It was good of Ricky Gervais to illustrate some of the differences between English and US culture with his comments at the Golden Globe Awards, so perfectly timed to coincide with yesterday's column. His sneers were typical of a culture of envy that I was referring to.
Much English humour -- even when written by Irishmen -- is based on this, and is essentially about Saxons trying to be Normans. Is Jack Worthing not the Saxon, and Lady Bracknell the Norman? Likewise, Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle? What else is 'Abigail's Party', a vile exercise in dramaturgical snobbery, yet one of the best-loved plays in England of the past 30 years?
Ricky Gervais's 'The Office' was an unbroken sneer at the pretensions and the ambitions of its hero, played by Gervais himself. The sado-masochistic monotone was quite wearying and toxic -- which was why the American version, starring Steve Carell, was much more upbeat. Not merely was the writing much better, but the characterisation was subtler and more appealing to the American psyche. For Americans admire success: and unless one tries, one can never succeed. To sneer at the constant trier is to worship endlessly at the altar of failure.
Now it's unlikely that Ricky Gervais knows that the next US Navy nuclear aircraft carrier, building at the moment, is the USS 'Gerald R Ford', after one of the most inconspicuous presidents in US history, and the only completely unelected one. So what does this tell us? Well, it tells me very clearly that I don't understand the US. But since I respect and admire the US greatly (yes, still, as the last best hope for mankind) the lesson is clear: stay silent about foreign stuff that you don't understand. And absolutely, do not make fun of it.
The state of Virginia seceded from the US 150 years ago today. South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama had already done so. Louisiana was to follow on January 26, 1861, and Texas went on February 1. This followed Abraham Lincoln's unconvincing presidential victory in November, in which he garnered less than 40pc of the popular vote.
In February, a convention of secessionist states met in Montgomery, Alabama, and the following spring, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina joined the Confederacy.
The issue by this time was really not slavery: at his inauguration, Lincoln promised not to interfere in states where slavery remained. He also promised not to permit secession. But either way, did not the southern states have the democratic right to secede from the union, just as they had the right to join it? This was why so many Irish sided with the Confederacy, seeing the position of Ireland reflected in the ambitions of the secessionist states.
Moreover, and most telling of all (to my mind), Lincoln did not have the mandate to fight a war against the southern states -- for 60pc of the voters had polled for rival candidates. And since 19pc of the total electorate didn't vote at all, Lincoln was actually supported by only 32pc of the potential voters. It could be argued that he therefore did not have the moral authorisation to levy war against those 11 secessionist states, especially since he didn't even get on to the ballot in 10 of them, and won just 1.1pc of the vote in the eleventh, Virginia.
Four years later, and after nearly a million battle-deaths, the US emerged as the greatest military power in the world, with a million men under arms, and with iron-clad battleships that could have put the Royal Navy to flight. Lincoln had turned the US into a single mighty power, and though dark days lay ahead for the former Confederacy, the former secessionist states in due course became the demographic heartland of the US officer corps. The lands which were conquered in the war were in the forefront of the US's war of liberation of Asia and Europe in 1944-45, and in the defence against aggressive communism in the succeeding decades. They remain bastions of US patriotism today.
And I simply do not understand how this was so. Nor do I remotely under- stand how Lincoln could have since become a largely unquestioned moral hero in the US pantheon. This is not disapproval, merely incomprehension, on a par with my incomprehension of particle physics and Mongolian grammar and of El Nino. For the underlying truth is that no matter who you are, Swedish or Tibetan or Bolivian, all foreigners are funny. But for us Anglophones, foreigners are particularly perplexing if they speak English and we constantly read their books and watch their TV and films, and we think we understand them. But at bottom, we don't. We never do. Such incomprehension is not a bad or a good thing: it just IS.
Moreover, if there's one enduring lesson from the Golden Globes it is that no outsider should ever stand up on a podium in a foreign country and make fun of the nationals of that country. That's a simple and universal rule of civility and decency. Of course a sneerer like Gervais wouldn't possibly understand that. Which is why he'd probably spell the beach N-O-M-A-H-A.