Adapted from "To America with Love" by A. A. Gill, © 2011 by A. A. Gill. Originally published in Great Britain in 2012 by Weidenfeld & Nicholson; to be published in the U.S. July 9, 2013 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.
One of the most embarrassing things I've ever done in public was to appear--against all judgment--in a debate at the Hay Literary Festival in the mid-90s, speaking in defense of the motion that American culture should be resisted. Along with me on this cretin's errand was the historian Norman Stone. I can't remember what I said--I've erased it. It had no weight or consequence. On the other side, the right side, were Adam Gopnik, from The New Yorker, and Salman Rushdie. After we'd proposed the damn motion, Rushdie leaned in to the microphone, paused for a moment, regarding the packed theater from those half-closed eyes, and said, soft and clear, "Be-bop-a-lula, she's my baby, / Be-bop-a-lula, I don't mean maybe. / Be-bop-a-lula, she's my baby, / Be-bop-a-lula, I don't mean maybe. / Be-bop-a-lula, she's my baby love."
It was the triumph of the sublime. The bookish audience burst into applause and cheered. It was all over, bar some dry coughing. America didn't bypass or escape civilization. It did something far more profound, far cleverer: it simply changed what civilization could be. It set aside the canon of rote, the long chain letter of drawing-room, bon-mot received aesthetics. It was offered a new, neoclassical, reconditioned, reupholstered start, a second verse to an old song, and it just took a look at the view and felt the beat of this vast nation and went for the sublime.
There is in Europe another popular snobbery, about the parochialism of America, the unsophistication of its taste, the limit of its inquiry. This, we're told, is proved by "how few Americans travel abroad." Apparently, so we're told, only 35 percent of Americans have passports. Whenever I hear this, I always think, My good golly gosh, really? That many? Why would you go anywhere else? There is so much of America to wonder at. So much that is the miracle of a newly minted civilization. And anyway, European kids only get passports because they all want to go to New York.
The skyscraper – invented and perfected in New York, the archetypal American city – has remained a quintessentially American vernacular. The high towers and the lift invented a new space, a new etiquette for being close to strangers, with minimal eye contact, no conversation and no farting.
Have you considered the guns in American films? Of course you have. But have you considered the number of guns in British films? French, German, Spanish, Hungarian, Swedish films? You probably haven’t because there aren’t that many. Very few. But a gun in a film is so culturally specific to America. Guns in America’s story are a constant, a plot device. Guns are Hollywood. They have the power. And guns don’t want us dead - they just want us to want them.
If America didn’t actually invent sex, then it does seem to have reinvented it: repackaged it, reconditioned it, and rewritten it. Given it, in short, a jolly good seeing to. American teenagers invented new places to have sex – in cars for instance. They invented events for sex: proms, rock concerts, spring break, camp. America’s genius has always been to take something old, familiar and wrinkled and repackage it as new, exciting and smooth.
Charity is a pastime, an occupation for rich Americans. There is so much charity money that it’s coined its own name: philanthrocapitalism. It makes its own weather. The amounts of money involved are so large they have their own gravity, pulling in other bequests. The legacies and endowments themselves become hedge funds and corporations. Instead of paying tax, they donate the things that their taxes might have paid for. American charity is big and brash and free enterprise.
In Letcher County, Kentucky, many stories were not just lubricated by John Barleycorn, but motivated by him. Alcohol was the departure and the destination. Whiskey was the captain of the story, and the pilot at the wheel. Prohibition – an infamous challenge to Americans’ freedoms – is in retrospect seen as utterly foolish: intrusive, hypocritical, a crude attempt at social engineering and religious manipulation. The view that Prohibition was an absurd wrong turning in the American journey of self-determination and increased freedom is almost universal. History isn’t just written by the victors, it’s usually written by the drunks.
Overall, the Old World patronizes America for being a big, dumb, fat, belligerent child: Americans are stupid, crass, ignorant, soulless, naïve oafs without attention, irony or intellect. But how stupid can America actually be? On the international list of the world’s best universities, 13 of the top 20 are American. Four are British. Of the top 100, only one is French, Heidelberg creeps in for the Germans. America has won 320 Nobel Prizes. The UK 117. France 57. America has more Nobel Prizes than Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Russia combined. America’s robust construction, its filigree of sensibilities, its essential genius belong to no one but itself.
There are lots of great, memorable American speeches. Kennedy, Lincoln, the Godfather, Reagan, Yoda, Tom Joad from <em>The Grapes of Wrath,</em> Ralph Waldo Emerson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama. Americans have always liked to talk, and they also like people who don’t talk, the mixture of speedy tongues and taciturn understatement. The explanation for why arguments are so polished and natural over there is a gift of the Constitution, freedom of speech. Not just the right to say what you want, but the obligation to exercise that right. There is something indelibly, throat-catchingly American about a crowd and a man raising his voice.
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