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We Pledge Allegiance...

Saturday, 19th May, 2001

Feedback! The joys of feedback!

The only thing in this life more joyous than being on the receiving end of the strange phenomenon known as feedback is for it to be positive.

Unfortunately this instance wasn't. Nay, cry not.

A kind lady merely pointed out that there are indeed occasional Americans who know that the world is round and its curvature doesn't extend exclusively from Baja to Boston. She is, of course, totally accurate, and the process of being totally accurate inadvertently sent my mind wandering once more. I may be English but my mind is Tuareg, eternally roaming where it will. I ought to put it on a leash once in a while.

My comment about American insularism was made in jest, though it has a solid basis in dangerous fact that I'll leave the political analysts to bicker about. To me, this becomes just another fascinating aspect to the study of differences between those who speak the Queen's English and those who speak the strange dialect known as American. Difference is what makes the world go round, regardless of what the Beatles tell you, and I am determined to get to the bottom of at least some of the reasons why.

It all stems from something that in England has become a bit of an avoided topic. You see, other than at Designated National Events, such as the Last Night of the Proms or any England international football match, the unwritten rule decrees that you do not fly the flag of St George or even announce in public that you are proud to be English. It's simply not done. Even St George's Day is noticeably unnoticed. On St Pat's, the Irish brew green Guinness; on St George's I check to see which churches flew the English flag this year.

Contrast this with the United States where national pride is a tangible thing and every man and his dog seems to have the stars and stripes flying proudly. Canadians are even more fiercely proud of their nationality, though surprisingly it has only recently become an option on their census. The flag makers must make a fortune in North America, not least in the south western chunk of Nova Scotia, known in colonial times as Acadia where almost everyone flies three flags: the Canadian maple leaf, the state flag and the tricolor d'Acadie.

So how has this state of affairs come to pass?

At its heart it's merely a natural extension of circumstance. The United States and Canada are both new countries; they simply haven't been there for much more than a blinking of the eye in the great scheme of things. England has a long, proud and, of course, bloody history. Everyone needs an identity and the colonies were founded by people who wanted out of the identity they had. Naturally they invented their own and nobody since has forgotten it. Back home in Mother England and we found a few other little nations tacked onto our own, expanding the national identity, officially at least, to British.

It's also a matter of education. Most of this country see themselves as British because they've never felt the need to be anything else. Americans recite the Pledge of Allegiance every schoolday of their formative years. The media follow suit, and the media is the most listened to teacher of them all. Saddam Hussein waltzed into Kuwait and America felt the spittle hurtle deliberately into the face of Uncle Sam, requiring an aircraft carrier to make amends. England just noticed another Middle Eastern upstart improving his column inches and promptly searched out a mistress or three to interview.

Let this run over a bunch of generations and you get a major difference in national pride. In essence you guys have it and we don't.

I don't think I'm in need of psychiatric help just because I feel the need to have a national identity. I may want to get out of this damn country in a New York second but I'm still proud to be English. I'm not American and will never be an American patriot by definition, but I do feel drawn to the unashamed pride that most Americans share in their country, even when they think the President is a Neanderthal.

So mostly I think you have the better deal. There is, however, a flipside.

You can take national pride too far in a bunch of directions. Follow the English route and it disappears; follow the German route and you reach fascism; follow the American route and you reach insularism.

Every election has senators standing up calling for less American money to be spent righting the world's wrongs and more American money for Americans. They want America to close its borders to immigrants, hypocritally not noticing that it's actually the point of the country in the first place. They want to put Americans not just first, but second, third and last also.

What they fail to realise is that America is possibly the most insular country on the planet anyway. I can't remember the figures but US news reports that cover global affairs, whether they be in newspapers or on television, have consistently decreased in number and in length for many, many years to the point where they are relatively non-existent. Also, in teaching American literature, history and heritage, the country has cut out much of the rest of the world.

I may joke that Americans don't believe that there is anything beyond its borders, but it is a sad fact that many seriously believe Canada to be a state. Joe Bob Hick not only hasn't been out of the country, but won't ever set foot north of the Mason-Dixon line on principle. He probably hasn't travelled more than a hundred miles from his home town and he probably never will. At least the English spend a couple of weeks a year breaking bar windows in some Spanish seaside town or other. Cultural ambassadors we.

To be fair, our view on the matter is often flawed. We notice the amount of American-based material in American schools and are put out at the slight given to the old country. After all, the world had many a civil war before America ever saw one and it read books too. Yet we take the view too far, and in some ways restore the balance by ignoring American material just as Americans ignore ours.

I've been getting educated lately as far as American literature goes, which has changed my view substantially. I've read many American books, of course; but if you gave me any random novel, more often than not I'd be able to tell you whether it was written by an American or an Englishman just from the range of vocabulary and the quality of the grammar. I have not, however, read many American classics, partly because I haven't read enough classics from anywhere, but also partly because 'American classic' is seen as an oxymoron, along with 'military intelligence' and 'civil war'.

They're simply not worthy of being called classics. Right?

You want poetry? We read Poe and Eliot, but who are these other guys? You dare put Longfellow, Whitman and Frost up there with Tennyson, Blake and Byron? Novels? How can you put Hemingway and Steinbeck on the same shelf as Dickens and the Brontes? And then there's some chap by the name of Shakespeare...

Well, now I've actually got to read some American classics, I'm happy to change my mind as to their quality. After all, I may believe that Longfellow is a synonym for tedious doggerel, but then I find Dickens boring too. I've been surprising myself at how much I've enjoyed the short stories of Jack London, the poetry of ee cummings and the humour of James Thurber.

So maybe the pinnacle of American cultural quality isn't Mickey Mouse after all. I'll make you a deal: I'll read more American classics and you read something English that hasn't been massacred by Hollywood. Deal?


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