resolve not to become like the English. When The Weekender column launched in January, I committed to send back columns from the many places, foreign and domestic, I travel to, but relate them to the communities the column primarily concerns, Chatham and Manhattan.
I sent one back from Chatham, Australia in February, a second from France on the Fourth of July and this one comes from my recent trip to London and the English countryside south to the White Cliffs of Dover. This time, The Weekender will eschew the gimmick of finding a place called “Chatham” over there and reporting or concocting some feel good commonality between the two places as a preface to delivery of my real message. In the Aussie column the real message was let’s emulate our friends from “down under” and stop killing each other with the guns we can so easily purchase and pack.
It was easy enough to find Chatham, England, a “town” with some 70,000 inhabitants, located in Kent County, 33 miles southeast of London. But unless it is very different from virtually all of the scores of places I’ve been to in England, it suffers from the same malady endemic in England, roughly a century after the United States replaced it as the world’s leading superpower. Since then, England has descended further from that second place position and that slide constantly is the subject of soul searching commentary across The Pond. Eighty-one years ago, the brilliant English satire “1066 and All That” said that when the U.S. supplanted England at the close of The Great War “history came to a ___” — yes, blank.
As I return from the most recent of more than 30 trips to an England that is old but anything but jolly, my impression is the same. The people generally are tired, bitter, cynical and most of all sarcastic about everything and everyone, not the least about themselves, but most of all about us — the American usurpers of their status when “Britannia ruled the waves.”
These national characteristics are clearly not universal anymore than those frequently ascribed to Americans by foreigners. One reason I travel to England so frequently is to see my own wonderful English friends and colleagues, who are extraordinarily generous of spirit and optimistic about their future. They are not typical.
From the first moment in the summer of 1971 when I was virtually spat upon for making a polite request using American English and thus misusing the word “quite,” which in England means quite another thing, to my last extortionate London cab ride in late June of this year, which I knew was wickedly circuitous and designed to render a Yank a 60-pound ($100) fare, my experience of England has consistently been disheartening. It no longer is disillusioning, as any illusions about the “special relationship” Americans and English are supposed to have has long since been shattered.
In two very recent trips to England, the mantra-like banter from people I have casually encountered has been about the Royal Wedding and the ongoing revelations about the News of the World tabloid’s hacking of the voice mailboxes of crime, war and terror victims and their bereaved families.
Without asking, I was constantly told that the wedding was a bloody waste of time and of money, provided by taxpayers to the Queen. It was said that the English public was paying little attention to it and that Americans were far more interested in the event than Her Majesty’s subjects. Proof of these assertions was in short supply during the four-day wedding weekend, including two “bank holidays” designed so that the English could ignore the marriage of a beautiful young woman to a bald young man.
The ceaseless talk about the News of the World scandal and its owner, my former client, Rupert Murdoch, was also cynical and bitter, but in this case justifiably so. It struck me as ironic because although the hacking was deplorable, it was a predictable tactic to provide fodder for the seemingly unquenchable English thirst for information casting themselves in a lurid or painful light. The now defunct News of the World was the English cousin of Rupert’s New York Post, but it made the Post seem staid and sedate. Moreover, News of the Worldwas merely one of many English newspapers dominated by articles filled with nasty gossip and schadenfreude.
None of this English malaise is either predictable or justified merely because England has become a second tier power in the world. It is a beautiful country, naturally and through tasteful adornment. The educational system is still world class, with a high quality university education easily within reach of the least affluent students. The English, unlike we, have universal health care and though we often say that it is of lower quality and rationed, English health care outcomes are better than ours. The English standard of living is among the highest in the world and their arts, culture and sports are near or at the pinnacle of world standards, notwithstanding the failure of an English male to win Wimbledon since 1936. That hiatus is also the subject of much cynicism, sarcasm and bitterness. Each of the last three years as Andy Murray mowed down opponents on his way to the Wimbledon semi-finals, he was a “proud Brit,” but when he was beaten by Andy Roddick or Rafael Nadal, Murray became a “gutless and hapless Scot.”
It would be far far better for England, and for us if that is our fate (and I ain’t saying it is), to take an entirely different approach toward reduced power in the world. Better is the attitude adopted by the French. France’s decline in world stature occurred earlier and, if anything, has left it lower in the pecking order than Great Britain. But the French, like the English, are affluent, well educated and medicated and are surrounded by amazing natural and manmade beauty. They are happy, satisfied and rarely bitter or cynical. Maybe it’s the delicious food. But more likely it’s because they appreciate themselves and their good fortune. The French don’t define their happiness by the power they wield worldwide.
So if we can continue to rule the world for another century and beyond, good for the world. We do it badly but much better than anyone else ever has. But if we recede, as England and all previous dominant countries have, let’s appreciate our wonderful lives in our gorgeous and bountifully endowed country. Let’s never get bitter, cynical and sarcastic because it’s some other nation’s turn to spend all their treasure and spill so much of their blood.