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British Anti-Americanism

Page 7 of 14

British popular anti-Americanism is thus best understood as such semi-jocular, barroom jousting of ‘foreigners’. This makes it probably the most widespread, and also the least important, form of anti-Americanism in Britain today. The Mass Observation was established in the UK in 1937 by a group of anthropologists and sociologists to record British public attitudes through diaries and recorded conversation. Attitudes recorded in the 1940s included, amongst much else, opinions of the United States and Americans. British opinion of the USA improved, as would be expected, with increased US support in the war first via lend-lease and then with the USA’s entry into it. Popular anti-Americanism, however, survived even this. The Americans were seen to be ‘rather vulgar and ostentatious’, ‘truculent and opulent barbarians, glorying in atomic bombs and the almighty dollar’, ‘pushy and arrogant’, ‘immature, too materialistic and immoral’, ‘too self-satisfied, loud spoken, too ignorant’, ‘politically backward, uncultured and half-educated’, and ‘tiresome children with a mental age of 12’.11 It is interesting to note how closely these prejudices mirror the British popular anti-Americanism of today. All of them could easily have been expressed in 2003. The image of Americans as brash, loud, vulgar, uncultured and unsophisticated has had an enduring appeal in the UK, just as the different prejudiced images of the French and the Germans have. For example, the portrayal of Americans as unsophisticated can be seen in how often US Presidents have been stereotyped as stupid: Carter, Reagan, George W. Bush. During the 1980s a major theme of Spitting Image, a highly successful British satirical TV show using latex puppets, was how Ronald Reagan had mislaid his brain and where it might be lurking. Comments about George W. Bush’s supposed lack of intellectual capacity have become an easy tool for lazy comic writers to gain a cheap laugh. To give but one typical example, in an article by John O’Farrell, a successful British comic novelist, one finds the throwaway line ‘unless you yourself happen to be reading this, George W – which let’s face it, is unlikely, given the absence of pictures.’12

Such popular anti-Americanism gains in significance when its prejudices are adopted in attacks upon US foreign policy, especially in attacks by influential policy makers. Chris Patten - the former British Conservative Cabinet Minister, ex-Governor of Hong Kong and at the time of his comments European Union commissioner in charge of Europe’s international relations – in 2002 described US foreign policy in the aftermath of 9/11 as ‘absolutist and simplistic’. He went on to say that the USA was too ready to see bombs as the solution to problems, instead of sophisticated policies: ‘smart bombs have their place but smart development assistance seems to me even more important.’13 More recently Patten has described US policy towards the Middle East as ‘too crude’.14 Such descriptions of US foreign policy – as unsophisticated, simplistic, crude – are drawn straight from the lexicon of popular anti-Americanism.

The apotheosis of the use of the language and prejudices of popular anti-Americanism to attack American foreign policy can be found in a speech by someone who, thankfully, has not occupied positions of influence but is still a public figure, arguably Britain’s leading playwright, Harold Pinter. In 2002 on the occasion of receiving an honorary degree in Turin, Harold Pinter describes how he had recently had an operation for cancer: ‘However, I found that to emerge from a personal nightmare was to enter an infinitely more pervasive public nightmare – the nightmare of American hysteria, ignorance, arrogance, stupidity and belligerence: the most powerful nation the world has ever known effectively waging war against the rest of the world…. The US administration is now a bloodthirsty wild animal. Bombs are its only vocabulary.’15 This was not some random, ill-considered outpouring by Pinter; he was so proud of this rant that he has had it published, alongside some anti-American, anti-Tony Blair poems, as a pamphlet. In speeches such as this, the not too serious phenomenon of British popular anti-Americanism is turned into something much more aggressive and threatening.

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