National sickness

May 18th, 2009 | By | Category: Cross Channel

You see, each country has a colour, a smell, and also a contagious sickness. In my country the sickness is complacency. In France it’s arrogance, and in the United States it’s ignorance.”

“What about Rwanda?”

“Easy power and impunity. Here, there’s total dis­order. To someone who has a little money or power, everything that seems forbidden elsewhere looks per­missible and possible. All it takes is to dare it. Someone who’s simply a liar in my country can be a fraud artist here, and the fraud artist gets to be a big-time thief. Chaos and, most of all, poverty give him powers he wouldn’t have elsewhere.”

Bernard Valcourt, the central character of Gil Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is under no illusions.

Had Valcourt been asked to comment on Britain, what might he have said?  What sicknesses would he have attributed to the island off of North-Western Europe? What contagion lurks in the national psyche?

Living outside of Britain since 1983, it has become an increasingly frustrating place to watch.  If Britain has a sickness, it is a guilt complex.

The American comedy film National Lampoon’s European Vacation features an American family travelling around Europe, spreading a trail of chaos and destruction wherever they go. In each city they visit they cause some grave misfortune to an English tourist played by Eric Idle, and each time the Englishman apologises, how careless of him to be in the way of their car when they ran him over, and so on.

Idle’s character is a caricature of Englishness, but it makes the point that there was a tradition of politeness and understatement. The tradition of politeness, of being nice, of feeling guilty that you might have caused offence, seems to have come out of the history of the country. England, and then Britain, was held together by a series of compromises and fudges.  Giving offence might cause political trouble so offending anyone was to be avoided at all costs

At the beginning of the 21st century, Britain is a product of this long history of feeling guilty.  If there is a disagreement over anything, then not a few people in Britain would feel that their own country must be at fault – despite the fact that the majority of the people in the country were born after the end of the Empire and few of those who remember it ever benefited.

Feeling guilty could ultimately undermine the ‘niceness’ that most Britons cherish.  It means a lack of conviction about defending the very values that held the country together down through the centuries- the beliefs in freedom and diversity and inclusivity.  Feeling guilty means that when the liberal values of freedom and tolerance are threatened, when respect for the equality of all human beings is challenged, there is a lack of will to fight.

Eric Idle’s cyclist must stop feeling guilty.  To be liberal he must be illiberal, to be nice has to learn to be nasty. He must stop apologising and start asserting that he will be run over no more.

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  1. Great point Ian. I mean you never hear an American say they are “English American” yet they’re absolutely proud to be “Irish American”, “Scottish American” or even “African American”. We’ve been apologising for colonisation for over 200 years and even formally to our indigenous population recently. OK, our ancestors behaved badly but that’s not us . .why should we carry historical guilt the way we do?

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