Saturday, June 3, 2023

America’s upper lip is stiffer than England’s


A Stefan Zweig-reading polyglot, Roy Hodgson coached in Sweden, Switzerland, Italy and the UAE before leading England from 2012 to 2016. The club of his life was Crystal Palace, whose catchment area, where I grew up, might be the most ethnically varied in European football. Clues to his guarded politics suggest the shrewder kind of Labour man.

There was cause, in other words, to hail “Woy” as the voice of modern England, liberal patriotism and other non-oxymorons of the day. The nation never got around to it. For reasons that are hard to place — it pre-dates the knee-taking activism — his heir gets the honour. Or perhaps not all that hard. Gareth Southgate has a winning team. Hodgson didn’t. A moral spin has been put on what is at bottom glee at success. Don’t expect the high-minded rapture to survive a bad World Cup.

Shallow or not, England’s ecstatic summer was audible from across an ocean. As in 2018, American friends find it hard to square with the decorum they were reared to expect from us and what they are used to here. The surprise is misplaced. One in the eye for reputations, I know, but the US is the country with the stiffer upper lip.

My hunch (“theory” is too strong) is as follows. If a nation contains its feelings most of the time, they are liable to gush out with sporadic but absolutely torrential force. The inverse is just as true. A culture with a high average level of emotional candour is less given to abrupt surges of the stuff. It is the choice between pricking a boil and draining it: the same contents enter the world with a quite different violence.

Delineating these ways of going at life is not the same as naming a winner. The price of the American model is a sort of ambient psychobabble. “The means by which people talk about themselves without revealing anything”, is how the writer-doctor Theodore Dalrymple defined this mode of speech. In my quarter of Washington, flags invite passers-by to “live” their “truth”. Deepak Chopra remains at large. To sit through a date’s worth of this stuff is to hear celibacy calling.

But then weigh, if you would, the spoils. The emotional binges averted, the feelings aired before they run out of hand: a personal openness that might grate in the short term can stave off mass surges of it. On that score, the US also profits from its internal schisms. The blessing of a 50-50 electorate is that there is seldom such a thing as a truly national mood. Adjust for geographic vastness and ethnic diversity, and it takes something exceptional (at least in peacetime) to foster the kind of herd emotion that has become almost biennial in England over my lifetime.

If its loudness were the worst of it, England’s boom-and-bust approach to feeling might win out. But, choosing my words carefully here, there are moments in England — as serious as a royal’s death, as frivolous as a World Cup — when one becomes aware of a certain potential. It is not that dissenters from the collective mood are unsafe. But they might catch themselves being less than candid for the sake of a quiet life. The country’s ancient hospitability to the offbeat, the contrarian and the cussed can seem very theoretical, very quickly. John Stuart Mill did not have foreign countries in mind when he cited social pressure, not just statute, as a curb on free speech. No doubt, some Americans felt the same chill after 9/11. But England can summon a censorious mood for lesser events. Even a happy mob is still a mob.

Most of this, in the end, is a harmless quest for belonging. By rights, it should be the younger country needing constant reassurance that it is a nation and not just a market with a flag on it. But I sense ever more of that neurosis in England’s reverence for such binding institutions as the national team and what must be the most sacralised health service in the world. Upon hearing that 21st century trope, “We’re all in it together,” you need not strain to make out an unspoken addendum. “Aren’t we?”

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