Artillery Row

Team America may save us yet

Brits might not like to admit it, but the US can-do attitude is what we need to recover from Covid

Might the torch held aloft by Lady Liberty in New York Harbour be exuding more glow these days after long seeming dimmed?  Increasingly on social media, images are appearing of US sports stadiums utterly jammed with enthusiastic crowds — just like the good old days. It’s even getting official backing. Texas governor Greg Abbott recently announced: 

“Texas is open 100 per cent. Texans should have the freedom to go where they want without any limits, restrictions, or requirements. Today, I signed a law that prohibits any TX business or gov’t entity from requiring vaccine passports or any vaccine information.”

While the US government’s approach is more cautious than Texas, that hasn’t stopped the country’s 78-year-old president coming to the UK for the G7 summit. During his first in-person meeting with Boris Johnson, the two leaders renewed the Atlantic Charter established 80 years ago by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. During the summit, Biden was keen to hammer home the point—even saying it literally after touching down in the UK—that the US is back! While Johnson gave every indication regarding the US’s comeback-kid stance—including noting the “indestructible” bond between the countries—what is the UK’s perspective: We want you back!

An American friend working in Texas’s medical sector recently told me that while the grand re-opening continues, Covid-19 infection and death rates appear to be remaining under control — and not just in Texas but across the country.  As other Brits are commenting after seeing capacity-full baseball and basketball games, it’s a huge contrast — both the actions and the accompanying attitudes — to what’s happening in Britain where we are still much more cautious

Last September, I lamented in Wherefore art thou, America? how the US’s absence on the world stage, both through Covid-19 travel bans and at the macro level of global leadership, was a great loss. But the better angels of the American character are reasserting themselves and could through force of example and inspiration — as the US of old used to do — help anxiety-soaked Britain move on from its Covid-19 defensive crouch. 

Many Americans I’ve spoken to  appear supremely confident about a post-Covid-19 recovery

The divergence between the US and UK mindsets about leaving behind lockdowned life is humbling. Brits often mock Americans for their feel-good optimism, unabashed confidence and have-a-nice-day style of interacting. But that national trait is paying dividends post Covid-19. 

Current research indicates how just the words you say to yourself shape your attention, which controls your emotions, and thereby influences your confidence and performance that are inextricably linked. “Nowhere is confidence more needed than when we face change, such as in the aftermath of a pandemic,” writes Ian Robertson in the Guardian, adding that lack of confidence undermines your chances of succeeding at your goals, whether small or big — and you usually need to achieve the small ones before tackling bigger ones — while fuelling anxiety and knock-on mental health issues.

Many Americans, certainly those I’ve spoken to but also others in the media, appear supremely confident about a post-Covid-19 recovery that is both economic and societal in nature. One reason such ebullience is so striking is because it contrasts so sharply with how Brits tend to speak and act nowadays when discussing Covid-19 and opening up. That cautious, sucking-through-your-teeth hesitation appears to be a national default position.

In her book A State of Fear: How the UK Government Weaponized Fear During the Covid-19 Pandemic, Laura Dodsworth argues that the pandemic has left us “one of the most frightened countries in the world.” From the government’s behavioural scientists straight out of a cautionary Aldous Huxley novel, to “roadside signs telling us to ‘Stay Alert’, the incessantly doom-laden media commentary, to masks literally keeping the fear in our face, we’ve become afraid of each other,” Dodsworth says. 

She cites an international study last September of public attitudes across Europe, the US and Asia which found that people in the UK had the highest overall levels of concern about Covid-19, while another study reported that Britons were the least likely to believe that the economy and businesses should open if Covid-19 was not “fully contained.”

There isn’t a solid bedrock in this country for breeding confidence and instigating that virtuous feedback loop

Dodsworth has much sympathy for the British population and their reactions — as do I for the same reasons — primarily stemming from their being coerced through fear-mongering tactics. In a recent article about the risks of over diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder, I noted how after a profound disruption like Brexit, it’s plausible that Brits and their emotional well-being were more vulnerable than other nationalities to the arrival of a new virus.  

Either way, it’s clear there isn’t a solid bedrock in this country for breeding confidence and instigating that virtuous feedback loop, as Robertson notes, whereby “confidence begets more confidence.” Robertson highlights the “disturbing” findings of a Prince’s Trust survey done mid-pandemic in 2020. From 2,000 people in the UK aged 16 — 25 years old, it found that 41 per cent of respondents felt that their future goals now seemed “impossible to achieve” and 38 per cent felt they would “never succeed in life.” 

If that’s an accurate indicator across the entire age group, it’s hard not to share Robertson’s concern that “such a drop in the confidence of nearly half a generation could reverberate for decades in the social, economic and political fabric of Britain.” Cue the inspiration of Lady Liberty and those sporting events and everything else happening, and opening up, in the US to spark confidence here.

Another unexpected reminder of the potent spiritedness of the US happened as I read Simon Akam’s brutal takedown of the British Army’s conduct since 9/11 in his book The Changing of the Guard. A clear theme throughout the book is how dependent the British military is on the might of US forces. Without it, we became unstuck, basically, hence the US military had to keep bailing out the British Army in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Amid the depressing story, I found a strangely uplifting moment. Akam recounts a British officer during the 2003 invasion of Iraq liaising with US forces regarding their providing fast jets 10 minutes ahead of the British force and a swarm of attack helicopters in close support. The British officer “asks how long they can keep that act up for,” aware, as an ex-pilot, of the massive logistical challenges of providing air power. The reply from the Americans: “Indefinitely, sir.” Akam notes how the British officer’s “jaw drops so far that another American — out of genuine attempted kindness — elaborates: “That means forever, sir.”

You don’t need to tell me how that relates to the military-industrial complex and the hell visited on Iraq and Afghanistan; nevertheless, I found it heartening, speaking as it did to that ribald blend of can-do spirit, élan and ballsiness that Americans can do so well. It’s that classic Right Stuff that the American writer Tom Wolfe famously expounded on in the same-named book, which when boiled down amounts to capacity and confidence; the latter being that “precious mental resource,” as Robertson describes it, without which good luck tackling the “life-changing decisions” forced upon people during Covid-19, relating to careers, education, families, where to live and more. 

So, my fellow Brits, take heart that the US is opening up. Having taken note, we should then have a good talk with ourselves and start boosting that depleted national confidence.

“Indefinitely, sir.” What a line. What an attitude. What a people.

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