Hate mail from the US

When I criticised Americans they told me, in no uncertain terms, to get lost

Polly Toynbee

Friday August 25, 2000

On Wednesday I railed against America in a fit of nausea induced by watching the conventions display all that is dismal about US politics. Most columnists must sometimes read what they have written next morning with a hundred "Yes, but.." esprits d'escalier: I wondered if I had gone too far. After all America is such a dazzling array of contradictions that it defies any satisfactory definition, let alone in one short piece. But considering the response, I think not.

The article attacked the chronic failure of US politics to confront its citizens with reality: no cuts but huge growth in carbon emissions despite global warming, refusal to sign the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, determination to build the dangerous and useless national missile defence system, inability to redistribute wealth to its own poor let alone lead the world in debt relief to the third world, executions and a prison population greater than any dictatorship, a political system so corrupted by commercial interests as to defy the word democracy.

In reply came an avalanche of emails from America worth quoting here at length to give the full flavour. (I leave in some, but not all, of what the BBC calls "strong language"):

•Many of us here in the US are weary of playing cornucopia to countries such as yours who claim to be an ally and then blame us for the world's troubles... You and your fellow Euro countries are so socialised you cannot afford to defend yourselves. We are tired of hearing of your great European socialised medicine and all the other government give-away programmes which we know are being underwritten by us. We are tired of our military being used around the planet so we cannot handle our own borders from those who inundate our country illegally. Perhaps you could send your Buckingham Palace guards to help us on our Mexican borders?... You make fun of our political system which makes me chuckle when I compare it with your monarchy. I get many laughs from the goings on of your parliament on C-Span.

•Will the British ever get over the tragic loss of empire? We wish you luck with European unity, you truly deserve each other.

•We the people of the US would rather keep your socialist arse in Europe with the rest of the losers.

•I couldn't care less about any country other than my own. The US uses a lot more of the world's resources than any other country - so WHAT? We're feeding the world and our economy is supporting every wannabe economy in the third world. We don't need you. You need us. It's about time you Eurotrash paid us the respect we deserve.

•As for Europe being GB's only hope, dear God I hope so because we've been carrying your bloody dead asses long enough.

•Geez Polly, what a shame the 3,500 waiting [on death row] haven't already been executed. And what a tragedy only 580 have been when so many more deserve their fate.

•Just like the whiney, snivelling, selfish, childish liberals here, all you can do is spread class envy. But you sure as hell aren't willing to work! It is the goal of liberals everywhere to bring everyone down to the lowest common denominator. Had your forbears the same attitude, you'd be speaking Deutsch now if you were alive.

•You are nothing but an intolerant American-hating bigot. You can't stand the fact that America is so rich and powerful while you live in a pathetic third-rate country that is of no significance at all. I see no reason why America should pay any attention to the whining, pissing, shitting, moaning and groaning of a bunch of idiots like you. The rest of the world has no right to expect us to share our wealth with it. It is our money, not the world's. Bush will win in November. I hope when he wins you have a stroke and it kills you and all your fellow Eurotrash die from shock as well. America Uber Alles! Fuck the world!!

There were calmer and more reasoned responses, but that was the prevailing mood. There was desperation from some American liberals, most of whom were, alas, planning to vote Nader thus aiding George W Bush's path to the presidency. But those quoted above convey the tone of the majority.

The trouble with attacking America is the bedfellows you find yourself among. Emails from some of the old British left showed they thought I was endorsing their strange Soviet view of American "imperialism", when that is precisely the opposite of my charge, which is isolationism. A few rightwing reactionaries expressed that dotty loathing of every aspect of American culture with an etiolated Old World disdain that understandably drives Americans wild. I went out of my way to describe America as the world's powerhouse of cultural, artistic, intellectual, popular and economic vigour - all of which only makes its atrophied political torpor more distressing.

Then there are the greens who loathe America for its quintessential "materialism": I have no ideological truck with that either, only for US failure to make essential energy cuts. Will Americans wait for a biblical inundation of New York, Miami and San Francisco before they take it seriously?

Whoever criticises another country risks sounding as if they think their own is just fine, but Britain carries heavy baggage - the Queen, parliament, empire, an abominable history, Europe's whole internecine past from which the US twice rescued us. If we think Ugly American, they think Braveheart: consider the host of British actors making fine careers playing villains in Hollywood.

Beyond the tired old stereotypes, this cri de coeur from across the Atlantic expresses a reasonable indignation at European defence expectations of the Americans. We do need them more than they need us. Europe's pathetic token contribution to Kosovo was an embarrassment, and gives us scant right to preach. That is why Tony Blair is trying to forge a European defence policy into something that could become an effective peacekeeping force, instead of an underfunded ragbag of unusable and overlapping capability. (Europe spends 65% of US expenditure on defence, which delivers only a tiny fraction of US capability for its money). But defence is only one symbol of Europe's hopeless inability as yet to weld itself into a unity that could offer an alternative to the American way in the world.

As many of the emails said, Americans have all they need right there at home under their new defence umbrella, so who needs the world? The trouble with finger-wagging, high-horse moral arguments urging them to take more global responsibility is what do you do when they thumb their noses?

Don't get mad, get organised is the message to Europeans. It's no use waiting for America to do the right thing - do it ourselves first. British politicians will have to start facing unequivocally towards Europe not America for solutions to global problems: France and Britain could start by ceding their UN security council seats to all-EU representatives.

Original article