America: A Theory
America: A Theory
Gotten: Americans say it, the British don’t (nor do Australians and South Africans). One might suppose that Americans started saying it some time after the first British settlers landed in the New World, thus marking themselves as different from their British forebears. But this is wrong: the British were already saying gotten when they got to America (Chaucer, Shakespeare, et al) and the settlers simply continued the tradition, while the British stopped saying it. So subsequent Americans were actually more like the original Brits than later Brits were in this respect. The reason, evidently, is that linguistic forces or fashions operated in England to change the language, which were not operative in the new country. American English was isolated from these forces and so stayed the same. America didn’t add; England subtracted (rightly or wrongly). This kind of phenomenon obviously has wider application: an animal species might spread to a location in which it remains essentially the same while the original population evolves into something different; art forms could persist in a new setting while in the old setting they undergo change; social customs might continue elsewhere while disappearing at home. The original location may be susceptible to influences that don’t apply in the new location, especially if the new location is geographically isolated. Just to have a label let’s call this the Regressive Relocation Effect. Of course, relocation might have the opposite effect: the new place will occasion changes not occurring in the original place, depending on the forces operating there (the Progressive Relocation Effect). But in the right circumstances we could have stasis in the new location combined with revolution in the old location. In an extreme case the new location could find itself hundreds of years behind the old location as the years roll by—still riding horses, wearing top hats, flogging miscreants, etc. Change happens for a reason and the reasons that apply at home may be absent abroad. A geographically new country might thus become a culturally old country as time passes. It might, as we say, become stuck in the past. In such a case citizens of the new country might be more like past citizens of the old country than present citizens of it are. That is what happened with gotten.
This suggests a theory: America is more like old England than present England is in certain important respects. The America of today is more like the England of 1607 than the England of today is. Not in all respects, obviously, since many events took place in America in the subsequent years that did not take place in England, specifically the waves of immigration from many countries that transformed the culture of the United States—not all of American culture reflects the culture of Great Britain in the seventeenth century. But certain aspects of American life stand out as similar to earlier phases of British life: I am referring to puritanism, racism, tolerance for violence, the penal system (including the death penalty), philistinism, and animal cruelty. These are remnants of conditions that obtained long ago in British society but which have gradually been removed or diminished by a range of influences. Great Britain is itself a complex society full of competing forces, and it is geographically close to other European and Scandinavian nations, as well as having ties to what is called the Commonwealth (ironic name), so it is open to influences that don’t impinge directly on the United States. There are agents of change acting on Britain that haven’t acted on America, or not to the same degree. Accordingly, America has not changed so much in the respects indicated compared to Britain. The persistence of slavery and allied institutions is the obvious example: America supported slavery for longer than Britain, thus exhibiting a similarity to an older Britain that outlived that of Britain itself. Americans were “more British” than the British when it came to slavery (and most of the slave owners were themselves of British descent). The same can be said of the other societal traits I mentioned: puritanism persisted with less opposition in America, as did claims of racial and national superiority, as did penal practices. England became more civilized, less barbaric, as time went by (to put it normatively), while America retained more of the old outmoded ways. Of course, this a matter of degree, and America may be more advanced in other respects, but it seems clear that it contains elements of a culture that has withered away more decisively in the old country. Let me put it bluntly: Americans have the mentality of Englishmen of a century ago (plus or minus a bit). You can see this in prevalent attitudes towards science and learning, in religiosity, in an acceptance of violence as a way of life, in the virulence of white supremacy, and other traits. There is, I’m sorry to say, a fundamental lack of sophistication in the American mind, akin to that which obtained in earlier iterations of the British mind (and which still exists in parts of the latter mind). The reasons for this are no doubt complex, but geographical isolation must surely rank high—nothing proximate is forcing the American mind to change. It is why, to many Europeans, America seems like a savage and barbarous place—technologically modern but spiritually and morally backward. America, it is felt, should really be more civilized than it is (no universal healthcare, for example). My theory is that this fact results from the Regressive Relocation Effect—it is gotten writ large. Americans are actually more British than the British—more like the British of yore. Britain has changed more in the last four hundred years than America has, owing to a variety of internal and external forces. British culture has been more porous than American culture during this period. The American psyche is accordingly more rooted in its historical connections to old England than the contemporary English psyche is. Of course, both are rooted there still, but in America the roots go deeper (notice the strange reverence for the British royal family in the USA). The British in Britain have been more psychologically deracinated than the British in America during the last few centuries.
If I were to single out the historical event, or series of events, that mainly caused this divergence, I would cite Britain’s gradual loss of empire. This loss wrought huge changes in the mindset of the British, but nothing comparable has ever overtaken the USA. America still has considerable influence in the world (despite some nervousness about China) and so faces little threat to its global power, whereas England has had to accept its vastly diminished status. The result is greater humility in the one and continuing arrogance in the other (nothing compares to American self-righteousness). America today is like England at the height of its colonial power and cultural clout, just so pleased with itself. England has changed tremendously in this respect since the first English settlers arrived on American soil, but America has not suffered such changes, so it has not had to adjust to them. It could therefore continue in the same old way and feel justified in doing so. The American mind is still like the British mind of its colonial heyday, and descends from it, while that type of mind has virtually disappeared from British shores. But I must add that the loss of empire is just one source of historical change and doesn’t explain everything about the divergences between the two countries over the last few centuries. The point I have wanted to urge is that the cultural divisions between the two countries are the result of historical continuity across continents not cultural discontinuity: America didn’t part ways with England; England did. America is England suspended in time. The sources of cultural innovation in America were largely brought by other immigrants (voluntary and involuntary) not by descendants of the original British settlers; the British simply persisted in their old ways (puritanical, punitive, xenophobic). This is why American culture is as fragmented as it is (inter alia). By contrast, the British in Britain were forced to change their ways by a variety of circumstances: geographical location, internal dynamics (class warfare, industrialization, propinquity with other countries, etc.), and loss of empire. America is now more traditionally British than Britain (and not in a good way). The cure for its ills is therefore to stop being so tied to old England. The revolutionary war was never properly completed. This is quite compatible with recognizing that Britain has also had some good effects on American society, but along with these have come various bad legacies, with which we are distressingly familiar. The British may hanker after the past (Brexit etc.) but Americans are the past—what Britain used to be like. Americans are still saying gotten.
 The effect derives from the Law of Societal Inertia: societies don’t change unless a force is applied to them that makes them change. All societal changes require positive interference; there is no spontaneous change. The interfering factor can be economic, military, moral, scientific, religious, etc. To continue the analogy with physics, America is like a closed system stably preserving its initial state over time.
 Compare the metric system: Britain was forced to adopt the metric system in the late 1960s and not without considerable reluctance, but America has never followed suit, feeling no pressure to make the change. It isn’t that Britain always had a metric system and American innovation invented the non-metric system; no, it just clung on to the old system. Similarly with capital punishment: it’s hard to stick with this barbarity when all around you are abandoning it (continental Europe), but in America there is no one around you pushing for a more humane legal system. I could go on: racial segregation, factory farming, lack of universal healthcare, massive income inequality, punitive drug laws, gun proliferation, police brutality, and so on. America is exceptional in these ways, partly because there is no pressure from surrounding countries (Canada and Mexico not having the requisite clout). Nor do we see any rebellion against the past such as we see with countries once ruled for centuries by monarchs. Thus America finds it easy to be complacent about its British heritage (no one in America hates the British, despite that war for independence). America is still dominated by its British inheritance, but that inheritance dates back a long way and has not been subjected to the kind of criticism that has radically altered it in its place of origin.
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