the friend online
24 October 2008

‘How will you get rid of their accents?’

As America is in the firing line Justin Webb makes a plea for the ‘world’s most vibrant nation

This question annoys me. It is asked of our children with great regularity when we tell English friends that after living in the USA for the best part of ten years, we are thinking of coming home to the UK.

Why would we want to get rid of their accents? American English is spoken by 300 million people living in the world’s most successful and vibrant nation. More than fifty-five million people have made the journey to live in America in the 400-odd years since that journey became possible. Millions are still trying to get there. Might they not be on to something?

Visceral anti-Americanism, the kind that cuts deeper than simply legitimate dislike of what America does, is not new. In fact (does this not tell us something?) it pre-dates the United States. The Dutchman Cornelius de Pauw, working at the court of Frederick the Great, told credulous Europeans that America was a continent struck with putrefaction: ‘A stupid imbecility is the fundamental disposition of all Americans’.

Living in America would destroy sexual potency and intelligence, the European biologists warned. Dogs would not bark there. Later as the United States grew in stature and the dogs were plainly barking just fine, the attack was re-tooled and became: no symphonies will be written there, no poetry of lasting merit.

Oops. Again and again the anti-Americans have been proved wrong and they have had to change tack. They never give up; perhaps they never will. I remember my dear mum Gloria Webb, when she was clerk of Bath Meeting, arranging protests about nuclear weapons and executions and general foul behaviour around the world. But Mum’s concern, and those of her Quaker friends, was always about American bad behaviour: American nuclear weapons – not the Russian ones then pointed at us – Texan executions, etc.

I think mum and her friends were missing something. America can be accused of all manner of imperfect conduct. But the other side of the coin is worth considering as well. As the social commentator and New York Times columnist David Brooks put it in one lucid and devastating question: ‘If middle America is so stupid, vulgar, self-absorbed, and materialistic, which it often is, then how can America be so great?’

The American creed – economic liberalism, limited government, independence and above all liberty – is both real and mythical. Thomas Jefferson kept slaves. Farmers in America rely on essentially socialist price supports. Rules dominate America life, curtailing daily freedoms. And yet at the same time Americans who strive for progress use the creed to shame the nation into action – again and again they have used it and it has worked. Progress in the US does not come from a central entity (think the European Commission!), it comes instead from the bottom up.

Americans are busy creating the future, family by family. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is – as David Brooks has noted – a forward-looking state of mind. Americans consume lots of fuel and own lots of stuff but they are never satisfied with worldly possessions alone. There is a serious moral core to the USA.

Materialism in the modern United States is a byproduct of this energy, not an end in itself. Americans do things. They strive. And because of the size of the place and the way it was founded (you set out west and you looked after yourself) there is a self-reliance hard-wired into the American character in a way Europeans find difficult to accept. America often looks brutal to outsiders. I tell them: look at the geography of the place, the tornados, the earthquakes, the wilderness (the bears!) and imagine how all of this has shaped the American mind.

Does America exist? I ask this question in my book and conclude – you will not be surprised to hear – that it does. But not in quite the form some of us carelessly imagine: the cowboy, violent and unsophisticated; the couch potato, fat, ignorant and uninformed; at best both of these characters are naďve, at worst downright nasty. But are they the future of the nation? Of course not. America is recreated millions of times a year by immigrants born to striving families in San Antonio, Texas (how many Europeans can place San Antonio on a map even though it is one of the biggest cities in the US?) or born abroad and arriving in the US to pursue some talent or opportunity. It is not that the couch potatoes and the cowboys need to be airbrushed away. They are still there. But the future belongs, as it always does in America, to those who are striving to make something new.

Look at the US Olympic team in Beijing this year – more than thirty of them were born abroad. Read their surnames, look at their faces! No mistaking the Russian team or the Congolese or the Chinese for that matter. But the Americans – cheerily multi-ethnic, led out by a man from Darfur – represented all of us. That is what America does.

To be sure, America is troubled. Americans do not always have the refined sense of irony of which we Europeans are so proud. To my mind Americans have suffered from an attitude to military power that borders on the fetishistic. American relationships with the rational world can be troubled as well – Americans are as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution (roughly forty per cent believe in each).

But, people, give them a break! America is also a nation of quite extraordinary economic and cultural power. And this power is not foisted on us by America – we invite it into our lives!

In fact, the key to understanding American world domination is to be found in the willingness of human beings around the world to partake of it. Zbigniew Brzezinski, once president Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, puts it like this: ‘America has become the unplanned and politically unguided vehicle for a cultural seduction that seeps in, pervades, absorbs and reshapes the external behaviour and eventually the inner life, of a growing portion of mankind.’

And as Joseph Joffe, the German commentator on US affairs, has so wisely pointed out, it is the seduction that upsets us so much: ‘you hate the soft-pawed corrupter, as well as yourself’.

What does the world do about this? How does America cope with the dislike its cultural dominance engenders? Above my pay grade I’m afraid. But sorting out that fundamental relationship is surely going to be one of the key challenges of the next presidency.

Meanwhile I sit back and admire American patriotism and American commitment to American identity. I like it that when Americans wave flags on the fourth of July they are celebrating their allegiance to themselves, not to any other higher power, not to any president and not even to the office of the presidency. The fourth of July parades in small towns around the nation are the opposite of those military parades they used to hold in the Soviet Union, a display of strength that actually spoke of brittleness. In the chaotic small town patriotism of the US there is a strength stronger than steel; it is the strength that comes from genuine unforced attachment to community.

Justin Webb is the BBC’s North America editor and author of Have a Nice Day, published by Short Books.

Justin Webb at the BBC

Justin Webb


chrissie hinde, 24 October
I wholeheartedly agree. This anti American prejudice is so fashionable we fail to be shocked by it. I get annoyed by it too. In engaging in this blanket prejudice we fail to acknowledge what the good things America offers. Surely we need a more balanced perspective.


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Spreading effective tools for outreach
Mary Jo Clogg
The ethics of food
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Miriam Yagud & Jennifer Barraclough
‘How will you get rid of their accents?’
Justin Webb
The Quaker who made us laugh
Judy Kirby
Border Country
Oliver Robertson
Equipping for action
Sunniva Taylor
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