This morning, after switching on the kettle, I set my laptop on the kitchen surface and shuffled through the BBC iPlayer’s “Factual” category—looking for something interesting to keep me company as I made my porridge and coffee. I stumbled across Question Time, and noticed that this special edition was being broadcast from the United States—something to do with an election? I was thrilled to discover the entire panel was American, with the notable exception of a personal hero of mine: British professor of history at Columbia University Simon Schama.
Things, however, did not go according to plan, and I was very soon restraining myself from damaging my employers’ Macbook with the wooden spoon I’d shortly before been using to stir my porridge. After realising that unless I switched off the iPlayer in short order, I’d either have to remove the spoon from the screen or from my clenched teeth.
I took a minute to reflect on my reaction.
As a quick introduction to Question Time, for my American readers—clearly something the audience at this recording had been denied—the format of the programme is straightforward. David Dimbleby chairs a panel of note-worthies, and selects from a series of questions submitted by the audience for the panel to answer one by one. It is a political programme which has featured many of the most important British figures including Tony Blair—while still Prime Minister. The panel usually consists of a politician or two, a political theorist or commentator (often an academic) and, often, a slightly more off-beat character such as Ian Hislop.
:Which candidate does the panel believe could and would restore America’s battered image abroad?”
Dimbleby: Which candidate does the panel believe could and would restore America’s battered image abroad?”
Schama: “Barak Obama”
The historian then outlined his reasoning that the Democratic candidate’s heterogeneous past and perspective of global citizenship could only help America’s “perhaps undeserved,” tarnished foreign reputation. Specifically, Schama noted, the rhetoric of war as a last resort rather than an simply useful option could play an important role in diplomatic relationships.
One of the other panelists, this time from a more Republican-friendly platform, stated that he believed John McCain would fulfill this role more effectively.
Cheering, whooping, and a few boos.
The panelist then went on to outline why he thought the reputation of the US is not tarnished in some places abroad, and that many African nations actually admire American foreign policy. He also stated that Iraq could turn out to be a dramatic success. Each of the rest of the panelists then discussed their preferences and reasoning.
Several audience members were then asked their views, and this is when my breakfast began to take a less supportive role in my morning. One man was asked who he’d like to see in the White House, and his emphatic response of “John McCain” brought whoops and cheers before he could speak more of his mind.
Unfortunately, however, he did speak more.
With a notably impressive display of condescending superiority, the gentleman in an expensive suit addressed Simon Schama, beginning with: “You’re a typical professor. You are it. With all respect, our country is not hated overseas, I’ve been to fifty-five countries…” continuing that the US “brings hope to people” and that it is not hated overseas. “We’re the most charitable nation on earth, as evidenced by George Bush, and all the work he did…”
“We are respected and loved by millions of people BECAUSE OF WHAT WE DO FOR THEM! AND WE DIE FOR THEM, AND WE DIE FOR THEM!”
His tone then took on a challenging note: “with all respect, don’t talk about our country being villafied overseas, when we are respected and loved by millions of people BECAUSE OF WHAT WE DO FOR THEM. [emphasis his, as he shouted over the cascade of applause and the chairman’s attempts to direct the discussion.] “AND WE DIE FOR THEM, AND WE DIE FOR THEM.”
I was already impressed by this increasingly visceral outburst, when he capped his performance with a patronisingly disgusted gesture allowing the typical professor his reply. As Schama began his response, the suited gentleman continued his tirade, raising his voice over the top of audience and Schama… and it all continued to escelate until eventually, Schama was able to say “if I’m a typical professor, you’re a typical blowhard; let me finish.”
The spoon, by now, was nowhere near the pan, and I found myself gawping at the screen in irrational hope that the man would shut up.
The problem, from my perspective, is not about which candidate wins this election, nor from which side of an all-but-imaginary political fence one happens to stare through. The problem is the offensive-defence of American rhetoric. It’s pre-emptive, visceral, and primitive. It makes respectable-looking people speak without thought. It damages credibility, and makes the speaker look like a bafoon. And I remember it firsthand.
“The problem with this is that facts are tactical, discussion conduit, and people incidental.”
Having been raised in the States, I know the blood-pounding-in-the-ears nature of political discussion. The goal is to be right, absolutely; and to make sure anyone watching knows you’re the right one. The problem with this is that facts are tactical, discussion conduit, and people incidental It’s all a vehicle for your personal perspective (the right one) to be broadcast with as little ambiguity as possible. And this kind of debate might even lead to interesting dichotomies and contrasts if it wasn’t all done under the influence of adrenaline.
You see, from an outsider’s perspective, this suited businessman illustrated America. “We’re right!” “We’re the most charitable!” “We fought for you!” “We freed Iraq, goddammit!” and: “We’re not hated abroad! Don’t tell me we’re hated, don’t you talk about our country…” The logical element of the discussion is abandoned, and it’s down to bare-knuckles. “I can’t understand your words, man, cause my ears are throbbing, so I’m gunna SHOUT at you so I can hear my own damn voice!”
My response surprised me: I tsked, and muttered: “typical American, can’t see he’s trying to tell the world what it thinks.” I appreciated the irony of this hateful person insisting we’re not hated. I found the fact that a professor’s extraordinary career and the phrase “with all due respect” could be used as conduits for hatred actually quite funny. I would have laughed and enjoyed a British moment of personal, quiet exultation in the foolishness of the speaker if it hadn’t been for one thing.
The audience rose to this diatribe with a fervency of whooping, cheering, clapping and shouting. The whole place suddenly became a bowl of people shouting down the suited man, the panel, Dimbleby and each other. I stood gobsmacked in my kitchen—spoon dripping oats onto the cat—and begged God not to let any of my friends watch this.
I couldn’t watch it any longer; I switched it off and cried.
The thing that many Americans don’t realise, is that the rest of the world is watching what they do—but not out of jealousy or pride. Decisions and perspectives made in the country with the largest economy on the planet affect the rest of us, so we’re watching reasonably closely to get a glimpse of the future through the decisions being made now. And most of us can’t comprehend just how any decisions are made under the circumstances.
Until Americans are willing to put emotional defensiveness and denial aside from their rhetoric, there will be a continued decline in their perception overseas: regardless of political perspective, good deeds or noble willingness to sacrifice. And, by the way, America as a concept is hated by some people overseas. We need to deal with it, not shout them down or question their right to not like us very much.
And, the question came again to me: “Where are all the considerate, contempletative Americans I knew growing up? Where are the people who give more generously than any other nation? Where are the peace-makers and volunteers? Where are the AIDS workers, teachers, and nurses?” I only pray that when the hubris of the TV-talkers dies, the dignity I know lives on in the US is left standing.