Divided By a Common Language, More So Than We Think

Book review: If Only They Didn’t Speak English, by Jon Sopel (Amazon / Book Depository)

BBC journalist Jon Sopel, the network’s North America editor, writes about US history, politics, culture and personal impressions through a UK-US comparative lens while working in both Obama’s and Trump’s America.

Sopel got called out by Trump at a press conference in early 2017 while asking a question about the travel ban, with Trump snarking “here’s another beauty” about the BBC, adding, “I know who you are.” Sopel handled it smoothly despite Trump’s attempts to rattle him with the world’s least-threatening gangster impression.

All to say, Sopel’s something of a veteran of American political coverage, and he’s careful to maintain strict standards of integrity in journalism (irrelevant to Trump, I know, but it still means something to me.) In his book, he loosens his tie to allow in some personal opinion and anecdotal observations from living in a tony Washington D.C. neighborhood.

His “lightbulb moment” in realizing how divided Americans have become was a decidedly peculiar one, talking with a woman at a DC hair salon: “She told me she couldn’t decide how to vote because she liked Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton … You can like one and hate the other. You can dislike them both but one marginally less than the other. You can hate them both equally and decide you’re not going to vote… It was an opinion I just hadn’t heard expressed anywhere at any time during the 15 months of the campaign. It was astonishing, and just brought home to me how deep the fissures were.”

He moves through nine chapters categorically divided into anger, race, patriotism, government, God, guns, anxiety, [being] special, and truth. He compares and contrasts the US position and general and/or political culture around it with that in the UK and to a lesser extent, other countries. It’s an appealing premise, and at its foundation is the idea that because our countries share a language, we tend to think we have more in common than we actually do. Fundamentally, he argues, the differences are wider than the ocean separating us. To illustrate he draws on historical elements and statistics, with the latter in particular being enlightening even for American readers.

Some other things, like how certain media outlets are openly biased, were also explored insightfully: “What’s crucial to understand is that in America what you listen to and watch will confirm your prejudices, not challenge them.”

The chapter on God and religion was phenomenal. Without the cultural or historical baggage that often accompanies this topic in the US, he brilliantly calls attention to just how present religion is in much of American culture, including leaking into government. It’s well done and important. I’m not even sure if some Americans realize how pervasive religion can be in mainstream thinking, especially compared to other nations. It was a relief to hear this articulated as he does.

But overall, the commentary isn’t particularly in-depth. It is readable and easy to absorb, though. I think it’s especially useful for drawing later from the easily distilled points he makes, I’ve certainly stowed a few away for future arguments (namely from the “Guns” chapter). Hypocrisy is a frequent topic, and he highlights this meaningfully, driving home how silly it looks. Somewhat related is a discussion of the gap between the taxes we’re willing to pay and what we get, or don’t get, because of it: “You have the richest country in the world with an infrastructure that is now looking decidedly Third World.” This is an upsetting but unfortunate observation that I know is hard to hear, but it’s true.

I did feel that he criticized certain things for humor’s sake that didn’t warrant it. I don’t want to be hypersensitive, but ignoring common sense and eschewing research isn’t what I expect from BBC journalism. Example: He rightfully points out how odd it is that US drug companies advertise their products aggressively on TV, with caveats including a laundry list of scary-sounding potential symptoms and an “Ask your doctor” warning. Good point well made.

But connected to this, describing a trend of rising anxiety that’s seemingly due to flame-fanning media reportage (like of the 2014 Ebola outbreak), he comments: “It seems Americans have also become increasingly fearful of mornings. Searches for ‘anxiety in the morning’ have risen threefold over the past decade.”

I’m glad that he’s never experienced crippling anxiety upon waking that makes the rest of the day seem unfaceable and I hope he never does, but making an insensitive joke about it doesn’t prove an otherwise salient point.

He also mentions how little Americans drink at dinner parties he’s attended, ending by recounting a hostess asking if he was ok to drive after he’d had so little. I believe he answered his own question about why responsible people don’t over-imbibe when having to drive home is a necessity. No one I knew who was taking the NYC subway or a cab home worried how much they drank. So should I infer that New Yorkers recklessly overindulge and the rest of the country are near-teetotallers? It’s conjecture, and a weak example to pick as a cultural difference, I thought.

But worse, he erroneously (in my opinion) links it to prohibition-era ideas about the immorality of alcohol, following immediately with: “All this in a country where religion is meant to have no role in the life of the republic.” I like his deconstruction of the hypocrisy inherent in many of our policies and ideas, but that’s not one of them. Not to say there aren’t those who abstain for moral or religious reasons, but not driving after drinking is unrelated. And actually, it IS a huge, ugly issue, so if anything, maybe appreciate that your fancy DC dinner party friends aren’t doing or encouraging it?

Rant-segue aside, my point is that despite a wealth of research assembled in some sections, elsewhere he allows the anecdotal and opinion to speak where they shouldn’t.

I wasn’t necessarily the right audience, it’s clearly intended for British readership. But I love political commentary, and the BBC is high on my list of preferred news outlets, plus having lived abroad myself, I appreciate what a non-native perspective can offer. When he addresses topics like American exceptionalism, an idea often viewed with horror outside the US and seen as totally normal within it, I understand why his recitation of history and light commentary is helpful in understanding something about national ideas and thus, about our place on the world stage. Sometimes it’s even funny (“The idea of American exceptionalism in the corporate-speak of today would be viewed as akin to a national ‘mission statement’.”)

But, as a news junkie (aren’t we all these days?) there was little new. Portions felt like history lessons, both older and contemporary, repeated Wikipedia-like without fresh insight. I think it’s helpful for those who may read headliner stories and have questions about precedent or context, or are seeking a background in US history to understand current issues, such as why we have the right to bear arms in the first place.

But for those following US news regularly, there’s not much to glean additionally from the reportage. Recommended for some well-distilled and logical arguments (take the personal stories with a grain of salt) and non-US dwellers looking for historical background to current events. 3/5

If Only They Didn’t Speak English:
Notes from Trump’s America

by Jon Sopel
published September 7, 2017

Amazon / Book Depository

26 thoughts on “Divided By a Common Language, More So Than We Think

    1. Thank you so much for putting it on my radar! I was really glad to get the different perspective from an observer who wasn’t American, this was the first I’ve read from that approach. It was very eye-opening in certain ways and I already have some people in mind that I need to pass it on to 🙂

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  1. Fascinating review! I think it would be interesting getting an outside journalist’s perspective on so many controversial topics about the US, particularly one from the BBC. I share your view of his apparent miss about alcohol consumption. It does seem as if he missed the mark. I’m still intrigued by the book. And, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who liked both Hillary and Trump!

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    1. Thanks! I thought it would be interesting too, I guess that’s why it fell a bit short for me, both because it’s more of a history lesson for non-Americans, and because I have high standards for BBC journalism and it seemed like he let those fall by the wayside in favor of the anecdotal at times here. His missing the point (and an opportunity to address a horrific issue) re: alcohol and driving really bothered me. But I was astonished at that person saying she liked both Hillary and Trump…what is this mythical creature and how does she exist?!

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  2. This sounds really interesting – though I am also baffled by his comments about drink-driving. Very few of the people I know here in the UK would ever have even a small glass of wine and then drive home (though drink driving is also a problem here), so it doesn’t really sound like that much of a cultural difference – I have no idea where those comments came from!

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    1. I’m glad it wasn’t only confusing from my perspective, I was taken aback by that! My experience has given me the same impression. He describes this scene as a dinner party that split a single bottle of wine among everyone there and he was aghast! I couldn’t understand it at all, you always have people as designated drivers who don’t drink any alcohol, or else yes, it’s one bottle between everyone (at most.) That’s just taking responsibility, nothing more complex or religious (?!) about it!

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  3. Excellent review! I’m always amazed by how well you capture the various strengths and weaknesses of each book you review. The non-native perspective in this does interest me as an American, and I’m especially keen to read the religion and gun chapters, given how different the U.S. is from other countries regarding both topics.

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    1. Oh thank you! That’s so nice to hear, I’m glad you think so. I find myself rambling sometimes so I’m happy if it comes across coherently 🙂 The non-native perspective is what interested me most but it didn’t end up being as insightful as I’d hoped. The religion and gun chapters are very worthwhile though.

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  4. I cringe when I think of what the rest of the world thinks of us now. Not that we were perfect pre-2016, of course we weren’t, but my goodness, sometimes I think I’m in a bad dream. I don’t think I’d have the heart to read this just because I’d find it too depressing.

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    1. I know, it’s bad. It wasn’t always rosy, like you said, but it’s ridiculous now. This one isn’t even so depressing in terms of its coverage post-election, it’s a bit of a misnomer to subtitle it “from Trump’s America” because it’s much more written about things that happened during Obama’s time. It’s sadder in terms of how even more disturbing things like our gun laws, the Flint water crisis, etc. look from the outside 😦

      Liked by 2 people

  5. This sounds like an interesting read! I’m always trying to figure out American way of thinking and politics and then I get hopelessly lost and give up haha so for context I think this would be great. Hmm about news… Personally I’ve stopped watching news or reading news articles. It all just seems very opinionated. Important things seem to pop up in my feeds anyway.

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  6. I’m interested to read this. Even though I’ve lived most of my life in the States, I was born in the UK and still have certain British sensibilities and viewpoints and have a strong connection with my mom’s family over there.

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    1. You should definitely read it, I think especially with your background and varied perspectives it would be really interesting for you! It’s nothing particularly earth-shattering or revealing if you follow the news regularly and are familiar with all of the history and arguments, but he distills it well.

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      1. I had a credit on Kindle, so I just bought it. I tend to read ebooks these days because of space issues – I wonder if they have some kind of referral program? Would be great if you got a fee for recommended books I purchased.

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      2. I’m glad I could pass one along to you that you’re so interested in 🙂 I can’t wait to hear what you think of it. And you’re so thoughtful! I’m an Amazon affiliate, so if you buy anything through the links I post in the review I get a small percentage of the sale. That’s really kind of you to even ask about that, thank you.

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  7. Great review, I didn’t realise Sopel had written a book. I think it’d be interesting to read from a British perspective, particularly if he’s suggesting British press is not bipartisan (it certainly is) and the BBC is above all of that (which it certainly isn’t). I wonder if it is quite as different as he implies.

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    1. I would love to hear your thoughts on it, as that was my impression. He points out that conservatives in the US only watch Fox which reaffirms their views, liberals MSNBC, etc. It’s presented as if that’s surprising, or maybe he was implying that news is biased but Americans don’t bother listening to the other sources? Would love to hear what you think of it in any case!

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