Tag Archives: migration

Grrr! Argh!

The house in Wormerveer has just fallen through.

The owner is not going to Mallorca with his family next year, so he is not renting it out. We have to find another place.

This is really, really disappointing. It was a great house, light and airy and well suited to us. And the process of looking for housing is discouraging and frustrating, time-consuming and generally a drag.


Security Theatre, Junior Level

I am seriously annoyed.

Alex’s school is doing a “Keeping Myself Safe” unit, and he brought the first book from it home today. It’s entitled “Laura Goes Home”.

In it, because her mother is late, Laura is left at school. She decides to walk home on her own, but she’s frightened and crying. A man walking his dog stops to ask if she is lost. End of book.

The homework exercise that came with it was a half sheet of paper that said only:

Please read and discuss this book – Laura Goes Home – with your child and then tick the outcome chosen by your child.
1.   Left open ended.
2. a. The man takes Laura away.
    b. Laura’s mummy comes up at that moment.
    c. Laura screams, “I don’t know you” and runs back to school to tell Mrs Smith

We have included the following letter in Alex’s homework folder back.

We have decided to excuse Alex from doing this piece of homework, for two reasons.

1. It’s unclear what he’s supposed to do. He puzzled and stewed over the various options, but we couldn’t figure out whether this is what he would do, what he thinks happened next, or some other answer. He was quite upset by his inability to figure out what the exercise was about.

2. We strongly object to the high level of paranoia that the exercise is designed to build. Although children do need to be told not to talk to strangers, we both found the idea of ending this story with “The man takes Laura away” really repugnant. And the third option, to have the child scream and make a scene, is also inappropriate when the man has does nothing more than crouch down and ask if she is lost, with no contact or menace whatsoever.

Although we appreciate the teaching on well being and safety, we are concerned that this goes too far. Children need to be taught to be cautious – but not to be afraid all of the time.

Would you be available to talk about this at some point on Friday afternoon?

I think I need to review the materials for this unit, because I really don’t agree with the tone they’re taking.

The fact is that stranger abduction is extremely rare (see, for instance, the statistics for England and Wales here – I couldn’t find the equivalent Scottish statistics, but they will be smaller due to the lower population here.) Our fictional Laura was in much more danger from crossing the road than from the man who saw her crying and asked if she was lost. She was in more danger of violence or sexual abuse from people she knew than from strangers as well – the vast majority of these crimes occur in the home. But I seriously doubt that the next book in the series will address those issues – parents would riot, for one thing.

And Martin and I both really object to raising our children in irrational fear. They will have to adopt realistic threat assessment strategies when they go out alone in public, which won’t be for some time. (To go back to the book, I would teach Laura to stay on school grounds and get the office to call her mother. She’d never have gotten to page 3 until she was old enough to make the walk home without her mother.)

But if we tell them that every stranger is out to get them, and they find out that we were exaggerating, then where will our credibility be? How, then, will they believe us when we say not to go out at night, or through bad neighbourhoods, or with an ostentatious display of wealth? How can I teach Fiona the caution necessary for a woman to be safe, if she’s been immunised by cheap scare tactics now?

And what does that do for their fellow feeling with mankind? Are we really trying to build Margaret Thatcher’s world, where there is “No such thing as society”, one isolated child at a time? There are ways for a child to react to – and reject the assistance of, if appropriate – a strange adult that don’t involve screaming and running away, for instance.

I was annoyed enough that the nursery discussed Madeline McCann’s abduction with the kids (as though there was any cautionary or educational element to it – are they not to sleep with the windows open, perhaps?). But to hear this same message of fear from the school, from the official educational channels, really gets my goat.

It seems like we’re protecting our kids from everything but irrational terror. It’s almost like going to the airport these days.

Pieces falling into place

It’s been some time since I’ve blogged. Plans have been up in the air, and sometimes I can’t bring myself to write about things that aren’t yet complete. As Martin wrote in his Going Dutch entry, we are moving to the Netherlands this summer.

This is, naturally, terrifying. It’s been particularly scary for me to contemplate, because I had to find two very important things.

A job
Moving country meant moving work, and that’s a frightening thing. I joined the Royal Bank in 1997 – October would have marked ten years there, and I was thoroughly institutionalised after all that time. It was intimidating to even contemplate finding something else.
A house
Admittedly, unlike the job thing, househunting is for the benefit of entire family, and in theory I could fob some of the weight off on Martin. But I get emotional about my living situation, so it felt like it was really my worry.

So how has it gone, in the month and a half since I quit the Bank and started these searches?


Martin pointed a job ad out to me in late March, before I was even officially out of work. It was for a small company, MediaLab, which makes search software mostly used in libraries. It’s a tiny company, and a deeply cool one, writing interesting software and having fun doing it.

At his urging, I sent them a CV. When we got back from California, I had a phone interview, and made a strong connection with the people I talked to. They invited me over for a second interview in person in their offices in Amsterdam.

That went even better. I enjoyed the conversations and liked the people, and it was mutual. More importantly, from a business perspective, it was clear that my area of expertise and my approach to work will fill a need in their company.

So I got the job.

I start at the beginning of July, which sometimes seems a long way off. I find myself thinking about the work, and about sitting in that bright and friendly office while I do it. It’s been a long time since I looked forward to work.


We wanted to rent a house for a year, to give us a chance to try out the Dutch lifestyle before committing a lot of capital to it. But there aren’t a lot of spacious, affordable houses in commute radius of Amsterdam.

It’s also difficult to search for houses at a remove. (My friend who just moved to New Zealand can testify to this.) After poring over hundreds of advertisements on the internet, we finally identified one that looked nice, in a promising town. So Martin and I went across one rainy Monday to look at it.

It was awful. Cramped, grimy and grim, in the shabbiest neighbourhood. It was also not available for a year’s rental; the owners wanted to keep the option open to sell it (an endeavour in which I wish them luck). We straggled home after a discouraging day, ready to abandon the whole damned effort.

I tried to take a fresh tack on the matter the next few days, looking again at places we had eliminated, sending out emails to emails to estate agents. Then the phone rang.

It was an estate agent, calling based on a profile Martin logged on their website. He had a four-bedroom property, he said, just coming on the market for a year’s rental. In Wormerveer, a town in commute distance from my office. Large workroom as well, was I interested? I made interested noises, and he sent me pictures.

Then I was really interested. It’s a light, spacious place, converted from a schoolhouse. The owner, a painter, is taking his family to the Canary Islands for a year. I flew over on Tuesday to view it and the neighbourhood.

It was fantastic. The town charmed me, and the location of the house was particularly good (it’s right near the market plaza, two schools, shops, and some pleasant areas to walk through.) And the house itself was better than the photos conveyed, with an essential unity of light and design.

It didn’t hurt that I got on very well with the owner, the painter, who showed me round. We talked about aesthetics and the philosophy of art, bookbinding and lithography, history and philosophy (boring the estate agent senseless until he recalled another appointment). Practical matters will go easier with this channel of communication, but more importantly, I’m looking forward to future conversations.

So now I have a job and a house, and frankly, they’re both fantastic. What a good set of prospects to take into a challenging year!

RBSG: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

After nine and a half years, it’s nearly over. One more week together, and that’s it. It’s an emotional moment.

I remember how it was in the beginning. After a whirlwind courtship (that aptitude test, the first interview, an overnight at the Apex Hotel in the Grassmarket, so little time to get to know one another!) there I was with pen in hand, signing myself into the relationship. I didn’t know how long it would last, but I went into it thinking of permanence.

I, Abi Sutherland, take thee, The Royal Bank of Scotland…

We’ve been through a lot since then. Better and worse, of course, as always in a job. I’ve wept with the stress of it, thrown a phone headset at the wall, but the Bank also allowed me to do things I did not believe I could.

Sickness and health…we’ve done that too. The Bank put up with me through the worst days of undiagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder, but also benefitted from my manic hyper-efficient summertimes. Supported me during maternity leave, yet took my sleepless nights on projects for granted.

And richer or poorer? Well, it is a bank. We’ve had record profits, and I’ve benefitted from profit share, membership in the pension plan, and fairly good salaries. I can’t really complain.

The Bank’s gained a few pounds since we got together – bought NatWest, growing fivefold in one transaction. But it stayed attractive to me. There are benefits to a big partner. Lately, though, the strains have started to show, in ways I won’t discuss here. Still, something in me keeps thinking if I stuck it out things would get better. It’s what I do.

You see, I’m a permie girl. My contractor friends, who sign up for six-month knee-tremblers or year-long commitments, extol the virtues of their brief liaisons. But I like the stability, the deep familiarity, that comes of long association. That’s great, but now comes the cost: breaking up is so much harder to do.

And we’re almost to it now, to the division of property into mine and thine, to taking off the security pass like a ring no longer needed, to saying goodbye to a building that once was a home. We’re starting to be careful around each other, aware that things started now can’t necessarily be finished.

And I look at the meat market, look at putting myself back out there to see if someone else will want me the way the Bank wanted me, and it’s frightening. I primp and poke at my covering letters and wonder if this CV makes me look unattractive.

If Martin and I weren’t moving to the Netherlands, if this partnership were not about to be geographically impossible, would I be able to break it off? And yet, moving aside, I think that now is a good time to make the move. We were getting stale, and I don’t see things changing.

So goodbye, Royal Bank. I will miss you when I leave, and I hope we can still be friends, but it’s time for me to go.

I think I’m going to need some chocolate.

O Take Me

Some of my sonnets are not written rationally. It was not an easy autumn.

O take me where the Douglas firs don’t grow
In rows, but as they please. The roads will be
Awash and muddy now, but I’d still go.
As always when I fail, I long to see
The woodsmoke drifting from the chimney pipe
Above the cabin set amongst the trees;
Across the path, a dancing golden stripe
Of lamplight beckoning with warmth and peace.
O take me from this cold, uncompromising place
Built up with stone and weighted down with years.
Perhaps at home I’d rediscover grace
And find the heart to overcome these fears.
I’ve lost the sense of who I want to be.
O take me home, while there is still a me.

Technically, this sonnet uses the transition from octave to sestet to move from the dream, the longed-for forest (and this is a specific forest, with a specific cabin) back to the city where I live. Thus the pessimism – swap the order and make it present first, then dream, and the poem becomes much more imaginative, less dark.

I am a bit bothered by the false rhyme of “trees/peace”, but I’ll live with it.

Emotionally, the content is what it is. I love Edinburgh deeply, but sometimes I do get homesick.

Citizen Sutherland

I have lived in the United Kingdom for 12 1/2 years now, nearly all of my adult life. I have, however, always held myself a little apart from the people around me, partly because I am an American and they are British. And I am distinctly American – my accent betrays me every time I speak, and I have a very American political philosophy. (This is in reference to the idea that sovereignity derives from the consent of the governed, for instance, and the idea that liberties rest with the citizens unless those citizens consent to surrender them for the greater good. It does not mean I think that politics should be spiteful, mean and rude.)

I have lost a little of that separation today. I have become a British citizen.


The whole process started with an immigration official in Stansted Airport when we were coming back from France last summer. After querying me about the terms of my residency here, he suggested I look into naturalisation and handed me a leaflet with the Home Office URL. I was a bit staggered – wasn’t his job to keep people out?

An EU passport would be handy, though, because we are talking about a move to the Netherlands in 2007. Right of abode throughout Europe is not to be lightly set aside.

Why Not?

My major concern was with my American citizenship, because I am not keen to lose that. But a little research, including the US consular site, revealed that the American government does not deem the taking up of a non-exclusive foreign citizenship as the renunciation of one’s American citizenship. (It’s different if one’s new citizenship requires one to renounce all previous allegiances, like the Japanese – and the Americans themselves – do. But the Brits do not require that.) They don’t like it, but they allow it.

A minor, but still persistent, point was the requirement to swear allegiance to the Queen. The full text of the things I had to say today is:

I (name) swear by Almighty God that on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to law.

I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen.

The second paragraph is fine. Absolutely. The first took some thought, both because of a profound discomfort with the notion of personal loyalty to the sovereign, and because I am not naturally a monarchist.

But the way I parse the oath (there is an alternative “affirmation” version for those who do not wish to swear, or do not wish to mention Almighty God, but it parses the same) is that the last clause (“according to law”) modifies the entire sentence. That’s why there’s a comma before it. So my true and faithful allegiance is limited by, and defined by, the law. The Queen is an office-holder, even if she is born into it rather than elected into it.

But what of the office itself? Americans are as wholeheartedly monarchist as, say, ancient Romans. But remember what happened to them – they ended up with Augustus “restoring the republic” by turning it into an Imperium. And, watching the current Executive Branch grab at primacy in the US system, I’m not sure we Americans don’t yearn for some sort of monarch to tell us what to do as well.

As monarchies go, the British one is remarkably powerless. In theory, the sovereign can dismiss a prime minister or dissolve Parliament. In practice, she can do that once, and the next day the UK will be a republic. But while Queen Elizabeth is on the throne, no one else can be. She is an effective blocker of any claim to absolute (political) power, while simultaneously excercising none herself. (Thanks to my university friend James for pointing this one out.)

Practical Considerations and Tests Evaded

So, having assuaged my moral qualms, I sent in my application for citizenship in October. My timing was close – had I sent it in in November, I would have had to sit a test on British life. I was one of many, too – 57,000 others wanted to avoid the test as well. Despite reports of slow processing, with some responses expected to take till June, I got my reply back within the 4-month pre-rush average.

Then I booked my “citizenship ceremony” by ringing up the City Council offices. As an American, I was bemused by the reaction, or lack thereof, of the staff. Had I called an American local government office to book the US equivalent ceremony, someone, somewhere along the line, would have said “congratulations.” Here, it’s like booking your car in for a service.

Martin, in deference to my American-style emotional engagement in this whole process, took the day off and took me out to lunch before the ceremony. We showed up in good time and sat in the city chambers till about 10 minutes after the hour, when Edinburgh’s Lord Provost (a woman, as it happens, but the title does not change) came in. She gave a wee speech, the chief registrar gave a wee speech, and then we all stood up and mumbled through the oath and pledge. We were each then called up to shake hands with the Lord Provost, get our certificates, and get our pictures taken. Then we all had tea and biscuits.

But What Does it All Mean?

The British government introduced these ceremonies to try to give a stronger sense of identity to the new citizens. I think it does that, a little, but I am not convinced that the Brits are really interested in an American-style citizenship model. I encounter a lot of bemusement among my British friends about the test of British life, for instance – no one is sure what would go on such a test, or whether they themselves would agree with the “right” answers. And this lack of enthusiasm, which I first really noted in booking the ceremony, pervaded the whole event. The oath and affirmation were murmured rather than proclaimed, and the Lord Provost had to prompt people to applaud each new citizen as she presented the certificates.

Basically, the Brits aren’t entirely sure what citizenship means to them. For instance, the Lord Provost’s speech made no reference whatsoever to anything expressed in that oath I agonised about it. She spoke almost exclusively to the Pledge about upholding the UK’s traditions of rights and freedoms. The Registrar was a little more forthcoming, managing to mention the “sovereign” twice, and there was a picture of the Queen looking benevolent in the room. But the monarchy was clearly not the heart of the ceremony. The ideas of respect and inclusiveness, both much mentioned in the speeches, didn’t ring true either (they are neologisms in the political discourse), though the very ethnically and religiously mixed crowd needed to hear them.

In the end, I don’t know what being British means to me, or to anyone there. I thought it would sum up something of these last 12 years for me, give me a label for that half of me that is not American, but it doesn’t. There is no summary, no single easy definition, apart from that gentle, mild unease with the pretense of certainty that an easy definition would give.

Picture here. I would also like to express my gratitude to Jules and Fiona, who told the Home Office I was a good person despite the evidence to the contrary.

Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Martin and I have been married for 11 years and some months, most of our adult lives. Like any couple, we have moments of severe dissonance, when we look at one another and see strangers, or even enemies. Sometimes it’s a decision one of us makes, sometimes it’s disciplining the kids, sometimes it’s the way money is spent or time allocated. It can affect our relationship with the outside world, or be a purely internal disagreement.

It’s always painful.

The one of us observing, and reacting to, the word or deed in question may feel excluded, overridden, or disenfranchised. The consequences of a wrong choice may seem overwhelming and disastrous. The agent, meanwhile, will feel betrayed and defensive at having a good faith decision questioned.

Resolving these disagreements, finding common ground, and dealing with the risk of error are some of the most difficult tasks in any partnership. It’s hard to listen to the objections of the overridden spouse; it’s even harder to live with what seems to be a wrong choice by your partner. And maintaining the discipline to avoid recriminations or smugness (depending on how the controversial decision comes out) is yet another perennial task. Martin and I rarely achieve perfection in all these areas; we usually reach adequacy.

A small proportion of married people rarely face the challenge, either because they don’t disagree or because they rigidly delegate responsibility. But for the vast majority of married couples, this is the source of such trouble, such strife and such grief, that they lose, for a time, the joy of their union and shared purpose Some can’t overcome the alienation and start to see their partner as an opponent. That, of course, is the road to divorce court.

We who stay married endure these trials because we are richer with one another than alone, even when we are at odds. We work at marriage because we made a commitment, and because we share so much that cannot ever truly be separated. And when the quarrel ends, we savour the sweets of our union all the more because they are earned, not given, and because they are the greater for it.

Does all that make sense?

Right. Now read Republicans and Democrats in there instead of a married couple. The problems that plague my country in the aftermath of the election are the same as any couple in trouble: miscommunication, mistrust, and the sneaking suspicion that the other party isn’t striving for the greater good. But even more than a marriage, a nation is all but indissoluble. We are one land and must learn to live together. The same principles of compromise, communication and determination that make a marriage work are needed to make the nation work.

Now go to it, guys.


Being an American abroad can be difficult sometimes. There’s so much to defend, to explain, to demystify. Now is certainly one of those times; I spent a lot of yesterday failing in my earnest desire to discuss anything but the election.

My British colleagues asked, “Why?”

“Because,” I replied, “They don’t see the news you see.”

The stories that don’t make Fox, or Clear Channel, or the Murdoch press: the death of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan, the erosion of the case for war, the French as a rational nation with a reasoned viewpoint. Bush the bumbler, Cheney the crook, Rumsfeld the hatchet man. Alert statuses changing from puce to chartreuse to teal whenever there’s an awkward story to bury. Historical analyses of how Saddam Hussein came to power and was kept there; the deaths of Palestinians as well as Israelis; a positive view of Democrats.

“But, but, but, why? I don’t understand.”

“Because you don’t see the news they see.”

I don’t see this news either, but I can make some guesses: Bush the charming, folksy man verses Kerry the cold, stiff intellectual. A judge who feels his allegiance to Christ supersedes his obligation to separate church and state. Gays lining up to marry in coastal states, intercut with deliberately shocking images of Gay Pride parades. World War 2 documentaries, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Reagan days. The 700 Club and Christian radio.

People who voted for Bush were not by definition idiots, or insane, or evil, as many people on the Net have stated in their anger and disappointment. They voted as sombrely, with as much thought, commitment and dedication, as the rest of the electorate. But their priorities, their aspirations, and their worldview are different from that of my Scottish colleagues, so different that there’s almost no explaining it.

The lives they lead – or at least strive for – are classic Norman Rockwell. Small towns of good neighbors, where doors are not locked (or haven’t been within living memory), where children go safely to school and families to church, where people work hard and value honesty and faith above money and power. Marriages last, teenagers don’t get pregnant, no one has affairs or abortions, or suffers from domestic violence. There are no drugs, maybe not even alcohol. Summer vacations are spent at “the lake” (there always seems to be a lake); Christmas and Easter are religious holidays rather than just time off. When jobs are scarce and times are hard, everyone pulls together, and every funeral is followed by a succession of covered dishes. There are a lot of flags, and not just at the Fourth of July parade. Folks have no need to go to foreign places, because America is the best country in the world.

People may not live this way in real life, but a large proportion of Americans wish they did. I do, sometimes. And the Midwest, the farm states, are the custodians of this dream. They see themselves as the moral compass of the nation, the heart of the land. The coastal states are corrupted by their contact with foreign cultures, too much money, and too many intellectuals.

Kerry never spoke their language, though as a combat veteran he had an “in” that his East Coast lawyer image couldn’t ruin. But Bush and his colleagues talk the talk, however little they walk the walk. And the anti-foreigner, anti-intellectual message has been underlined for years by Republican-owned media that panders to its viewership’s biases. (Just as the New York media does, by the way, and the Californian, and the various flavors of British – a news channel that its viewers doesn’t like doesn’t survive.) A Midwestern voter could get up, switch off Fox News, listen to Clear Channel on the way to the polling station, and vote the way his pastor suggested (using copious Bible references), with a clear conscience. It all made sense; all the inputs hung together.

I don’t know how to change the Midwest, or whether it would be a good idea to try. I don’t think anyone has the right to but the Midwesterners themselves. Perhaps the Internet, with its wider spectrum of news available, will broaden views (though it’s equally possible that it will simply consolidate them around a few conservative websites). Perhaps, as with Clinton’s “The Economy, Stupid” message, some unifying problem will cause the heartland to vote for someone who is more palatable to the rest of the nation and the world.

I do know, however, that berating Bush supporters, calling them stupid, or ignoring their reasons for voting as they did will not get their votes in the future. Once the hurt has died down, I hope the rest of us can distinguish between the voters and their candidate. (Just as I distinguish between our soldiers, whom I respect, and the people who sent them to war, whom I criticize.) As an American expat, I may oppose any attempt to pare down our Constitutional rights, may cringe at what Bush says and does on the world stage, and may very well worry for the future he builds. But I’ll still be defending Bush voters to my British friends and colleagues.

E Pluribus Unum

Bookbinding Meets Politics

As part of my desire to encourage a little more civility in American politics, I have decided to give a gift to someone whose politics I disagree with. Specifically, I’m sending a handbound copy of the Constitution to President George W. Bush.

I was going to be sarcastic about it, and say something about the rules of good gift-giving. After all, you’re supposed to give people something that they might find useful, for instance at work, and something that they don’t appear to own already.

But really, that sort of commentary is pretty nasty and counterproductive. And I think this is a matter more for sincerity than nastiness. So here’s the text of the letter I’m sending along with the binding. The language is a little stiff and florid, but the feeling behind it is sincere.

Dear Mr President,

I am an American citizen, although I have been living in the United Kingdom for almost eleven years. Living abroad has given me an interesting perspective on our shared identity as Americans, particularly with regard to our Constitution. It really is a unique and valuable document, one that has made our country what it is today.

I am concerned, therefore, by the ways in which your current policies do not reflect the values enshrined in this foundation of our nation’s law. I know that, as President, you must find a balance between the security of our fellow citizens and the culture of liberty that America values. I am sure you are sincere in the choices you have made. Unfortunately, I cannot agree with those choices, which seem to me to undermine many of our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

I am particularly worried by the lack of trials for some citizens suspected of terrorism, the chilling effect that use of “free speech zones” has on the First Amendment rights of people who disagree with you, and the drive to use the Constitution to limit peoples’ freedoms and the states’ rights to legislate with regard to marriage. I am also concerned by our frequent disregard of the Geneva conventions, either by the reclassification of prisoners or by a simple failure to follow its rules.

If we are to be the beacon of liberty to the world that we hope we are, then America must take the lead in defending peoples’ freedoms, both inside and outside of our borders. Peaceful, secure people do not as a rule join terrorist organizations; people who feel that their culture and religion are under attack may very well do so. By working in isolation and appearing to target Islam as a whole, we are the terrorists’ best recruiting incentive.

As a token of my regard for the Constitution and the ideals it expresses, I am sending you the enclosed leatherbound copy of this most important document. I created it myself, using traditional fine binding techniques. If you prefer not to keep it, I would appreciate its donation to an educational institution, where it can inform and educate another generation of Americans.

Very Truly Yours,

Abi Sutherland

I plan to post the book and letter on Tuesday (post offices are closed tomorrow). Normally, I wouldn’t post pictures and binding notes on a gift before the recipient has seen it. But I doubt that President Bush reads this blog, so I’m unlikely to spoil the surprise. (If I have, I’m sorry, George!)

Settle, Petals

Μηνιν αειδε, Θεα, Πηλιαδεω Αχιλος
Sing to me, Goddess, of the rage of Achilles, Pelias’ son.

Menin. Rage. Homer opens the Iliad as I’d like to open this blog entry, but smooth English grammar doesn’t permit it. But rage, anger, wrath, fury, is what I want to talk about here.

I’m American, but I’ve lived in the UK for over a decade. I’ve seen a way of conducting political (or religious, or philisophical) debate that most Americans don’t see, and that makes me worry about my native country.

My mother went to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park on her most recent visit over here. The speakers and their audience were all discussing religion, both Islam and Christianity. All of the debaters were passionate about their faiths, and varied widely in their views. But, my mother commented, “It was so good-natured. We could never have something like that in the States. Someone would get lynched.” And she’s right.

I’ve seen it in politcal debates online (witness the furore over entries on The Daily Kos and the thing with Kathryn Cramer, to name but two). I’ve seen it in the intensive partisanship that deadlocks Capitol Hill. I’ve seen it in media coverage, and media coverage of media coverage. I’ve seen it in real life, and I’ve felt it myself. There’s an undercurrent of eye-popping, vein-throbbing, fist-clenching and red-seeing anger in the way my fellow countrymen discuss important issues.

In British politics, I’ve seen Tories and Old Labour politicians, whose positions are further apart than anything you’ll see in the American mainstream, debate with humor and wit. I’ve also seen them sling insults and sarcasm at one another without losing the plot. An entire British political institution, Prime Minister’s Question Time, where the PM has to answer questions put by the opposition, in public, every week, with extra added heckling from the back benches, would not be possible in the US. Everyone would take it all too seriously and someone would burst a blood vessel.

No, not just seriously. Everyone would take it personally. The blogwars differ from the rest of US political debate not in nature but in degree, so an examination of them is useful. A typical blogwar starts with a provocative comment, followed by a reader of the opposite view losing his temper and posting some inflammatory trackback on his own site. Then a reader of the reader gets steamed and goes back to the original blog with an offer to wipe the grin off the writer’s face with a belt sander. Somewhere down the line someone took a political issue personally. US political debate usually takes more steps and ends well short of belt sander threats, but the transition from abstract to personal, from factual to furious, is the same. Read the editorials and letters of the SF Chron for a view of the polarity between the two sides. (Note that I don’t need to indicate a particular date’s opinion pages. It’s the same every day.)

This transatlantic difference leads to transatlantic misunderstandings. There is a perception in the US that the international media are “biased” against America. No doubt some media outlets are. But, at least in the UK, the media are “biased” against, in other words, critical of, pretty much everyone. Some of it’s a feeling that it is the duty of the Fourth Estate to question the powers that be. Some of it’s that conflict and scandal sell papers. Some of it is that the people who work in the media like that sort of conflict – that’s why they work in the media. Whatever the reason, the mainstream news sources over here use a harsher grade of investigative and invective sandpaper than their equivalents in the States. But because these things aren’t automatically personal, and aren’t taken as such, the system works.

Now, there is a valid argument that serious matters require serious discussion. Wars, death, money, politics – these are no laughing matter. Europeans, with a cynical smile for every issue, are preceived as being careless, ineffective, and effete. It’s like that little smile that Alex gets when he’s being really defiant and difficult. Taking things lightly like that is bad. We must be serious. That’s all very well until seriousness leads to over-seriousness and a personal identification with the cause under discussion. Then an attack on a position is an attack on the person holding the position, and we’re back to rage and thoughts of power tools.

What we’re not doing, when we get angry, is listening to the other side. And without listening, there can be no discussion, no cooperation, no compromise, no peace. So please, can we laugh a bit, and let go of the wrath?