The central premise of Jon Sopel’s If Only They Didn’t Speak English is that Americans are a bit nutty and hard to understand for a Brit. Many countries seem to have odd cultures when seen from the British Isles, or even Europe. Pakistan springs to mind, although that could just be a media misrepresentation. But you sort of expect Pakistan to be very foreign. You can’t understand the language and most Europeans don’t share the religion. But the USA? At first glance, it appears that we do share the religion and of course we share the language – or at least we think we do. And then of course we are inundated with American culture, from their food to their films, music, fashions – you name it. This all makes the US a superficially familiar place but as Sopel points out, the accent is on “superficially”. In actual fact, the French or Germans are probably a lot closer to the British mindset than the Americans; it’s just that most people can’t understand them when they are speaking their native tongue. The Americans, on the other hand are just very foreign.
I like Jon Sopel, which is why I bought his book. I assume it was plugged on BBC Radio 4 or Newsnight or somewhere, otherwise I can’t think that I would have heard of it. Sopel is the BBC’s US correspondent and he communicates intelligence, open-mindedness and good manners. Even when he is reporting Trump at his most rude, narcissistic and idiotic, he always manages to deliver his text with nothing more than a metaphorical raised eyebrow. It is clear that he thinks the current president is bonkers, but he is far too polite to say so. I like Jon Sopel even more now that I have discovered that he is a fellow motorcyclist, even if he does ride a Hawg – or Harley Davidson if you prefer. Still, it’s a brand choice that would make sense if you were living in the US. I could imagine, if I were in Sopel’s motorcycle boots, possibly making the same choice.
In If Only They Didn’t Speak English Sopel examines the current state of the US and the way Americans see the world. It makes fascinating and enjoyable reading, even if the book doesn’t contain too much that I didn’t either know or strongly suspect. Nonetheless, it is nice to have your impressions confirmed by someone who actually knows what he is talking about. The book is divided up into chapters that discuss the most important themes that define contemporary American culture, such as race relations, gun ownership, patriotism and attitudes to government. Sopel also highlights the mixture of anger and anxiety that suffuses the 21st century American psyche and includes a chapter on the post-truth world where the electorate prefers to be “informed” by fake news on Facebook rather than listen to educated and reasonably impartial press professionals such as Sopel.
As with any nation, you can’t tar all the inhabitants with the same brush, but reading Sopel’s book does paint a picture of the average citizen which is at best somewhat incomprehensible to a European, at worst not very flattering. Americans are angry with their political class and deeply distrustful of it. This is one of the reasons why they own so many guns; they like to think that when the chips are down, no government agencies are going to mess with them when they are armed to the teeth. Paranoid? We might think so.
The paranoia also continues with the Americans’ obsession with terrorism. Huge industries and amounts of money are thrown at this problem which kills a mere handful of people annually. On the other hand, the inhabitants of the US bump each other off with guns to the tune of some 30’000 a year, but the population as a whole doesn’t seem to be upset about this.
Sopel also demonstrates other paradoxes. The US is a place where personal freedom is sacrosanct, yet it has no tolerance whatsoever for drug abuse. You might have thought that what an individual chooses to ingest to alter his or her consciousness was his or her own affair. Not so, and there are hundreds of thousands of citizens incarcerated to prove it. And yet, if your drug of choice is manufactured by one of the big drug companies and advertised on TV, it seems that you can get addicted to it with impunity. Sopel is also funny about the amount of drinking that appears to go on during Washington get-togethers: almost none. It’s enough to make a wine-loving Frenchman or Italian weep. One bottle per table of 8 guests for an entire meal. It’s almost as if prohibition never went away.
It is all somewhat incomprehensible to Europeans but who are they to cast stones? It is, after all, apparently the way Americans like it. Or do they? Sopel suggests that the deeply entrenched racism is a problem, as is a violent police force in a fairly violent country that has more than one gun per inhabitant. The massive amounts of self-medication also hint at a populace that is less than happy.
All in all a highly thoughtful, entertaining and often amusing read.