Since the days when Tom Paine set himself up as chief propagandist for the emerging American colonies the United States has been subject to invasion by British journalists. They come for a variety of reasons. Tired of tax collecting in England, Tom Paine came to start anew, and if doing so involved the common sense of opposing English taxes, that is just one of history’s little ironies. The late Henry Fairlie, who had made his home at the New Republic until his death in February, came here in 1965 because after calling Antonia Eraser a name over British radio, he found he could not pay the damages assessed against him when she won her case for libel. Christopher Hitchens, Harper’s Washington editor and columnist for the Nation, says he came here because the U.S. is “immense and varied and important.” Tom Bethell of the American Spectator came here in 1962 because, he says, “I liked jazz.”
Whatever their past in England, they often do very well in America. People like S.I. Newhouse seem to hire nothing but Brits, installing Tina Brown at Vanity Fair, her husband, Harold Evans, at Conde Nast Traveler, and sending Anna Wintour from American Vogue to British Vogue to House & Garden back to replace Grace Mirabella at American Vogue. When William F. Buckley, Jr. needed someone to head up his National Review, he went after an English Catholic, not an American one, hiring John O’Sullivan, late of the London Telegraph and London Times. Englishman John Evans established himself at the Village Voice years ago and was for several more years president of Murdoch Magazines in America before getting promoted up. Anthony Hayden-Guest still haunts New York and has proved so enduring a character that Tom Wolfe drew freely from him for Peter Fallow in Bonfire of the Vanities. Even MTV had to go all the way to London to find a girl with just the right combination of servility, vulgarity, and rhythm to become its star veejay.
We are as we have always been, ripe for colonization by the British press. One of the big moments in American journalism, the New York Herald‘s discovery of David Livingston, recovering on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, was engineered by Henry Morton Stanley, né John Rowlands in Wales. (Who ever heard of an American, even in the last century, saying “I presume”?) The Herald‘s founder, John Gordon Bennett, came from Scotland to New York to start the paper in 1835. As for the two best-known foreign gadflies of American government and society at the moment. Englishman Christopher Hitchens and Irishman Alexander Cockburn, in hiring them as columnists the Nation is only holding true to the tradition of its founder, Edwin Lawrence Godkin, an Irishman who imported himself to America in 1856.
As the biographies of some of these above-mentioned gentlemen show, the British import is not always the most attractive character. For many of them the prototype seems to be Corker in Scoop, or Wolfe’s Peter Fallow. (For Cockburn the relationship to Waugh is more than incidental: Waugh was his cousin.) The stories about Henry Fairlie are legion, and involve wine, women, setting one host’s house to smoldering and a trek by trailer across the country to find America. One of Anthony Hayden-Guest’s nicknames in New York is “Unwelcome,” and Spy magazine is forever twitting him about wine, women, and his inability to pick up the tab. For these men America can be very convenient, and their easy usage is not limited to this century. William Cobbett came to live in America for three periods in his life: once as a soldier, and twice (in 1792 and 1817) when he feared prosecution in England for sedition. He liked life on Long Island, and he did not miss the Gagging Acts (or his creditors), but “I myself,” he wrote in 1818, “am bound to England for life.”
Men like Henry Morton Stanley are the 19th-century paradigm for the wandering British academic of today, who teaches at Oxford for half the year for prestige, and at Syracuse or Berkeley the other half for money. The only differences now are that travel is easier, and America’s Anglophilia and lenient hiring laws make a profession of allegiance unnecessary. iSleither Christopher Hitchens nor Alexander Cockburn seems to have any intention of becoming a citizen, although the former has been here since 1981, the latter since 1972, and neither plans to leave. “I got my green card quickly,” says Mr. Hitchens. “Besides, I was 30 when I got here and I’d feel like an imposter saying I was an American; it’s too late to change. We are too similar and too distinct. There are Irish-Americans and German-Americans and Mexican-Americans—but there is no such thing as an English-American.”
Some of this reticence to really attach may be explained by this quote from Jessica Mitford. She was writing about the South (for a 1962 magazine article), but her comparison is to Anglo-American relations:
The prejudice Northerners feel towards Southerners is roughly parallel to that felt by English people toward Americans, and is compounded of many of the same ingredients—a thoroughgoing dislike of their public policies, contempt for their level of education and culture, and a sort of instinctive recoil at the sound of the accent—larded in both cases, it must be said, with a thick layer of that particular form of snobbishness that sneers at the provincial.
It’s a telling quote, not the less so because Miss Mitford has lived here most of her life, married an American, became a citizen, and seems genuinely to like the country (her years in the Communist Party notwithstanding).
The British wouldn’t be here, of course, if Americans hadn’t hired them, and the question then is what makes them so attractive? The answer is not as simple as American insecurity, though there is certainly some lingering colonial timidity that sends a wave of panic through an upwardly-mobile middle-class American—am I using the right fork?—whenever some Mother Country accent comes floating down the dinner table. No one is so foolish to think that Mrs. Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans would have been a hit had the author been from Boston. Nor is there any question that when the British aren’t being purposefully rude—the English definition of a gentleman—their manners are indeed more gracious than ours.
In mores as in journalism, part of the answer to the question of British success in America is style. The British often write well, or at least better than most American journalists—even Christopher Hitchens’ enemies praise his English. Plus an Oxbridge education still counts for more than Harvard or Stanford or Yale. One American professor explained the prevalence of British academics in American classics departments by saying that we can forgive them their high standards: coming from their still class-stratified country, they are exempt from the egalitarian rule. Excellence in some fellow-citizen is quite another matter. Veni, vidi, vici does not apply to those who venierunt from, say, Sandusky, Ohio.
Brits are also especially welcome on the left, because by virtue of their foreignness and their accent and their politics, they remain very much outsiders and hence “unmeltable.” Besides, the left prefers its criticism to be truculent, and the bloodiest soldiering has always been done by mercenaries; not because they are paid to fight, but because what should they care how they wage battle, when it’s not their people or their country?
Like many vices this British bluntness can sometimes be a virtue; for better and worse still another reason to hire a Briton is he can say things an American can’t. This is partly because he is an outsider, but partly due to the freer debate you will find not only in England but all over Europe. England’s official secrets act is nothing compared to the American horror of speaking one’s mind, of purposefully giving offense, of making an enemy. As a nation we may lack manners, but not tact. The British, however, don’t have to play the code-word games you’ll see in American discussions of, for example, poverty (“inner-city youth”), they don’t have to restrict themselves from certain topics, they don’t even have to be polite. Sometimes it seems that they don’t even like to be polite. If anything they possess as a group a decided affinity for the ad hominen attack.
One of the arguments against opening the borders is that immigrants have a habit of bringing along their own cliques, own prejudices, and own quarrels. This is as true of the British as it is of the Columbians or Montenegrins, though the British are generally more entertaining. Frankly, the best thing about Mr. Cockburn especially is his quarrels. His prose in medias pugnas takes on a life that the endless Nicaragua columns lack. The swipes at Colonel North and President Reagan and Mrs. Kirkpatrick are pale by comparison, merely the rote public hate for impersonal public enemies. The good stuff is saved for private targets—who of course are most often British. As the feminist adage has it, the personal is political.
There’s a book to be written on Hitchens-Cockburn-Fairlie feuds alone. Take, for example, the only two-Nation-page column of Christopher Hitchens that I can recall—he generally limits himself to a single Nation page—which was a personal attack in the form of a review of Englishman Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals. (It’s the same with all of us: some things we write for hire, and some for pleasure.) It begins: “In a novel called Left of Centre which is now, to the relief of its publisher and author alike, safely out of print, Paul Johnson wrote what is generally agreed to be the most embarrassing spanking scene ever penned” and descends from there, drinking and wife-slapping figuring prominently.
More tasteful but just as fierce was the inter-magazine war in 1987-88 between Henry Fairlie (New Republic) and Alexander Cockburn (Nation) over an alleged slur by Mr. Fairlie against Mr. Cockburn’s father, Claud Cockburn, the famous leftist journalist. Fairlie wrote in the New Republic that Claud had fabricated his London Times reports from New York during the Great Crash. For a regular journalist this would be a serious charge. But Claud Cockburn is famous for founding The Week, a pro-Soviet newsletter that even the more polite admit published “near-rumor,” once acted as Pravda‘s London correspondent, and happily admitted in his autobiography, I, Claud, that he and Otto Katz invented the Battle of Tetuan when they were reporting on the Spanish Civil War in the 30’s for the Daily Worker. Indeed, as Alexander Cockburn remarked, Claud was proud of his proper Communist ethic of putting party first.
But with regard to Fairlie’s charge, his corresponding failure to produce any hard evidence was just so much grist for the mill of Claud Cockburn’s son:
For Fairlie one should, I suppose, nourish the emotions that Aristotle thought to be evoked by tragedy: pity for a broken man, evicted from his lodgings, compelled to the hospice of The New Republic, dependent on the charity of [editor Martin] Peretz, degraded in his intellectual standards so much so that he is, on some accounts, writing speeches for Senator Al Core, the candidate most esteemed by Peretz, trembling daily at the thought that next Peretz will command him to join Tipper Gore in some ceremonial bonfire of records from Prince and Motley Crue; fear that some kindred ghastly misfortune will one day befall oneself.
This gives you; in case you are unfamiliar with Cockburn, a good indication of why people like to read him. Celt that he is, he is most terrible in his pity.
All this is highly entertaining, and it is for their entertainment value that the British are often so popular. But this clowning around can both make a Briton’s career and break it. Christopher Hitchens has made a name for himself, and a good living, writing for his various outlets in England and America, but “relative fame is not the same as influence. Has he made anybody—except Paul Johnson perhaps, but let’s say anybody American—really mad, which is for a journalist the sure sign of doing your job? The answer is “sort of”: there have been yelps from the New Republic, whose parties he likes to crash, and from David Horowitz, whose “Second Thoughts” conferences he likes to crash, and Bob Tyrrell of the American Spectator likes to call him “Christabel.” Also he recently infuriated the pro-abortion left, which is to say almost all of the left, with a column last April in which he came out of his pro-life closet. But with that one exception, outside of his fellow-journalists he seems to elicit little real irritation. And that means, despite his position as Washington editor of Harper’s, that in this country at least he is out of the debate. (The answer, clearly, is Hitchens needs to turn to the right.)
Alexander Cockburn has the same problem, though he has had more luck making enemies, and his columns in the Wall Street Journal are a perfect illustration of why. When he is not preaching to the converted (in the Nation) he is preaching to the unconvertible. Like his forebear Sir George Cockburn (War of 1812), he has taken it upon himself to torch Washington, but with less success.
There are some exceptions to this rule: John O’Sullivan at National Review, Peter Brimelow at Forbes, Tom Bethell, too. It may not be coincidental that their politics are conservative; for all its many faults the right defines itself with the country, not in opposition to it, and as John Baden keeps saying of the environmental movement, people have to believe you care before they’ll bother listening to you. Mr. Cockburn has convinced people of his love for American tail-fin cars, but not of his love for much American else.
Perhaps because they are less opposed to the U.S. politically, O’Sullivan, Brimelow, and Bethell have also attuned themselves more finely to the American political idiom—as did Henry Fairlie: for all his bemoaned drift leftwards, he could write with ah at least Americanized viewpoint. There is too much of the Old Country language of trade unions and class warfare in Hitchens and Cockburn (though I think Hitchens is learning)—the packaging is wrong, and it also has marginalized them. In this country the zealot interested in real change will sugarcoat his radical proposals in moderate, or at least more modern terms; in such a way do the Ins and Outs in Washington work towards a “consensus.”
This is not to say that Hitchens and Cockburn have not been successful, because they have. They may also have come to America because here they could find a success they could not find at home. Tom Paine (Christopher Hitchens’ hero, by the way) is once again archetypal: a staysmaker and fired tax-collector who had got himself into debt, he came armed with only a recommendation from Benjamin Franklin to start over in the New World, and wrote himself a place in the American founding myth. Alexander Cockburn did not have much of a reputation in England before he crossed the Atlantic, where he has done by any standards very well. Perhaps it has been helpful to him that in a country that cannot seem to produce or promote its own irreverent political comedians, a country whose own journalists don’t seem to know enough to be able to crib even the odd apocryphal Anacharsis quote, he has had less competition. There is no question, as Mr. Hitchens says frankly, that it is easier to freelance here, that the grass is greener. That being so, both he and the unapologetic Soviet apologist Mr. Cockburn have shown themselves to be—like so many leftists—good entrepreneurs who are banking on capitalism.
If there is any irony in this, it illustrates the filial great besetting sin of British journalists (some): a tendency to sell out. Among the antibourgeois left the endless stories about public drunkenness and womanizing (leading my editor to complain that British journalists are “oversexed, overpaid, and over here”) are perhaps less important—the offended values being bourgeois values, after all. But surely selling out the revolution is another matter.
A recent interview by Don Kowet of the Washington Times makes great use of Mr. Hitchens’ $20,000 investment in the New York restaurant Indochine, where a typical dinner will cost your typical revolutionary $50, and of his white wine-quaffing during their conversation. Hitchens’ preference for white wine by-the-glass with Mr. Kowet is perhaps indicative of the other side to Hitchens’ and Cockburn’s careers: a yuppie.side. (Of this at least Tom Paine was innocent.) Mr. Hitchens is a contributing editor at Elk, and Mr. Cockburn has written a dozen articles for Home & Garden, and somehow it just seems hilariously funny that the son of Red Claud would pen such sentences as:
Those who love sweetbreads are doomed to constant disappointment and the ones at Maxim’s proved to be no exception to this virtually invariable rule: a sweetbread is born to be braised, not encased in a shroud of bread crumbs and sauteed.
Or how about:
Pity the poor poisson whose hour of fashionable glory has come. How can any lotte feel secure now that the word is out and the nets are down? As lotte or monkfish it now boldly graces restaurant tables.
Tell it to the people of Nicaragua, Alex. Less amusing of course are stories like Henry Morton Stanley’s. After emigrating to New Orleans at age 16, Stanley became a naturalized citizen and took the name of his adoptive American father. During the Civil War he fought on both sides (for the South first, then of course for the North). Once his travels to find Livingstone and the source of the Nile made him justifiably famous, he returned to England in 1891 and renounced his American citizenship, becoming a subject of the Crown and a member of Parliament. This erstwhile Louisianian was knighted in 1899. All of which goes to show that while Stanley was a great man, he was not much of an American national. Or take Tom Paine—who as early as 1779, when American fortunes were very low, was talking to his friends about returning to the home he’d spent the last three years pilloring in ink. He wrote to Henry Laurens that “perhaps America would feel the less obligation to me did she know, that it was neither the place nor the people but the cause itself that irresistibly engaged me in its support, for I should have acted the same part in any other country could the same circumstances have arisen there which have happened here.” Citizens of the world seem to have a harder time with more local attachments.
For some others who have hopscotched between Old World and New because they cannot leave the one and love the other, the trip over may have been more painful than profitable. No one can read Harold Evans’ Good Times, Bad Times and believe the man can be satisfied with Condé Nast Traveler, however well his wife Tina Brown is doing at Vanity Fair. And one story about Timothy Dickinson, who came over here as a journalist in the early 70’s but who has stayed to act as an encyclopedic source of data and quotations for people like George Will and Lewis Lapham, has it that he’ll typically end a morning phone conversation with the remark that he must clear the line because he’s expecting a call from England. There is no reason to doubt that he is; the point is he sounds like he’s terribly homesick. If there is a certain amount of tension in the relations between British journalists and America, perhaps its root is in the simple fact that this isn’t England, or Scotland, or Ireland, or Wales. But then the answer is as simple and direct as what British comedienne Tracey Ullman shouts to her American audience at the end of her Sunday night show: “Go home!” she says, “Go home!”