Two nations divided by a common language

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The quotation about “two nations divided by a common language” is variously attributed to Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, with Winston Churchill famously quoting it. For the moment, let us leave aside the assumption that the United Kingdom is only one nation, noting simply that one of the two possible originators was actually Irish.

Like all good epithets, the comment neatly and humorously summarises a serious point. As anyone who has spent any length of time in the United States will know, the superficial similarity of the words can create misunderstanding. Small children rapidly learn that when you want to rub something out, you ask for an eraser – or the grown ups look embarrassed. More disastrously, English understatement 70 years ago at the Imjin River  resulted in the loss of the Gloucestershire regiment. The phrase  “Things are a bit sticky, sir,” was understood by an American General to mean that the situation was difficult but containable; The Glosters suffered 620 killed, wounded or missing and mustered 217 survivors following the battle. Words carry not only their literal meaning but a load of cultural assumptions that underpin their full meaning.

Anyone who has taken a GCSE in a foreign language will already be aware that literal “one for one” translations will only get you so far. Part of the experience of learning a language is to understand the culture that goes with it and the values that go with that culture. Mike Zollo in a previous edition of West Country Bylines, has articulated very neatly the benefits of language learning, including, of course, the simple benefit of being able to communicate.

It may therefore come as a bit of a shock to see a fundamentally different set of cultural values conveyed in our own language. In Texas, there has been a major crisis in which power supplies have collapsed in freezing weather, leaving almost 2 million people without power and 7 million Texans advised to boil their water. Senator Ted Cruz who represents Texas infamously went on holiday to Mexico. Tim Boyd, the then-mayor of Colorado City, Texas, reacted to the crisis on Facebook:

 “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!… If you are sitting at home in the cold because you have no power and are sitting there waiting for someone to come rescue you because your lazy is direct result of your raising! [sic]…. This is sadly a product of a socialist government where they feed people to believe that the FEW will work and others will become dependent for handouts…. I’ll be damned if I’m going to provide for anyone that is capable of doing it themselves!… Bottom line quit crying and looking for a handout! Get off your ass and take care of your own family!” “Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish [sic],” .

Boyd has subsequently resigned.

For many of those brought up in Europe (including the offshore islands), the whole sentiment expressed in this post will jar. With people freezing in their homes because the power system has collapsed, a reaction like this from someone, who is meant to play a role in leading a response, is incomprehensible. The state – in its broadest sense – is expected to provide reliable services and in those exceptional situations where normal service is interrupted, it is expected to manage the recovery. That is why we pay taxes. If you reduce taxes and accept less resilient services, then failures may be more frequent. But even with a “low tax” level of service, you are entitled to some sort of response and you might want to rethink how much you are prepared to pay for the future. Being told that you are lazy does not really help – or explain what the mayor thought his role was meant to be.       

To be fair, Boyd resigned and President Biden has granted federal disaster aid to the state.

But what I find illuminating in the Facebook post is the whole cultural message. The idea that people may expect support in a crisis is inferred to be the sign of a socialist government. In Europe, the idea of a social democracy broadly assumes that the less fortunate are supported to a greater or lesser extent by those who are better off. We tend to see this as a way to ensure that the vast majority of the populace has a stake in the community and that nobody should be completely left behind (you might argue how effectively different nations do this).

Many in the United States do not see things in those terms. It is up to you to look after yourself. You need to sort out your own pension, bearing in mind that healthcare costs rise rapidly with age, so that your calculation of when you can retire can be complex. Your healthcare insurance will have a retention on it, so that you may need to choose which prescription items you can afford to buy (an even tougher choice where children are involved).

I have a vivid memory of a visit by an air conditioning engineer who came to fix the system in the house in the US and, when he learned that we were British, chose to lecture us on the iniquity of the NHS. Why would you be expected to pay for other people who are ill? Why should the younger generation pay for their parents’ old age? My daughter and my wife (ex NHS) were the wrong people with whom to pick an argument on this subject: he finished the job rather rapidly and left.

The lesson that I have drawn from this and other similar episodes is that my values are European. I actually like the idea that we have some collective responsibility for each other. Not long ago, I would have expected the whole UK political spectrum to be able to sign up to those values, including One Nation Conservatives. Now, I doubt that the current clique running the Conservative party would agree, but I am not sure how many voters appreciate the road that they have chosen.   

More than ever, I find the similarity of language between the United Kingdom and the United States conceals far more dramatic cultural differences than the differences amongst Europeans who speak different languages. Three years living in the United States did much to convince me that I am a European.