“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Brit in Texas Observing the North

Prefatory note to English people: a state is not a county. A state is what the UK would look like if there were a United States of Europe. Vermont is Belgium, maybe, California is Poland (hahaha, I know, it doesn't work!).

And the size confuses a lot of Europeans. Two colleagues who visited me in Boulder, CO were like “Maybe this morning we could drive to visit the Grand Canyon?” And I'm like “Sure, you will need a day and two planes to get there, see you in a week!”

So, again, just to be incredibly clear. A state is a country-sized entity in a federation. You can fit at least two Britains into Colorado and the Texans are sizeist for a reason. It takes seven hours to drive at top speed from San Francisco to Los Angeles. And SF is in the middle of CA. And so on.


I think I can see pretty accurately, having not been brought up here, and having lived in several parts of the USA (NYC, NJ, CA, CO, TX). In other words, you can't accuse me of native prejudice or whatever, you guys from MA (yes I'm looking at you mostly) who are so...hmm, what is the best phrase, maybe jaw-droppingly rude sums it up?

So, here's an example. I'm having breakfast at my hotel. I'm doing this lecture in Canada. There's an architect from Boston and two scholars from Australia. The architect is pointing at my breakfast and looking at the Australians with a “hey this is hilarious” grin on his or her face, saying “That's a really Southern breakfast. I mean, it's really Gulf Coast. It's really Texan.”

What was the breakfast?

Eggs benedict, hash browns and some toast, with some spinach and baked beans.

I could have sworn I'd eaten that in New York City a few times. Even in Boston, if I recall, the last time I talked at Harvard. And now, apparently, far northern Canada.

The Australians were mortified. The Bostonian didn't notice. After a while I raised my head and looked at them like “Wow, this sucks a bit doesn't it, and we're all quite embarrassed.”

Quick question: Who in that group is coarse, rude, ignorant, with not great manners? And totally blind to all that, to boot? And not only that--assuming that others are the coarse ones?

The East Coast attitude to Cali was interesting. Mildly tolerant exoticization, sometimes tending towards romantic yearning. But with a slightly supercilious “You know they're all just baked out of their minds over there” kind of vibe.

That's far far nicer than what happens to people from my new hood. It's like being a Scot in England. You are seen as a synecdoche of this place and culture, and you have to explain yourself and account for it all the time. Even if you're English. From England. Which abolished slavery decades before the USA.

A perfectly snobbish writer for The New Yorker lost it and couldn't talk to me, had to walk away quickly, when he found out I was a very happy endowed chair at Rice, Houston, Texas and had no intention of moving back to a place where you have to be making $4m to be someone.

But the East Coast can be strangely backwards, compared to the Europe it apes. I remember the looks my mum and my stepdad (who is black, from Grenada) got walking down Fifth Avenue. I mean, these were looks of total horror. From the (synecdochically) winners on the right side of the Civil War.


Anonymous said...

Although I read this blog for transcendent moments, and not to look for fault, I find I have a slight criticism to make concerning this statement "That's far far nicer than what happens to people from my new hood. . . . Even if you're English. From England. Which abolished slavery decades before the USA." In fact, unless one refers to serfs as interchangeable with slaves, there technically never was slavery in England. Lord Mansfield declared in Somerset v Scott, which involved an American who wanted to bring his save to England, that slavery never had and could not exist in England because the air was too free, or some such. There were a few instances of slaves in the Georgian period who did not seek legal redress and manumission through the courts for their servitude and, because they thought slavery existed in England, acted as slaves. That said, I contradict myself and note that England and the US have always been slave states and none of us, nor any of our ancestors, were ever free going back to the end of neolithic times. Perhaps you are are referring to Wilberforce's success in passing an Act in Parliament forbidding the use of British ships to transport slaves?

I also take issue, sir, with the eggy breakfast and hope to hear further thoughts concerning vegans versus vegetarians and, to use Susan Sontag's phrase, the pain of others who happen to be hens. New York is a dead city and the public intellectuals who lived here during the modernist period ruined the world. Avoid Conde Nast writers.

Unknown said...

Are you no longer vegan Tim? Would be interested to hear why this is