Saturday, 11 April 2009

“Have A Nice Day”, by Justin Webb (Short Books)


A pro-American account of life in the USA, from the BBC’s North American Editor

Anti-Americanism is a fact of European life. It’s inescapable – whether in the form of left-wing pundits (John Pilger, please stand up) or university students who rail against all things American without really knowing what they’re talking about (while wearing Levi’s, drinking Starbucks coffee, and watching Friends). Have a Nice Day is a reaction to this anti-Americanism, and an attempt to convince the reader that there is plenty that’s good about America.

The author first deals with some standard arguments put forward by the anti-American crowds, pointing out their limitations (while also accepting that they’re not always wrong) and also their hypocrisies (of which there are many). Webb then splits the book into chapters based around single issues that usually get attention in Europe – religion, guns-and-violence, politics, and so forth. In each chapter, Webb outlines the criticisms of America and then defends it.

For example, in the chapter about the American affinity for guns, he rightly asks what a Virginian might make of recent violent attacks in the UK, and the rise of knife crime. He also argues that, even with all those guns in the USA, he feels safer over there than he does in any UK city. When discussing religion, Webb is fair by showing the other side of American religion to the Christian right-wing in politics; the examples of Christian men and women giving up their time to help inmates at super-max prisons and at homeless shelters.

Combining politics and religion, Webb asserts that the common European fear of America charging towards theocracy is unfounded. Every time the religious right has overreached, the public (often in the form of voting) has reined them in or, to use George W. Bush’s word for the 2006 midterm elections, give them a “thumpin’”. This was true with the Terry Schiavo case, gay marriage amendments, and attempts to alter the constitution to match laws from the Bible. What’s more, it’s not just the Democrats and atheists who fight back, but also Republicans like Dick Armey, who considered the political religious leaders to be “bullies and thugs” who put off voters, and that “picking fights with scientific facts was a dull-witted way for a political party to behave”.

The best chapter for me was about politics. Webb is a keen observer and supporter of the American political system, even if it is, at times, rather obscure. For example, on the 2008 Texas Democratic primaries (though really about the presidential primaries as a whole), “The result in 2008 was so opaque and long-drawn-out that by the time the final caucus tallies were made, even doctoral students had lost interest.” (This, from personal experience, is true.) The ability of people to be involved in choosing their next leader or party representative (or, in the case of Sarah Palin, rejecting one) is far greater than anywhere else. That its people have the ability to check one group’s excesses, or another group’s over-reaching, is something to be praised.

Despite this praise, Webb isn’t blind to what is wrong with America; though he appears to consider most of these aspects as mere irritants, rather than reasons to generate such extreme hate. For example, the preciousness of Americans when it comes to certain uses of language, such as in the case of no longer being allowed to wish someone “Merry Christmas” in the fear of offending a non-Christian. Webb points out that “wishing someone a happy Christmas cannot be considered an act of aggression, cultural or otherwise”, and therefore this example of political correctness is beyond daft. Equally, Webb argues that the American media plays it far too safe, willing to leave out details that might offend anyone. And they have a peculiar relationship with sex – actual and as a subject.

Overall, Have a Nice Day is a great book. I read it pretty quickly, and whenever I was forced to put it down, I was always eager to return to it. Webb’s tone is light, and even when discussing politics and religion, he is respectful and accessible. There are no cheap shots in here, which is largely the point. The book is essential for everyone who wants to understand why America is the way it is, and also for anyone who can’t get beyond their innate anti-Americanism. Webb has written an entertaining, informative defence of the nation it has always been cool to hate.

Highly recommended.

Also try: Bronwen Maddox, In Defense of America (2008); Matt Taibbi, The Great Derangement (2007); Simon Schama, The American Future (2008); Matt Frei, Only In America (2008); Harmon Leon, The American Dream (2008)

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