Following the terrorism of September 11, Americans became aware of the deep hatred for the U.S. that could be found in Afghanistan, and in some of the neighboring countries like Pakistan, which has backed the United States in the war even though huge crowds of Pakistanis regularly turn out in the streets to denounce the U.S. Among the more than 50 countries that have vowed their support for the fight against terrorism, Great Britain has been the America's closest ally. Within days of the terrorist attacks, British prime minister Tony Blair pledged that the United Kingdom would stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the U.S. But despite allied military success in Afghanistan, British opponents to the war have been increasingly outspoken against the alliance with the United States, and against the U.S. itself. In a project with BBC World Current Affairs, American RadioWorks correspondent Stephen Smith set out with microphone in hand to see if people in Great Britain are as unfailingly warm and supportive of Americans as their leader Tony Blair. Then he came back to the U.S. to share what he found with some Americans.
Talking with Members of Parliament
Outside the Houses of Parliament in London, peace protesters keeping vigil with their banners and placards are far outnumbered by the tourists queuing up at the visitor's entrance. Inside the noble gothic building, Members of Parliament who oppose the way the allies are waging war on terror are also in the minority. Still, they take to the floor of Parliament and to media microphones to make themselves heard.
One of those speaking out against the war is George Galloway, a Labor Party MP from Glasgow, Scotland. "It's no act of friendship to follow a friend down a descending staircase to hell. The act of friendship is to try and stop the friend from descending the staircase, " he says.
Galloway is a genial, quotable politician, who holds the un-lit stump of a Cuban cigar as we talk. The hell he envisions is an endless campaign against Middle East terrorism, which he predicts would mean an endless war against Islamic nations. Washington is far too eager to solve problems with bombs, Galloway says.
"America is a giant, " says Galloway. "But its political class often seems to have the mind of a child. And a giant with the mind of a child is very dangerous not only to those amongst whom he roams but to himself."
Harsh, but not unexpected, as George Galloway's been pounding on U.S. foreign policy for years. He's especially critical of U.S. support for Israel, and for sanctions on Iraq. Galloway belongs to a small, but growing cadre of Britons speaking out against what they see as American arrogance and narcissism.
Later, I sat on a park bench next to Westminster with Meghnad Desai, a Labor Party Member of the House of Lords and a professor at the London School of Economics. Desai is of east-Indian descent, and he scolds the U.S. for routinely ignoring the needs and lives of the developing world.
"Americans should stop thinking they're the perpetual good guys. There are no good guys; there are no bad guys," says Desai.
He continues, "When Americans die, or people in America die, we all have to stand up and take terrorism very seriously, when lots of other people have died, in terrorism or by wars against terrorism, and it's all right."
Below us on the River Thames, a police boat churns back and forth, guarding against a terrorist strike on Parliament. This was not the first time, Desai said, that London stood on high security alert because of the United States.
"You gave money to the IRA, in Boston, in New York. And they came and bombed on British mainland and in Northern Ireland. How can the Americans say they're against terrorism? Why was Irish terrorism loved by Boston and Muslim terrorism hated?" asked Desai. "Now come on, give us a break. The world is a very nasty place."
Well, there's no doubt that Irish-Americans have sent a lot of money to the IRA, but some Muslim-Americans sent money to al Qaeda. That doesn't mean America supports Osama bin Laden, no more than it does the IRA.
I talked to a lot of people around London. And several reassured me that Americans sometimes can be the good guys. But there was this general sense that beginning with George W. Bush, Americans are almost comically naive about how the world sees us.
For example, in one of his speeches, President Bush said, "I'm amazed that there is such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us. I am, I am, I am, like most Americans, I just can't believe it. Because I know how good we are. And we've got to do a better job of making our case."
On the set of Dead Ringers
Actor's Voice: "Mr. President I thought you'd want to know that in the British election, Tony Blair is way ahead in the polls."
Actor playing President George W. Bush: "That's a terrible shame, I'll make sure to send him my commiseratitudes."
First actor: "No, no, Mr. President. That's good news. You see in the British electoral system, the person that gets the most votes is declared the winner."
I dropped by the offices of this hugely popular BBC radio satire program, which specializes in sending up public figures. The Brits call this "taking the mickey" out of someone. It's hard to imagine many mainstream American comedians doing a parody send-up of Tony Blair; much of their audience wouldn't get the joke. But BBC writer Nev Fountain found that taking the mickey out of George W. Bush delighted their listeners. The president is an easy target.
"Well I suppose it is like beating up a kid," says Fountain, "but he is the most important man in the world. And a legitimate point has to be made when a man who has to be leader of this new world order should know something about the world he's leading."
But, in the new season of Dead Ringers impersonator Jon Culshaw says he'll probably steer clear of George W. Bush.
"Certainly at the moment, in the light of events after September 11, I think America has to be supported, it feels kind of strange doing impersonations of President Bush at the moment," explains Culshaw. "Before September 11, you could make him that [impersonating Bush's voice] 'Great big fan of Sesame Street and that whole thing, and inebramatoximicated and whatever' and at the moment I don't feel you can do that at all. You just have to be supportive and let him get his grip."
Talking with Writer Harold Pinter
If Bush is less amusing at the moment, he's no less worrisome for those in the U.K. who dread the expansion of American influence. The notion that Great Britain will become a replica of the U.S. came up repeatedly in my interviews, as if U.S. culture were creeping across the globe like a noxious weed. One of the most angry and eloquent critics of the United States is the actor and playwright Harold Pinter.
"I think there's an tremendous amount of anxiety in the country about our posture of standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States," says Pinter. "Whatever the United States chooses to do, for us to do that every time the U.S. takes action is humiliating for what's supposed to be an independent country."
At 71, Pinter is a voluble left-wing political activist. His internationally renowned plays often deal with alienated characters and menacing forces. Pinter says that given what he calls the U.S. record of exploiting other countries, a backlash such as the September 11 attacks was historically inevitable.
"I'm not happy to say it," says Pinter, "and I certainly don't approve it, I'm not attempting to excuse it. I'm just saying it is explicable if you look back at the domination of the world by the United States. Far and away the most powerful country in the world and proud of being so and not ashamed of being so. And finally saying, 'Listen, we're the boss and that's that.'"
Somewhere in our chat, Pinter put down his glass of white wine and rummaged in a file drawer to find a speech he gave in Italy on September 10, 2001. He had declared the U.S., as "the most dangerous power the world has ever known, the authentic rogue state." Pinter also described a profound revulsion and disgust towards American power he saw growing throughout the world. Less than 24 hours later, the first jet smashed into the World Trade Center.
At the Yale Club
In the weeks following the terrorist attacks, Americans seemed genuinely surprised at the level of anger towards the U.S. in some parts of the world. I wondered how Americans would react to such animosity from our closest allies, so I took the excerpts from the London interviews to the heart of September 11 New York City.
At the Yale Club in midtown Manhattan, I met with three businesswomen, all what you might call hyphenated Americans. Linda Dunbar and Hope Stevens are African-American; Maria Reveley is second generation Italian-American. They all work in the New York corporate world, with the recent exception of Hope Stevens.
"By profession I'm a manager of corporate training and development, says Stevens, "but, I recently lost my job in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The firm I was working for, most of our clients were located in the World Trade Center, and like many small businesses in Manhattan, we had to close our doors."
I play a CD of some comments from a group of educated, middle-class women from London made after September 11.
"They probably think within their continent the world is contained. That as far as I'm aware, their newspapers' foreign coverage is minimal. If you watch what passes as news on American television, there isn't any international news. They're clueless. The world is run for America, by America. They're just a clueless bunch of tossers."
Judy, Civil Servants Equestrian Club, London
"I think there's also insularity within the insularity of the U.S. because there's New York City, and we know there's no one more provincial than a New Yorker," responds Stevens.
Dunbar agrees, "It's like ten blocks is a whole different neighborhood. You don't go ten blocks away."
"So what she's saying about 'never travel, don't have a passport, don't read,' that's how we feel about the rest of the U.S.," she laughs, "Brooklyn! New Jersey!"
"To be fair though, if you live in Europe and travel for five hours, you're in a different country. If you live in America and travel for five hours, you may have left your state or not," notes Dunbar.
"You might be in Jersey," says Reveley.
"Yes, you might be in New Jersey," laughs Dunbar. "So I think that is something that does make a difference. You drive five hours and you're not out of New York State. It's a huge country."
"I don't think we aspire to be like America. Despite the proliferation of McDonalds and Starbucks, one hopes Britain doesn't end up to be more like America. We can see Tony Blair is doing his best, bless his cotton socks. He thinks he's President Blair already."
Frankie, Civil Servants Equestrian Club, London
"It's no secret that over the past decade there's been a lot of American cultural imperialism, if you will," agrees Stevens. "There is a certain percentage out there who love us and a lot who really resent us, who hate our way of life. I think that this is the first time that many Americans have come to grips with the fact that not everyone loves us."
"The U.S. has been blamed for U.S. foreign policy," says Dunbar, "and I think that it is probably time that foreign policy is looked at. And it probably should have been looked at ages ago. But it's interesting to me that the U.K., having created the British Empire, having gone out and divided people and lands down the middle of villages on the basis of Christianity and commerce. Having done all that, we're left to pick up the pieces and all of a sudden it's our fault and nobody is taking the whole colonial episode with Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, Holland, and Germany into consideration."
Responses in St Paul, Minnesota
I traveled from New York City to St Paul, MN, where I set up the CD player for a group of county government employees. All of them are white, middle-class Americans: Tom Burk, business agent with public-sector labor unions, Cliff Olela, Intake Social Worker for Ramsey County at Adult Protection Intake, and Mark Galloway, Billing Superintendent for City of St. Paul, City Hall Annex.
"They're arrogant, insular and ignorant."
Another UK woman, "Very good I like that."
I ask, "But what's the bad part?"
"Ignorant because, well, we get stories over here saying things like, many Americans don't have passports. Many of them do not leave their own state, let alone their own country. They've got no conception of the world outside America. This is their insularity, which leads to them to being ignorant of the world outside and also incredibly arrogant, (they) think everything American is great. Mind you, we're the same, we think everything British is great, no, we're more self-deprecating than that." Judy, Civil Servants Equestrian Club, London
"I think it's absolutely true," laughs Burk. "I think that particularly the notion that Americans are very centered on what goes on in United States. Up until September 11, all the news bureaus had basically abandoned all of their international reporting. I think that the British, because of the nature of the Empire, in a lot of ways there's still that mentality, are very internationalist, much more so than other countries. Quite honestly, the French are pretty insular too."
"If you noticed here in the paper recently," notes Mark Galloway, "nobody here knew where Afghanistan was. In the United States. If you go on the street and ask where Afghanistan was, they couldn't tell you. Or what language do they speak."
"I think it really varies from family to family, says Burk. "There are people who really don't care what happens outside their block, there are other families that emphasize the richness of the world and all the various cultures."
"The comment that we're pompous, I believe also that people of England are also very arrogant and pompous. And a lot of them don't even know where things are. They know where all the provinces of Canada are, but you ask them: Where's Mongolia? Where's Guam? They can't tell you," says Mark Galloway.
Mark adds that he's an Irishman, fourth generation. So he's not too keen on the English, as he calls them. Even so, he says he does not contribute to the IRA.
American Writer Ian Frazier
The British often belittle Americans for lacking irony, so to make sure this story had some, I called up Ian Frazer, a writer who publishes in serious-minded magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic. As far as I can tell he's no expert on any of the issues at hand, but that never stopped an American from having an opinion.
I asked him if he would call himself an anglophile.
"I deeply disliked English people," responded Frazier, "and it was even a policy of mine that I disliked English people. And after September 11, there are many things that I use to dislike that I now like. I now like English people."
What did you dislike about them?
"Well they have conceited accents, and, I don't know. I hated the phrase 'chattering classes,'" says Frazier.
Have you been to the United Kingdom?
"I've been over it in a plane, I've looked down. It looked like the worlds oldest suitcase."
I have absolutely no idea what he meant by that. But I like it. In any case, I played some of the London interviews for Ian Frazier on the telephone. First, the recording of MP George Galloway:
"America is a giant. But its political class often seems to have the mind of a child. And a giant with the mind of a child is very dangerous not only to those amongst whom he roams but to himself."
So are we dangerous to ourselves and to the world?
"Certainly in parts of the world we're a great danger," says Frazier. "I wouldn't go so far as to say we're dangerous to ourselves in the world. I would say that we don't participate in the world enough and when we do we are inexperienced and we make mistakes. But I also think America is a very hopeful country, it has a kind of naiveté based on a belief that things can be better. And when you believe that, you're going to look silly in a wised-up world, in a world where street smarts is the prevailing kind of smarts."
Are you pro-American?
"Yes, absolutely, I think it's the best country in the world. But I also know it is a completely foolish, ridiculous country, partly because democracy is a silly looking system. It doesn't have the sleek streamlining of certain functioning dictatorships."
One thing that struck me about the interviews: people in London seemed not just ready to catalog American faults, they felt entitled to. But the Americans were generally much less prepared to pass judgment on the British. Except for Ian Frazier.
I played for him some commentary from ladies at the civil servant's equestrian club.
"They're arrogant, insular, and ignorant. Many Americans don't have passports, don't leave their own state."
"I think it's absolutely a blessing that English people do know what's going on in foreign countries because they speak our language and they can tell us what's going on in Afghanistan," responded Frazier. "I've noticed when I've traveled that there will be English people that know what's going on."
So we can rely on them?
"Yes, they speak English, it is an important thing, it doesn't sound like it but if you listen carefully you can figure out what they're saying. They write the best guidebooks to foreign countries. We're going to be a part of the world stage from now on and we can't continue to retreat as we have done, and maybe England can tell us what to do. Because they know more."
"It's also handy to go to a country they used to occupy as an imperial power because people tend to speak English."
Conclusion, with Harold Pinter
In all seriousness, this issue of world awareness came up time and again talking to Americans. Before September 11, many Americans really did not know how despised we are in some corners of the world. In London, I asked playwright Harold Pinter if he thinks Americans possess any special gift for being illiterate in world affairs.
"Well, I think we're pretty American, sorry, didn't mean to say American," he laughs. "I think we're pretty ignorant over here too."
Lots of people use those terms interchangeably after all.
"I can see that immediately, yes. I didn't quite intend that. I don't think the European continent is anywhere near as ignorant about facts of the world as your country and my country. When you say in the United States, the people I mean, that you're living in the greatest country in the world, those terms are meaningless. And if they mean anything, they're highly dangerous. Because they only lead to arrogance. And arrogance is always supported by ignorance. If you want to be really arrogant, make sure you're really ignorant."
So, the question remains, after September 11, after going to war in Afghanistan, and with the threat of more terrorist attacks always in the air, are average Americans now less ignorant about the world? Recent public opinion polls seem to say "yes." Many Americans say we have to pay more attention to international relations, and take the needs of other countries more into account. That's probably true, for now. But I'm skeptical when I'm told some big event, even a military strike on American soil, even anthrax in every letterbox; that some big event will change our society forever. After all, we sent millions of Americans overseas during World War Two, and eventually we settled back into cozy self-absorption.