This has not been an easy month to be an American in Britain. Attacks on America are everywhere. Newspaper columnist Francis Wheen recently referred to an audience in Florida, which he has never actually met, as “ghastly." Journalist Nick Cohen has claimed that the arrival of “United States style casinos” in Britain would herald rampant prostitution, crime, money laundering and drug traffic.
Religious figures, too, have gotten into the U.S.-bashing act. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, issued a stern condemnation of President Bush’s Christian values as they relate to global warming. It’s a common British posture. As newspapers and London cabbies like to lecture Americans, 25 percent of greenhouse gases emanate from ugly USA. Curiously, these self-appointed stewards of the environment never get around to mentioning India, China and Russia, whose billions of citizens are also contributing to global warming.
Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, has complained that the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St James, Robert Tuttle, was behaving like a “chiselling little crook” because his embassy owed “congestion charges,” fees collected from London motorists as a means of curbing traffic in the city.
The ambassador, in turn, sensibly noted that the charges were similar to a tax and, since foreign diplomats are immune from taxes in America’s capital, they should enjoy the same privilege in London. Mayor Livingstone announced that he would pursue the guilty parties at the American embassy all the way to the courts. Yet his motivation had less to do with collecting the tax than singling the U.S. out for censure. This explains why he made no issue of the fact that 54 other embassies and consulates owe thousands in congestion fees, which they have declined to pay on the same grounds as the American ambassador.
Livingstone’s ill-tempered fit was followed by the visit of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Blackburn constituency of her British counterpart, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. Whatever critics think of her, the angry protests and the surly children at the school she visited simply left observers with an impression of a miserably rude and churlish British populace behaving like a medieval mob.
Typical were the remarks of a Muslim demonstrator, who proclaimed that “Condoleezza Rice should be sent to Iraq, tried as a war criminal, and executed.” Small children shouting mean epithets and carrying confrontational placards, and youngsters inside the school hanging their heads and refusing to talk to Rice were shameful moments in Anglo-American relations.
There were others. For instance, when the Lord Mayor of Blackburn, Ysuf Jan Virma, greeted Rice and then went outside to the demonstrators and waved his arms to goad on the angry rabble, their shouting drowning out the press conference she was trying to hold with Jack Straw. What was so impressive about Rice’s visit was her ability to keep her dignity and to rise above the ugly scenes that plagued her visits to Liverpool and Blackburn. Even so, she received little sympathy from the media. When I suggested to a fellow journalist, who is a supporter of the antiwar movement, that there may be a few reasons to admire an accomplished classical pianist, linguist, scholar and diplomat, he responded that he would not have his children sit in the same room as a war criminal.
But the often-crude reactions to Rice may be reflections of a broader rudeness among the British populace. I got a taste of that rudeness when I recently visited a London pub. For reasons I still cannot fathom, the portly bartender refused to give me the time of day and treated me as if I were a black trying to purchase food in a Mississippi diner in 1955. I asked him why he was being so unfriendly and received a scowl for an answer. He muttered something to the effect that he did not have to talk to me at all. Other Englishmen in the pub shot me the same hostile looks. One can’t help but wonder if this is what the world can expect when it pours into London for the 2012 Olympics.
Perhaps sensing this public mood, Tony Blair last month addressed the Australian Parliament and made an impassioned plea to Britons back home to curb the wave of anti-Americanism that he calls a “madness.” It is indeed hard to be an American in Britain, to put up with the daily hail of ridicule about how bestial, stupid and idiotic we are, and one feels that a bit more humility and a bit less arrogance would serve London well before 2012 is upon us. But if recent events are any indication, we will sooner see adoring crowds greet Condoleezza Rice.
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