Letters

Readers respond to an interview about the difference between Brits and Americans and to a review of "Against the Machine."


Salon Staff
February 8, 2003 1:00AM (UTC)

[Read "English for Americans."]

I've just read the interview with Jane Walmsley, author of "Brit-Think, Ameri-Think" and, being myself an expat American long-settled in Britain, with a British wife and child, I have to say our Jane is talking pure rot. I can't recognize either country in her cutesy-poo, historically and politically ignorant observations. She seems to be dealing with a small sliver of mid- to upper-middle-class folk on both sides of the pond -- America's SUV crowd and the Brits' "Mondeo Man" demographic -- and, as usual with this type of writer ("Bobos in Paradise" anyone?), conflates the experience of this narrow group with an entire society. Trite, tiresome, pointless and misleading -- and that's just the interview. God knows what a whole book of such drivel would be like. Fortunately, I'll never know.

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-- Chris Floyd

The premise of the book sure sounded interesting, since I spend a lot of time with my English acquaintances here in Prague (where we're all expats) discussing the differences and similarities between Brits and Americans. After reading the interview, however, I don't think I'll bother with the book. The author sounds like a mix of all the worst American and British traits -- which is above all an arrogant contempt for other countries and people. What the hell is a "grown-up" country? One that supports war against Iraq? Her anti-French and anti-German attitude is just sooooo British and sooooo American. (By the way, here in Prague, there is a new phenomenon to replace the old Ugly American: the Ugly Brits who come over in groups of 20, drink themselves silly and generally embarrass the decent Brits living here.)

-- Stephen Van Pohl
Prague

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I was born and raised near Chicago and have lived in the U.K. permanently for the last 12 years. The vagaries of British heating systems, the laissez-faire attitudes of dentists, and the apparent tendency toward tightfistedness (except when giving money to charity or buying rounds at the pub) are a few of the frustrating British characteristics that I still fail to comprehend today. The same can be said about certain harmless American traits that I didn't really notice until I moved away from the States, such as price tags not including sales tax, a tendency to "overshare" unappealing personal issues with absolutely anyone, and nonstop conversations that are held at HIGH VOLUME in quiet surroundings! Jane Walmsley's book, which I bought in 1987 during my first long-term stay in Britain, served me well as a primer to Anglo-American cultural differences.

But I've formed my own views on this topic based on personal experiences over the years, and I do have to pull Jane up on a few points. She dismisses all continental European countries out of hand as immature because they're not as quick as certain other countries to become angry and resort to war. In fact the very opposite is true -- it's a sign of national maturity, not immaturity, when violent solutions are held in strong disregard. Clearly, Jane finds it easier to reject a major group of wealthy and important -- but dissenting -- nations as irrelevant instead of trying to understand them even one degree as much as she recognizes and accepts the Anglo-American differences.

-- L. Sergent

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Despite marking jolly England with a steady stream of proprietary "we's," Jane Walmsley comes across in her interview with Suzy Hansen as another underclued American. She thinks there are only five adult countries in the world (four of them Anglophone). She chuckles that "they" could build an entire country with no closet space. She smugly recalls that American gadgetry of comfort -- like air conditioners and garbage disposals -- just crossed the Atlantic "like, last February," and so of course are bound to still feel exotic. If Walmsley thinks that Britons look upon Americans as cultural equals (after all, "we see them at Disney World all the time"), one is tempted to attribute this to a heroic quarter-century of protective politeness on the part of her circle of British friends. But why did Salon think that any of us would care?

-- Tim Behrend

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In the context of Jane Walmsley's condescending attitude toward Europe, I have a funny story to share. I was riding the tube in London with three American expat friends when a group of loud American tourists boarded our train. They balked, yelled and guffawed over how terrible the food tasted, how badly Europeans stank, how rudely Englishmen acted, and how brilliant they themselves were. In a cabin-load of Brits. Oh yes, and they also expressed disgust at the way Americans were treated abroad -- the nerve, the strike at the Stars and Stripes! Miraculously, the Brits refrained from comment. But we couldn't resist. My bright, classy, well-educated, but slightly outspoken friend turned around to face the obnoxious crowd and exclaimed: "Do you want to know why Americans are so hated in Europe? Because you're self-righteous and rude! I hate Americans ... and I AM AMERICAN! You're a disgrace to the rest of us!"

You see, it's not that Britain, France, Germany and Italy are lazy and traditional and therefore possess an envy/hatred of all things American ... it's just that nobody, not even a "Yank," likes an inconsiderate, spoiled guest who spits on the dinner, gloats at the table and flexes his muscles while insulting the host.

-- Saskia Dantes

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[Read "Rage Against the Machine."]

The claim that Martin Heidegger promoted a "contempt for mass humanity" is absurd. Heidegger's essays on technology remain some of the most thought-provoking works on this subject. There are many valid criticisms to be made of Heidegger's life and work. This isn't one of them.

-- Nathan Hunt

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Three cheers for Wesley Yang's evenhanded, clear-sighted, literate review. The values Yang champions, and the review exemplifies, are hard to win and more difficult to maintain in this crazy world but rewards apparently include: firmer grasp of truth, keener appreciation of stakes, surer detection of B.S.

-- Ed Adams

I would like to thank Wesley Yang for his insightful review even though it has set my girlfriend and myself off on another one of our great East Village Punk vs. Poli-Sci Environmentalist Grad Student debates. ("Every time I see a copy of Real Simple, I would like to burn it," she says, "But then I think about all the pollutants the glossy paper would release into the atmosphere." "But, honey, why burn the magazine when you can make fun of their cover in Photoshop instead?")

The solution to our society's various problems is not offering more choices in consumption for Upper West Side yuppies who see buying tchotchkes as a spiritual pursuit ("Commodify Your Dissent," anyone?), and it's not New Age-cum-Apocalypse of John waiting for eco-disaster while growing your dreadlocks. It's taking real action and putting real pressure on politicians and businessmen to change the way we do things in this country.

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-- Ken Mondschein

Far be it from me to be labeled a Luddite, neo or otherwise, but Wesley Wang's review of Nicols Fox's tome, "Against the Machine," struck a familiar chord in my psyche. I am old enough to have experienced life well before the Information Age even began, but have embraced it full force and have wallowed in it for years. It was even my career, before the economy derailed that notion.

As I peer inside my present-day life, I see a household of three, that contains three digital cable TV boxes (need to have cable in every room, now don't we?), three computers, two of which are connected via a wireless network to allow both computers to link to the cable modem, and an old, shudder, Pentium 120 laptop that doesn't see much use these days. We have all the latest gadgets that society demands: VCRs (all right, a little passé), two DVD players, two cellphones, multiple land-line phones, in case, heaven forbid, we should miss a call and have to check into the voice mail to listen to a message someone we might have wanted to talk to has left. Oh, and Caller ID, just in case we don't want to speak to that person. I am absolutely certain there are many other gadgets lying around the house, but why bore you with the inventory we have, when I'm virtually certain you will have these same items and more in yours.

As I step back and review all this "new" technology, I have to wonder, is any of this making us any happier or healthier as a family? Our days go by with our individual quests for information, done in the isolation of time or room, nary seeing one another except at those times when a mandatory family dinner is happening, or when each of us in our own time leaves or enters our home. The answer lies somewhere between yes and no. It is the gray area of our lives, this place where we live.

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Instead of talking to one another, we send e-mails. Instead of a home-cooked meal, takeout or fast food is what we put into our bellies, whenever the mood hits us. Dinnertime is a vague concept, occurring anywhere between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m., each one doing what works for him/her. Instead of watching a television show or movie together as a family it is not uncommon that we are all watching the same thing on three different televisions in three different rooms, calling out to each other things like "Did you see that?" We now multitask without even giving thought to what we are doing. My son is the king of the multitaskers, watching television, listening to a CD, while chatting online with "friends" and surfing the Web, all at the same time. Basically speaking, we hardly ever see each other in our own home.

Why does all this strike me as sad? Is it because I grew up in a home with one television, while Mom cooked dinner every night and we all sat around a table and talked while we ate? As it now stands, we could never go back to those idealized times. The Information Superhighway beckons for our attention; gadgets that were supposed to make our lives easier and free up more time to do the things we felt were necessary actually take up all of our time and do not make life conducive to human interaction. Am I just now railing against the machine? Have my eyes been opened to the separate lives we are living in a single abode? Will I go back to living just the way we are after a few minutes when something else on the Internet steals my attention from what is supposed to be important? I don't have the answer, do you?

-- Sarah Brice


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