Many on the British left have failed to understand how the US is behaving in this warby Steven Teles / November 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
As i sit down to write these words the military response to the terrorist attack on the US is only a few days old, but one thing is clear. The fears of the British left that a vengeful America would carpet-bomb Afghan cities without regard to civilians has proved wrong. Far from waging a Huntingtonian battle of civilisations, the US government has bent over backwards to embrace Islam in a way it has never done before. How is it that the fears of the British left and the reality of the US response are at such odds?
The reason the US has not, and will not, wage the attack many on the left feared is that the idea was a concoction of columnists’ fevered misunderstanding of America. No one in a responsible position in the US government ever proposed Dresden-style bombing of Afghanistan or “making an example” by causing such a massive number of deaths that no country would think of harbouring terrorists in the future.
It is true that there have been radio talk show hosts and a few right-wing columnists who proposed bombing Afghanistan into the dust, but this said nothing significant about America’s military response. Yet the day after the attack, the usually respectable Polly Toynbee let loose the unhinged observation that the US is “fatally burdened by a primitive and unsophisticated political culture. Its warped political institutions, its leaders’ debilitated and febrile dependence on hour-by-hour opinion polling, its constitutionally split powers, reliance on big business and its perpetual cycle of elections all add up to a politics unfit to bear this responsibility.” To take one example from this list, I thought that 18 years of Thatcherism had given the British left an appreciation for the value of “constitutionally split powers.” But what is especially peculiar here is Toynbee’s lack of understanding of the relationship between the “warped political institutions” she decries and what she calls America’s “primitive and unsophisticated political culture.”
It is a peculiar feature of American culture that we have legitimated “popular speech,” the idea that political discourse should not be limited to those of high education or elevated standing. This drives the British left mad. Before the US government can send men into battle, the people need to be persuaded that our cause is just and that means speaking to them in their own language. This is not the language of Guardian…