Learning to Love Brits, Now That It Matters

It used to be so easy to loathe the Brits who passed through

customs at Kennedy Airport with their H1-B visas and went directly to Condé

Nast headquarters, where they assumed the role of modern-day Greeks in the new

Rome. They assigned themselves the task of giving us culture. They chronicled

the fabulous exploits of the new royalty of celebrity, and demanded that we pay

attention to the vapid goings-on of the old royalty across the Atlantic. They

took our tabloids and turned them into tabloids .

And they instructed coarse republicans in the fine art of recognizing their

social superiors as … their social superiors.

The native-born pleaded the case for immigration reform,

complained that the dumbing-down of American culture was a royalist plot

hatched in the salons of Islington, snickered knowingly at Tom Wolfe’s sendup

of freeloading British journalists in Bonfire

of the Vanities and cheered when Brooklyn-born Pete Hamill took over the Daily News (all too briefly) and

cleared the place of Fleet Streeters.

These media types were not, of course, the British civilians we

so admired in the terrible days of 1940, or the Tommies who fought with us in

Normandy and Italy. They were the cynical, irony-enriched refugees of lost

empire, devoid of immigrant dreams beyond the fantasy of free drinks, private

car service, Hollywood parties and no-interest loans from the publishers of

glossy magazines. They played on the cultural insecurities of their American

patrons, guffawing, no doubt, all the while.

Then, on Sept. 11, none of this mattered anymore. The world was

turned upside down, again. A military band played “The Star-Spangled Banner”

during the changing of the guard outside Buckingham Palace. Postmodern irony-so

much of it brought over in the first-class cabins of British Airways-was

instantly purged from the culture; the cult of celebrity, from which so many

British journalists drew succor and fees, was declared meaningless; the new

heroes of America were not actors or supermodels, but firefighters, police,

medical technicians, ironworkers-the sort of people British magazine editors

considered part of the servant classes.

At the same time, the easy Anglophobia of the contrarian and the

historically aggrieved collapsed-indeed, became almost seditious, as British

Prime Minister Tony Blair rallied to the side of wounded, mourning America.

When the forces of outraged civilization-the phrase is Churchill’s-began the

assault on the Taliban on Oct. 7, the British and only the British were on the

front lines with the United States. The Special Air Service paratroops, often

condemned by Irish-American politicians in New York for their aggressive role

in fighting the I.R.A., were said to be reconnoitering the Afghan countryside

with American Special Operations forces. It was impossible not to be

grateful-for Mr. Blair, for British resolution, for British arms.

“I’ve met Tony Blair a few times, including once in Blair House

in Washington, and I find him to be an American with a British accent,” said

U.S. Representative Peter King, a Long Island Republican and a longtime critic

of British policy in Ireland. “He is able to relate to Americans because he has

none of the bluster and pomposity that you find in some conservative British

politicians. I was on the House floor during President Bush’s post–Sept. 11

speech, and Blair was in the gallery. I was watching him, and that’s when you

realized that this really is a moment in history, that this is a 21st-century

version of Roosevelt and Churchill, and I think Blair realizes his obligation

to history.”

Other allies and other friends no doubt will supply troops and

support for future missions, but only the British immediately risked, as we

risk, the reply of fifth columnists lurking in the shadows. “I was sort of

lukewarm towards the British before, but I’m more positive now that they’re

willing to go the extra mile and Tony Blair’s willing to put his country in

jeopardy,” said Cynthia Cashman, a teacher at P.S. 69 in Queens.

Mr. Blair provided the ringing phrases that do not fall naturally

from the clipped speeches of George W. Bush, and reminded us, in

twilight-struggle rhetoric, that we have entered a new and dangerous time.

“This, of course, is a moment of utmost gravity for the world,”

he said. “None of the leaders involved in this action want war …. But we know

that sometimes, to safeguard peace, we have to fight …. We will not let up or

rest until our objectives are met in full.”

Mr. Blair told the world that this was not just America’s fight,

that America would not stand alone in this troubling and frightening hour. The

atrocity took place in New York; the outrage was global. And the Anglo-American

alliance, the “special relationship” of old, once again would be a factor in

world politics, and would not wither away under the choking constraints of

European politics. “He’s a ballsy guy,” said Gerry Byrne, a New York filmmaker.

“Now the British are a whisper away from being targets themselves.”

At Tea & Sympathy, a British restaurant and gathering place

for U.K. expats in Greenwich Village, owner Nicki Perry spoke about her pride

as a Briton and a New Yorker. “Somebody asked me if I’m thinking of leaving

[New York],” she said. “I said, ‘You must be joking.’ They could be fireballing

my restaurant, and I’d be standing there with the American flag in one hand and

the Union Jack in the other.” Summoning her best Churchill-Thatcher defiance,

she added: “Let them dare try to get rid of me.”

Slouching Towards

Berlin?

More than half a decade ago, the British press declared that the

legacy of F.D.R. and Churchill, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, was no

more. The Clinton administration, it was said, had tilted American foreign

policy towards Germany, the new colossus of the European Union, at Britain’s

expense. Mr. Clinton was no friend of then–Prime Minister John Major, whose

Conservative Party had sent over operatives to America in 1992 in a failed bid

to help Republicans re-elect George H.W. Bush. Mr. Clinton, in his pique, had

invited the pariah Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein and, in British eyes, an

apologist for terrorism, to the White House, had shaken his hand, had

legitimized him and his aspirations.

The British media’s bitterness betrayed the feelings of a spurned

partner. It seemed in the 1990’s that America was preparing to cast off the

island nation as it searched for richer, bigger allies for the 21st century.

“There’s a lot of resentment towards Americans because they are so rich and

powerful and the big superpower,” Ms. Perry said of her fellow British, at

least those at home. “There’s always been this jealousy and always been this

ridiculous attitude that Americans are dumb, but I think this [Sept. 11 and its

aftermath] is making people in Britain sit up and realize that Americans are

not dumb.”

Not only not dumb, but suddenly filled with renewed respect for

the onetime colonial enemy turned, in President Bush’s words, “staunch friend.”

“When President Bush looked up at Blair during his speech and said, ‘Thank you,

friend,’ he meant it,” said Congressman King. “What we’re seeing now is the

best of the special relationship between America and Britain.” Tony Blair’s

words have brought back memories of Anglo-America’s most famous collaboration,

inviting comparisons to the struggle we have lionized from the distance of half

a century.

As the conflict widens and British and American forces are once

again in the field together, Churchillian ideas of a common narrative among

English-speaking peoples are bound to return to fashion. Indeed, in 1998,

author Kevin Phillips noted in his book, The

Cousins’ Wars , that “the beginning of the twenty-first century looks to be

a time when ethnocultural alignments-overseas Chinese joining with mainlanders,

Islamic collaboration from the Balkans to the Malay Straits … are reemerging.

To call Anglo-America … another likely grouping is an understatement.”

Before Sept. 11, such an assertion might have been condemned for

sins against diversity and multiculturalism.

Now, it offers

reassurance-and inspiration.

-additional reporting by

Blair Golson and Shazia Ahmad

Learning to Love Brits, Now That It Matters