If Only They Didn’t Speak English (John Sopel) – REVIEW

A book that looks at America and Americans – the premise of the title is that the USA is a very foreign country indeed – very far away from the UK in many deeply fundamental ways, but because they speak English, we think of them as slightly eccentric siblings, rather than distant relatives with very different  worldviews to those we have in Britain.

The author is the BBC’s Washington correspondent, with experience and knowledge of American society at many levels. Though Americans may see this as an America-bashing book, to my mind it does an excellent job of pointing out the differences between the USA and the UK, including those instances where he feels Americans and America are superior.

The chapters are single-word titles: Anger, Race, Patriotism, Government, God, Guns, Anxiety, Special, and Truth, each focussing on a different aspect of what makes the USA so different.

The chapter on Anxiety is to me one of the most telling. I’ve noted elsewhere that there seems to be an air of fear about many Americans – even the military operations are designed to minimise risk in a way that seems like over-protectionism to many others. In this  chapter, Sopel looks at the ebola panic, the effect of an attack by a foreign enemy on the USA (Pearl Harbor and 9/11), the fear of Americans related to foreign travel (though he does mention the “intrepid” behaviour of a group of older Americans stranded at an airport), the Islamophobia promoted by various groups in the USA, and the relentless advertising for prescription drugs.

In another section, he also compares and contrasts the elaborate precautions that the USA takes when the President moves around, compared with the seemingly casual nature of British security around the Prime Minister (there’s a lovely anecdote of John Major in a roadside café).

“Special” relates the asymmetric view that the UK and USA have of what we Britons know as “the special relationship”, actually not that special to most Americans.

“Truth” looks at the relationship that many Americans have to truth and lies – compared to those who are fanatically in favour of Brexit – this comparison comes up in several places throughout the book.

While the examples in the book and the headings are (of course) cherry-picked to emphasise the differences, and anyone who knows even a few Americans will realise that there are worlds of difference between individuals, just as in any country, one comes away with the impression that American society (and by extension, many of the individuals who comprise that society) is, by British standards, more than a little eccentric – maybe even completely bonkers in places.

The book succeeds admirably, in my opinion, in making it very clear that there is a world of difference between the two societies, however much we may like and admire individuals from the other side of the Atlantic.

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