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grinding-teeth

Britain and America are famously kindred countries with many elements in common. We have the same language for example (almost) and the same expectations of representative democracy. We have always fought against the same enemies from the moment we stopped fighting each other. Our senses of humour are, whilst different, mutually intelligible. Our friendly regard for one another is as natural as rain.

Of those things which divide us meanwhile (and there are many), one essential difference I find is adequate to explain them all. It is not a difference rooted in wealth, race, geography or history, but rather in attitude.

The historian Michael Howard once observed that American foreign policy (then in a state of imperial excitement) often seems to act on the assumption that the human being is ‘perfectible’. America that is, works towards an ideal, a dream of the perfect. Most people would concede that this was true; for example in the eras of uncontested patriotism (the 50s etc…) but I believe that it remains true today, even as the methods for its expression have changed.

Beyond politics, American society is filled with subliminal motivations toward an ideal way of living and being. Through media, music and sport, an uncomplicated optimism radiates across the nation and has real social effects. The American brightside way of thinking is not racially based (and how could it be in America), and nor is it accidental. Rather, it is washed into the American mind from birth. The idea that teeth should be kept attractively white is as well understood by US schoolchildren as the virtues of Juche are by their counterparts in North Korea.

British people by contrast are embarrassed by the idyllic. Our attitude to health is appalling. Our media in particular tends toward the nasty and the self-critical. Nobody could create a show like ‘Friends’ in Britain; a sitcom which in a benign, apolitical way demonstrates a form of social perfection. It is typical though for America, which has always specialised in producing representations of serene health, popularity and financial ease – the American Ideal.

Everything in English art has to have an edge to it, and usually a cynical one. Even our childrens programmes and nursery rhymes have sinister undertones. Let’s consider two examples of this disparity.

If you can ignore the subsequent misadventures of its young star, Hannah Montana is perhaps the most successful teenage idol in American history. Millions of American girls still aim for the replication of her example; her health, moral innocence and social success. In the show itself, Montana is clearly defined as economically privileged, boundlessly happy, youthfully energetic, physically pretty and successfully industrious.

In Britain, the most acclaimed teenage sitcom is called ‘Tracy Beaker’ and documents in a dryly comic style the dilemmas and misfortunes of a child abandoned to social services… I’m not sure I need to elaborate.

Let’s be harshly honest here. We are making ourselves miserable. In our desperation to be more earthly than the Americans, we have thrown our seeds on barren land. Self-belief, positivity and even dental hygiene are now considered alien, inappropriate and pretentious. And that is quite a set of virtues to reject.

Though my tone might seem light-hearted here, I am serious about the following point: Aiming for an idyll is not simple-minded or stupid. As a philosophy and trick of the mind, it can be transformative.

If you aim for perfection, you may not reach it, but you will go much further in life than you would had you not aimed for it. An unreachable goal makes us stand up straight, makes us reach beyond the bounds of what we would – in dull sobriety – consider possible; in its intoxication, we find hidden corners of ourselves – new talents, abilities, and resources.

The American ideal, or if you prefer the ‘American Dream’ is not designed to be universally attainable (something socialists misunderstand) – it is meant rather to stand high enough above the people that it makes them grow by reaching for it. And look how well it works.

D, LDN

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