U.S. individualism versus understated Britain

PHILADELPHIA (U-WIRE) — So, there I was, 3,000 feet above stage level in the cheap seats of the Academy of Music, eagerly awaiting the first production in the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s season. The house lights faded away, the conductor bowed and the pit orchestra struck up … the National Anthem.
I was, to say the least, taken aback. Verdi surely didn’t begin Rigoletto with “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The patriotic opera-goers dutifully stood and joined in. I was treated to an unexpected — not to mention unwanted — display of my roommate’s vocal talents. I was just wondering whether they’d take requests — a quick chorus of “God Save the Queen,” perhaps? — when the rockets flew high, the notes even higher and my roommate emitted an ear-piercing screech.
You may have the better lyrics, but at least our anthem sticks to one register.
I was assured that this is not common practice at the opera, but it did strike a chord, as it were.
At the start of the semester, a friend from England, trying to help me overcome my culture shock, observed,”It’s the nuances that grate.” Coming to a country which ostensibly speaks the same language, it’s easy to forget that cultural differences can be as significant as in a “foreign” country. My entire knowledge of America and the Americans came from TV, cinema and literature, a heady mixture of Jerry Springer, Blair Witch and Jack Kerouac.
Crass, crap and crack.
So why should it be inconceivable nowadays for the English National Opera to start a performance with our national anthem? I suspect it’s for the same reason that we don’t see the British flag as often as the Stars and Stripes, why only soccer hooligans abroad wear Union Jack boxer shorts and why the sole owners of “University of Cambridge” sweatshirts are American tourists.
It’s a question of pride, both national and local. During my first days here, I learned that Philadelphia has the oldest, first or largest just about everything. The oldest indoor basketball court, the first bank, the largest pipe organ in the world (in Irvine Auditorium, allegedly).
City Hall is the tallest government building in the world (“or maybe just in the United States,” admitted the guard), Independence Hall is the most historic site in the country and Elfreth’s Alley is the oldest continually occupied street in America. And as for the Liberty Bell, the ranger’s superlative-laden speech deserved an Oscar. I couldn’t have recited it without cringing.
To be good is not good enough in the United States; everything must be the best. The British, however, prize understatement, distrust excellence and love mediocrity.
In a recent BBC documentary, a journalist from the left-wing Guardian made the case for republicanism: Having ditched the monarchy, America opened the way for individualism, power to the people and 300 different breakfast cereals.
But individualism has resulted in an incoherent blend of liberalism and conservatism. On the one hand, college education is like a pick ‘n’ mix sweet shop, freedom of expression is fiercely guarded and people actually think they can influence politics. Americans complain where Brits suffer in silence.
Yet, where else in the civilized world is the legal drinking age 21? And does any other western democracy not have a credible left-of-center political party?
As the late British screenwriter Dennis Potter complained, “These days in America, it’s easier to pull out a gun than a cigarette.”
Sometimes, I don’t know how to react to this place. Certainly it is refreshing and invigorating to be in a culture that strives for success and which values the contribution that an individual can make.
Then again, the British love of the underdog and the value we place on courage in defeat (the stiff upper lip, what?) are laudable attitudes. Along with the rest of the nation, I held my breath as our best-loved Olympian, Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, launched himself precariously off Calgary’s ski-jump in 1988, to a guaranteed last place. He remains a true national hero.
I suppose my attitude is somewhere between British understatements and American superlatives. Which lands me smack in the middle of the North Atlantic ocean. Fortunately I can swim.

Nigel Caplan’s column originally appeared in the University of Pennsylvania’s Daily Pennsylvanian on Nov. 10. Send comments to [email protected]