Friday, 7 October 2016

"I hate Britain, but I love Brits"

British people are going to have to get used to their new most-hated-nation status. As an American in Europe, I can give some tips on how to endure it.

"I hate America, but I love Americans". It's a line I've heard so many times in the past decade of living in Europe that I barely notice it any more.

I got it particularly often when I first moved to Europe in 2006. It was just three years since the launch of the Iraq War, which the vast majority of Europeans opposed. George W. Bush, immensely unpopular in Europe, was still the president. I had to face down a lot of hostility toward the country I came from.

But usually, after an energetic rant against the crimes of America, the person speaking to me would finish by saying something like, "but I love Americans. They're so creative, so full of energy. I love their TV and movies. I just don't understand how these same people can vote for leaders like this."

"Well, we didn't," I would reply. I wasn't one of these 'not my president' people, but I did point out that a majority of Americans had voted for Al Gore in 2000. Of course, because of the archaic governing system of America the presidency was given to Bush. I would explain that where I come from, Connecticut/NYC, we vote overwhelmingly Democratic and support things like universal health care, gun control and gay rights. We are, in short, more European.

Not once did I take people's attacks on America personally. After all, why should I? I happen to have born in America and hold an American passport. Does that mean that my identity is inseparable from the country? I'm my own person, and not responsible for the faults, or the successes, of my nation-state. There's no reason to feel ashamed, or proud.

I agreed with a lot of their criticism. But I also disagreed with some of it, particularly those opinions which were based on crude stereotypes of Americans or fevered conspiratorial visions of American omnipotence. But when I felt that people's criticism was becoming overblown, I still didn't see any personal connection between that criticism and me. I would just calmly correct the facts.

Brexit shame

I've thought a lot about this experience in recent months, especially since despite being enormously frustrated by the country I actually like British people a lot. A lot of my English friends have objected to the very frank criticism I've made of what the UK has become. They have been upset, and have said I shouldn't be saying "The UK is this or that" because it doesn't take into account the 48% of people who voted to remain. 

But hold on. I don't recall anyone nuancing their criticisms of America when speaking to me over the past decade because X percent of Americans might not support the government's policies. America is the easiest target for Europeans - the big bad bully that's in control and so you can blame it for all the world's ills. "Your country is horrible, but you seem nice" is what I got.

So, welcome to my world Brits. Sorry, but your country is horrible at the moment. It's a complete basket case, to be frank. And there's no reason why my pointing that out to you should be taken personally.

It would be one thing if the people objecting to my statements disagreed with them. But these are remainers who are objecting because I'm not incorporating the views of the 48% in my characterisation of their country. So what am I supposed to say, 52% of the country is a basket case? The whole country is in trouble right now because of the vote outcome, not just 52% of it.

I understand that British people aren't used to hearing these criticisms. Until now, they've been quite admired outside their little island - particularly in the United States. 

I understand why it might be quite jarring to suddenly have the stereotype of your country shift from 'intellectuals in top hats' to 'baying racists attacking people on the street'. But that's where you are right now. Even in the US, as I was shocked to observe while on a visit home in August, the perceptions of Britain have changed overnight.

British people are going to have to get used to the new reality. Your country is not well-liked any more. In fact, impressions now range from hatred to bemusement. Welcome to the club.


The other common reaction I receive when criticising the UK is that, as an American, I have no right to criticise any country.

So apparently, not only am I not supposed to criticise a country in front of a citizen of that country, I'm also not supposed to criticise any country because of what's going on in the nation-state I happen to have been born in. 

What exactly is the assumption here? It seems to be that, because I'm criticising the UK, I'm implying that America is better. Apparently any critique of country X is always meant to glorify the home country of the person making the criticism. 

Because of my accent, do people hear a chant of "USA! USA!" every time I make a negative observation about Europe? Do they just stop listening when I make criticisms of America? Why should this petty nationalism lead us to a zero-sum game of criticism, where the nationality of the criticiser is considered of utmost importance? Why are we made to feel that the nation-state in which we were born defines us as people, so much so that we should leap to the defence of our country when it is criticised? 

Believe me, I have plenty to say about the state of democracy in my own country. And of course, as the satirical video above alludes to, the election of Donald Trump as US president would make Brexit seem like small potatoes. It would cause such a fundamental earthquake in the world order that, in hindsight, the UK's decision to leave the EU might seem irrelevant because the EU broke apart anyway. 

But nobody will forget that the UK was the first domino to fall. And assuming Trump does not win, the UK retains most hated nation status here in Europe - even while whatever trust Europeans had left in America evaporates because of how shockingly close Trump came to being president.

"Citizens of nowhere"

This week Theresa May, the UK's post-referendum prime minister, told her countrymen: "if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere." Cast off that "liberal elitist" desire to be a world citizen. You are a British subject, and we own you. If you don't like it, the door's that way. This is Brexit Britain now.

It isn't only the UK's intellectuals who are being cajoled to leave. It is the country's foreign-born workforce as well. May also this week unveiled a plan to force UK companies to name every foreign-born person they employ, in order to make them accountable to the public. The presumption of such a list is, obviously, that hiring foreign-born people is an act of treason. And the public has the right to know exactly who these foreign-born people are in their midst. It is pure nationalism.

The UK doesn't seem like a very nice place to be at the moment, just as the US didn't seem like a very nice place to me ten years ago. As people were so fond of saying at the time, "America: like it or leave it". I left it. 

To Brits I would say this: who you are does not have to be defined by the nation-state you happen to have been born in. Theresa May is wrong when she says citizens of the world are citizens of nowhere. They are citizens of everywhere. And global citizenry is the only hope we have for keeping our planet together.

If you let yourself be offended by negative portrayals of your country, then May's vision of proscribed citizenship wins. Your country is horrible, but what does that have to do with you? It might be upsetting, but why take it personally? Work to rescue it from its perilous state, or get out and move on. I chose the latter. And many British people I know are now also planning to permanently emigrate.

So that would be my advice to the Brits upset at how people are speaking of their country right now. If you take it personally, the nationalists win. Defy May, and be a citizen of the world. A simple piece of paper does not define you, and it cannot control your destiny. Not unless you let it.

1 comment:

Was Steve said...

Speaking as someone born in the UK (I don't accept the adjective "Brit".....I do not "do" national allegiance of any kind....) but as someone born in this country and with a UK passport I have to wholeheartedly agree with you.

The nation has been taken over by the baying racists and irrational nationalists.

Hey ho.....time to leave