Before delving into this post, I want to say that it’s just a meditation – occasionally superficial – on some conversations and experiences I’ve had in the UK with people of all ages and backgrounds. I may be completely on the wrong track, and I’m definitely making sweeping generalizations based on my own observations, but it’s something that has been on my mind, so please comment and add your two cents.
This post begins with a Halloween disappointment. On Oct. 20th, the news arrived that Gaddafi had just died, and I watched America and Libya celebrate. As October 31st drew near, I had my Buddy Holly costume in the works, but expected to be entertained by droves of Gaddafi zombies swarming the London streets. The “too soon?” question didn’t even cross my mind: an enemy to the world was dead. The impulse to entertain a sensitivity period was not the issue. The only obstacle was that people only had 11 days to get the costume together. And, in the US, many did:
When I brought up my disappointment to some of my British friends, the humor of my quest for the Walking Dead Gaddafi Hoard was lost on them. Wartime murder – regardless of who or why – was not something to be celebrated. As an American born and raised in Europe, I have never felt more American. This feeling was perhaps in spite of myself, and yet I felt proud of my desire to parody and celebrate our victory over this incontestably evil individual. Being surprised by my friends’ lack of contempt of a verified asshole, I started to question my own impulses. Was this a cultural split? How much can I generalize what I feel to my nation? Why don’t I feel more respectful? Am I conditioned to feel this way, or is this really something I’m glad about?
Before I get to the central question I’m wrestling with, I want to say this: I am 100% against war as well as the death penalty. This is at the core of the hypocrisy I feel I am experiencing. Despite ultimately being a pacifist and believing that I would be satisfied by a fair trial that throws the likes of Gaddafi and Bin Laden in an international prison for the rest of their fucked-up lives, I am utterly appeased and have no qualms with their gruesome deaths. There is no amount of violation that these individuals suffered before they died that I ultimately give a damn about. Sure, I feel differently about the individuals that enacted the violence upon them (probably wouldn’t join them for a pint) but I have no desire to pursue or punish them for this one. Everyone from John Stewart to Bill O’Reilly to Obama to Donald Trump seemed to have the same feeling: let’s be happy this is over. That’s that.
… And yet, within the UK, it seems the violent images and their framework of celebration were not welcome, but disturbing.
This brings me to my main question: why do Americans feel so strongly about their enemies, while Brits largely don’t?
I don’t have an answer, but I do have some examples that might start to illuminate how differences in attitude ultimately expose themselves.
The first and most obvious place to go is the media. We learn who are enemies are through the media, and, across the American networks, our enemies have faces, locations, motivations that are fundamentally different from our own. Just take a look at this cover from the Arizona Republic:
The trope is obvious here: Osama (whose face needn’t be reproduced in full due to how well we now recognize him), pridefully looks at his successful attack on American soil. He is young – not the decrepit old man that was actually killed. The headline says the rest. No need to even buy the paper. Who cares how? Let’s party!
Admittedly, more respectable papers such as the Washington Post ran subtler front pages (despite the New York Post brilliantly stating “US Nailed the Bastard”), but Osama’s face is still there, still conquered in all his anachronistically youthful glory, and there is no question that his chapter is closed. The system of representation is old: Trajan did it on his column (AD 113), celebrating his victory over the glorious and strong Dacians, who apparently fought to an epic end but were of course crushed by the Roman army.
In the UK, the headlines are less dominated by large bold lettering that purports to deliver the pure, unadulterated fact that Osama is just dead, so that’s that. None of the falsified glory of battle is paraded in triumph in true Roman fashion.
It’s no surprise then, that even as someone who doesn’t feel entirely American, who disagrees with wars (but supports our troops), who doesn’t believe in the death penalty, and hates terrorism, should still feel pride that the hunt for disempowered evil dick-heads is now over. It’s also no surprise that in the UK – despite having a notoriously bombastic, sensational, and falsifying media – this was not the same kind of victory. It was an historical event that bred further questions, while confirming America as a cocky superpower.
I believe the answer is also closely connected to methods for representation of the Other as well as the self. In the UK, the question of what it means to be “British” is very much in flux, as if it is being asked for the first time over and over again. While many in the US have their (however pigheaded and exclusive or overtly liberal and unachievable) opinions on what it means to be American, the question seems to have been addressed in order for those opinions to have been formed. America has always been made up by different cultures, so we are used to expanding or challenging our idea of what it means to be American. In the UK, being British might mean being English, it might mean being from the Isles, it might mean being a citizen. I bring this up not because I know anything about it, but because the question of “what do you mean by British?” has come up in my classes. Sometimes, it feels like postmodernism never made it here.
Perhaps the feeling even goes back to America’s puritanical origins – when our founding colonies were formed by people who, intentionally or not, ultimately escaped the secularizing consequences of the Enlightenment. We dodged the Nietzsche bullet in a big way, and, while many of us ‘mericans are secular, we have that strong moral compass and the ability to state in grand generalizations what is wrong and what is right. Sometimes, it feels like postmodernism never made it here, either.
Ultimately, this means patriotism is something very different in the two countries, and it boils down to our individual identities, our senses of humor, and our feelings about war, success, victory.
I won’t expand on this, but I’ll let some music do the talking. Consider, for example, the fact that the Beatles’ response to “Surfing USA” was “Back in the U.S.S.R.”:
DEUCES! or, as they say in the UK, TA!