Tuesday, January 29, 2008

American Idolatry

The television columnist we run (who seems to get most of his political opinions from progressive blogs and is not shy about mixing them with his reviews of TV shows), is perplexed by "American Idol." Specifically, by the abrasive British judge, Simon Cowell, and, generally, by our national masochism in his presence.

Last week, a contestant and her sister confessed to be gushing fans and handed [Simon Cowell] a note saying he was a person they wanted to meet, along with "Oprah and Obama." When Cowell read the note, he pronounced the presidential candidate's name in a way that betrayed complete unfamiliarity. Talk about living in a bubble. He also seemed to be under the impression that South Carolina was on America's West Coast. Or perhaps he was joking.

It's interesting that a judge of American talent should be so contemptuously ignorant of the American scene. Or why Americans seem so eager to be treated like dim colonists by foreign-born arbiters of taste.

He should read fewer progressive blogs and more history books, if he's really curious about that. Since Americans forced the issue of our independence, many of us have tried to cozy up to the Mother Country. The historian Allan Nevins, studying 19th century authors, has noted that "the nervous interest of Americans in the impressions formed of them by visiting Europeans and their sensitiveness to British criticism in especial, were long regarded as constituting a salient national trait."

The British, for their part, regarded Americans as mere barbarous upstarts, and British publications, widely circulated across the Atlantic, poured out invective for generations on everything they deigned to notice from the United States.

Even friendly notices of American literary works contained that peculiarly British gift: the insult wrapped in a compliment (to the effect of, "he writes surprisingly well, for an American"). But friendly notices were far between, and only Englishmen already branded as iconoclasts or outcasts (e.g. Lord Byron) or those who never had been there (Elizabeth Gaskell) openly praised Americans for anything. One of the things that marked Lord Byron as a dangerous radical was that he actually liked America and Americans, and said so.

The usual practice of British authors was to take every slander of one American by another in a hot political campaign as an absolute truism, and to present the most degraded characters from the frontier or the slum as the typical inhabitant of the United States. Or to visit America itself, and go from town to town, letting the locals put on their best appearances and offer every hospitality to the aristocratic British, then go home and write up every deformed and blundering thing they saw as representative of the whole nation. Like Frederick Marryat and Frances Trollope, they resented democracy, and took it out on America.

"Both the travelers and the literary journalists of [England]," writes Timothy Dwight, the elder, defending America, "have, for reasons which it would be idle to inquire after and useless to allege, thought it proper to caricature the Americans. Their pens have been dipped in gall, and their representations have been, almost merely, a mixture of malevolence and falsehood."

Even after the Civil War, James Russell Lowell ran into it everywhere in Europe and concluded there was no end in sight, and Americans should just ignore it.

It will take England a great while to get over her airs of patronage toward us, or even passably to conceal them. She cannot help confounding the people with the country, and regarding us as lusty juveniles. She has a conviction that whatever good there is in us is wholly English, when the truth is that we are worth nothing except so far as we have disinfected ourselves of Anglicism.

But, as the persistent popularity of the inexplicable Mr. Cowell shows, we haven't gotten over it yet.