Keep Opening Up, America—the World is Watching
The better angels of the American character are reasserting themselves and could through force of example and inspiration—as the U.S. of old used to do so well—help anxiety-soaked Britain move on from its crippling COVID-19 defensive crouch.
Increasing numbers of Brits, including myself, can’t help but notice on social media the images of sporting events and concerts in the U.S. utterly rammed with jubilant crowds, and we are duly responding: “Hold on, why aren’t we doing it like that?”
While the U.S. responds to the challenge of reopening society following the pandemic with confidence and proactivity, the U.K. appears to have been so browbeaten by the COVID-19 response of its government and mainstream media that the country has, basically, lost its mojo. The result sees the U.K. hesitantly and glacially returning to normal regardless of the compounding negative effects on the economy and people’s mental health and livelihoods, and despite the fact the U.K. has vaccinated at a similarly energetic rate to the U.S., so that the two countries are pretty much on par for percentage of population vaccinated.
“The pandemic has left us one of the most frightened countries in the world,” Laura Dodsworth writes in her book A State of Fear: How the UK Government Weaponized Fear During the Covid-19 Pandemic. “From the government’s behavioural scientists to roadside signs telling us to ‘Stay Alert’, the incessantly doom-laden media commentary, to masks literally keeping the fear in our face, we’ve become afraid of each other.”
Hence when, due to concerns about the Delta variant, Prime Minister Boris Johnson delayed the scheduled June 21 opening of the country and ending of all restrictions—so-called Freedom Day, a choice of terminology that itself speaks to so many problems with the U.K.’s handling of the pandemic—for another four weeks, he pushed against an open door. There was little resistance from politicians, media, and the populace.
The contrast to the likes of Texas couldn’t be starker: “Texas is open 100%,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently announced. “Texans should have the freedom to go where they want without any limits, restrictions, or requirements. Today, I signed a law that prohibits any TX business or gov’t entity from requiring vaccine passports or any vaccine information.”
A British friend living in Austin told me that it “feels like 2019”—those good old days—a chirpy view shared by other Texan friends I’ve spoken to. The ebullience contrasts so sharply with how Brits tend to speak and act nowadays when discussing Covid-19 and getting society shifting back into a normal gear. A cautious, sucking-through-your-teeth hesitation appears our national default position nowadays.
“What has happened to Britain? Why does it feel as if, almost uniquely, we will never quite recover from Covid?” Allister Heath asked in a recent comment piece, “Decadent Britain is sleepwalking into a vortex of permanent decline,” for the Daily Telegraph, one of the U.K.’s prominent broadsheet newspapers: “I will mourn the liberal-conservative Britain of yore, beloved of those who didn’t like being told what to do: the Government felt obliged to sacrifice it in the panic that followed Covid.” Heath argues that while the government’s harsh restrictions and social distancing have saved tens of thousands of lives they have “also precipitated a far-reaching cultural revolution that will make Britain permanently less free, prosperous and civilised.”
The divergence between the U.S. and U.K. mindsets about leaving behind restricted life is humbling. Brits often mock Americans for their feel-good optimism, unabashed confidence, and have-a-nice-day sunny style of interacting. But that U.S. national trait, often parodied, is paying dividends post pandemic.
Current research indicates how just the words you say to yourself have the power to shape your attention, which in turn controls your emotions that influence your confidence and thereby performance.
“Nowhere is confidence more needed than when we face change, such as in the aftermath of a pandemic,” declares Ian Robertson, a professor of psychology at Dublin’s Trinity College and author of How Confidence Works, in a recent Guardian article, “Why self-belief is a superpower that can be harnessed.”
“Confidence and anxiety are therefore competing rivals for your actions and attention,” Robertson writes. “Anxiety inclines you to retreat in avoidance of failure, while confidence is a bridge to the future that impels you forward in anticipation of reward.”
I suspect one reason there was so little resistance to that June 21 delay is that many Brits are just confused, tired, and don’t have the energy anymore. Many have lost perspective. I sympathize with, more than criticise, my fellow Brits. During my army officer training, we learned about how to undermine the enemy’s cohesion and effectiveness, how we needed to get into and disrupt their decision-making cycle so they couldn’t function or fight back as effectively. That process has basically been applied to the U.K. populace at the hands of their own government and media through the relentless fear mongering, the endless and confusing restrictions, the bald unparsed statistics, and daily death tallies.
Throughout the pandemic, U.K. mainstream media’s coverage has been disastrously one-sided—the fourth estate thing just imploded—and it’s striking now how little coverage U.K. media is giving to good news stories about the U.S. powering back from the pandemic. No wonder the U.K. is without a solid bedrock to sustain confidence and instigate that virtuous feedback loop, as Robertson describes, whereby “confidence begets more confidence.”
So thank goodness for those sporting events, concerts, and everything else happening; the opening up in the U.S. can spark sorely needed confidence in the U.K. Suddenly Lady Liberty’s lamp really seems to be giving off more of a shine these days, after long seeming dimmed.
Talk of America’s decline is commonplace nowadays. But amid the America bashing that basically hasn’t stopped since Donald Trump got elected, the U.S.’s post-pandemic revival is a bold reminder of the spiritedness that remains latent in the country, and how one should never write off America, for all of its problems.
I was reminded of this dynamic when reading Simon Akam’s brutal takedown of the British Army’s conduct since 9/11 in his book The Changing of the Guard. A clear theme throughout the book is how dependent the British military became on the support of U.S. forces. Without it, as I well remember, the British Army became unstuck, and the U.S. military had to keep bailing us out in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Amid Akam’s depressing story, I found a strangely uplifting moment. Akam writes about a British officer during the 2003 invasion of Iraq who is liaising with U.S. forces regarding their providing fast jets 10 minutes ahead of the British force and a swarm of attack helicopters in close support. The officer “asks how long they can keep that act up for,” aware, as an ex-pilot, of the massive logistical challenges of providing air power. The reply from the Americans: “Indefinitely, sir.” Akam reports the British officer’s “jaw drops so far that another American—out of genuine attempted kindness—elaborates: ‘That means forever, sir.’”
You don’t need to tell me how that relates to the U.S. military-industrial complex and the hell visited on Iraq and Afghanistan. But I still found this vignette heartening, speaking as it did to that ribald blend of can-do spirit, élan, and ballsiness Americans often do so well. It’s that classic “Right Stuff” that the American writer Tom Wolfe famously expounded on in the same-named book, which when boiled down amounts to capacity and confidence; the latter being that “precious mental resource,” as Robertson describes it in the Guardian, “that we all need as we re-enter a dramatically changed post-pandemic world.”
Despite all the setbacks, the U.S. hasn’t lost its confidence, hence it can get back on its feet and is doing so. Can the U.K. do so? I can only hope my fellow Brits note that the U.S. is opening up with gumption, and take heart from that, and that we then have a good talk with ourselves and start boosting that depleted national confidence.
“Unless the Government gets a grip, what ought to be a time of renaissance will instead be remembered as just another period of crippling, debilitating national decline,” Heath writes in the Telegraph. And you thought you had problems, Uncle Sam. It’s hard to know just how much of a crisis the U.K. could be facing given, as Heath puts it, the “pernicious cultural revolution” bequeathed by the pandemic and its lockdowns.
James Jeffrey spent nine years in the British Army, serving in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, before attending journalism school in Austin, Texas. Since 2012 he has freelanced in America and the Horn of Africa, writing for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey and at his website: www.jamesjeffreyjournalism.com.
This post has been updated.