TO his surprise as much as mine - for we are journalists on the opposite side of almost every divide - I recently made a new friend. He told me he sometimes found himself biting his knuckles from sheer rage when he read some of my articles. I am less given to masochism: his politics merely provoke me to profanity. We are both products of the Irish conformist tradition, but one of the reasons we took to each other is that neither of us has a completely closed mind.
One issue on which Ireland has largely closed its mind is George Bush - usually ignorantly dismissed as a gun-toting moron. In a recent European poll asking which countries threatened world peace, we classed the US as the third greatest threat: at 60 per cent, it was only narrowly beaten by North Korea (66 per cent) and Israel (62 per cent). Admittedly, we were only slightly more extreme than the EU as a whole (Israel 59 per cent, Iran, US and North Korea all 53 per cent), but when you think of our close emotional and sentimental links with the US, it's still pretty striking. And it has to be the Bush factor: we fawn over the Clintons.
The trouble is that it is Bush who (rather inarticulately) speaks for America - at least for post 9/11 America - while Clinton speaks eloquently for whomever he's addressing on the global lecture circuit. In his interview with Gay Byrne last week, John Major observed that when about to make a speech he would ask himself, "Are they going to like what I'm about to say?" while Clinton was wondering "What can I say that they are going to like?" No wonder the Irish love him.
The distinguished American journalist Anne Applebaum, now home after 16 years working in Europe, recently wrote in the Washington Post of witnessing a culture clash at a diplomatic dinner. The speech of the unnamed foreign minister was 'Continental - by that I mean that the speech was extremely polite and elaborately embellished. Much use was made of phrases such as "transnational institutions" and "multilateral procedures". Many optimistic references were made to forthcoming European Union initiatives. Concern was expressed for the peoples of other regions. Then, about three-quarters of the way through the speech, a crucial point was made. "Here in Country X," said the foreign minister firmly, "we are comfortable with American leadership." I looked around the room. The other Americans were either staring up at the beautifully painted ceiling or gazing down at their woefully empty plates.'
The interpreter was competent, but the Americans simply had not understood the speech.
What would have earned a standing ovation, said Applebaum, would have been a couple of jokes and the blunt version of what was being hinted at here: 'We still support you even if France doesn't.' But in Europe - and in other places that have inherited the European diplomatic tradition - the point of a public speech is not to ruffle feathers, not to offend anyone and not to say anything too directly. Add to this what she calls the EU's culture of 'overt consensus and covert disagreement' and you can see why Berlin and Boston are in real danger of completely misunderstanding each other. For Europeans, points out Applebaum: 'Clarity is rude. Obfuscation is a virtue. Americans are different. Americans believe clarity is a virtue and obfuscation is rude.' Remind you of nationalists and unionists, does it?
Bush is relaxed about the hoards of European protestors likely to clog up London during his visit this week. He's too polite to say what the majority of post- 9/11 Americans think: that throughout its history the US has given a good life to Europe's 'wretched refuse'; that it saved democratic Europe's ass twice in the 20th century; that its money rebuilt Europe post-1945; that through Nato it protected Europe from being overrun by Soviet communism; that through playing hardball it brought the Soviet Union down; that as the Balkans and Afghanistan showed, sometimes you have to wield the big stick; that Europe is two-faced to deplore the American stick its security depends on; that the war against terrorism is being fought on behalf of all freedom-loving people; that in these frightening times we should all be grateful that the world's only superpower is tough as well as free, decent and generous; that the protestors against an invasion the majority of Iraqis back would be better occupied in helping put the country on its feet; and that the US, though by no means perfect, is a great country.
Pity about my new friend's knuckles, but I think the Americans are broadly right. And I think that we Irish - whom Americans helped save from Hitler and Stalin - might make a bit of an effort to open our minds, learn and understand Bush's language and at least acknowledge that he wants to free those whom others have enslaved.