I travelled extensively across America when I was younger, taking in a total of 35 different states. It is an odd place in many respects, and there are things about it I really like and things about the place I’m not so fond of. One of the more alarming elements of American culture is the anti-science, “did you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than in your brain?” motif. During the EU referendum campaign, that came out in British public life in a way I have never seen previously.
Within English culture, there has always been a strain of anti-intellectualism. But it has been a tempered one, borne of the complexities of the class system. In a way, English anti-intellectualism is about an idea of common sense thinking trumping the tut-tutting of academics who live in ivory towers; the notion that a very intelligent working class person, for instance, might know more from their life experience than a bookworm who has lived a sheltered life.
I’ve always both respected and slightly feared this part of English culture in equal measure – it has its good and bad sides, in other words. But what I saw in the Leave campaign was the morphing of that anti-intellectual element into the full blown fear of science shtick on display in American public discourse. The ultimate moment being Gove’s distain of “experts” – we have come around to a new, American style way of looking at the world all of sudden, one that is “it may be wrong, but it feels so right” in its approach. I think this is a very negative development.
The other very American-feeling thing I noted during the EU campaign was rich men from posh backgrounds demonising rich men from posh backgrounds. Boris as the ultimate anti-establishment character is the most perverse example of this. We’ve seen this sort of thing in America for a very long time – Trump is simply the latest version of it. When Jeb Bush wanted to be president in the 1990s, he advertised himself as a “self-made man”, despite having been born into one of the richest families on the planet. I used to think a politician would never get away with that in Britain – now, I know for sure that’s not the case.
I have no problem with people from well to do families getting involved in politics, incidentally. I do have a problem with them posing as working class heroes, however.
So we seem to be approximating the worst elements of America only: the post-truth politics, hatred poured onto a quasi-establishment by the real establishment, the distain towards anyone who may actually have an idea what they’re talking about in public life. All without anything I like about America flooding in at the same time. I hope this is all temporary, but I have no faith that it is.
On a final note, the scariest matchup with American life seen during the Brexit episode is one with the L.A. riots of 1992. We saw then scores of poor people, angry at the status quo. And how did they express that rage? By setting fire to their own homes. The parallels between that and poor English people, angry at being unheard for all these years, voting for Brexit, are heartbreaking.