The ally the British love to hate
The cultural animosity toward the US will not help the UK in the long run.
Quick quiz: Who has a more vitriolic relationship with the US? The French or the British.Skip to next paragraph
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If you guessed the French, consider this: Paris newspaper polls show that 72 percent of the French hold a favorable impression of the United States. Yet UK polls over the past decade show a lower percentage of the British have a favorable impression of the United States.
Britain's highbrow newspaper, The Guardian, sets the UK's intellectual tone. On any given day you can easily read a handful of stories sniping at the US and things American. The BBC's Radio 4, which is a domestic news and talk radio station, regularly laments Britain's social warts and follows them up with something that has become the national mantra, "Well, at least we're not as bad as the Americans."
This isn't a new trend: British abhorrence of America antedates George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq. On 9/11 as the second plane was slamming into the World Trade Center towers my wife was on the phone with an English friend of many years. In the background she heard her friend's teenage son shout in front of the TV, "Yeah! The Americans are finally getting theirs."
The animosity may be unfathomable to those raised to think of Britain as "the mother country" for whom we fought two world wars and with whom we won the cold war.
So what's it all about?
I often asked that during the years I lived in London. One of the best answers came from an Englishwoman with whom I shared a table for coffee. She said, "It's because we used to be big and important and we aren't any more. Now it's America that's big and important and we can never forgive you for that."
A detestation of things American has become as dependable as the tides on the Thames rising and falling four times a day. It feeds a flagging British sense of national self-importance.
A new book documenting the virulence of more than 30 years of corrosive British animosity reveals how deeply rooted it has become in the UK's national psyche. "[T]here is no reasoning with people who have come to believe America is now a 'police state' and the USA is a 'disgrace across most of the world,' " writes Carol Gould, an American expatriate novelist and journalist, in her book "Don't Tread on Me."
A brief experience shortly after George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq illustrates that. An American I know was speaking on the street in London one morning. Upon hearing his accent, a British man yelled, "Take your tanks and bombers and go back to America." Then the British thug punched him repeatedly. No wonder other American friends of mine took to telling locals they were from Canada.
The local police recommended prosecution. But upon learning the victim was an American, crown prosecutors dropped the case even though the perpetrator had a history of assaulting foreigners.
The examples of this bitterness continue:
I recall my wife and I having coffee with a member of our church. The woman, who worked at Buckingham Palace, launched a conversation with, "Have you heard the latest dumb American joke?" which incidentally turned out to be a racial slur against blacks.
It's common to hear Brits routinely dismiss Americans as racists (even with an African-American president), religious nuts, global polluters, warmongers, cultural philistines, and as intellectual Untermenschen.
The United Kingdom's counterintelligence and security agency has identified some 5,000 Muslim extremists in the UK but not even they are denounced with the venom directed at Americans.
A British office manager at CNN once informed me that any English high school diploma was equal to an American university degree. This predilection for seeing evil in all things American defies intellect and reason. By themselves, these instances might be able to be brushed off, but combined they amount to British bigotry.
Oscar Wilde once wrote, "The English mind is always in a rage." But the energy required to maintain that British rage might be better channeled into paring back what the Economist (a British news magazine) calls "an overreaching, and inefficient state with unaffordable aspirations around the world."
The biggest problem is that, as with all hatred, it tends to be self-destructive. The danger is that as such, it perverts future generations.
The UK public's animosity doesn't hurt the United States if Americans don't react in kind. This bigotry does hurt the United Kingdom, however, because there is something sad about a society that must denigrate and malign others to feed its own self-esteem.
What Britain needs to understand is that this ill will has poisoned the enormous reservoir of good will Britain used to enjoy in America. And unless the British tweak their attitude, they stand to become increasingly irrelevant to the American people.
Walt Rodgers a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.