Americhristmas: The 10 Most Surprising Things About American Holiday Traditions

Christmas is one of the holidays with the most commonality between Britain and the US. We both encapsulate the Northern European traditions of trees and snow and reindeer and so on. But there are some surprising differences. Some of these that particularly flummoxed or amazed me when I first encountered them are as follows:

  1. What, no Boxing Day? American companies are rather Scroogelike in the amount of holidays, public or otherwise, that they give their employees. Whereas in England, the 26th is a public holiday as well, I was most distressed to learn that here in America I was expected back at work bright and early, fully functional and ready to be a productive little cog in the machine. Seriously, does anyone really expect to get much done on the day after the biggest holiday of the year? I get more time off for Thanksgiving than I do for Christ’s birth most years, and last time Christmas fell on a Saturday I got the Saturday off (it’s usually a workday for me) and that was it. Conservatives moan that “companies can’t afford it”, but given the bonuses they pay their executives, I’m more convinced it’s “won’t” than “can’t”. Very surprising, and unpleasantly so.

  1. Food Differences. The familiar mince pies, Christmas pudding and Christmas cake don’t really exist here, but make room for cookies. Hundreds of the things, sugared, iced and cut into seasonal shapes. The potatoes served with the turkey are likely to be mashed, not roasted (you people have no idea what you’re missing), the turkey might get deep-fried, and the green vegetable accompaniment is beans, not Brussels sprouts. Chocolate coins in the Christmas stocking isn’t the done thing, but candy canes hung on the Christmas tree might be.

  1. Candied Sweet Potatoes. Top of my personal list of “what on earth were you thinking?” foods, this one is so weird it needs its own category. Sweet potato was a nonexistent vegetable in my growing up, and I really wasn’t sure about something that had the consistency of stringy regular potato but a sweet flavour. But to mash it up and bake it in a pan with marshmallow on top, and then insist that it belongs on the same plate as turkey? No, you people are strange. I like you, but this food crosses too many boundaries for me. I’d never even suspected the existence of a food (not a condiment like apple sauce with pork or cranberry sauce with turkey, but a food) that was sweet but a “dinner” food and not a dessert. That’s a line I don’t personally cross. Like your weird jello salads, this I’ll pass on.

  2. HanukChristKwanzFestivus. When I first arrived in the States, I hadn’t yet tumbled to what inveterate particularists Americans are. When I was growing up, Christmas was Christmas. I’d vaguely heard of Hanukkah by the time I moved to the States as an almost thirty-year-old, but other than that it was a Jewish festival around Christmas time, I didn’t know anything about it. It didn’t, and still doesn’t, have a very high profile in the country of my birth. Jews, and even Muslims, are as likely to wish you a happy Christmas as anyone else. But what on earth’s a Kwanzaa? A Festivus? Come on; you’re making these up. Kwanzaa, I’m informed, is essentially Christmas for black people who think Christmas is too white and European; Festivus is Christmas for militant atheists. This is America. Everyone’s got to have their own holiday catering specifically to them. Now, I understand that if you’re Hindu you probably want to celebrate Diwali rather than Christmas, and if you’re a Jew you probably want to celebrate Hanukkah. But these have an actual history and don’t seem to be fabricated out of whole cloth simply because we like having a holiday and there are things we object to about the majority one. I guess the early Christians’ adoption of the Saturnalia for Christmas was something like this originally, but given the basic nonexistence of Kwanzaa in the UK and the very definite existence of a thriving black and African community, I wonder whether stuff like Kwanzaa is really as “African” as it’s claimed.

  3. Musical Differences. I talked about this last post, but it’s worth mentioning again. The carols have different tunes in many instances (Away In A Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Angels From the Realms of Glory, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear). The secular music is totally different. And there are some different carols, too. I was particularly surprised by Angels We Have Heard On High, which has our tune for Angels from the Realms of Glory (mostly) but different words, and the complete absence of Once In Royal David’s City.

  4. There’s No Such Thing As Tacky Decorations. Whether it’s the tree or the house, American notions of proper decorating are like themselves: bold, loud, overpowering and individual. Nothing is so cheesy or tacky that some American won’t put it on his front lawn, whether the 12ft tall inflatable Nativity scene, the dinosaur Santa giving presents to all the little T-rexes, the zombie Santa, the upside-down Santa that hangs by a toe from the gutter, or whatever else. Coming from a part of Britain that was relentlessly middle class and the last thing anyone wanted to be accused of was of being tacky, it was rather surprising. Tree ornaments are similar. No-one would make patriotic or state (if we had them) tree ornaments in Britain, but you see them all the time here, blazoned with the Stars and Stripes, or the Confederate flag if you’re of a mind, or football teams, TV shows, whatever. Express yourself. It’s the American thing to do, and if anyone doesn’t like it, it’s the American thing that they can kiss your… Ahem.

  5. So few Christmas cards. Ok, Britain goes a little overboard with Christmas cards. You get them from everyone, and you’re supposed to give them to everyone. They make special Christmas card display hangers that you can pin up to 100+ cards to apiece, and people regularly need several per room in their house. Think US valentine cards, raised to the power of ten and at Christmas time. And when I say everyone gives them to everyone, I mean it. I got Christmas cards at school from kids with names like Anwar Islam and Rakesh Patel. But we didn’t usually send or give cards to immediate family. By contrast, my wife’s family did cards for one another, and a few closer friends and church people, and that’s it. As my family know, I’m particularly disorganised about cards, and at $2 a card to mail them internationally, it gets expensive, but I always feel particularly guilty that I’m not doing it right, no matter what we do.

  6. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: the Movie. Yes, I mean the 1964 vintage one. We all know the song, even in the wilds of Britain, but not only had I never seen the film (still haven’t, in fact), I had never even suspected its existence. This “classic” American Christmas film apparently has a distinctly North American audience; it hasn’t been shown on British TV that I know about or remember any time in my life of fortysomething years. This, Frosty the Snowman (which I’ve never seen either), and a couple of others I don’t recall off the top of my head are basically unknown. We have our own Christmas TV classics (The Snowman), but typically what I recall being shown on TV on Christmas day were popular mainstream films like The Empire Strikes Back. Of the classic American holiday films, I’ve seen A Charlie Brown Christmas and maybe a couple of others. “Classic” for me is sometimes code for “not watchable on merit; needs added nostalgia”.

  7. Eggnog. To go from a country in which it’s a marginal, slightly strange alcoholic cocktail involving real eggs (at least, that’s what I thought “egg nog” was when I got here) to a country in which it’s a vanillaish creamy soft drink demanded by the masses and used as a flavouring in seasonal chocolates and stuff is fairly eyeblinking. I’d never drunk eggnog of either incarnation before I moved to the States. To hear what I always thought was an alcoholic drink craved loudly by my resolutely teetotal father-in-law was something of a shock. Eggnog is big business here, consumed by the pint and lapped up with relish. I don’t personally care for it; you can have my share. But how in demand it is and how much a Christmas flavour it’s considered to be here was certainly surprising.

  8. We Wish You A Sober Christmas. America has its share of holiday drinking, but it seems to be of things that would be drunk anyway, like regular beer or wine. There seems little of the holiday sherry or the alcohol-soaked desserts or the mulled wine that you have to prepare or buy specially. Hot apple cider in the US means warmed spiced apple juice, not the alcoholic drink that is the only meaning of “cider” in the UK. American Christmas is designed for kids, so there’s no alcohol on show, there’s masses of sugar, and everything is very G-rated (U or Uc, in British film classification parlance). Britain’s a bit more European; alcohol is a part of life and we don’t feel any particular need to hide it from our children. The sooner they treat it as something to drink sensibly, but just something to drink, the better off they’ll be. Including at Christmas, with our sherry and our mulled wine and our brandy-soaked Christmas puddings that you set alight at the table, and our brandy butter. We’re really not a nation of alcoholics, but alcohol is definitely more embedded into the Christmas festivities than it is in the US.

Anyway, that’s my list. I’ve probably forgotten a few, but those are the main ones that caught me out. Enjoy your Christmas preparations; I’m back to mine.

Citius Altius Fortius, or “Why are Americans so dominant in sports?”

With the Olympic Games currently being staged in Rio, naturally the Americans are dominating the medal tables. This is normal; Americans treat this as evidence that everything is right with the world; the rest of us with a sort of weary acceptance that yes, things are proceeding as usual.

But it begs the question: Why are Americans apparently good at every sport we’ve ever heard of, plus all the ones no-one has suspected might exist as well?

I typically like to lay the blame on the simple mathematics of population and economics. The United States of America is in the world’s top three for population and has the world’s largest and most dominant economy. They’ve got the population base to find people who are good at just about everything and the economic muscle to buy them world-class training facilities. The results speak for themselves.

But there’s more to it than that.

Talking with my American wife about it, she made the astute observation that there’s a cultural difference between the way Americans approach sports and the way Brits approach sports. She expressed it as “Brits don’t worship athleticism in the way Americans do”, and while that wouldn’t be the way I’d put it, she’s definitely got a point. There are reasons why Americans are so good at sports, and they are primarily cultural, not mathematic.

I thought that in this post I’d take a look at some of those differences. Yes, it’s another “compare and contrast” exercise between our two countries. I happen to like them. Live with it.

The usual caveats about generalising and personal opinion apply; this is my list, not a definitive guide. Plus the following:

I’ve never personally been much of a sportsman. As a child I had the hand-eye coordination of a jellyfish, the physical flexibility of a rhino and the forward running speed of a sloth, and there isn’t any point in trying to compete with eagles if you’re one of the world’s penguins.

Also, I’m at best a casual sports fan. It’s difficult to really love something you’re personally terrible at, and the only things I’ll actually turn the TV on to watch are the Olympics and the World Cup. But the cultural differences involved here are fascinating to me, so here goes anyway:

1. Americans exalt competition and success, Brits love a heroic failure.

Americans are naturally competitive about everything. It doesn’t matter what it is, Americans will compete over it. It’s been said that if an American’s neighbour comes home with a brand-new Rolls-Royce, the American will want one just like it or better, whereas if a Brit’s neighbour comes home with a brand-new Rolls, they will secretly wish the neighbour to die a fiery death. Same envy, different results. Americans compete in work, they compete socially, they compete in and through their kids. And naturally, they compete in and through sports.

Not only do Americans love competition, they worship success therein. Only in America would “loser” achieve the level of perjorative connotation that it has. The world is basically seen as a Darwinian struggle in which you either succeed or are trampled. Even American street address numbering starts at 100, so that the Americans who live there don’t start killing one another over who gets the number 1 address.

Donald Trump seems to be a sort of unfortunate distillation of this mentality. He worships the idea of power and “success” so much that he actively despises weakness – the economically disadvantaged, the disabled, the physically unattractive (his own speech convicts him) – and the one thing that will send him most quickly into frothing apoplexy is the suggestion that reality might be different from his “Look at me, I’m a success” self-image (witness his persistent rage against various reporters). Frankly I think he’s temperamentally unsuited to the leadership of anything more sophisticated than a chimpanzees’ tea party, but we’re talking about sports.

Naturally, therefore, because competition and winning are so important, Americans expect to win. Winning is vital to their national self-image; if we don’t win, something is wrong with our country. See my comments on “loser” above.

By contrast, nothing warms the British heart like a story of someone struggling against the odds and almost making it. To American ears, the concept of “heroic failure” is nonsensically oxymoronic. There’s nothing heroic about failure. Heroes are people who win. End of story.

But it’s one of the subtle central tenets of British culture. Scott of the Antarctic would be a national embarrassment to Americans; to us he’s one of our heroes. Maybe it’s something we got from the Scandinavian domination of the British Isles in the 8th and 9th Centuries. The Norse ideal of a hero was someone who went down fighting for all they were worth, and even their gods were destined to lose the final battle at the end of the world. To them, heroism wasn’t shown in victory, it was shown in how you face death. (To use an analogy from the original Star Trek, it’s the antithesis of Kirk’s cheating solution to the Kobayashi Maru scenario.)

Wherever it comes from, we seem as a nation to have some of this idea. Heroes don’t necessarily have to win to be heroes; they show their heroism in how they face whatever comes their way, be it victory or defeat. Sometimes all the courage and training in the world isn’t enough, and the true hero is the one who does what’s right whether that leads them to victory or sends them crashing down in flames. That’s something of what I mean by “heroic failure”.

Turnabout is fair play, so a British political example: I suspect that Boris Johnson was trying to tap into this deep well of the national psyche by the way he campaigned for the Brexit. He seemed totally unprepared for the idea that he might win; I think it might have been intended as a subtle calculation, that he was supposed to put up a valiant fight and lose, so that the nation would then love him. My opinion only, and probably based on hearsay (but the same goes for what I think of Trump, I guess).

Anyway, Brits love heroic failures. Trying big and falling on your face is a way to our hearts like nothing else. Remember Eddie the Eagle?

2. Americans deify hard work, Brits worship fair play

It’s impossible to overstate the value of hard work in American culture. I’ve commented on this in a Father’s Day post a couple of years back; one of the questions that always seems to get asked in American church small groups around that time of year is “what did you learn from your father?”, and almost without exception the answer Americans give includes something about the value of hard work as the first or second thing mentioned. And without exception it’s in there somewhere.

American culture worships at the altar of work. Whereas in Britain, asking someone what job they do is perceived as a sly way of asking how much money they make, in America it’s one of the first questions asked. Work is what defines you; an out-of-work American suffers a sort of identity crisis in a way Brits don’t (or not to the same degree), because who Americans are is so tied up in what they do. The American Dream is that if you work hard, anyone can make it; their love of success makes them gravitate especially to those who started from nothing and made themselves wealthy and famous. The entrepreneur, the business-starter, the self-made man: these are the national icons.

Most Brits, I think, would probably suspect that the American Dream is a subtle bill of goods: that hard work doesn’t always pay off in the real world and that the deck is being stacked by those who are “winners” under the current system. Whether you succeed or fail isn’t only dependent on what you personally can do. Time and chance happen to us all. The race is not always to the swift.

Americans also almost universally see personal drive and ambition as basically unalloyed good things. I’ve heard Americans saying “I’m a very driven person” and meaning something unequivocally positive, whereas to me it always comes across as either “I’m a Nazi to my underlings and my employees are plotting to kill me” or “I want my boss’ job and I’ll trample anyone who gets in the way”. They’re often prepared to accept levels of cutthroat ruthlessness in the pursuit of goals that would shock most Brits; again, look at Donald Trump. Any advantage you can wrest is to be seized with both hands, whether it’s above or below the table. If playing dirty gets the job done, there’s a certain amount of shrugging and telling people not to be crybabies. All’s fair in love and war.

Theologically, the work focus leads to an awful lot of American Christians struggling with the notion of grace, but it’s not like there aren’t facets of the British mentality that run diametrically opposed to the truth of God. Anyway, we’re talking about sports. Onward!

Brits, by comparison, deify the notion of fair play. Sharing, fairness and taking turns are drummed into children with the same singleminded devotion we show to the teaching of important things like table manners. My own kids’ ineptitude with a knife and fork is something I find deeply shameful; most Americans, however, wouldn’t even notice a problem in the way they eat.

Where Americans crowd and use their elbows, British people wait patiently in line. Your turn will come. I suspect that if Michael Phelps had been British, he wouldn’t have come out of retirement to swim in the Rio Games, and when I personally am confronted with ultrasuccessful athletes like this, I’m always struck with the impulse to cheer for someone else. Anyone else, in fact: he’s already won his share of medals, and it’s someone else’s turn now.

I expect that most of my countrymen would find that this impulse resonates with them; to most Americans it’s probably an absurdity. A winner is expected to keep on winning, otherwise he becomes a loser (or worse, a “quitter”) and we despise him. By contrast, the British “heroic failure” mentality means we often warm more to our celebrities on the way down than on the way up.

Notions of fair play carry over into the language. One of the primary connotations of “sporting” in the British variety of English is “giving the other guy a chance; not pressing your advantage; playing fairly and in a gentlemanly manner”, and of course, “it’s not fair!” is probably the number one complaint that you will hear from children up and down the country whenever anything goes wrong.

It allowed us to host an Olympics without any shadow of judging scandals that I ever heard about; as a nation, we’re deeply devoted to the idea of fairness and the level playing field. We cheer for the underdog, because the big guy has all the advantages and it’s a way to do something to even the odds a little. We also have a deep-rooted national suspicion that if you’re successful, probably you had an unfair advantage of some kind. Someone with Trump’s background would never make it in the British political scene because of the unfair advantage that his inherited wealth gave him, and we’d never celebrate the way he uses his money to push people around in the way that some Americans seem to celebrate it.

Americans, on the other hand, would probably view the success of the successful as just desserts. Their national mythology expresses the idea that hard work always pays off; therefore the successful must be those who have worked for it (even if they didn’t necessarily get their own hands dirty). It’s right that they enjoy the fruits of their success, including, perhaps, the right to do what they can to see to it that they keep on succeeding. If this means bending the system to support them, American culture doesn’t care about it as much as it cares about winning.

3. American education emphasises sports to an insane degree

University-level sports is big business in the USA. Any American who hasn’t spent the last hundred years in an underground nuclear bunker knows about March Madness, the BCS, College Baseball and so on. They’re televised and followed nationally by legions of fans, even among those who never went to university or played the sport in question.

Partly this is just that Americans exhibit a far greater degree of loyalty to their university or college than Brits do. We don’t have class rings; reunions are very low-key; we don’t do the whole “Class of ’86: The Titans” type naming thing. Very few Brits, apart from perhaps those who went to Oxford or Cambridge, would have an expectation that their child would necessarily go to the same university they went to. But it goes deeper and broader than that. With the exception of the traditional Oxford vs. Cambridge Boat Race, there isn’t a single university-level sporting fixture that anyone in Britain would even remotely suggest televising. Universities are academic institutions; they aren’t supposed to be there for their sports programs. In Britain, if you want to study something like Sports Management at university, you try to go to the single sports-focused university, Loughborough. Who therefore win every sporting event they are in, which makes most of the competitions (particularly in the Midlands regional group where my own university was) unwatchably lopsided. There’s no point.

Anyway, with the way most of our universities’ funding comes from the public purse, we’d think they were wasting our money spending it on fripperies like sports teams rather than the academic education they are supposed to be there for.

Even at a primary-school (“elementary school”, O American) level, American school sports are worlds more professional and organised than British ones. What in British schools is a “P.E. teacher” rejoices in American schools with the title “Coach”. It’s a different focus. In Britain the suggestion is that they are a teacher, whose job it is to make sure your bodies aren’t withering while you exercise your mind in a classroom. In America they are a “coach”; their job is to help you succeed in your chosen sport.

The unspoken expectation is that you will have one, and that’s not nearly so much the case in Britain. Everyone is required to have some physical activity, but not everyone is expected to be an athlete. Some people are cheetahs, some people are sloths. There’s no shame in being one of nature’s sloths; they just aren’t well-designed for speed. Lack of basic sporting talent is not necessarily something you can help; it might well be inherent in who you are.

I suspect that the money machine drives a lot of the emphasis on sports in American schools. By and large, American schools are humungous by comparison to British ones (my high school was considered huge with about 600-800 kids including what in America are Junior High-age children, whereas there are high schools around here that have easily 1200 or more kids and less than half the age range of their British counterparts), and this means they have far more resources to devote to nonacademic things. In Britain, if you want to do something less mainstream like archery, your school is not going to be able to help you. They don’t have the money and they don’t have the people, and they will not waste either of those resources trying to make the time.

My wife counters that if American people weren’t devoted to sports in general, the money wouldn’t go to it in schools. I can see that, but I think that the “devotion to sports” is a complex of things stemming more from the veneration of the American twin gods of competition and hard work than it is about sports per se. I’d suggest that schools focus on sports as a way to let all the kids exercise their inner competitive jerk in a relatively controlled environment that isn’t going to end up with someone getting killed.

Because certainly the level of British sports fandom is comparable. Football (by which I mean soccer, not handegg) players have even more inflated salaries, not to mention egoes, than their American sporting counterparts. People are still insane enough to strip to the waist and paint themselves in their team’s colours, even with British weather to contend with. A team’s fortunes at their match may provoke either a celebration or a riot. We’ll cheer on our Olympic athletes with gusto even when we know they’re lucky to have made it that far, and we’ll get disappointed despite that knowledge if they don’t somehow pull off a miracle and win a medal.

However, you’d never get British universities accepting a knuckle-dragging troglodyte of a student purely because they can kick a ball, but this is what happens with the US’ sports scholarships. As I said, British universities aren’t perceived as being about sports; no-one cares who wins the national university rugby championship except students and their parents, and not all of them. The idea that you’d allow people to go to university just based on athletic achievement rather than academic ability is mind-numbingly dumb to me. Yeah, sure, if they have the academic ability as well, but not solely for sports. Why, America? How did it start? What is the academic point?

Maybe my wife’s idea of an American “worship of athleticism” isn’t as odd as I thought.

4. Brits insist on dividing themselves up

We’re already a smallish nation, population-wise. There are at least five European nations with larger populations, and we don’t even register against populational heavyweights like India, the USA and Brazil. But then, for reasons of tradition, we insist on dividing ourselves up into our component parts for most sporting events. We may be “Team GB” in the Olympics, but in the World Cup, or the European football championships, or rugby, we play as Scotland, England, Wales and (occasionally) Northern Ireland.

Understand, I’m not begrudging the Scots the opportunity to field their own team, nor to cheer for whoever’s playing against England. But it always seems to me like we’re sort of shooting ourselves in the foot. We aren’t big enough to do that any more.

Once upon a time it might have made sense. Surprising as it might be to modern ears, the United Kingdom once held the same sort of ultradominance in sports that the United States does today (incidentally, should that be “the United States does” or “the United States do”?). And so, due to the national devotion to fair play, it was more sporting to compete as England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland than as the United Kingdom all together. It’s more important that it be a fair and evenly-matched competition, even if that means hamstringing ourselves, than it is to win. Americans probably see this as a sort of national devotion to failure, but it isn’t. Fair play matters.

5. Americans revel in victory, Brits don’t want it to go to our heads

This is similar to some of what I’ve already said, but the emphasis is a little different.

Americans have an expectation of national victory surpassing even the Chinese (or the Soviets before them). Their whole national mythology leads them to the belief that the United States of America shows a self-evident superiority to every other nation, because We Are America, and we have the free-est and best country in the world. More, Americans approach competition with a mindset of victory. They won’t be happy with anything less than gold, and ideally we want to utterly crush the opposition, rewrite the record books and win silver and bronze too while we’re at it. To most Americans, this is probably a “well duh”-level obvious truism, but the attitude is a bit more alien to us Brits.

Americans believe in celebrating victory, and only victory. The national cult is the Cult of the Winner, and any winner is lauded and celebrated with a vigour that only Americans can devote to a party. And as soon as they stop being a Winner, the nation casts them out onto the ash-heap of history with an alacrity that has to be seen to be believed. It doesn’t matter who you are; if you can no longer produce the goods, we don’t like you any more. “What have you done for me lately?”

Second-best isn’t considered good enough unless another American takes gold, and even then the individual athletes will fight amongst themselves. The Cult of the Winner tells you that “runner-up” is just another way of saying “fastest loser”, and that the one who does win deserves all of the acclaim.

No British version of Michael Phelps is going to arrogantly waggle four fingers at the camera in a sort of “I’ve won this gold in four Olympics, na-na-na-na-na!”. Yes, the athletes deserve their personal celebrations, but there’s a distinct national attitude of despising even the appearance of arrogance, and the last thing anyone wants is for victory to go to their head. Once it does, they’re insufferable.

I remember the first season that Wayne Rooney played football for England. At that point he was a joy to see; it was like you could see him thinking “I’m playing for England; how cool is that?” every couple of minutes. His delight in being able to play the game at that level was wonderful. After a season or so of that, though, all the fame and applause gave him a severely swelled head, and the modern Wayne Rooney is a very different animal (using that term deliberately).

“Don’t let it go to your head” is something almost every British kid has heard at some point in their life. Yes, it’s great that you won, but you don’t need to rub salt in the other guy’s wounds. Let them at least keep their dignity. Don’t become an arrogant braggart over it. It’s not sportsmanlike.

Even in other fields than sport, there’s a sense that it’s bad form to cheer your own victory too loudly. The first Duke of Wellington said “next to a battle lost, there’s nothing half so melancholy as a battle gained”, whereas Sir Winston Churchill put it as “in victory, magnanimity”. The noble thing to do is to acknowledge the other person’s efforts and to demonstrate your greatness by being magnanimous, rather than proclaiming your greatness in words.

Perhaps we Brits are more interested in how you win than in whether; as an example, I’m prouder of my countryman Max Whitlock for standing to one side and letting the Brazilian gymnasts take centre stage for their celebration of the silver and bronze medals than I am of his winning Team GB’s first ever Olympic gold in gymnastics. That showed character and class, that did.

But be that as it may, we’re probably not going to be toppling the Americans from their pole position in Olympic medal tables any time soon. On the other hand, we did exceptionally well in London four years ago, and so far we’re doing astoundingly well again this year, without even the “boost” of being the host nation. Nothing in the US’ national culture automatically slates their athletes for victory, any more than being British is a recipe for automatic athletic disaster. London opened the door, and now a new generation of rising stars have the modern training and competition facilities and the renewed emphasis on sports that will be the Games’ enduring legacy to the country. Four years later, and if the Rio Games continue as they have done up to this point, it looks like we may well eclipse our medal performance in London. Despite a sort of collective sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop, perhaps we know that victory is possible now.

But of course also, the Americans continue to lead the field in medal counts. That’s not going to change any time soon; unlike the Soviet and Chinese governments who groom children for particular medal success, the USA has never needed to bother because Americans will do it to themselves.

The American determination to win and succeed is one of the truly great things about their nation as a whole. As I’ve shown, it’s not without its downsides, but what can occasionally look like arrogance to the rest of the world is usually just individual Americans honestly expressing their Americanness. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I’d suspect that Britons may hold together better when the chips are really down, but let’s not have any non-sporting national showdowns any time soon, ok?

Never Beam Down to the Revolutionary War Wearing a Red Shirt

I keep chickening out of wearing one of my Union Jack t-shirts on the Fourth of July itself. Probably no-one would care or even notice, but it would feel like blowing a raspberry at the whole American Independence thing. Loudly. And there’s always the chance of meeting someone with a little more alcohol-fueled revolutionary fervour than is good for them, and I don’t want to get beaten up or attacked by some drunk redneck over my choice of apparel. If I’m going to get beaten up, I’d like it to be for something important.

But this year I may have found a way to express my own patriotism in a subtler way.

Since my red hair started to darken to its present browner shade, I’ve actually started to look pretty good in bright red.

Red’s a good patriotic American colour, the first of the trio of colours that we both share. No-one’s going to object. Least of all in Texas where it’s also the colour of the dominant Republican party. Look, I’m wearing a quintessentially American colour!

But red was also the uniform colour of the British soldiers during the period of the Revolution. It survives today in the British Army’s dress uniforms, including the Queen’s celebrated Grenadier Guards who are famed for not moving no matter what you do around them to try and distract them. Texas is too hot for a full coat or jacket around the Fourth, even quite late at night, so perhaps a red T-shirt…

I rather like the subtlety. I don’t want to be symbolically making rude gestures at the whole thing, just finding a way to touch base with my own national identity without getting perceived as cocking a snook.

This seems in itself fairly British. An understated but very real pride in our nation that doesn’t have to tell everyone how great we are. Maybe we do just expect everyone to know already, but this is America, and it’s the Fourth of July, and we were the Enemy during the War of Independence. And Americans are more in touch with their history than we are, because they have less of it to remember, and I’m doing my usual Fourth of July thing of worrying myself into a frenzy over the popular perception of my country as it was a mere couple of centuries ago.

Still, who can object to a red shirt? It’s subtle enough. Even a red shirt echoing the red coats of the Crown loyalists. No-one need know except you and me.

Sssshhhhh!

The Brexit: Reactions from Over the Sea

When something like this happens, as a Brit living in America everyone wants to know what you think about it. What is going to happen now? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? What about this, that or the other?

It’s rather flattering to be treated as a source of primary information regarding whatever I’m being asked about concerning my country, but the truth of the matter is that my first-hand experience of Britain on a long-term basis is now over a decade old and there have been many changes in the interim.

Nonetheless, for the record, here are my thoughts on the Brexit we’ve just voted for ourselves: I don’t know.

I really don’t. I’ve been sceptical of the federalising nature of the European Union for decades now, mistrusting its stated aim of creating a single European state that I feel little to no emotional attachment to (and yes, that has been the stated aim right from the beginning). I don’t like the concentration of EU power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats, I dislike its general wastage of time and money (the British government isn’t really any better, but at least it operates on a smaller scale), I mistrust the necessity of giving up control of our borders, and I do not like the distant, basically faceless nature of European government.

However, I’ve been living in the US for long enough now to understand exactly how small a fish the United Kingdom is in the global pond. London is still one of the great financial centres of the world, but in American financial news it’s frequently less important (and therefore less mentioned) than the French or German markets. And the collective “European markets” are only one beside the USA, China and Japan.

The UK together by itself is a much more viable proposition as a state than something like Scotland trying to go it totally alone, but we’re still pretty small and should not get arrogant as if we still owned a quarter of the world’s land surface.

Also, Donald Trump thinks the Brexit is a good idea, which should give us pause.

Watching from a distance, I’ve become disturbed by the increasingly fascistic and anti-immigrant tone of UKIP and sections of the Leave campaign. Immigration is going to happen whether we’re in or out. We can’t and shouldn’t try to completely close our borders; the diversity of perspectives and understandings brought in by our immigrant communities ought to be a source of strength, not weakness.

Neither should we withdraw from the world into the snail-shell of our Island Britain, drawbridge raised and spears bristling against “contamination” or whatever. Britain really does have a vital role to play in the world, whether as a part of the EU or separately: we have real national gifts and perspective that the world needs. Too many of the Leave camp seem to want to do just that, and I am not with them.

Also, Donald Trump thinks it’s a good idea.

Would we be better off Remaining? I don’t know. We can’t hope to influence the European Union from outside, but we seldom seem to have very much influence on it even from within. Is it better to be a single small fish in a large global pond, or a single small fish in a slightly smaller European pond that wants to assimilate the shoal into being a single large fish? Either way it seems like we’re being eaten.

The EU is widely considered a nightmare of overreaching red tape and stifling regulation, but Britain’s recent record on actually beneficial legislation to protect the weak and the poor from predation of various kinds is not good. Typically we’ve opposed it until made to change our ways by Europe, and that’s not a good pattern. Take note, American Republicans. Sometimes government is there as a sheepdog to stop massive corporate interests from turning predator. The EU has been a force for human rights and peace in Europe. I recognise and honour that.

Also, Donald Trump thinks the Brexit is a good idea.

That’s been one of my main problems with the whole campaign, actually, but particularly the Leave folks. The fearmongering on both sides has been dreadful even from this side of the Atlantic, but the fascistic tone of much of the Leave arguments and many of the people who support an exit put me off, including just about all of UKIP.

One of the things this vote has done is expose how deeply divided our nation is. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain; Wales and England voted to Leave. Older people wanted to Leave, young people overwhelmingly voted to Remain. London voted to Remain, the rest of England voted to Leave.

Is the name “United Kingdom” a bad joke? We’ve seldom before seemed so divided. You probably have to go back to the time of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms before “England” was even a thing in order to reach a comparative level of disunity. What is “Britain” now? What is “Europe”? What are “Scotland”, “Wales”, “Northern Ireland” and “England”?

I suspect that part of the success of the Leave campaign is a reflection of this especial confusion of our national identity as British.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have strong identities as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They have done for a long time, and they hold them tenaciously. Not so the majority English. When I was young the English were always taught that it was wrong to say “I’m English” because we wanted to include our brothers and sisters of the several Celtic nations (that is, the Welsh, Scots and Irish). We were always taught to speak and think of ourselves as “British”, engendering a monumental confusion over what is “Britishness” as opposed to “Englishness”. This was brought to the fore by the recent Scottish independence referendum, but it’s been a real question for quite a while. And I’ve been out of the country for most of that time, so I’m not directly familiar with what sort of answers, if any, my country is coming up with.

Add in another level of “Europeanness” and an EU that really fundamentally doesn’t like the idea of separate national identities and it’s perhaps less surprising that the Leave camp won (or who it was that voted to Remain). Those with the strongest subnational identities (Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which have strong separatist movements and can view Britain as “English rule”) voted to Remain, while the confused English and the much more connected-to-England Wales (Yes, there’s a Welsh nationalist movement as well, but Wales has always been more integrated with England than Scotland is) voted to Leave. London, the determinedly cosmopolitan and internationalist financial centre, voted to Remain, the rest of England voted to Leave.

We don’t know what happens now. No-one does. In a real sense I have little invested in it any more; I live in America now. But I’m still at least emotionally committed to the country of my birth. I’m still a citizen of the United Kingdom rather than the United States, and I still don’t feel I can swear the US oath of citizenship in good conscience while it contains that clause about “renouncing all other allegiances” or however it’s worded. But the situation doesn’t affect me directly any more, so anything I say has to be viewed through that lens.

I’ve not been there for the arguments and wrangling. I’ve not lived in the UK for a decade. I’m viewing things from a distance, and that can sometimes play weird tricks on your perspective.

It will be very interesting to see how it all plays out, though I hope not in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse.

Britain is one of the top three or four economies in Europe. Her exit is going to leave a hole, not to mention potentially acting as the First Domino. But is this a fallacious “slippery slope” type argument? Only time will tell. And while I’m at least reasonably confident that Britain isn’t going to try to retreat from any and all engagement with the outside world, that may not be the case with all of the other potential exitees.

We don’t know what will happen as we try to extricate ourselves from the Union. At least we don’t have to get kicked out of the Eurozone and renegotiate our currency, but no-one can tell where the unravelling of that Gordian Knot will lead, whether for better or for worse.

So basically I’m still unsure over the whole thing. If I’d been registered to vote in it I would have done so (particularly if I’d been living there) but I don’t actually know which way I’d have voted. If I’d never left the UK, I might well have voted with the eventual majority, but I don’t know. It took moving to the USA for me to self-identify as a European, and I still mean that in a continental rather than political sense. But I’m a lot older and less naïve now than I was when I was in my early twenties in Britain, and watching the Scottish independence referendum gave me a certain sympathy for the rest of Europe who have been forced to deal with British Eurosceptics for at least a generation.

Who can say? As CS Lewis says, none of us are ever told what would have happened.

I hope that now we can all come together as a nation and do what’s right, making the best of the situation no matter how we (collectively if not actually personally) voted. We’ve historically been quite good at coming together and doing what’s right when our backs are to the wall. It remains to be seen whether that is still true.

I hope that my country doesn’t descend into the sort of ignorant anti-immigrant near-fascist mess that sections of the American electorate seem bent on becoming. I hope that we actually discover (or reforge) our real identity both as British and as English, Scots, Irish and Welsh. And as belonging to the European continent if not the Union. And as citizens of the world with something to contribute to the nations.

My optimism gives me hope. My cynicism isn’t so sure. And with the turn American politics seems to be taking, I see the same forces of ignorance, anti-immigrant nationalism and snaillike isolationism at work here.

What manner of world are we creating?

A Brit’s Guide to the American Political System

Apparently, ’tis the season to declare your ambition to become President of the USA at the end of 2016.

I seldom feel my foreignness quite so much as when I turn to things political. On the surface, it seems like our two systems ought to be more similar than different. The US is a democracy. Britain is a democracy. Seriously, how different can they be?

The answer is “quite a lot”, actually.

It often amazes me how little grasp most of us actually have on each other’s political systems, and I thought it would be fun to talk through the differences. My family back in the UK occasionally ask questions about US politics, questions that from an American would be strange things to ask. And I’m often asked odd questions by Americans about how British politics works, too. Answering these questions isn’t always easy when the questions themselves assume a completely different setup. It really is a different world out there, and this post is an exploration of a little bit of how.

Firstly, though, a disclaimer. This is my list. Undoubtedly there will be things that I’ve misunderstood, or got wrong, or exaggerated, or which are Texan rather than American. Equally, there are probably things I’ve misremembered or whitewashed from the UK; I’ve been out of my hime country for almost 15 years now, and distance can warp memory.

This is supposed to be a fairly light-hearted look at a fairly weighty subject; I don’t mean any offence, so please try not to take any if I accidentally do. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, just a sampling of some of the things I find weird, or different, or odd.

Without further ado, then, my personal “guide” (using the word loosely) to the US political system:

  1. Americans vote on everything.

This seems like a “well, duh”. The USA is a democracy, right? Therefore, they vote on who their leaders are.

That’s all well and good, but Americans vote on everything, even down to the local sheriff (like a police chief but a bit different somehow), and probably the dog catchers and primary school crossing guards, too.

I’m only exaggerating a little bit. US ballot forms are a bewildering array of Congresspeople, State government positions, judges, city and county officials, school boards and other positions, with candidates standing for each.

I still struggle to get my head around how a law enforcement officer can have any reasonable authority to enforce the law if people whose friends he might have had to arrest get to vote him out of office. I wonder how the judges that ought in my head to stand to the side of partisan politics and operate law and justice equally to all became holders of an office with visible and expected political partisanship.

It’s weird the offices Americans consider it necessary to have a public vote for. It makes everything seem a lot more party-political, but you could argue that in Britain the partisanship is just disguised. At least in America it does what it says on the tin.

I can’t see that the system works any better than the British system, but it doesn’t work noticeably worse, either. It’s strange to me that you elect your judges rather than appointing them, but then, you don’t have a Head of State who is actually and truly above party politics like ours is. Americans just vote on absolutely everything. It’s the way they are, and it seems to work for them.

This subject leads us neatly on to…

2. The Primaries

The whole primary system is weird to me. Let me get this straight – you’re holding an election to find out who your candidates are going to be in the main election in six months to a year’s time? Right…

You’re only eligible to vote in a maximum of one of these “primary” elections, determined by whether you register to vote as a Democrat or a Republican. If you register to vote as an independent (ie neither party), it may cut down on your junk mail a bit, but you don’t get a vote in who the candidate is going to be.

What party you register as does not affect your ballot in the real election, which leads to the possibility of a kind of tactic analogous to the UK’s practice of “tactical voting” ( This is when the party whose policies you actually favour stands no chance in the local constituency, you might vote for the party who’d be your second choice, in order to minimise the chance of the candidate you really don’t want getting in). In this tactic, people deliberately register as the “wrong” party in order to try to get either the least worst candidate for that party so as to minimise the damage if they get in, or the worst possible candidate in order to maximise your own party’s chances.

The apparent net effect of the primary system is to drive party politics from the extremes. Turnout in primaries is typically lower than in actual elections, even as a percentage of the eligible vote, which means that only the hardcore party faithful tend to vote. Which means that those who want to win have to position themselves to attract their own party’s core and extremists first, providing their eventual opponent in the real election with all sorts of potential ammunition and making themselves look like a nutjob in the eyes of the watching moderates as likely as not.

There may be something of a partial exception to this in Texas, because the state is so much a single-party Republican bulwark that the Democratic party don’t even waste their time and money fielding candidates for many of the positions, leading to the odd situation of a single-party race with the candidate only needing to get a single vote in order to win the election. In these cases, the election is really decided back in the primaries, which means only a tithe of those who have the vote get to pick who the state supreme court judges (for example) are going to be.

In Presidential elections it’s even weirder. Each state has its own primaries, one state after the other, with much the same slate of Presidential candidates. But the issue may well be already decided by the time your state gets around to voting, or your preferred candidate might have already dropped out before you get a chance to vote for them. There seems to be a particular scuffle over the pecking order, and the primaries get pushed earlier and earlier as everyone tries to jump their state to the front of the line.

For the world’s foremost democracy, it all seems a bit unrepresentative. Like using the mechanics of democracy in order to ensure that the least possible amount of people have a real say.

In addition, it contributes to the sense that America is always in election season. Either they’ve just had a primary election, or they’re just preparing for a real one, or they’ve just had a real election, or they’re preparing for another primary. There is no escape.

It’s all very odd. Not to mention frustrating.

3. The President is not a Prime Minister

The inverse of this one sort of scared my wife when we were living in the UK, I think. It’s easy as a Brit to think of the President as more or less like the Prime Minister, with the added benefit of being a Head of State like the Queen as well. He’s talked about as “the most powerful man in the world”, and while there’s some truth in this (he is Head of State for the most powerful single nation on the planet, a nation whose military budget dwarfs that of the next six nations put together), in many ways the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has a lot more direct power than the President of the United States.

Due to the institutionalised mistrust of authority enshrined in the US political system, the power of the President is carefully circumscribed. Whereas the Prime Minister is always the leader of the majority party in Parliament, and thus has the theoretical backing of a majority of its members, the President need not be from the same party as a majority of Congress: either the Senate, the House of Representatives or both may be dominated by the opposing party.

In addition, whereas the Prime Minister is a member of the legislature by virtue of the way our system is set up, in America the legislative (law-writing) function of government is carefully kept out of the President’s ambit. He has the limited ability to write administrative rules (called Executive Orders) and see to the enforcement of the law, but he may not create legislation. At all.

A law has to be created in both the House and the Senate, and passed by both chambers before it can become law. Then, even if both houses pass the bill it has to be signed into effect by the President, who holds a veto that only a two-thirds majority of both chambers can override. And then after that the Supreme Court get their opportunity to scotch the whole thing as potentially contrary to the Constitution.

It appears designed to be dysfunctional. The wonder is that anything ever gets done at all, not that so little is managing to get through the whole morass of a system at present.

I know it scared my wife how much authority we Brits are prepared to invest in a single person, but it scares me sometimes how much dysfunction, ineffectuality and chaos Americans are prepared to accept as their government “working properly”. There it is. I find the possibility of genuine anarchy scarier than the possibility of tyranny.

4. The Electoral College is nothing to do with educating voters

When electing a President in America, you don’t directly elect the President. What you’re actually doing is electing people who promise to vote the way the state tells them to in the actual election for President in Washington DC. These “electors” are proportional in number according to the population of the state, with no state, even basically uninhabited ones like Wyoming, getting fewer than three electors. All of these Electoral College votes from a state go to a single presidential candidate, at least in most states. By state, the Presidential nomination is run on a first-past-the-post basis. What this means in practice is that most states tend to lean one way or the other. We know about this in Britain: a donkey would win the election if it stood as the Conservative candidate in Epsom and Ewell, and the same donkey would win in Glasgow if it stood for the SNP. But what the two-party system means is that if you’re a Democrat in Texas or a Republican in Massachusetts, you almost might as well stay home on polling day, because all of your state’s votes are going to be going to the other candidate.

The Electoral College is a relic of the days before instantaneous communications, where horses and sailing ships were the fastest ways to get around and it could take weeks to get to the capital from where you actually lived and voted.

Back then, there was no logistical way to even know reasonably who the candidates were going to be at a remote local level; you needed some way of transferring the power of the free voting of localities to a central location and election without involving continent-wide upheavals every 4 years.

Ok, so it makes sense for 1799, but this is 2014. We can Skype with people on the other side of the world. We have the technology to relay the choice of the people of Texas as soon as the ballots have been counted. The Electoral College is, on the face of it, a bit silly.

Of course, it’s not like Britain doesn’t do a lot of silly things that make no sense any more, just because we’ve always done it that way. For example, the Lord Chancellor, right up until Tony Blair’s government axed the position, sat on a ceremonial beanbag-like seat called the Wool Sack. And we have less excuse, because we can change our constitutional arrangements just by passing a law, whereas America has to set up a Constitutional Convention and go through massive amounts of hoopla and rigmarole if they want to amend their constitution even a little bit, and once you let that genie out of the bottle, anything is possible. But it’s a weird system nonetheless.

5. There are only two parties

Britain has three main ones (the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – who are not related to American liberal Democrats), three or four regional parties like the Scottish National Party in Scotland or Plaid Cymru in Wales, and several smaller ones like UKIP, the Green Party and so on.

By contrast, US politics is remarkably monochrome. Technically there are other parties – the Libertarian Party (who are like the Republicans on steroids) and the Green Party – but they are so tiny that they effectively don’t count. The Libertarians might get as many votes as the Labour Party in the constituency of Epsom and Ewell, and the Greens wish they could do that well.

What this means is that there aren’t a lot of options. If, for example, you don’t favour abortion on demand as a matter of personal convenience, you virtually have to support the Republican candidate if you want that viewpoint upheld, even if you think the rest of the Republicans’ policies are dumb. As a contrasting example, if you don’t favour large government subsidies to big business, you’d better vote for a Democrat if you want that position upheld, even if you think the rest of the Democratic Party’s positions are what’s ruining the country. If you hold a view other than that espoused by either the Democrats or the Republicans, you don’t really have many options. Technically there’s the option of a write-in candidate, in which you ignore the options presented and write in the name of someone else, but for that to be anything other than a protest vote and wasted ballot, you apparently have to follow certain procedures like approaching the write-in candidate beforehand and getting their permission to be a write-in. Apparently the possibility of Wile E. Coyote for President scares enough politicians that they’ve tried to emasculate the write-in option with procedures.

This is not to say you don’t play “least worst option” in British voting, but you generally have more people to choose between.

6. Organisations are people, too

Perhaps most baffling to me is the way organisations, including profit-making companies, religio-political nonprofit organisations such as Focus on the Family (Yes, I know I keep harping on them when it comes to this subject. They make themselves a target), and apparently everyone else as well, get to tell you who to vote for.

It’s called a political endorsement, and modern US politics seems incapable of even limited functionality without it.

Apparently the idea is that the right of free speech enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution cannot be limited to individuals. Organisations have freedom of speech as well, including corporations, and part of this, apparently, is the ability to say “this is who we think would make a great President” and to back up that stated endorsement with bucketloads of cash in donations. Or just to make the bucketload-of-cash donations without saying a thing, so that no-one really knows that company X or organisation Y is bankrolling candidate Z.

In Britain this would probably, in the case of a pseudo-charitable organisation like Focus on the Family, result in the loss of tax-exempt charitable status, and in the case of a corporation result in massive and messy public investigations for corruption of the political process. You can say as an individual “I think so-and-so would make a great Prime Minister” and make political donations as an individual, but you’re not supposed to as an organisation.

But here in America, it’s a Constitutionally-guaranteed right. Yay. Corporations, unions and other big monied organisations get to bankroll politicians however they so choose, and tell you that General Motors wants you to vote Republican. Welcome to the Land of the Free, paid for by Monsanto.

In fairness I have to point out that it’s not as though the UK doesn’t have electoral systems and procedures that are manifestly unfair or easy to corrupt. Just not this one that I remember.

7. What Middle Ground?

I touched on this already in talking about the primary system, but it’s one of the main differences in ethos between British and American party politics.

In Britain, the positions of the three main parties on any given issue are comparatively close together and may well overlap in terms of policy. Each party has their own core policies, but in US political terms what you have are three centrist or centre-left political parties.

I think the US political spectrum as a whole is centred further to the right of the British centre, though this could just be an artifact of perception caused by living in what may be the most right-wing state in the nation. But American politics is the politics of extremity. The Republican Party tends towards a rather Ferengi-like economic policy with a very conservative, traditionalist social policy. The Democratic Party tends toward what in Britain would be a left-of-centre economic policy coupled with strongly progressive or liberal social ideas. Apparently, if you’re an out-and-out economic socialist with traditionalist/conservative social views, you’re probably not an American.

8. Political advertising

In Britain, the main parties get a certain number of allotted TV segments in which to communicate their core message to the people. They all get the same number of these “party political broadcasts”, and that’s their TV allotment for this election cycle, apart from if they can contrive to make the TV news in a positive light. They can’t buy advertising space on TV. It’s against the rules. It’s all very even-handed, showcasing the national devotion to the idea of fair play.

In America, apparently even-handedness is an infringement of the freedom of speech, so US political parties have the opportunity to buy as much television advertising space as they can afford. This contributes to driving the political process by how much money a candidate can raise, and tends to make political advertising almost inescapable (unless you live in a virtual single-party state like Texas, where you have exactly the same chance of avoiding it as RMS Titanic had of avoiding icebergs. That is, it’s possible, but it’s probably not going to happen).

US political ads are generally, at least in current practice, an opportunity to try and paint the other guy as dishonest or crooked in some way rather than as an opportunity to talk about what you plan to do. All very disheartening, but it doesn’t have to be that way. People have been turned off from voting for someone by their choice to run negative campaign ads about the other candidate before now, and I think a lot of the current crop could do with being reminded of that. Still, no-one could say they lack opportunities to get their message across. It’s more than a little weird, and in my mind could be better, but there are probably reasons why the British system of allotted broadcasts is unAmerican and would not work. But it offends me the way Americans seem willing to let the power of money be one of the main driving forces of their political process.

9. Polite political interviewers

It often surprises me how comparatively restrained and polite American interviewers are to their politicians.

In some ways this is a good thing. It shows that people by and large still have at least a modicum of respect for political officeholders, and they get to see journalists treating their political leaders relatively respectfully. And in return, the leaders in question tend to actually answer direct questions put to them. The answer may not be all that substantive, but you never hear an American politician saying, “that’s a very interesting question” before going on to ignore it and talk at length about their own (different) talking points.

British political journalists, by comparison, are attack dogs. They need to be, because British politicians are past masters of the art of taking whatever they are asked and ignoring it in favour of talking about whatever they want to. British political interviews are something like a wrestling match in which politician and interviewer vie for control of the conversation through main force. The idea that a politician might actually answer a question is shockingly naïve in the British political sphere.

It’s something of a secret daydream of mine to unleash British political journalists on US politicians, just to watch the feeding frenzy. It would be rather like pushing baby chickens into a barrel full of hungry piranhas.

Having polite interviewers says good things about the honour of the country as a whole, but it’s definitely weird.

10. Red equals Blue

Lastly, something trivial but nonetheless strange.

In America, the colour associated with the conservative Republican Party is red and the colour associated with the liberal Democratic Party is blue.

This is the exact inverse of the UK, where red has always been the colour of the economic left due to its associations with socialism, and blue has always been the colour of conservatism due to its associations of blue-blood traditionalism and true-blue loyalism. The third party, the Liberal Democrats (who are, to reiterate, nothing like American liberal Democrats), use yellow or gold as the third primary pigment, representing a third way beyond the partisan bickering of what were in recent history the two main parties.

In the UK, the colours make some sort of objective sense. In the USA, they’re apparently selected at random.

It still amuses me sometimes, though, to see conservative Republican candidates decorating their political signage with red stars. Stars, of course, have obvious patriotic symbolism, but when they are red, they might have other associations: Part of me is always saying “you forgot the hammer and sickle”.

I have to say, though, that for all this, the system doesn’t necessarily work any worse than the British system. It has its foibles and injustices, but I have no reason to get smug, because so do we. Churchill once characterised representative democracy as “absolutely the worst possible form of government, except for all the other forms of government that have been tried”. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better than anything else. And it’s probably not quite as irretrievably corrupt as some of us like to pretend, either.

Transatlantic Football

As a rule I’m not that into sports, so today’s post is a weird departure even for someone who revels in weird departures. But it occurred to me that I’ve had a lot of fairly heavy and sometimes quite negative posts lately, and something light-hearted and basically irrelevant might be in order. So here it is.


On Sunday the American National Football League played its third of three games this season at Wembley Stadium, with the Jacksonville Jaguars “hosting” the Dallas Cowboys. I enjoy watching American-type football, though I’m far less fanatical about it than most and I have little invested in particular team fandom. I do enjoy watching a good game, though.

Back when I was watching American football in the UK with my Dad in the ’80s, they would show one game a week on a Sunday afternoon. It’s difficult to pick a team to “support” when they’re all thousands of miles away and you get to see a different two teams playing each week in the single televised game, but back then I decided, more or less based on helmet design and team name, that I was going to like the Seahawks. Yeah, I liked the Seahawks when they were crap.

Even nine years of living in the heart of Cowboys country hasn’t quite erased that juvenile decision (though I do basically like the Cowboys as well), and it pleased me quite a lot to see Seattle win their first Superbowl last year.

I guess my subconscious was quite attached to the idea of American football being played in London, because in the middle of last week (ie before the actual game) I had a dream of a London-based NFL team trouncing the Dallas Cowboys.

You can take the Brit out of Britain, but you can’t take the Britain out of the Brit. Even if most of my countrymen would consider it the Wrong Sort of Football.

The idea of a London NFL team isn’t new. The idea gets floated every so often; they had the whole NFL Europe developmental league back in the ’90s and 2000s, but people proved not especially interested in coming to watch unimportant matches of a game they barely understood, and the league folded.

Is the world now ready for an NFL expansion into Europe? I mean the real NFL, not that third-tier development league nonsense.

I don’t know. Still, as a Brit that likes American-type football, it’s a lot of fun to speculate.

There are, of course, massive logistical problems involved with hosting a team out of a city that’s at least 10 hours from Dallas by air. Heaven help the Seahawks and the 49ers flying in.

Still, with a little will, most of these problems are solvable. Whether the will can be mustered is another thing entirely.

Home stadium issues are another problem. They’ve been hosting the three matches at Wembley Stadium, which is huge and has a prestige all of its own. But I hear the English Premiership isn’t all that pleased about the NFL’s gorillas tearing up the pitch at the national stadium, and you don’t want to imagine the outcry if we have to use the stadium for an international soccer football match right after an NFL game and an England player trips and injures themselves. Not good.

Still, I’m sure something could be worked out somehow, with enough will and money.

I’ve been out of the UK long enough now that I have no idea about potential fan base, but I hear the NFL has set itself the goal of becoming the fourth most popular sport in Britain. It’ll never displace people actually kicking a ball with their feet in the national consciousness, but good luck to them. Americans seem to be learning to love soccer football; it would be fair to reciprocate with their big game. And at any rate, it’s far more exciting than golf.

But one of the big challenges is the expansion itself. There are currently 32 teams split into 2 conferences (sub-leagues, effectively) with 4 geographically-based divisions in each. In order to ensure that divisions remain evenly numbered, you’d end up having to potentially add up to eight new NFL teams at once. It could be done; Los Angeles still doesn’t have a football team, and I’m sure there are other cities that would like a chance to showcase themselves on the stage of the NFL.

It would be difficult, but difficult is not the same as impossible. And if they could establish several European NFL teams at once, it might go some way to easing the logistical headaches of competing. US-based teams could go on a sort of “European tour”, playing several away games in a row against the various European teams. It would be unusual, but doable.

The fun part, of course, is speculating on team names.

The London Monarchs were the old NFL Europe team, and it would be the obvious name to bring back. But let’s see if we can avoid that disastrously ugly purple and gold uniform colour combination that I remember (but can’t now find pictures of) this time around, eh?

The London Royals has also been floated as a possibility. Presumably you’d have a crown-based team emblem and royal blue as a base colour for the uniform. They might end up looking like Chelsea Football Club in armour, rather like the Australian rugby squad look like Norwich City. Not the worst thing in the world, but I can hear the locals’ teasing now.

But I have some other ideas.

The London Knights would work. Positive chivalric and fierce resonance, olde worlde connotations and a sly underhanded reference to Shanghai Knights. And as a fan of the idea of knighthood, I’m predisposed to like this name.

If they wanted to go with an animal name, they’d have to be the London Bulldogs, seeing as how Detroit already has the Lions. And it would rather lend itself to Union Jack-inspired helmets with a pugnacious cartoon bulldog on them.

The London Werewolves would be an amusing twist on An American Werewolf in London (“this time it’s London Werewolves in America”), but one version of the Oakland Raiders’ skull-based halloween theme is quite enough in my world. So perhaps not.

But I think in some ways my favourite idea would be to name them the London Redcoats. Ok, it’s rather a slap-in-the-face sort of a name and might create a sort of pariah status in the rest of the league. But let’s face it, if they ever exist, whatever the London team is called, they are going to be the butt of Paul Revere jokes wherever they go. So why not embrace it? You could have a team emblem of a red-jacketed Victorian-era infantryman with a handlebar moustache charging forward with football and rifle. And best of all, you could make the team uniforms recall those of the Grenadier Guards: scarlet shirt with white numbers outlined in gold, black trousers with a red stripe down the outside, and black helmets painted to look furry like a Guards’ bearskin. Or am I the only one who thinks that would be awesome?

You’d also have a ready-made natural team rivalry with the New England Patriots: who wouldn’t like to watch the Patriots versus the Redcoats? I’d pay to go and see that one.

The NFL’s apparently talking more seriously than usual about the idea, and the incremental approach they’ve been taking (hosting an increasing but limited numbers of games over there each season) seems to have paid off so far. I may yet live to see a London-based NFL team trounce the Cowboys.

Still, it hasn’t happened yet. Cowboys fans can breathe easy. The British aren’t coming just yet.

The Myth of the Christian Country

“America is a Christian country”.

I hear it every so often from various American believers, usually as the rationale behind some example of American exceptionalism or attempt to force pagans to live like Christians by force of law.

It’s an odd statement, on the face of it, and occasionally, when I’m feeling particularly bloodyminded, I challenge people on it.

“Really? What makes it Christian?”

Certainly not everyone in it is a Christian, or even claims to be (though in Texas it sometimes seems as though they do). Some vast percentage beyond all apparent reason claims to believe in God, but so do Muslims. So do Hindus, though they conceive of God in vastly different terms (ultimate reality is impersonal spirit, not personal Being). According to the Bible even demons believe in one God, for all the good it does them.

Some other nearly as vast percentage claims to be a Christian, and an only slightly smaller percentage claims to be born again. But claims and reality don’t always match up: I could claim to be a goat, but it wouldn’t noticeably increase my caprine traits.

A staggering number of people claim to be regular churchgoers, though it’s difficult to see where they could be hiding, given the comparatively low attendance numbers that churches collectively tend to report. I think a lot of people are telling the pollsters what they think ought to be true, not what actually is. And even if they were all in church, not everyone in a McDonalds is a chicken mcnugget.

We know all this, but it bears repeating, because we’re looking at how America is a Christian country. It obviously isn’t “Christian” in the sense of all (or a majority) of its citizens being followers of Christ.

If it were, things might get a little silly. The oath of citizenship might function as a sort of Sinner’s Prayer, and standing with hand on heart during The Star-Spangled Banner might be equivalent to Communion.

As I said, “silly”.

We’re told that the Founding Fathers were Christians. I must be careful what I say here as a foreigner, but doubtless many of them were or claimed to be. I have an abiding respect for the people who could write the Constitution of the United States, but it gets argued that many of them were at best Deists: believers in a kind of Watchmaker God who set everything going in the beginning, but who wasn’t much involved with human affairs.

You can argue this point backwards and forwards. The idea that you can create the ideal society and government by human effort is a very Deistic one, but then, the Founders’ consciousness of the hand of Providence in the great enterprise of nation-building points to a far more involved Supreme Being than real Deism portrays.

I’ve not really studied it myself very much, but I just point out that whether or not they were Christians is not straightforward to judge at this temporal distance. Even if they were alive today, Scripture warns us against presuming to be in the place of God deciding who is saved and who isn’t. And even assuming they were, that’s not quite the same as the country itself as a whole being Christian.

We are told that America was founded on Christian principles. This is by far the most common argument advanced, as well as the most interesting.

I always want to ask “Which ones?”

Do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not bear false witness against your neighbour are all fundamental to our moral laws, but they aren’t exclusively Christian principles. Every traditional moral code in existence has something like most of these.

When it comes down to it, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is the basis of punitive justice – not to go further in redressing a grievance than the original ill – but Christians are called to a higher law. I really can’t see that much evidence for specifically Christian principles like turning the other cheek, forgiving as God forgave us and not looking to our own works to achieve any standing for ourselves before God.

Admittedly, a nation’s corporate morality isn’t always quite the same as an individuals, because a nation has a responsibility to protect its citizens, and sometimes that means a soldier, sailor or airman being told to go and kill someone for the sake of the nation’s safety. But I stand by my statement: specifically Christian foundational principles aren’t that easy to find in any nation’s legal underpinnings.

And it‘s not that Britain has historically been any different. Every argument advanced for America being Christian has also been advanced at some time for the United Kingdom, and we have a state church of which the Sovereign is the earthly head, which might actually make it easier to argue the case of “Christian countryhood”. America has a Constitution specifically forbidding the establishment of one religion as the national faith.

But the Church in Britain has largely abandoned its comforting illusion that “Britain is a Christian country”. Most of the time, the people who still think this is the case are Muslims, because that’s how Islam works.

It’s a comforting idea. It allows us to feel really good about our country (and who doesn’t like to do that?), and indeed, it makes patriotism into a sacred duty. It gives us, or appears to give us, a moral basis for challenging laws we don’t like.

But it’s ultimately an illusion.

With the possible exception of Israel, I don’t believe God counts nation-states themselves as His children, and even with Israel the Bible makes a distinction between the physical and spiritual Israels: A man is not a Jew if one is merely one outwardly; the true circumcision is of the heart and not performed by the hands of men. I’d personally add in a distinction between the Jewish nation, the spiritual Israel and the State of Israel, but that’s not to say they don’t overlap, in some cases quite a lot.

Put another way, I’m not a Christian because I’m English any more than Jesus is a horse because He was born in a stable.

But so what? Even if it’s kind of illusory, it’s not doing any harm, is it?

The real danger presented by this comforting illusion is that it makes the church take its position for granted.

If we ever could, we can afford to do that no longer. There are more people than ever growing up in America without any real connection with a church. Not only do they not believe in Jesus, they don’t even have the basic concepts we take for granted: sin (many people think it means sex, or else “big” sins like murder and stealing), grace (“that thing some people do before they eat to show how holy they are”), holy (I think most people’s functioning definition is “austere, unpleasant and a killjoy”) and so on.

We can no longer assume that people know what we mean when we say “repent and believe the Gospel”. This is partly why so much of the time you’ll see me unpack the term and say something more along the lines of “good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah” rather than “Gospel”. We keep on assuming that Americans are like the Jews in New Testament times: that they already have most of the foundations, and you just have to challenge them to yield control of their lives to God. In reality, increasingly Americans are like Greeks in the New Testament: they have no grasp of the Law, the Prophets, who God is or even that there really is one God. They have their own little gods that they pursue and trust in: money, sex, power, stuff, sports, music. But in increasing numbers they know nothing about God.

Britain is even further down that road. If you assume that a Brit is churched in any degree whatsoever, you’re probably in for a rude shock.

Don’t get me wrong; it would be great if people had more of a foundation. We wouldn’t have to do so much building of truth into people’s lives in order to get them to understand why the death of an innocent man is Good News. But we would be fools if we were to assume the presence of a foundation that isn’t there. No-one building a house just assumes that the foundation has already been laid; trust me, I work in construction. It takes more work and more time if we have to put in the foundations as well, but do we really want to build a temple for the Living God on foundations of sand?