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Why Are They So Angry at Us?  |   Love & Hate—Where Britain Meets America  |   Your Opinion

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U.K. VERSION

Love & Hate—Where Britain Meets America
by Stephen Smith
A co-production of American RadioWorks and BBC Radio World Current Affairs

Most Americans see Britain as their staunchest ally, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11. What they may not realize is that the anti-Americanism which has so surprised them can be found in the U.K. too. In a program made for listeners on both sides of the Atlantic, American journalist Stephen Smith embarks on a journey that takes him from St. Paul, Minnesota to London to explore for himself the state of the "special relationship."

President George W. Bush on TV: "America will never forget the sounds of our national anthem playing at Buckingham Palace…"

It was weird to be at a sports bar on that night; one of those places with 10,000 TV screens glowing in every direction. But instead of baseball or professional wrestling, every set in the place was tuned to the U.S. Congress. It was September 20 and along with dozens of other Midwestern Americans I stoically sipped my Budweiser and watched our commander in chief.

President George W. Bush: "America has no truer friend than Great Britain."

After saying that, President Bush turned to gaze up into the House of Representatives visitor's gallery. Was he looking at his wife Laura? Or maybe that guy sitting next to her with the long face and the pointy eyebrows.

President George W. Bush: "Once again we are joined together in a great cause. I'm so honored the British Prime Minister has crossed an ocean to show his unity with America. Thank you for coming, friend."

So then I wondered did many of my fellow beer drinkers in this sports bar even know who Tony Blair is? I was doubtful. And did the British people really want to stand shoulder to shoulder with strangers across the sea who may not even know what a prime minister does?

So I've come to London to get a sense of how tight this special relationship between the United States and the U.K. actually is, and I'm going to start my inquiry here at the Houses of Parliament. There appears to be a significant minority of people here in the U.K. who are very critical of American behavior around the globe. These are the people that interest me and they are the kind of British voices that most Americans don't get to hear.

"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."

This is George Galloway, a Member of Parliament from Glasgow, Scotland. He's a genial, reliably quotable politician. He's holding the un-light stump of a Cuban cigar as we talk. Galloway is a sharp and frequent critic of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, Cuba and elsewhere.

"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."

Harsh, but really not unexpected, because George Galloway's been pounding on U.S. foreign policy for years.

"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."

That's Meghnad Desai, a member of the House of Lords and a respected left-wing economist. Desai is of East-Indian descent and he sports a distinctive, gossamer ball of white hair like a dandelion puff. We sat on a bench under the plane trees just next door to Westminster. Below on the River Thames, a police boat churned back and forth. 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 I.R.A., 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? Now come on, give us a break. The world is a very nasty place. There are no good guys; there are no bad guys. Americans should stop thinking they're the perpetual good guys."

Well, there's no doubt that Irish Americans have sent a lot of money to the I.R.A., but some Muslim Americans sent money to al Qaeda. That doesn't mean America supports Osama bin Laden, nor the I.R.A. There are no good guys; there are no bad guys.

I talked to a lot of people around London. And several reassured me that Americans sometimes can be the good guys. Some I spoke to even knew an American or two and counted them as friends. But there did seem to be this vocal minority, what Americans would call "opinion leaders," who either despise the United States for being a rapacious, global villain, or simply dismiss Americans as unworldly, adolescent clods. And maybe we are.

So, what are we going to listen to here?

"Well, this is what we put out for our election special during the British elections." [plays a tape]

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 plush offices of a BBC radio satire program, Dead Ringers. On hand were writer Nev Fountain and actor Jon Culshaw. I wondered if it was really fair to make fun of George Bush the way they do?

"Well," says Nev, "I suppose it is like beating up a kid 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 a little bit about the world he's actually leading."

"Do you think that Americans are inherently a parody of themselves? Are they good for a yuk basically straight out of the box?" asks Smith.

"We know so much about Americans because they've exported their language and their culture across the world," says Nev. "So everyone has an opinion about them. We get The Jerry Springer Show and Jon does a lot of the Springer characters."

"Jerry Springer did some British shows," remarks Jon, "and the difference between the British and the American guests — like a typical American guest was kind of, [accented voice] 'Listen, I'm a man, I got needs, I have to have those needs met. If I have to have three girlfriends to, like, achieve that then I don't care about that.' Jerry Springer came across to England to do some of his shows and the guests were even more rough than the American guests. It was sort of a case of, [another accented voice] 'Listen, this is my wife and I'm not happy about her going out with another fella. I'm not happy about it.'"

"Unfortunately what happens in America eventually happens over here," Nev says. "So we take the mickey out of it and we eventually become it."

In the new season of Dead Ringers actor Jon Culshaw says they may leave George Bush well enough alone.

"Certainly at the moment, in the light of events after September 11, I think America has to be supported," he says. "It feels kind of strange doing impersonations of President Bush at the moment. Before September 11 you could make him that [imitating 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."

There are some people in Great Britain who don't find George W. Bush funny under any circumstances.

Smith asks Harold Pinter to introduce himself.

"My name is Harold Pinter. I'm a playwright. I believe this act was really historically inevitable."

By "act" he means the terrorist attack on September 11.

"I'm not happy to say it and I certainly don't approve it," says Pinter. "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 dominant 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 sat down his glass of white wine and rummaged in a file drawer to find a speech he gave in Italy on September 10. He described 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.

I'm four thousand miles now from London and the Thames on a bridge over another world-famous river — the Mississippi. I'm in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the American Mid-West, and I'm heading into a local government office building across the street where I've arranged to meet with a group of civil servants. I've brought along this CD player and some of my interviews from London.

"My name's Tom Burk; I'm a business agent with a public sector labor union."

"Cliff Olela; I'm an Intake Social Worker for Ramsey County and Adult Protection Intake."

"Mark Galloway, billing superintendent for city of St.. Paul, City Hall annex."

Smith continues, "The first London interviews I played for the St. Paul group were with four middle-class women at a London equestrian club."

"They're arrogant, insular and ignorant" says a woman with a British accent.

Smith asks, jokingly, "But what's the bad part?"

She laughs, "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." And then continues, "This is their insularity, which leads to them to being ignorant of the world outside and incredibly arrogant 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."

"I think It's absolutely true," laughs Tom Burke. "I think that particularly the notion that Americans are very centered on what goes on in U.S.. 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, nobody here knew where Afghanistan was," says Mark Galloway, "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," Burk continues, "There are people who really don't care what happens outside their block, there are other families that emphasize the richness of the world outside."

"The comment that we're pompous, I believe also that people of England are also very arrogant and pompous." Mark Galloway continues, "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."

Stephen Smith notes that Mark Galloway identified himself as a 4th generation Irish-American, who does not contribute to the IRA.

"To get a different American view, I called up Ian Frazer. He's a celebrated author who writes for prestigious American magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic." Smith narrates, "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."

Stephen Smith asked Ian Frazier if he would consider himself an anglophile.

Frazier replied, "I deeply disliked English people 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."

When asked what he disliked about the English, Frazier continued, "Well they have conceded accents, and, I don't know. I hated the phrase 'chattering classes.'"

Frazier admitted he had never been to the United Kingdom, but described how it looked when he flew over, "I've been over it in a plane, I've looked down. It looked like the worlds oldest suitcase."

Smith inserts, "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."

There is the sound of the recording of George Galloway being played over the telephone, "America is a giant. But it's 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."

Smith then asked Frazier, "So are we dangerous to ourselves and to the world?"

"Certainly in parts of the world we're a great danger, 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 very hopeful, a country that is very hopeful, 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."

When asked if he was pro-America, Frazier answered, "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."

Over some background music, Stephen Smith narrates, "We took our CD of London interviews to Durham… that's Durham, North Carolina…not Durham north of England. So we took the CD, bought pizza for a group of teenagers…and sat down to talk."

Young women identify themselves, "My name is Salma Taylor, I'm 16 years old and I go to Kestral Heights. Hi, my name is Amina Cliette, I'm 15 years old and I go to Mann. I'm Lena Eckert-Erdheim, I'm 12 years old, and I go to Duke School for Children in 7th grade."

Smith calls these three American young women the Durham three, and then played for them an interview with Finchley Road three…a trio of teenage girls I met in north London at an American-style diner…in a very American looking shopping mall.

Three young British women introduce themselves, "Kaya Eldridge, nearly 16…Shakira Moody, nearly 16…Kim Opoczynski, also nearly 16."

The young women then are asked to comment on the U.S., "America is capital of capitalism… You think America with big dollar signs written all over it. Marshall plan. Truman Doctrine… We've been studying that you may notice! And it does seem that America is very capitalist. It's not very tolerant of other systems. Not that other systems are there to be tolerated, they just exist. Don't want to accept anything other than what they've got."

The American young women comment on what they've heard from the London trio, "I think what they said was true that we're not very tolerant of other systems", says Lena

"We just accept what we have and don't really thinking about why we have it or how we get it and why other people don't have it."

Amina follows up, "I think she was right that we are a capitalist society and all we think about is money."

"Pulling out of the Kyoto treaty sort of said we don't need any help, we're so big and so great, we can handle everything by ourselves, thank you. Since September 11, we've been relying on a lot of other people." Lena continues, "If what happened on September 11 was going to happen, and there was no way it would not happen, then I'm glad it happened in America. Because it really made us think we're not immortal. We're going to die, we can be destroyed and we can be hurt."

Stephen Smith notes, "Like their counter-parts in Finchley Road…these high school kids in North Carolina are a pretty aware bunch. Two of them are Muslim…so they have deeply personal reasons for reflecting on the events of September 11.

In New York City, of course, about 20 million people have cause to contemplate the meaning of the 11th. I met with three of them in the library of the Yale University Club in Manhattan. These middle-class business women are 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 but, I recently lost my job in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks," notes Hope Stevens. "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."

Smith tells these American women that he is going to play for them a recording of some reflections on the United States, made after September 11, by a group of educated, middle-class London women.

From a boom box, they heard Judy saying, "They're arrogant, insular and ignorant. They probably think within their continent the world is contained. 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."

Smith notes, that calling someone a tosser is, about the equivalent of calling them a jerk in the U.S.. He also notes that eighty-three percent of Americans don't have a passport. He goes on to say that while nearly seventy percent of Americans last summer said they were following shark attack stories very closely, fewer than half paid attention to missile talks between the U.S. and Russia.

Again, from the boom box, one can hear Judy saying, "They're arrogant, insular, and ignorant."

Hope Stevens responds, "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."

"It's like 10 blocks is a whole different neighborhood. You don't go 10 blocks away," laughs Linda Dunbar.

Stevens continues, "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 5 hours, you're in a different country. If you live in American and travel for 5 hours, you may have left your state or not" says Linda Dunbar.

Maria Reveley notes, "You might be in Jersey…"

"You might be in New Jersey," Dunbar laughs. "So I think that is something that does make a difference. You drive 5 hours and you're not out of New York state. It's a huge country."

Again, from the boom box, the voice of Frankie, one of the women in London, "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."

"It's no secret that over the past decade there's been a lot of American cultural imperialism, if you will," responds Hope 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, 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," comments Linda Dunbar. "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."

Stephen Smith notes, that while British opinion polls reflect majority support for the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan, it's less clear how the British feel about Americans as a whole.

  
Peter Martin says there is a vein of deep animosity towards the U.S. running through the U.K. Photo: Financial Times
Peter Martin, a columnist for the Financial Times, spent 5 years in New York covering the United States. He says there is a vein of deep animosity towards the U.S. running through the U.K., but that in regard to the attacks on the World Trade Center, the scale of the horror is so powerful, that it is a time when other concerns are pushed aside. "Its only for those people who feel most strongly about American foreign policy, who do not see this as one of those moments."

According to Peter Martin, the U.K. views the U.S. primarily through a picture tube, he notes that Britons feel that they understand Americans very well. He says, "We watch American films, American television shows. My teenage daughters are intimately familiar with the dating relationships of California high school students. They know all about proms, they know all about things that are completely foreign to domestic experience here, but which somehow resonate, because they obviously express some universal values."

Stephen Smith notes, "One thing that struck me about the interviews: people in London seemed not just ready to catalog American faults…they rather felt entitled to. But the Americans were generally much less prepared to pass judgment on the British. Except for Ian Frazier, the writer.

Smith played for Frazier the recording of the London women saying, "They're arrogant, insular, and ignorant. Many Americans don't have passports, don't leave their own state…"

Frazier responds, "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. I've noticed when I've traveled that there will be English people that know what's going on."

Smith asks, "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 guide books 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," quips Smith.

Smith continues, "In all seriousness….this issue of world awareness came up time and again talking to Americans. Before September 11, many really Americans did not know how despised we are in some corners of the world…even amongst our closest allies. Are we waking up to the world now? Many of the Americans I interviewed say yes. But even as of last week…some were still catching up."

We hear from a speech by President Bush, "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."

Smith asks Harold Pinter, the playwright, if he thinks Americans possess any special gift for being illiterate in world affairs.

Pinter replied, "Well, I think we're pretty American…sorry.. {laughs} didn't mean to say American…I think we're pretty ignorant over here too. 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 and with this ongoing war in Afghanistan…are average Americans more aware of the world? Most of my fellow citizens seem to be saying "yes." They say we've lost the childish, self-centered attitudes, the sense of safety and insularity we once had the luxury to possess. I don't know... I'm skeptical when I'm told some big event…even a military strike on American soil…even anthrax in every letter box…that some big event will change our society forever. After all, we sent millions of Americans overseas during World War II…and after they came back, we settled back into self-absorption. This talent for being a tosser seems infinite amongst humans. After all, the worldly British know so much about Americans, but still now and then get us wrong.