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28 April 2021

Why Britain’s obsession with American activism reveals how little we understand the US

We should be aware of America’s cultural imperialism, whether it comes in the form of Coca-Cola or virtuous political causes. 

By Louise Perry

One of the strangest images to emerge from last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests came not from the US, but from Syria. The foreign correspondent ­Muhammad Lila was among those journalists who shared photos of a mural painted in the town of Idlib in June 2020. As Lila wrote:

This town in Syria was destroyed. There were hardly any walls left. Two artists – Aziz Asmar and Anis Hamdoun – could have painted anything they wanted on this remaining wall. They chose to paint a mural of George Floyd. #Humanity

Amid the ruins, Floyd’s portrait stands as a testament to the remarkable international reach of American domestic events.

Similar photos came out of Seoul and Tokyo, as young Korean and Japanese people marched with banners proclaiming (crucially, in English) “we stand in solidarity because Black Lives Matter”. Other marches took place in New Zealand, Norway, Samoa, Iceland and, of course, Britain – all countries distinguished by being among the small number worldwide in which police do not routinely carry guns.

We might read these events as simply a display of solidarity with black Americans, or perhaps as an attempt to elevate local campaigns against state misuse of force by applying the Black Lives Matter branding. But when we see young Britons chanting “hands up don’t shoot” at unarmed police, or using American vocabulary such as “the feds”, we have to wonder about the extent to which protesters are aware of how distinct the UK and the US really are.

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American campaigners against police violence point to the UK as a model to aspire to, and when you look at the numbers side-by-side their reasoning becomes clear: last year, a total of four people died after being shot by UK police; in the US, that figure was 1,021. And yet one 15-year-old black Londoner interviewed recently on BBC News at Ten earnestly reported that every time he hears sirens he feels fearful, convinced that the colour of his skin is likely to result in being killed at the hands of police. There is a good chance that this young man, having likely been influenced in part by an American narrative about the lethal threat posed to him by police, would be too afraid to call the emergency services if his life were in danger.

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Most of the time, the British obsession with the US is pathetic but harmless. Yes, it is cringe-inducing when Labour staffers use the phrase “let Miliband be Miliband”, borrowed from the American TV series The West Wing – a show that British politicos fell in love with during the Blair era. And yes, it is odd that our own chattering class is constantly engaged with US political events – sometimes obsessively so – while our US counterparts pay us very little attention. But much of this is just fashionable silliness, akin to adopting a certain piece of clothing or slang to demonstrate status.

And yet sometimes these apparently superficial affectations can reveal a great deal about the political situation, as in the case of the first-century native Britons who, at the urging of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the ­Roman governor of ­Britain, adopted ­Roman customs such as togas, baths and banqueting. “The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as ‘civilisation’,” little realising that they were in fact a sign of ­effective Roman control, scoffed ­the historian Tacitus.

The US empire is not as aggressively ­militaristic as the Roman one – at least not in this country – but its cultural reach is probably greater, since it is aided by modern communication technologies, particularly the internet, where Anglophone discourse tends to bleed together.

Cultural imperialism is easy to spot when it comes in the form of Coca-Cola or the ­golden arches of McDonald’s, but it’s less obvious when it comes in the form of virtuous political causes such as Black Lives ­Matter.

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with expressing outrage in response to a terrible case of police violence that obviously deserved condemnatif a mural, not only in Idlib, but also in Manchester, a city that is almost 4,000 miles away from his hometown of Minneapolis.

This international fame means that if the trial of Derek Chauvin – the police ­officer who, on 20 April, was found guilty of Floyd’s murder – had produced a different ­verdict, there would very likely have been protests in this country, as well as in many other ­far-flung corners of the American cultural empire. We can’t just stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to engage with US events, even if we might like to. When everyone else is staring fixedly across the Atlantic, it’s unwise to turn away.

The only solution is to remain cognisant of the strangeness of the US. Britons raised on a diet of US television and now immersed in social media dominated by American voices have a bad habit of assuming that they “know” the US, but they rarely do. For those of us on the outskirts of its empire, it’s easy to forget how foreign the US really is. 

[see also: Podcast: The End of Policing]

This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas