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8 October 2001

A socialist guilt trip too far

War on Terror: Anti-Americanism - The left may go in for Yankee bashing, but for the Irish,

By Patrick O'Flynn

Does the British left hate the United States? Amid the current furore about its response to the events of 11 September, the answer to that question might appear obvious.

It was difficult to find a kind word about the US in the extensive coverage of the attacks on New York and Washington that the New Statesman published immediately after the events. In the wake of the atrocities, the Guardian and other left-of-centre newspapers also found room for many antipathetical voices. Clearly, there are those on the left who have not lost a wink of sleep over the deaths of thousands of Americans.

A large part of the explanation for the raw hatred of America shared by so many on the British left is surely the illogical displacement on to the US of the self-loathing felt by white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (Wasp) socialists: they hate their own cultural origins, and harbour guilt about their privileged position in society.

Many of these left-wing Wasps have mistakenly diagnosed America as a culturally indistinguishable successor to the British empire – a society where Ivy Leaguers of Wasp origin ruthlessly impose their will on other races both across the world and within their own borders.

Yet how foolish it is to regard contemporary America as Victorian Britain by other means. No single cultural or racial tradition dominates modern-day America. Americans of every conceivable ethnic origin are able to take a simple pride in their ownership of the national flag. The American genius has been to harness the talents of every wave of immigrants and develop a truly pluralist democracy. New York, above all cities, is the exemplar of a successful multiracial, culturally vibrant metropolis.

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Despite the legacy of slavery and the repression of their civil rights in the Deep South until just a generation ago, African-Americans have a far greater sense of national pride, belonging and communal success than their British equivalents. As Tony Blair said in his Labour Party conference speech, it is hard to imagine a British equivalent of Colin Powell, rising to the highest levels of government. Which is why many Afro-Caribbean Britons now look primarily to America for cultural innovations; why basketball has displaced cricket in their sporting affections and the US provides their musical reference points. This is not cultural imperialism – rather, it is America serving as an inspirational ideal for oppressed groups.

This affinity with America among black Britons – who are overwhelmingly left-of-centre in their political attitudes – is largely shared by the Celtic peoples of these islands.

In Irish left-wing circles, for example, there is no widespread tradition of anti-Americanism. On the contrary, the US is idealised as a land of opportunity – a place where anyone of a positive and enterprising disposition can go and make good.

The roll-call of those from the New York Fire Department who died on 11 September – the Rogans and the Kellys – made clear enough the Irish contribution to the life of that city. Above anywhere else in America, the Big Apple is celebrated in Irish culture. Shane MacGowan’s idea of heaven in his hit “Fairytale of New York” is when “The boys of the NYPD choir are singing Galway Bay/And the bells are ringing out for Christmas Day”. You often find mini replicas of the Statue of Liberty in Irish back gardens.

No one would deny that America has grown powerful on the back of its love affair with capitalism. But surely even the most unreconstructed old lefty must now acknowledge that the argument about whether capitalism or state socialism is the superior generator of economic prosperity is over and done with. There may be a need for a benevolent state to share out the goodies more equitably afterwards – but much of the anti- Americanism across the world seems little more than the sour grapes of ruling elites who backed the wrong horse.

Countries locked in poverty should not kid themselves that this is because of American oppression. In most cases, these countries spent too long experimenting with state socialism, or locked in destructive ethnic conflicts, or repressing the talents of the female half of their populations, or stuck with tribal forms of governance that allowed financial corruption and proved utterly incompatible with successful industrialisation.

In New York, covering Tony Blair’s recent visit, I sat in St Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue for the service of prayer for the hundreds of missing Britons. I listened to the moving renditions of the national anthems. The many British voices present managed to elevate “God Save the Queen” above its usual plodding constraints. But what a song the Americans had, with its suddenly poignant reference to how “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there”. The iconic photograph of a group of heroic firefighters hoisting Old Glory aloft in front of the wreckage of the World Trade Center was inevitably brought to mind.

Lefties everywhere, by all means despise yourselves – at this particular moment that seems entirely justifiable. But don’t take your personal guilt trips out on America.

Patrick O’Flynn is political editor of the Sunday Express

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