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London logs - part 4

by Phil Inje Chang

The End of Summer

Bank Holiday weekend marks the end of summer like Labor Day in America. Here the Notting Hill Carnival brought ¾ of a million people into a single neighborhood. There Burning Man brought 30,000 plus of America's radical fringe to the Nirvada desert.

Summer here means festival season. I've stopped trying to keep track of them all. Every time I turn around someone mentions another one - maybe this one's different because it's less commercial, has fewer people, a certain vibe. On the European front, a big rave on the beach in Samothraki, Greece, happened a couple weeks ago, and numerous festivals have occurred across Germany, Spain and Portugal.

It started with Glastonbury Festival, which this year came back from the dead by virtue of the organizers agreeing to build a huge fence around the entire perimeter, stretching for miles. The big complaint is how the character of the festival would change because previously thousands were able to gate-crash, allowing the creative poor to play a big part in the make-up of the crowd. This year a steel monstrosity, like something out of a science fiction movie, kept the Travelers out. Still, about 100,000 people paid to attend, and one of the organizers informed me that between staff and performers, another 40,000 people were there. Estimates for the previous festival two years ago seem to hover at 200,000 people.

One might get the crazy idea that the British like to gather in crowds. Remember, if Glastonbury sounds big at 140,000, think about 750,000 in a small part of London! And two weekends after Glastonbury an estimated 200,000 gathered on Brighton Beach for a free party put on by FatboySlim. Pretty staggering, by American standards. We're not talking one-offs like Summer of Love or Woodstock, but every year, multiple times per year.

Whose Culture is This, Anyway?

America and Britain have an interesting relationship. While these Logs have attempted to capture some of the qualities of that relationship in anecdotal fashion, I think it's time to make some direct observations.

While it's true that most of the world is resentful of America's wealth, there is a surprising love of America in Britain. Perhaps this is a recent phenomenon, as I'm told that London has become a lot more international and open in recent years. I expected to find a lot more classism, snobbery and superior attitudes here, which I found in abundance growing up on the East Coast (and which, logic says, must have come from Britain). Instead, I found a fierce and widespread belief in personal freedom, highly integrated minorities, an intellectual open-mindedness, fundamental support for creativity, and, of course, politeness. But the most surprising aspect of culture here is a near-obsessive identification with American culture.

Here are a few examples. American TV and film are so prevalent that you almost wonder if the British think of them as foreign. The equivalent of the TV guide gives the breakdown of every episode of every American sitcom, with elaborate attention to detail. Apparently there was a British film industry at one point, but all the talent got sucked off to Hollywood. The gossip magazines are all about American celebs. Despite all this, I am impressed by the quality of British commercials, documentaries, nature and science shows, and some of the TV comedy, drama and local films. Generally there is a strong human element and high levels of creativity and polish.

Then there's the Big Brother phenomenon. I never got the straight story on whether it was inspired by the American show or the other way around. This one is about a group of young people confined to a house with video cameras, and who progressively are crossed off by the TV audience. It is something of a national obsession here, just like Survivor is over there. Some claim that the idea started here.

Another example: American music. There is a high level of expertise about Detroit house, the NY scene, hip hop, garage, techno, trance, what have you, as if the American variants are just part of the overall family. They take their music here quite seriously. I have never seen as many culture magazines in the average corner store. The music media take all kinds of positions on very particular sub-varieties of music and music scenes, which certainly go beyond London to places like Manchester, Liverpool, and Bristol. Remember, we're talking about a country that's maybe half the size of California.

So how important is American music to the music scene here? Very. American musicians are idolized, just like American film celebrities. There is a kind of reverence for the innovative character of creativity in America. People over there are so free and wild. They come up with the most amazing stuff, which then is imported straight away. Now mind you, there is plenty of American music that doesn't carry over, as tastes here can be quite discriminating and judgmental. But when there's wild originality, the Brits are generally all over it.

This is perhaps why every foreigner I meet in London thinks this city is the most international place on the planet. The roots of this openness go back to the Commonwealth, with many colonized cultures taking root in the heart of the empire. Some parts of England are still quite backward and provincial, but in London you see and hear every sort of foreigner mingling with everyone else. The Indians and blacks are really British, while a popular TV show makes fun of an Indian family "blending" into mainstream culture with obvious differences.

The point is, the British culture is used to absorbing other cultures. It sees value in doing that. The phrase "melting pot" actually applies here, perhaps because there is a pot. My experience in America is one of multiple nationalities struggling for position, colliding with each other or remaining separatist, being "unified" by laws, taxes and McDonalds - and oh yes, the never-ending quest for me-first prosperity, if that could be said to confer any unifying tendency. Again, I am not referring to you, dear friends, just to the overall environment.

So back to American culture in Britain. I see a sort of informal colonization going on, or let's say a culling action. It's as if in the process of idolizing American originality, the Brits absorb the best of what America produces and cultivate it. A clear example is health food and alternative healing. I have been amazed by the popularity and prevalence of health foods and every sort of alternative healing I have ever run across in California, and let's face it, northern California is one place where this stuff thrives. So one theory goes like this: the Bay Area is the breeding ground, and then it gets picked up in NY and then London, to the point where now you have organic foods in every supermarket, quaint little health food stores in many neighborhoods, and all kinds of holistic healing workshops and seminars and conferences. Apparently this has just happened over the past few years. But as I recall, the phenomenon only goes back 10 years or so in California.

Let's not forget that osteopathy is an old, established tradition in Europe, which is quite similar to chiropractic, and herbal medicine (of the European variety) comes from ancient Europe. Ayurvedic is Indian, as is yoga, and obviously there's plenty of Indian cultural influence here. And it remains true that health food has been a popular movement in Germany for a number of years, while Europeans have been particularly vocal against genetically modified foods. But the modern health and healing craze is obviously influenced by California, which is all the more surprising when you consider that even the Londoners who loveAmerica don't really know the difference between northern and southern California. Another more realistic theory is that northern California attracts the alternative mindset from other parts of the world and incubates it, allowing it to become viral, and then receptive places like Britain get infected.

Which brings me to my final point. Freedom is a western ideal. I believe it started in ancient Greece and eventually made its way to America via Britain. The British think America is the land of freedom. But on average, I see a lot more passionate belief in freedom among Brits. This relates to my carefully considered dissatisfaction with California, one of the most purportedly free places on the planet. Yes, in California there is plenty of openness and acceptance of diverse cultures, preferences and points of view. Yes, there is an "anything goes" attitude. What I missed, though, from my painful youth on the east coast, is a sense of passionate commitment to core beliefs. At least when you're oppressed, you have something to fight against. Struggle builds character.

The Brits idolize American freedom because they feel so shackled by their history, institutions, and social structure. But this also means most Brits are quite passionately clear about personal rights, boundaries, responsibility and creativity. The monarchy makes government less political, and government has its place. The same passion that fuels a debate in a bar also fuels the discovery of the telephone. OK, Alexander Graham Bell was Scottish, but let's just consider Scotland a state within England, for our purposes here.

As a person of Asian descent, I have huge admiration for the belief in the sovereignty of the individual. Asian cultures lost that somewhere along the way.  Innovation and creativity are essential to a healthy human species. But knowing what I know now, I would say America is not the most free place on the planet. It started off with some ideals, but laws and government have stepped in to replace the sovereignty of the individual. I am grateful for my 20 years on each coast, which have given me two very different pictures of freedom. The economic muscle of America is supporting an insular sense of numbness as the laws and government edge toward the totalitarian.

So wake up, America, the emperor has no clothes. Freedom can look very different from different perspectives. I am just lending mine as it evolves. Special thanks to my very special Lulu for helping me hone these thoughts about freedom (and who, by the way, likes America).

submitted 16 September 2002

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