This past Thanksgiving break, I found myself going back home to London, England — back to a Europe with a resurgent importance on the geopolitical stage, unexpectedly strengthened in cohesion by the recently-ratified Lisbon Treaty. Next year, Europe’s population is expected to hit half-a-billion and its GDP to nearly match that of the U.S. and China combined.
And all this has come just as the world seems to be moving in a European direction. The current financial crisis has turned Europe’s softer, more regulated brand of capitalism into the preferred model for much of the world and even the United States. Americans’ ongoing pursuit of health care is but one of many examples.
But what’s interesting about Britain in particular is its position in that uncertain, interstitial space between continental Europe and the United States — not quite identifying wholly with either, but embracing different aspects of each in some complex synthesis. Nothing better demonstrated the complexity of this phenomenon than to celebrate Thanksgiving as a British student at Yale, returning home to a houseful of expats, close friends and fun-filled foodies.
My older sister’s friend and current roommate, who had gone to college with her in the U.K., grew up in Washington, D.C. She single-handedly prepared a sumptuous feast for some 50 friends. The sight was staggering. Three full turkeys, endless plates of yams and pies interestingly interspersed with pitchers of Pimm’s, Guinness and Strongbow.
It was as if Uncle Sam and Lady Britannia had lustfully thrown themselves into each other’s arms and rolled around the entire room. I don’t think anyone had seen such a mélange of things British and American since the Revolutionary War. But when it came to going round the room and saying what everybody was thankful for — a quintessentially American tradition to say the least — the snickering clique of British passport-holders found themselves casually jeering at the corny sentimentality of this silly group of Americans.
I often feel a rather seething annoyance boil inside me when I see fellow Britons sneering so cavalierly at the perceived depth of American ignorance, crassness, materialism, lack of irony and vulgarity. Aside from the sheer ignorance, crassness and vulgarity of such brazen and shameless contempt, it seems to reveal much less about America than about a rather feeble need for some Britons to feel superior.
“OK,” they seem to be saying. “We may no longer have an Empire, power, prestige or very much respect in the world, but at least we’ve still got our ‘taste’ and ‘subtlety’ and ‘intellect,’ unlike those poor silly Yanks” — and incidentally, for me, the renegade student from across the pond, — “unlike those brainless, well-to-do Ivy League dilettantes who dabble in banal endeavors like Art History and Intro Psych.”
And what I try to tell them as they thrust their fingers in their ears is what absurd and self-deluding nonsense! Oftentimes, so many Britons hug themselves with the thought that they’re more cosmopolitan and sophisticated, and less loud and obnoxious than Americans because they think they know more about geography, decorum or world culture.
Sophistication or “refinement” is not a moral quality, nor should it somehow be the ultimate criterion by which to choose one’s friends. We like people because they’re charming, kind, considerate, exciting to be with … That list is long but being politely reserved in conversation or knowing the capital of Burkina Faso is certainly not on it.
The truth is that we Britons find ourselves deeply offended by the fact that many Americans know and care so very little about us. How dare they not know who our Prime Minister is or think Wales a mere island off the Scottish coast? We’re literally not on the map as far as they’re concerned, and that hurts. They seem to get along without us a lot better than we can without them. And so, some react with superiority and the characteristic conceit of people who at the core feel deeply inferior.
Ironically, all these thoughts were flowing through my head at a time when the Americans upstairs were going round the room showing their gratitude, while a separate clan of Britons were having a good chortle with one another at their expense. Perhaps if Britons had a better sense of thanks, or even a Thanksgiving of their own, they might feel a little more humbled by their fellow companions and think introspectively about all the things in the world around them to which they genuinely owe thanks.
With the significance of Europe rising in the wake of the crisis, America has been doing a lot to secure its ties with Brown, Sarkozy, Merkel, the lot. Americans are looking toward Europe as an answer to a United States that in recent years appears to have gone astray. Perhaps if Britons and Europeans, even here at Yale, were a little more thankful, and less derisive, toward Americans, the transatlantic relationship — so central to geopolitical stability — might be stronger and better embraced.
Gabriel Perlman is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.