Not Saussure

October 6, 2006

Divided by a common language

Filed under: Foreigners, UK, usa — notsaussure @ 6:38 pm

Recently I wrote about the differences between British and American attitudes to abortion and why it’s so contentious an issue there and not here. We had another example of that with their I Can’t Believe It’s Not™ Torture Bill, which prompted Niall Feguson, of all people, to meditate in the Sunday Telegraph, of all places, on ‘the feeling that so many Europeans get as it suddenly dawns on them that American conservatism is different’.

And now we have yet another example; David Cameron, in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference earlier this week said,

Pledging yourself to another means doing something brave and important. You are making a commitment. You are publicly saying: it’s not just about me, me me anymore. It is about we – together, the two of us, through thick and thin. That really matters. And by the way, it means something whether you’re a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and another man. That’s why we were right to support civil partnerships, and I’m proud of that.

which has Tory A-Lister and ace blogger Iain Dale absolutely delighted — though quite why he uses the title, ‘ Something I Never Thought I’d Hear A Tory Leader Say in a Conference Speech’ I don’t understand; Michael Howard was pretty supportive of civil partnerships, despite his role in getting Clause 28 passed twenty years ago, and he put Alan Duncan, then (dunno about now) the one openly gay Tory front-bencher, in charge of welcoming the Civil Partnership Bill in the Commons (with rather a good speech, I thought).

Compare this with the USA, where the whole issue is highly contentious. You can hardly imagine President Bush telling a Republican Party convention about his support for such arrangements.

I’m not having a go at America, particularly; it’s their country and it’s up to them how they do things there, obviously. I’m interested, though, in the way they seem so strange to us at times, and I think the problem is that we all speak English. That, combined with the fact we’re so familiar, or think we are, with the US through films and TV, wear the same clothes and so on, tends to make us think of them as just like us, only with funny accents.

Then they keep on surprising us with what seem — to us, anyway — very strange ideas indeed. I’ll never forget being asked, as a normal social question, shortly after I moved to the US to work for a couple of years back in the 1980s, what church I attended. Obviously, to a Brit, the assumption that you do attend a church is pretty strange and the idea that it’s the sort of thing you ask a complete stranger about is downright odd. And this wasn’t in the middle of the Bible Belt; it was at a party given by the University of California, Berkeley, Law School.

Now, we generally accept that foreigners are odd. It doesn’t come as a shock when the Germans or Russians have different ideas to ours. Different country, different history, different culture — of course they’re likely to see things differently at times. And we’re constantly reminded of this because they talk a different language. I don’t need reminding when I’m in France or Russia that I’m in a foreign country and different rules and assumptions apply to the ones we have back here; I’m reminded of that every time someone opens his mouth or I see a street sign. American, though, tends to lull you into a false sense of familiarity.

It’s compounded, I think, by the fact that America — very unusually — is a country that sees itself as founded on universal ideas rather than anything else. Most other places are content with defining themselves, if they try so to do at all; their constitutions are about what France or Ireland or Germany is all about. Not so the USA; that’s founded on apparently self-evident truths about what all men are about. And it’s also a Union of states, which other states can join, and in the past have, if they sign up to the basic principles. The only other example I can think of, offhand, is — ironically enough — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, another club founded on what were notionally universal truths applicable to everyone and which everyone could join if they wanted to.

This has wider implications, to my mind. In the normal course of events, if two countries — the UK and Spain or the UK and Norway, for example, have a disagreement, that’s because we’ve got different interests and we’re each trying to look after them. It goes without saying that we’re in the right, of course, but we don’t generally make a huge issue of that, because we realise that they think much the same way about their side of the argument.

But I don’t think it works that if your country is based, ultimately, not on contingent facts of history, geography and politics but on an idea that’s true for everyone. Then someone’s disagreeing with you not because he’s, reasonably enough, seeing things from a German or (God help us) a French perspective; it’s because, for whatever reason, he just can’t accept you’re in the right.

Maybe he’s short-sighted, maybe he’s stupid, maybe he’s just a bad character, but one way or other he’s a witting or unwitting agent of the axis of evil or of international imperialism, and he’s in the wrong, and he ‘hates us’ and it just isn’t fair… because we MEAN WELL and we just want people to love us, if only folks would see it.

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