LONDON—Sharing the internet with America is like sharing your living room with a rhinoceros. It’s huge, it’s right there, and whatever it’s doing now, you sure as hell know about it.
This month, Twitter announced that it would restrict retweets for a few weeks, and prompt its users to reconsider sharing content that has been flagged as misinformation. The reason for this change, of course, is the U.S. presidential election. The restricted features will be restored when its result is clear.
Anything that makes Twitter fractionally less hellish is welcome, as is the recent crackdown by Facebook and YouTube on QAnon conspiracy groups and Holocaust denial. But from anywhere outside the borders of the U.S., it is hard not to feel faintly aggrieved when reading this news. Hey guys! We have elections too!
After all, according to an anguished 6,000-word memo by Sophie Zhang, a departing Facebook data scientist, the political situations in Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, Ukraine, and elsewhere have all been negatively influenced by online manipulation. “In the three years I’ve spent at Facebook, I’ve found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry,” she wrote, adding that interference in Western Europe and the U.S. was taken more seriously than that in smaller, non-Western countries. (In a statement, Facebook told BuzzFeed: “We investigate each issue carefully, including those that Ms. Zhang raises, before we take action or go out and make claims publicly as a company.”)
Every country using the English-language internet experiences a version of this angst—call it the American Rhino Problem. With so many dominant tech companies headquartered in Silicon Valley, the rules of the web are set there—and by politicians in Washington. The West once sent missionaries to bring Christianity to Africa; in 2013, Mark Zuckerberg promised to “bring the world closer together” by providing internet access to millions in the developing world. (That particular project failed, but there are now more Facebook users in India than anywhere else.)
Britain, where I live, cohabits particularly closely with the American rhino, because of our shared language and history. Brits watch Friends. We read John Grisham novels. We know what a sidewalk is, even though it should be called a “pavement.” The website of the BBC, our national broadcaster, is always plastered with stories about the U.S., while Ireland, which was under British rule until a century ago and with whom we share a border, might as well be the moon. Ask 100 Britons to name the current Taoiseach, and you’ll see 99 blank faces (and one inevitable smart-ass). Ask 100 Britons to name the U.S. president, and—well, I envy anyone who draws a blank there. Please give me directions to the rock under which they’ve been living.
The British political elite loves the United States: Every political adviser here goes to sleep hugging a West Wing box set. Our pollsters and political scientists become feverishly excited when they can switch from talking about our own elections—which have six-week campaigns, and have been tediously designed so the party with the most votes gets to be in charge—to the byzantine madness of the Electoral College. (Right now, everyone here has strong opinions on Florida.) And so the nonstop reality-television show that is the Trump White House has been inescapable in London, to a degree that is disproportionate even considering America’s undoubted global influence. China makes our toys, our clothes, and our anti-COVID personal protective equipment, but occupies a fraction of our mental bandwidth.
Nowhere is the American rhino more obvious than in social-justice activism. “Over the past couple of months, many Britons have imported American discourse on race wholesale,” the British writer Tomiwa Owolade argued at Persuasion, a newsletter edited by my colleague Yascha Mounk, in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer. “When asked to analyze the experiences of Black people in the United Kingdom, we now talk with an American accent.”
Here is one insignificant, but telling, example: In August, multiple stories focused on a photograph of the British singer-songwriter Adele with her hair in Bantu knots. She was “accused of cultural appropriation,” the U.S. entertainment magazine Variety reported. According to the television channel ABC, the star was facing a “backlash” and was “caught in the crossfire.” Fox News had her “slammed” and “taking heat” for the hairstyle. The gossip site PageSix claimed that “a new photo of Adele has sent the internet into a tizzy.” Sensing the high level of interest in the story, British media websites covered it in similar terms.
Yet the controversy had an odd hollowness. One of the few named commentators quoted was Jemele Hill, a contributing writer for The Atlantic, whose tweet expressing mild exasperation with the outfit received 27,000 likes. Incredibly, Fox News quoted “someone” who was offended. (Someone always is.)
But prominent Black Britons, including the model Naomi Campbell and the talent-show winner Alexandra Burke, defended the singer. The politician David Lammy, a member of Parliament for the Labour Party, pointed out that Adele was celebrating the annual Notting Hill Carnival, which has a long tradition of masquerade and “dress up.” Most coverage was framed as a debate, but even the few pieces that offered straightforward criticism tended to be mild. One writer acknowledged the “differing responses to the star’s misstep,” while another argued that she could understand that Adele was “trying to be respectful at an event celebrating black culture with her Bantu knots,” before concluding that the look nevertheless “left a bad taste in my mouth.”
Sunder Katwala, the chair of the identity-focused think tank British Future, told me it was notable that when the British talk-radio station LBC discussed the controversy, it had to bring on the American writer Ernest Owens to make the case against the singer. “In the United States, Black women are often ridiculed for wearing their hair in cornrows and Bantu knots,” Owens said. “But someone like Adele, who is a white woman—she can choose to put that hairstyle on. It’s a trend for her.” Owens later conducted another interview with Talk Radio in London, and his Twitter replies show that the BBC was also trying to get in touch. Somehow, a man from Philadelphia had become the designated arbiter of whether it was appropriate for a British woman to wear a Jamaican-flag bikini and a hairstyle named for people in southern Africa. (American readers: If you think being stuck in a culture war is bad, imagine being stuck in someone else’s.)
The apparent absence of anyone in Britain who was truly outraged by Adele suggested to Katwala that there was something synthetic about the whole debate. He said he wondered whether it was an attempt by the British right to import American culture wars—which have benefited Republican politicians looking to drum up support among working-class voters. In the U.K., provocateurs such as Piers Morgan seek out the most eye-catching opinions of not only British activists to denounce, but American ones too. Morgan’s new book, Wake Up, is a jeremiad against “the woke world view.” It expresses fury at the British government’s handling of COVID-19 and the failed police investigation into the disappearance of a British toddler, but also about Google removing the egg from its salad emoji, Rose McGowan’s tweet apologizing to Iran for the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the use of the N-word in rap music, and the opinion writer Bari Weiss’s resignation from The New York Times.
The wall-to-wall coverage of the Adele story and of other apparent outrages reflects a simple demographic and economic truth: There are six times as many Americans as Britons, so English-language publishers around the world are keen to serve the U.S. market. Going viral on the British corner of the internet is less rewarding, in terms of web traffic and advertising revenue, than “breaking America.”
But what happens when another country’s conversation about race takes place in an “American accent”? In his article for Persuasion, Owolade argued that this risked cloaking “the reality of Black British lives behind an abstraction that flattens our humanity.” He noted that while many Black Americans are descendants of enslaved people, the majority of Black Britons are immigrants, or the children of immigrants—which should influence our discussions of diversity initiatives here in Britain. While Black Britons are underrepresented in publishing and the arts, the same is not true in the kinds of professions toward which middle-class immigrants push their children. “In a country in which black people make up only 3 percent of the population, for example, 6 percent of junior doctors are black,” Owolade wrote.
Katwala also stressed that British-born people from a Black Caribbean background are four times as likely as Black Americans to have a white partner, and those from a Black African background are twice as likely. The majority of mixed-race Britons are themselves in mixed-race relationships. As a result, he added, the “segregationist strand of Black American race thinking” is not really present in Britain. As for cultural appropriation: “I’ve got an Indian name. I grew up Irish Catholic and did Irish dancing. Where are the boundaries?”
This undisputed rule over the English-language internet is not just a problem for smaller countries such as Britain—it isn’t good for the United States either. Being part of the dominant group always leads to shortsightedness: an assumption that your laws, culture, and taboos are universal, the default state of humanity.
Citizens of pretty much any other advanced democracy will find it strange to read an American journalist’s claim that “we have long lines for voting for the same reason we have long lines for major concerts: it’s a rare event for which demand occurs all at once.” I have voted about a dozen times in Britain, in local and general elections, and have never had to get in line, despite a determinedly lo-fi system. Our polling stations are church halls and elementary schools, our ballots are strangely shaped pieces of paper, and the staff are largely volunteers and retired people. (Many Americans living in affluent, white-majority districts will have had the same smooth experience.) That voting takes so long in some parts of the United States is, itself, a political issue.
The situation reminds me of the caustic headline that The Onion, a satirical website, runs every time a mass shooting occurs in the U.S.: “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” In fact, guns may be the best example of how hegemony breeds insularity, as Americans forget how unusual their gun laws are compared with those in other liberal democracies. For that reason, internet discussions of social justice usually treat the widespread presence of guns, and high murder rates, as a given. “Something is weirdly absent from the general discussion about police violence in America: the weapon most commonly used to inflict it,” as my colleague Derek Thompson wrote this summer.
From here, that omission looks weird indeed. Although London’s Metropolitan Police Service was notoriously described as “institutionally racist” in 1999, following its bungled investigation into the murder of a young Black man, far fewer officers carry guns in the U.K. than in the U.S. From April 2017 to March 2018, there were only four fatal police shootings in Britain. “American police are always armed, are frequently seen in combat gear, and are instructed that their first duty is to protect fellow officers, not to protect the public,” Kathleen Burk, a professor emerita of modern and contemporary history at University College London, wrote this summer. “Conversely, most policemen in the U.K. are not normally armed and are trained to police with the consent of the population: their main role is to protect the public.” In other words, it’s not that American police are racist and British officers aren’t, but that racism manifests differently in each country—and here, any police bias is far less likely to lead to a death.
Still, there are some upsides to living alongside the American rhinoceros. Every few months, British journalists have a good laugh at one of The New York Times’ irregular forays into describing our country, with its swamps (no), petty crime (cheeky), and taste for boiled mutton (absolutely not). We know that Britain occupies a particular place in the American imagination, because of your interest in our royal family, The Great British Baking Show, and Downton Abbey. You need us to be quaint and backward, because it flatters your own self-image. We are the old country. You are the New World.
Living on the American internet is a reminder that for much of Britain’s recent history, we were the ones turning up in foreign countries, lazily declaring them to be a “land of contrasts” and their people “simple but happy.” As a former colonial power, the current situation is no more than we deserve. America, our former colony, won the internet, and now makes us speak its language.
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