Not Saussure

March 4, 2007

Stop being beastly to Americans at dinner parties

Filed under: Foreigners, UK, usa — notsaussure @ 12:28 am

Irving Stelzer, writing in this week’s Spectator, is in a right huff; if we don’t stop being beastly to the Americans they won’t exactly vanish, in the way the USA does in Attack Ads for Children, but apparently they’re apparently in danger of retreating into a form of neo-isolationism, and then we’ll all be sorry.

Mr Stelzer begins his piece with a survey of the various putative Presidential nominees and notes, All are internationalists; one might have thought that’s a bit of a problem for his argument, but not a bit of it. As he explains in the following sentence,

But the circumstances in which they will be campaigning to succeed George W. Bush might well drive them towards a form of neo-isolationism

That is, none of them have actually yet given any indication they’ll actually behave the way in which his argument assumes they will , but we won’t let a little thing like that stop us….

It’s probably me, but the article doesn’t, errm, actually make sense much of the time. He writes, for example,

But no presidential candidate will dare ask voters who know that the French and Germans, not to mention the Spaniards and Italians, abandoned America in Iraq, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those countries if Russia decides to deploy its oil and gas weapons to bring European policies more closely in line with its wishes. Policy types with whom I have spoken say that if Europe is truly worried about Putin’s decision to hammer his shoe on their conference table in Munich, they should spend more on defence, as we Americans will be doing to shore up our ability to cope with terrorism.

If Europe is worried about Putin making life difficult by increasing oil and gas prices, we should spend more on defence… erm… Why? What good’s it supposed to do? Since no one is suggesting — I hope — that the sane response to Russia trying to play silly buggers with oil and gas prices is to see if NATO forces have rather more luck than did the German VIth Army in reaching the oil and gas fields of the Caucasus (try not to get stuck at Volgograd, chaps, and whatever you do, don’t get surrounded there), I don’t really see why spending more on defence against the Russians is going to do any more good than spending more on trying to beat them in the medals table at the next Olympics.

Spending more on reducing our dependency on imported oil and gas, yes, but I don’t see what trying to sort out the Russians, when our defence budget — at least here — is already so badly overstretched as a result of getting involved in the Iraq debacle and in trying to hold things together in Afghanistan after the Americans lost interest, is supposed to achieve.

Nor, indeed, do I really see any set of circumstances in which American businesses would — whatever the voters had to say about the matter — allow the US government to sit, Achilles-like, sulking in its tent if anything particularly unpleasant were happening to American investments or American markets, in Europe or elsewhere. Given the extent to which the US and European economies depend on each other — the USA-EU economic relationship is by far the most important economic relationship in the world — I can hardly see either side relishing anything that makes life too unpleasant for its investments the other side of the Atlantic.

It was once explained to me by a very wise American, and having lived there I see his point, that the mistake people make about America is the pretty obvious one, when you come to think of it, that in an advanced capitalist society, the able people tend generally to go into business rather than politics and government; that’s one reason why private philanthropy plays so great a role there — if you want something doing properly, the thinking runs, a private foundation you’ve set up to do it is going to make a better fist of the job than will any of the local political talent — and it’s one reason why American national politicians seem so dire but the country is generally so successful. It’s only when you get a dire president surrounded by dire ideologues, or ‘policy types with whom I have spoken’ as Mr Stelzer puts it, that it starts to go so wrong. If he spent more time talking to his former colleagues at Rothschilds, who’re making real decisions about real money, and stand to lose their very lucrative jobs if they mess up the investments too badly, and less time with his fellow ‘policy types’ at the Hudson and American Enterprise Institutes, he’d doubtless have a rather different view of how the world works. In his peroration, Mr Stelzer warns that, if we don’t buck up our ideas,

Americans will want their new president to rid them of foreign entanglements (cf. George Washington).

Well, just try suggesting to any major American corporation, or their shareholders, that they should rid themselves of ‘the foreign entanglements’ represented by their European markets, factories, suppliers, customers and shareholders, or that if these entanglements (worth several trillion dollars a year, apparently) look like going for a ball of chalk, their government should stand idly by,and see what sort of reaction you get. It’s as bad as the anti-globalisation people.

By way of an aside, can anyone imagine a situation in which a private organisation embarked on a course of action that turned out to be as unsuccessful and ill-conceived as the invasion of Iraq turned out to be and in which the heads of the directors and executives responsible for the debacle didn’t subsequently roll all over the place, along with those of the ‘advisors’ and consultants who’d encouraged then in their disastrous course of action? Politicians eventually have to face the electorate, but think tanks can recommend any disastrous course of action with impunity, it seems.

Mr Stelzer continues, à propos Britain,

The special relationship is strong enough to survive many blows, but add the media-driven and dinner-party anti-Americanism to which important American visitors are regularly treated in London, and you have a concoction that just might reduce Britain’s once-influential ambassador to the United States to begging for an appointment with some deputy assistant undersecretary of state.

The more pedantic among us might ask when our Ambassador to the United States, or even our Prime Minister, had much influence with the US government other than to influence the Americans to do something they wanted to, anyway, but let that pass. It’s the bit about the ‘dinner-party anti-Americanism’ that we apparently show towards ‘important American visitors’ that puzzles me. It’s some time since I’ve moved in those circles, admittedly, but whenever the company for which once I worked entertained important visitors, from America or anywhere else, we were always concerned to treat them with the utmost hospitality and courtesy, whatever privately we might think of them personally or their country in general. The same applied at all official functions which I attended as part of my job.

What I suspect this means is that someone’s been rude to Mr Stelzer — shocking behaviour, certainly, but possibly not the stuff of diplomatic incidents. Something’s clearly happened at a dinner party to upset him; later on in the article, he warns

next time you are at one of those dinner parties at which it is a certain crowd-pleaser to defend the NHS by attacking America’s healthcare system for denying care to over 40 million, a staple of most dinner parties we attend (false: free care is available to all), American culture for debasing that of Europe, America’s President for incarcerating terrorists rather than returning them to Britain (fact: the UK government is begging Bush to keep them under lock and key), America’s soldiers for killing non-combatants during the war on terror (think Dresden), suggest that the world would not necessarily be a better place if the Yanks go home and stay there.

Most certainly I will, Mr Stelzer, have no fear. But I don’t attend the sort of dinner party where people turn on foreign guests and insult them and their country. Possibly I don’t get invited to the wrong sort of dinner party, but I can honestly say that the topic of the relative merits of the US and British health systems very rarely comes up in conversation, and when it does it’s normally because an American is sounding off at length about the latest iniquity visited on him by his Health Maintenance Organisation (it’s a bit like us and either bank charges or speed cameras) and someone says, ‘Oh, it can’t be that bad; just you try getting registered with an NHS dentist’ or something, so as to shut him up.

As I say, either Mr Stelzer goes to some pretty rum dinner parties — and, while I can well imagine other guests thinking the world would be a better place if Mr Stelzer went home and stayed there, I hope people aren’t so impolite as to tell him so to his face (that’s his wife’s job, when he’s sounding off at one of these dinners — ‘I think we ought to be going now, dear. And I’ll drive’), or we’re seeing a variation of the taxi-driver trope. That’s the one where the idle reporter, trying to provide local background, reproduces a conversation he’s supposedly had with a local cabbie who says, by a happy coincidence, exactly the right thing to bolster the point the journalist seeks to make. Where do they find these taxi-drivers, I wonder? They’re as cooperative as the stooges in the Socratic dialogues, who always say exactly what Socrates needs to say in order to move the argument along. Maybe I never meet them because they’re all out at dinner parties, insulting Irving Stelzer.

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  1. It does sound like Mr Stelzer has been insulated, or more likley taken down a peg or two, at a dinner party.
    I would not surprise me if the insult was the result of him attacking his host and hosts country (or Europe in general….anti-Europeanism is just as common as anti-Americanism). Pot-kettle-black?
    From my experince (and this is not true of 95% of Americans I have meet), it is ok to denegrate Europe and Europeans while being a guest here, but don’t even think about taking about America unless it is to say how wonderful and right it is.

    Your 100% on the economic links between Europe and the USA. They have as much to lose as we do from isolation. The think tank-industrial complex seems to be home to every, normally, right-wing fantasy and delusion. That they are taken seriuosly is an example of the lack of imagination that exist in some circles of US politics.

    Comment by MattUK — March 4, 2007 @ 9:01 am

  2. The man is a fool though. No doubt trying to defend his neo-con sviews someone took him apart.

    Then he says this is Anti-American; the perfect neo-con answer.

    Comment by cityunslicker — March 4, 2007 @ 11:48 am

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