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But they mean well

<strong>Have a Nice Day</strong>

Justin Webb

<em>Short Books, 288pp, £14.99</em>


Both these authors hope to catch a breeze from the planet-wide exhalation of relief when Bush and Cheney finally step down, and the message of both authors is the same: George W was awful but he is not America; Americans may have odd ways but they also have plenty of endearing and vital qualities that the rest of the world ought to appreciate, or at least try to understand, or at the very least not too bitterly deride. Both authors kick off with the same quotation from Margaret Drabble to illustrate the kind of knee-jerk loathing they seek to mollify: "My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me, like a disease. It rises up in my throat like acid reflux, that fashionable American sickness . . ."

Living in Europe for the past 20 years and more, I have witnessed plenty of acid splashed at the country of my birth; I've also witnessed equal amounts of sincere affection aimed in the same direction, invariably out of the selfsame mouths. Which points up the problem with Maddox and Webb's stated projects: the United States, like any nation state, can't be other than a vast and shifting bundle of contradictions and unresolved conflicts, and so can't possibly be "defended" or "given another chance" except, like the curate's egg, in parts.

Justin Webb, an expat Englishman living in Washington, loves his adopted countrymen, and wants the rest of the world to understand them well enough to forgive them their trespasses. He presents some illuminating history and has some charming anecdotes from his travels there to tell, but in the telling he also drops enough clues to suggest that the "real America" he claims to know is really only a very narrow and highly vanilla-flavoured slice of the (vast, incontinent, volcanic) whole.

He describes two family holidays: one to the Hamptons and the other to Kiawah Island, the two most exclusive stretches of multimillionaire beachfront in all of North America; he asserts - startlingly incorrectly - that upper-crust Americans are uncomfortable using words such as fuck, shit, cunt or even "oh my god" (as opposed to "oh my gosh") in conversation ; he describes the entire country, ocean to ocean, as the "least erotic place on earth" (and justifies this description with the selection of programmes he can find on his television in the bedroom of his suburban Washington home, which raises a disturbing question: does the TV schedule here in Britain get him hot?); worse, he describes John Bolton as "fun"; and, perhaps most telling of all, he describes Michael Moore as an "anti-American" (which, whatever you might think of Moore's films or of his politics, is as wrong and as offensive as, say, describing a Jew who disagrees with Israeli government policies as an anti-Semite).

Bronwen Maddox. the daughter of an American mother and a British father, educated and now living in England, makes her case for re-evaluating America's reputation in a much drier and more scholarly fashion, but her essential point is basically the same: the US project, at home and abroad, she argues, has always been to promote the best of the west: liberal democracy, free markets and equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. She does not entirely discount the long list of yawning gaps between the talk and the walk (unlike Webb, she does not even attempt to discuss the bitter legacy of slavery and racism at home, but she does briefly admit to less than unblemished behaviour in the Philippines, Vietnam and Latin America, and squarely admits disasters in Iraq, Guantanamo and the "war on terror"). Nevertheless, she insists that the world should leave aside the often dire effects of America's actions and concentrate instead on America's avowed ideals and high purpose: we meant well at the time.

Chilling words, so often found on the lips of mass murderers. Maddox worries that if the rest of the world holds America too vociferously to account for its past mistakes it may turn inward, retreat inside its borders and turn its back on trouble when next trouble comes. And it is true, of course, that isolationism has been an actual danger in the past (such as during the Rwandan genocide), but never when a strategic resource or a strategic voting block is in play.

Me, I search for but cannot find a single example of a large and powerful people or nation that ever drew more than temporary approbation from its weaker neighbours. Fear and loathing are the norms. Large, powerful nations tend to look inward, remain ignorant of the rest of the world and blunder as they like, while small, weak nations tend to look outward, study their neighbours closely and act cautiously. As America's relative power in the world rapidly becomes less singular, so surely must its attitudes and actions become more balanced and nuanced. In the meantime, the best way we Americans could even begin to live up to these two hopeful but weak apologies on our account would be to secure for ourselves, for the first time in (at least) eight years, some (at least marginally) responsible leadership.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party