Belfast Telegraph

US Election: We're so keen to be 51st US state, we have lost sight of who we really are

We're experts in American culture now, but it's a pity that we don't know more about our own neighbours, writes Gail Walker

Well thank goodness that's over. There were times, I don't mind telling you, when I thought it was never going to end. But it has, it has ... All we have to do now is drag our sorry, emotionally-drained carcasses down to the local high school and punch our hanging chad for either Hillary or Donald.

Except, of course, we can't. Why? Because - brace yourselves, readers, since this is going to smart - because WE ARE NOT AMERICANS.

>>Live US Election results  - interactive coast-to-coast map of every count<<

As another election cycle (see how those American terms have become second nature) draws to a close, maybe it is time, like Seventies French disco popster Patrick Juvet did all those years ago, to come right out and admit "We love America". Even the "bad America" of gun-owning, stars-and-stripes bedecked porches and Okie from Muskogee country.

How else can you explain our obsession with the US of A? Turn on a news programme and you will have some British journalist gravely informing us of the mood of "the heartland".

Indeed, you can play Presidential Bingo. Does the British hack hire an open-top Chevy (symbol of the American dream, don't you know)? Check. During his journey, does he fiddle with the radio dial and pick up some bat crazy talk radio? Check. Will he (or she) end up in some place nobody's ever heard of? Check. Will the town be in trouble? Double check. Will the report have a variation on "They used to make fridges in Stewboygen, Michigan; now they just make do"? Oh, yes in doody. Check.

Will said reporter end up in Merle's Diner? Yes, of course. Will he end up talking to Hank or Herb about the economic decline of the Rust Belt? Ah ha. Will Hank or Herb be wearing a cap bearing the legend Green Bay Packers? You betja.

The only thing missing is John Cougar Mellencamp in the background telling us all about the trials and tribulations of "Jack and Diane, two American kids living in the heartland".

You can also spot the verbal cliches. Two Americas. Bitterly divided. Culture Wars. But Americans don't see it that way ...

Yet even hoary cliches contain a certain kernel of truth. The images from the Rust Belt, the new south, the Midwest ... the basic facts of geography and politics do get through - even if it is the sheer fact of America's physical vastness and social diversity.

Throw in the increasing cultural hegemony of the American dream factory. Who has more reality in our imaginative lives, Charlie from Casualty or Tony Soprano? The Pritchetts of Modern Family or thingummybob from that Channel 4 thing?

We seem to think what happens in America has something to do with us. Mostly, it's about looking down our noses at them. Maybe even laughing at them.

In Northern Ireland, we are able, incredibly, to wag the finger at the States over their gun laws! Yet the US has a society more accurately approaching freedom of speech - certainly of the Press - than we can even imagine in Britain and Ireland, where the restrictions on reporting are well-nigh paranoid and anti-democratic.

But British TV cameras cruise the streets of America with an attitude which would be unimaginable in Britain itself, utterly impossible in fact. They lavish vast generalisations on a nation infinitely nuanced and much more successfully diverse than the pot-boiler repressive and repressed society we have here.

You only have to count the very few ethnic faces on the broadcast media in Britain to be aware of the huge gulf between our fond liberal rhetoric and the actual norms we live by.

Still, I would hazard a guess that the average person in Britain knows more about the Trump-Clinton face-off than they do about any region of Britain other than the one they live in and maybe even than their own national politics.

It is an ignorance of actual, real opinion that became all too embarrassingly evident during the EU referendum vote. Yet again, for the fourth poll in a row, the media, the pollsters and the commentariat all got it spectacularly wrong.

The camera crews only made their way to Hartlepool, Sunderland and the outer London boroughs after the vote was over. And they did so with all the nervousness of anthropologists visiting distant tribes up the Amazon.

They found a population not all that concerned about house prices, tuition fees, the Heathrow extension or social inclusion initiatives. They were too busy shopping at Poundland.

It turned out that we are not one people with odd little variations round the Celtic fringe. On the contrary, we are a diverse (not just in terms of race) and regional country. But is that reflected in our national media? Absolutely not.

We have lost a sense of ourselves. We either live in London or we don't. We may know a great deal about the farms of Kansas but we have no idea how they make a living in Stoke, Bristol or Norwich.

We no longer know quite how our neighbours live or what drives them. We don't know about their pasts or, for that matter, about their hopes and fears for the future.

It is a kind of cultural shame, of national amnesia - millions of lives written off at a stroke.

Strangely, the US presidency is a kind of exception.

We take sides in a kind of proxy election, with razzmatazz and cartoon opinions, with the Left being Democrats and the Right Republicans ... except it's not really like that, is it? For all our supposed Europhile credentials, there isn't a single European election our culture cares about even a tenth as much as Washington's.

We want to talk the Big Talk of the World Power and we really couldn't care less about Wigan or Limavady or Galashiels. Let alone the Black Forest or Limousin or the regions of Central Denmark. Not at all.

It's like that old joke about the husband who says his wife gets to make the small decisions, like where they live, what school the kids go to, where to go on holiday, what the household budget will be, while he gets to make all the big decisions, about nuclear power, climate change and whether or not we should invade Iraq. We excel at the big talk.

Soon, America will have a new president. And, whether it is Hillary or Donald, that president will still be an American and we will soon be able to go back to looking down our noses at them.

Which is quite some trick while writhing around in sheer envy.

Belfast Telegraph


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