February 24, 2005,
What's wrong with Americans today? Practically everything, according to Justin Webb, the debonair Washington correspondent for Bush Bash Central whoops, I mean, the BBC who shared his views of us last Saturday on Radio 4 on the eve of the President Bush's arrival in Europe.
For starters, we are "strait-laced and earnest." Our "heads are in the clouds." And, worst of all, we tend "to hold firm to a principle even when practicalities get in the way." So that, one might assume, is not the virtue that an Englishman named Churchill once so nobly displayed, but nowadays is a very na´ve, very American flaw.
He tells us he made his observations of American attitudes "in a skiing gondola" "suspended high above the Colorado Rockies" where he and a group made polite conversation about the British royal family. Now, one could say that four or five Americans on their way up a mountain at a posh ski resort are not exactly representative of our countrymen at large. But, hey, for decades British journalists have produced features purportedly reflecting the attitudes of a foreign nation when they did no more on an overseas assignment than chat up their taxi drivers on their way from the airport to their hotel. (My husband was a British foreign correspondent for years and, trust me, using a taxicab driver as a primary source is typical.)
But what did these skiers say that made Webb feel he was able to see so deeply into our collective soul? Well, one of them commented, "Prince Harry...had been very, very badly advised to wear a Nazi uniform to a fancy dress party." Not exactly a unique point-of-view. In fact, I'd say it was exactly the view shared by his furious dad and grandmum, most of the British public who pay for his upkeep, as well as almost all of the British press, especially the mass-market tabloids who went on and on for days about what an unthinking yob Harry really was.
So what so ticked off Webb about his fellow skiers' innocuous observation? Frankly, it didn't hold a candle to my favorite comment of the week about the royal family: "Boring Old Gits To Marry," that was the headline in The Sun, which, by the way, was the same newspaper that originally ran the photo of Harry with his swastika armband. But what bothered Webb was that "the Harry kerfuffle was utterly incomprehensible to Americans. "Really? Just to Americans, even after commentary after commentary in the Fleet Street papers? "They simply could not imagine how such a thing could ever be seen...to be funny." Well, Justin, old boy, the chief rabbi of the commonwealth didn't think it was such a giggle, either.
But what else ails us? He bashes us because we are religious, of course, declaring, "America is fast becoming a nation of faith not fact... Television coverage of the Asian Tsunami was a case in point. In Europe it was covered as an unrelenting tragedy, in America, one television network promised 'incredible stories of lives saved in near miraculous fashion."
Yet all I have to do is type "tsunami miracle stories" on Google and guess where the first story comes up? Yep, the BBC! "Tsunami 'miracle' woman pregnant," a survivor's story that was reported on January 6 and included the fact that a woman, who was adrift for five days told her rescuers, "I saw sharks around me but prayed they wouldn't hurt me." I assume her statement of faith is not yet incomprehensible to the British public.
But what really bothers Webb most is "the vision thing." We, darn it, think it is important and Europeans just don't. That, according to Webb, is what divides us most of all. "While Europeans fret about what they regard as real life, about poverty and social justice and about combating AIDS, Americans find it easier to rally round a vision, however unworldly that might be." This has been going on for years, he avers, illustrating his complaint with such past "vision-based" misdeeds as "President Reagan's arms build up in the 1980s, which helped destroy the Soviet Union, or the first President Bush's decision to press for German reunification, whenever Mrs. Thatcher was nervous." So are we to believe President Reagan's defeat of Communism wasn't a good idea because it was based on holding fast to a principle, which remains such a grave American failing?
He also declared, "The fact is that Americans have long regarded Europeans as weak-willed, lily livered, morally degenerate moaners, incapable of clear thinking or resolute action." That is obviously a sweeping generality that I don't think is true but commentaries like this one on the Beeb certainly don't help. Then Webb concluded his moan with the same lament Brit journalists have been using about Americans since the 1960s: the size of our gas-guzzling cars. (Believe me, my husband through the years used it time after time.) He moaned, "At the end of my skiing holiday, I drove my family home in a hired car larger than most tanks and as fuel efficient as the Queen Mary. On the journey to Denver airport, dozens of similar vehicles passed us." Oh, dear. Well, Justin, if it bothered you so much, "at the very moment that the Kyoto treaty was coming into force, to the sound of great European fanfare" why didn't you do the right thing and go to the airport in the hotel's shuttle? But that, I guess, would have been acting like an American and holding firm to a principle even when practicalities got in the way.
Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness and Liberalism to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.