Last December, Ricky Hatton, a stout-chugging, ruddy-faced British boxer, was laid out on a Las Vegas canvas by the American welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather. The crowd of Union Jack–bedecked fans —“drunken dullards” and “boors,” according to The Daily Telegraph’s horrified sports correspondent—became so unruly that for the first time in its history, the MGM Grand casino shut down its archipelago of bars. Hatton’s troglodyte supporters achieved what was long considered impossible: They managed to class-down Vegas.
Drawn by a plummeting dollar, the British are arriving en masse on American shores. In the streets of Manhattan, pale-skinned men in Manchester United shirts marvel loudly at what all these iPods, “trainers,” and Nike track suits would cost them back home. While generously pumping much-needed money into the U.S. economy, the feral packs of lager louts are, one hopes, helping correct America’s long-held misperception that the English are a nation of Inspector Morse bit players—sophisticated, fastidious, snobby—especially when compared to us rubes.
We’re not quite free of our inferiority complex just yet. After a 2005 stint playing on London’s West End, former Top Gun actor Val Kilmer enthused that English audiences were “smarter” than their American counterparts because “they read books.” (This is true, though if the current British bestseller list is any indication, our bibliophilic cousins are feeding their heads with diet guides and biographies of topless models.) The American blogger Matt Janovic, enraged by his intellectual isolation in the Midwest, summed up the prevailing confusion nicely: “Face it: an English schoolgirl sounds more authoritative than the voice of most American politicians…we sound like the cavemen that many around the world (rightly) think we are.”
And the filmmaker Michael Moore, always eager to play suck-up abroad, told one English audience in 2003 that the “dumbest Brit here is smarter than the smartest American.” In other words, theirs is a nation of abeyant Evelyn Waughs.
Waugh himself bristled at such stereotypes—insisting, for instance, that in etiquette “Americans are immensely the superiors of the English.” When Esquire asked the curmudgeonly novelist to write of the “crudeness” of America’s literary milieu, Waugh demurred, arguing that the Yanks were far more “literate” than his London-based contemporaries.
It’s high time that self-hating, pusillanimous Americans everywhere revisit Waugh’s assessment. And there is no better educational tool than extended encounters with that breed of Britons known colloquially as the chav, a pejorative recently added to the Collins English Dictionary to describe “a young working class person who dresses in casual sports clothing.” (Also added, incidentally, was asbo, an acronym for youths racking up violations of the “anti-social behavior order,” a malady which midwifed the British reality show ASBO Teen to Beauty Queen.)
While Britain is fast catching up to America—and leading Europe—in illiteracy, obesity, and violent crime (despite ubiquitous surveillance cameras and an ineffective ban on handguns), the Wittgenstein references in Monty Python still shape our assumptions of British cultural supremacy. But as the English social critic Theodore Dalyrymple observed in 2004, to profess an interest in high culture in today’s Britain is to be met with accusations of homosexuality.
So before President Ron Paul restores the gold standard, it
should be acknowledged that the sagging dollar is providing one
useful service: a long-overdue corrective to our self-image as
lesser Brits. Europeans, who ranked the English as the “world’s
worst tourists” in a recent Expedia poll, have long ago disabused
themselves of such stereotypes. Take a look around New York,
Boston, or Los Angeles, and spot the omnipresent gaggle of chavs,
waddling through the Adidas shop, shouting drunken insults in local
Irish pubs, converting the currency on every product within reach.
England is just America writ small.
Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of Reason.