Scorned on the Fourth of July

A British expat reflects on America's insensitivity to its British residents, taxation without representation and the wonders of the "lucky sperm club."

By Toby Young
July 3, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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As a Brit living in America, this isn't my favorite time of year. This weekend I'll be expected to celebrate what, from my point of view, was a catastrophic military defeat. Imagine living in Vietnam and having to smile benevolently every
year as millions of Vietnamese hold a huge party to celebrate the fall of Saigon.
That's how I feel about Independence Day.

It's always astonished me how little sensitivity Americans display toward their
former colonial masters. Nazi Germany was, by any measure, a far more loathsome
enemy than the British Empire -- yet most Americans would be hard pressed to identify what V-E Day is, let alone celebrate it. Why can't you extend the same tact and magnanimity to Britain that you display toward
Japan? You haven't even bothered to nominate a day to celebrate America's Cold
War victory over Russia, yet on July 4 you crow over the defeat of our tiny
little island like Yankees fans at the conclusion of another successful World
Series.

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I'm not asking you to politely refrain from mentioning the War of
Independence for fear of offending us -- though that's a courtesy you extend to
almost everyone else -- but do you really have to let off fireworks? Couldn't you
make do with a parade of some kind?

What makes July 4 a particularly galling holiday is that one of the principles
on which the War of Independence was fought was that there should be no taxation
without representation. Now, I wholeheartedly endorse that principle. It's the
very basis of democracy. Yet it's a principle that America has singularly failed
to uphold.

As a non-U.S. citizen earning my living in New York, I'm in exactly the
same position as the American subjects of King George III: I'm obliged to pay
taxes on pain of imprisonment, yet I'm not allowed any say in the composition of
the government. I'm forced to hand over money to a state I have no control over.
I'm taxed but I can't vote. It's an outrage! I ought to make my way to Boston
right this minute and start tossing tea into the harbor.

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Not all my fellow countrymen feel the same way. Last year British journalist Jonathan Freedland published a book called "Bring Home the Revolution: How Britain Can Live the American Dream." Freedland spent four years in Washington as a correspondent for the Guardian, and he concluded that
Britain needed to become much more like America. In particular, he thought Britain ought to become a republic; that is, abolish the royal family.

How anyone can spend four years in Washington -- Washington! -- and retain their
faith in the American political system is a mystery to me. As Roy Cohn said, it's the world capital of cutthroats. But to recommend that Britain jettison its royals -- he's barking mad! Freedland's got it completely arse over tit, poor fellow. It's obvious that, far from Britain following America's example, America needs to become much more like Britain. In particular, you need to immediately set up your own monarchy.

I mean this in all seriousness. It's one of the reigning orthodoxies of our era
that Britain's class system, buttressed by the monarchy, is without any redeeming
virtues. Not so. If class were the sole determinant of success in Britain that
might be true, but it isn't. Being a member of "the lucky sperm club," as it's
called, can be an advantage -- but it's only one factor among many, and not a very
powerful one at that.

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The crucial difference between Britain and America isn't that one is class-bound,
the other a perfect meritocracy. Having spent four years
here, I'd say American society is every bit as stratified and hierarchical as our
own. (Has it escaped your notice that both the leading presidential candidates
are the scions of powerful patrician dynasties?) The difference is that we
acknowledge that who your parents are and where you went to school affects your
life chances, while Americans stubbornly maintain that the only determinants of
success are hard work and natural ability.

The fact that we Brits recognize the importance of luck in the equation means we
don't take successful people all that seriously and -- more importantly -- we
don't regard the unsuccessful as beneath contempt. In the United States, by contrast, where
everyone is mistakenly believed to have an equal chance, the lucky few with all
the money and power are worshipped like deities and the rest are dismissed as losers.

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This, then, is my argument in a nutshell: The British monarchy ameliorates the
extreme outcomes dictated by late 20th century capitalism; it's a constant
reminder of the key role that chance plays in shaping the outcome of our lives. After all, what could be more absurd than
making a member of the lucky sperm club the head of state? If America, too, had a
royal family, perhaps Puff Daddy wouldn't be treated like a hero -- merely a very
lucky guy -- and Rudy Giuliani would be a little nicer to those whom fortune
hasn't smiled upon lately, such as poor, British Tina Brown.

Last autumn a friend I was at Cambridge with became the executive producer of
ABC's revamped "Fantasy Island." (He's the son of a well-known Hollywood actress
-- shock!) I pitched him a story idea that involved a group of desiccated
British expats whose fantasy was that America had lost the War of Independence.
For one precious day, they'd be able to live in an alternative present in which
Americans still paid taxes to the British government and still doffed their caps
and tugged their forelocks whenever one of us entered the room.

Unfortunately, "Fantasy Island" was put on hiatus before this idea could bear
fruit -- but it would have made a cracking episode. This Monday I intend to take
some comfort in that fantasy, as your rockets light up the sky and darken my horizon.


Toby Young

Toby Young is the author of "How to Lose Friends & Alienate People" and "The Sound of No Hands Clapping." He is currently in the process of setting up a charter school in West London.

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