Dreaming nations

Well, a fascinating couple of days at the conference, not least for some very interesting insights into the sometimes wildly fantasised views that the American and British political classes have about their respective countries, and their place in the world.

First of all, the US. Advertising maven Keith Reinhardt works in various ways with the US business community to improve America’s standing in the world. He’s very aware of the issues that American foreign policy has created for people’s perception of the US; but his response to those issues was oddly schizophrenic.

His awareness that the US could only regain its popularity by finding a more humble, co-operative and role to play in world politics was laudable. But the genuine constructiveness of this approach was undermined by a very strong sense that America is the natural world leading culture.

Reinhardt seemed to be incapable of seeing the US as just another country, neither morally inferior, nor morally superior, to anywhere else. Rather, the issue as he implicitly framed it was how America could use its undoubted and impregnable superiority to keep on leading the world, but in a humbler way – something of an oxymoron, but there you go.

The muted (but very real) triumphalism of his presentation was clearly tailored for an American audience; the mostly European gathering he spoke to was, as far as I could make out, more than a little underwhelmed. I found his fantasies of moral leadership disturbing. Living at one remove from reality can only be destructive, as several hundred thousand dead and several million displaced Iraqis would seem to demonstrate.

And then, there was British fantasising. Various backbench MPs pontificated about the UK, describing a country I’ve never visited. In their homeland, cycling old maids would represent the cutting edge of radical activity; its single finest cultural achievement would no doubt be Prince Charles’ Duchy Originals brand.

America’s cultural fantasising at least has the virtue of great expansiveness. Our ruling class, by contrast, would seem to harbour an entirely inwards looking, retrospective world view – one that makes an existential threat of any sort of contact with modernity.

Thinking about it, I suppose these two attitudes represent two opposing ways by which excessive fantasising can trap you. One externalises an unreal world that exists only to be changed by the heroic, imagined self; the other dreams up an embodiment of stasis, and then heroically battles change to protect it. In both cases, there’s a retreat from reality, and thus from the possibility of real achievement, real learning and real, constructive evolution.

6 thoughts on “Dreaming nations

  1. An appropriate place to share my Keith Reinhardt anecdote if you’ll allow me.

    I was attending a planning conference in Dublin somewhere around the turn of the Millennium on behalf of DDB Bangkok, and I was seated next to Keith for dinner. At some point, possibly over the dessert selection he was scrutinizing the menu unaware that it was held over a candle and it burst into flames.

    Keith froze and we all looked on in horror as his brain worked out which was safer. Let go and ignite the table cloth, or hold on and flambe his fingers.

    Sensing his dilemma and reluctant to get into a tussle over a burning menu I did the next best thing and threw a glass of water over him.

    He was ungracious in the way that only a network cEO can be when a subordinate had saved his life publicly. He failed to acknowledge me for the remainder of the meal.

    I am not making this up Al. Honest Guv.

  2. Ho ho ho! Have to say he does do excellent ‘frosty looking through you’ – I was blanked very effectively when I tried to chat to him after his speech.

    And on the burning – quite apart from manifest destiny, I suspect he was actually very surprised that fire has the temerity to burn on him!

  3. It’s like when John Major used to bang on about cricket on the village green.

    As a Londoner I’m not too sure what a village green is and I don’t understand the rules to cricket (or have any interest in rectifying the situation)… so good job engaging with me Tory party!

  4. That’s one of the odd things about that kind of myth, isn’t it – they’re assumed to be very inclusive (‘everyone knows that England’s all about warm beer and cricket’) but in fact they’re very exclusive…

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