Magazine

A Point of View: The foibles of four countries

  • 5 April 2013
  • From the section Magazine
World Series baseball

American insularity, French insecurity, Canadian unexcitability, British embarrassment - Adam Gopnik on the inherent foibles of four countries close to his heart.

Not long ago, thinking in despair about the American inability to stop shooting its own children, I wrote that every nation has a core irrationality, some belief about itself that no amount of evidence or experience can alter - and a blindness about the need for gun control was ours.

I began to wonder if I could identify the true hard core of irrationality in each of the four countries that I know best and have lived in longest.

Yes, I'm about to engage in national stereotyping - but without apologies, because it is the thrum of our normal talk about our experience of the world.

The thing we learn when we travel, or ought to, is that each country is a different world, and so to describe the differences is to respect them even when they seem to us more than a little mad.

Let me start with my own country - don't worry, your turn is coming. The core irrationality of American life is its insularity, which can be captured in three words: The World Series.

This is, of course, the annual championship of the American-invented game of baseball, a championship played almost exclusively in American cities and, until recently, entirely by American players - yet still referred to, without a hint of irony, as the global championship.

In all my years in the US, not once have I ever heard any American who found this name mildly ironic, or even strange. It is not even a rueful national joke. It's just a fact of life, and when you point out its absurdity, you get a puzzled look.

It isn't just baseball. The winners of the Superbowl in our US version of football cry out "We're world champs!" as the gun sounds - and they do the same at the end of the American championship of the world sport of basketball.

When Americans play other Americans in American cities for an American audience, the world championship of whatever sport they are playing is thereby decided.

Japan pitches to Puerto Rico in the semi-final of the World Baseball Classic in March 2013

The real irony is that there is an actual world championship in baseball - and Americans do very badly at it. No one cares. It is broadcast on an obscure cable channel and no one pays any attention as the Dominicans or the Japanese triumph.

This irrationality infuses those other, darker domains.

Americans can't solve their child-killing problem in part because Americans refuse to believe that other rich countries have gun laws that work. Americans refuse to believe that other rich countries have laws at all. The accumulated wisdom of the world on the question of health insurance is completely unknown to most Americans, and enters the debate only to be scoffed at.

Not only does everything happen for the best in America - everything happens in America alone.

Now, about France. I feel about France a little the way the Hobbits in Tolkien felt about elvish Rivendell. I love it, I lived there for many years of wonder. One of my children was born there, the other raised there.

In France the core irrationality is not its insularity. The French are unduly aware of what others think and say. In France, the core irrationality is the national sense of insecurity - every move has to be evaluated for the potential insult it might contain. This truth may shock visitors to Paris, who see arrogance, not any inferiority complex. But that's very misleading. The French are infinitely sensitive, and much touchier about other people's opinions than they appear.

I think of it as the Asterix syndrome, after the wonderful comic book about the permanently besieged yet truly civilized Gaulish village, surrounded by Romans. When someone tries to criticise the Gaullist village, they are not really trying to improve it, they are trying to infiltrate or besiege it or romanise - that is, anglicise - it.

This galloping touchiness makes even sane and modest reformist projects in France almost impossible. Everything is at stake when anything is at stake. Every suggestion box is really a Trojan horse, and whichever group is most recently offended can shut down the country, since the other unoffended groups want to preserve their right to shut it down, too.

The insecurity comes less from the vagaries of history, which no-one remembers, than from the brutalities of primary school, which no one forgets. The French educational system is one in which a negative take is pounded into each French child, so that they emerge swearing that no one will ever give them lessons again.

The disasters of recent presidents begin here. Sarkozy's Napoleonic energy dissipated in the face of his own galloping insecurity. People will forgive a short man with a beautiful wife if he seems sufficiently surprised. Sarkozy seemed too anxiously, too insecurely, showy with his.

Nicolas Sarkozy and his then girlfriend - now wife - Carla Bruni in 2007

American insularity, French insecurity. Of Canada, the country where I grew up, where my family still lives, where my wife and children are citizens, well, the Canadian core irrationality is an absence of irrationality.

Canadians make a fetish of non-violent unexcitability to the point of making their country seem less vivid than it really is. Apologetics are Canada's national form. When Britain made a wonderful show of its new self in its summer Olympic ceremonies - all those pop stars and NHS beds - Canada offered, when we did the winter ones, a sort of charming, apologetic anti-ceremony. Don't ask for magic when you can have more moose and more Mounties.

Same old Canada, and we know it, they said. The comic genius of Canada - and it is an almost safe bet that if an American is funny, he is Canadian - lies in the ability to play off this national habit of self-deprecation against the grandiosity of what we still call "The States".

This is also what makes Toronto the greyest of all the world's great cities. I am reminded of the beautiful Canadian model whom I heard once commenting on the opening of a La Perla lingerie store there: "That place is a real budget-buster."

Michael Buble performs during the closing ceremony of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics
Mountains and Mounties for Canada's Winter Olympics ceremonies

Canada is the most excellent of countries - and it must be an erotic country inasmuch as there are always more Canadians - but it usually finds amazingly resourceful ways to dampen the Dionysian side of human experience.

About Britain, and to conclude alliteratively, as I suppose I must, I think there the core irrationality is inwardness. I think of this as Greenwich Mean Time syndrome - the belief, that the time in the UK is the true time in the world, that British values and manners are the obvious norm for values and manners everywhere. Just the way the world should be.

The British alone speak without an accent, their view is obvious common sense, their grammar correct, and everything else is a variant. This inwardness is not always self-congratulatory, as in America, or tetchy and defensive as in France. It is often highly self-critical, "it is the fate of mankind to be like us, and what a fate that is!"

It goes hand in hand, too, with a perpetual capacity for embarrassment. Embarrassment you feel yourself on behalf of others who are soon going to feel embarrassed. Anyone, a visiting American, for instance, who violates the British norms is likely to make himself seem foolish - and condescension, in theory, wards off the approaching embarrassment of the other guy.

To be sure, manners in Britain have changed more in the last three decades than those of any of the other nations I know. But this unconscious sense of centrality hasn't. The lout urinating in public on a Saturday night - you might convince him that there are other louts elsewhere who act otherwise, but he will still believe that his is the right, the only way, to be a lout.

Having now doubtless gotten myself banished from the four places I've called home - thankfully, I'm told that the Faroe Islands are a very welcoming place - I shall add at the end what I'm sure has been self-evident to you from the start.

The irrationalities of nations are inextricably linked to the permanent national virtues:

  • the insularity of America is linked to its openness
  • the insecurity of France to its love of ceremony and courtesy
  • the absence of obvious passion in Canada to its informality and decency
  • and the condescension of the British to the beautiful continuity of their institutions

Our core irrationalities are who we are. All we can do is hope to see them with a slightly clearer eye. When they work against us, we should work against them. That's very bland and banal wisdom, I know, but then true universal wisdom almost always is. It may be why we prefer it with a national flavour.

For myself, I am proud to share in the core irrationalities of all four of my adopted cultures. I am, I'll think you'd all agree, insular, insecure, dull and condescending. Surely that marks me as a man of the world.

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook