Continental divide still stands between Americans and us
Most of the time we can, without much effort, view ourselves as the 51st state of the US. I don’t mean that in any furious Yankee-go-home way. I suggest merely that the cultures have become so intertwined that a comfortable understanding now exists between the US and western European nations such as our own.
Whatever George Bernard Shaw may have quipped, we are not really “two countries separated by a common language”. Our ability to easily read American menus, train timetables and newspapers makes that nation seem distinctly less foreign.
Besides which, Americanisms now creep so rapidly into British and Irish usage that Shaw’s maxim doesn’t even have cosmetic worth. If I hear one more newsreader pronounce the first syllable of “privacy” to rhyme with “hive” I will smash my radio into tiny, hopeless little pieces. It’s not “ahead of”. It’s “before”. Hang on. Where was I? Oh, yes.
The globalised nature of digital communication means that seconds after some dancing hamster becomes a meme in Pittsburgh it achieves that status in Portlaoise. After a lifetime’s exposure to American films and television, the average Irish person will, on making his first visit to the US, know how to order food, speak to a cab driver and shout abuse at dangerous drivers.
There are, of course, intriguing differences in attitudes and manners. Americans are often surprised – this is not something they usually suspect of themselves – to learn that, when set beside most European states, theirs is an oddly formal society.
Job titles are, for instance, used as honorifics in a way that makes us smirk: Principal Clarke; Coach Clarke. In fact, Americans tend, even in New York, to be a great deal more polite than us. In this country you’re lucky if the waiter calls you “sir”. In the US, the customer often addresses the waiter in that manner.
These alterations in habit are easily processed. After a few days in Des Moines, the visitor will become used to this hitherto disorienting civility between strangers. There remain, however, certain phenomena in American society that will always seem unimaginably foreign to the observer from overseas.
All of which brings us back, once again, to the indescribably ghastly murders in Connecticut last week. Our own violent history should confirm that there is, of course, nothing disproportionately murderous in the American psyche. But that nation’s inability to engage with gun control remains, to us, a deeply puzzling aspect of an otherwise familiar society.
The oddest manifestation of the phenomenon concerns the supposed moral objections raised to any discussion of firearm legislation in the immediate aftermath of a shooting. Such conversations risk, it is claimed, “politicising” the tragedy.
Colorado Republican congressman Doug Lamborn expressed this view eloquently last week. “With the investigation into the murders ongoing, it is too soon to be talking about new federal laws,” he said. “In fact, it disrespects those who are still mourning.”
Does it? How? If a bridge collapses does it disrespect those killed to begin immediate discussions on bridge safety? More bizarre still are the claims that, in such circumstances, liberals are guilty of “exploiting a tragedy for political gain” when they try to stop further disturbed teenagers from gaining access to assault rifles.
Polls still show that a majority of Americans are wary of any significant changes to gun laws (the banning of handguns, for instance). The National Rifle Association will set its killer flying monkeys on any politician who dares to press for such assaults on the second amendment. In short, there is no “political gain” to be had from taking on the gun lobby. If there were then Barack Obama would have mentioned the issue during the presidential campaign. This is one rare instance where we can reasonably assume that any politician taking up the cause is doing so at the urging of his or her conscience.
It is not our place to lecture the Americans on the rights and wrongs of their country’s approach to law and order. There is nothing more infuriating than some filthy foreigner coming over all high and mighty about one’s own averagely flawed nation.
(Aside from anything else, the US teems with people who are every bit as appalled by the country’s gun laws as are hairy European liberals.) It is, however, worth pondering the situation to remind ourselves that there still are significant cultural differences between the nations.
Any alteration in regulations achieved by Obama will almost certainly leave the federal gun laws in a condition for which only armband-wearing, libertarian extremists argue in western Europe. It really is an entirely different country. At times, some of them may as well be speaking Swahili.