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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

The Timid People Stayed

Stephen Fry is a public intellectual. Great Britain seems to produce these persons by the hogshead. I think America produces them, too, but we don’t notice them so much. Public intellectuals seem to matter more in Europe.We lump Dick Cavett in with Pat Buchanan as “talking heads,” turn off the TV and go fishing, generally.

Stephen Fry might want to be Oscar Wilde, but ultimately they all want to be Bertrand Russell. They wish to flash an intellect so vast that they can indulge their crabby little opinions with impunity. The US version of these sorts of people seem to come from the stands at baseball games (see Limbaugh, Rush) or from seedy theaters with sticky seats (see Maher, Bill), but in Great Britain they all seem to have upper crust crumbled on their Eton ties. There’s a kind of Posh School Mafia that runs the media on that pile of rocks and coal in the North Atlantic now –Fry, Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, Jeremy Clarkson, Eddie Izzard. Only Gordon Ramsay comes to mind as being anything but a toff, and he’s not exactly a soccer hooligan — he sounds like a little kid or a woman when he swears.

Fry is fairly well known in America because of his various terrific turns in TV shows, Blackadder, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, etc.; but I’ll always think of him for his marvelous, if miscast (too young) turn as Jeeves in Jeeves and Wooster.

It’s hard to pass up a job that entails wandering around, eating at the best restaurants on an expense account, and having opinions. Stephen Fry seems to have discovered that he could make a living on a Twitter stream at this point, why bother with anything else, and was sent to America to get some footage and offer a mordant opinion or two.
I imagine the Beeb, or whatever entity sent him, mistakenly figured they were getting a Tocqueville, but Fry will do. He’s genial and curious, two attributes almost totally lacking in public intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens, who are just rustbucket brain freighters laden with tedious opinions drifting around the world looking for any odd pier to bump into to spill their cankered cargo all over.

My impression of Europe is that it’s the place where the timid stayed. Bravery is entirely a matter of how you fared in the gang showers at a gothic campus and whether Beeb producers answer your telephone calls. At least Stephen Fry knows enough to gape in awe at what bumpkins can cook up when they’re off the leash.

His observation that we’re “overpopulated” shows a glimpse of intellectual garter that he just can’t help, though: too many of you, just enough of me. It’s hard to be Not Quite Our Class of Persons, Dear, but we Americans try to bear up under the shame of it.

23 Responses

  1. I would put it more harshly. Beginning in the 16th Century and continuing up to the early 20th Century, the True Humans left Europe for America (the US, not Canada), and the Mud People stayed behind. Hence, socialism, fascism, the EU and the recent riots.

  2. @Sykes: My brother-in-law is Swiss. I wouldn't characterize him as either 1) Socialist 2) Fascist 3) Rioter and most definitely not 4) one of those "mud people" to which you refer. Honestly, I hope you don't really believe what you wrote.
    BTW, I met Mr. Hitchens one time. He was quite genial.

  3. Hi Sykes- Thanks for reading and commenting.

    I gotta go with misterarthur here. Kinda over the top for my tastes.

  4. Fry couldn't have picked a better game to attend. Auburn is the only college team I know of that has two mascots: the War "Damn" Eagle and the Tiger. Already an enigma, right out of the box.

  5. Save us from the "public intellectual"…PLEASE.

    I too, enjoyed the Jeeves and Wooster series. I enjoy watching Clarkson and crew on Top Gear. Cant's stand Ramsay, or that style of show. Atkinson, meh…and Izzard ???

    Stick to being entertainers gents, and spare me your opinions

  6. Sometimes all one can do is stand back and marvel at it all, and hope to make intelligible comments.

    He did that.

  7. I have a bit of a soft spot for Mr. Fry, thanks to Jeeves. Poor chap, he seemed a bit overwhelmed at the sheer scale of Americanness, and it's perhaps not such a surprise. After all, in England the only equivalent is a soccer match, and at that size one would be concerned about the hooligans. Here, not so much.

    As to the "overpopulated" remark, he clearly didn't spend much time in flyover country. Or anywhere much outside of a big city. Or heck, even just looking out of an airplane window while flying over flyover country. Come to think of it, lots of Americans have the same problem…

  8. I'm with Sam on this one. I watched the series and found Fry more than just genial and curious. He's genuinely a fan of this country and has said so in many an interview. I don't think he looks down on Flyover Country. Rather he finds it charming and knows he is an outsider. The overpopulation thing aside, he's a good guy in my book.

  9. "Stephen Fry might want to be Oscar Wilde, but ultimately they all want to be Bertrand Russell."

    Alas, the truth is that ultimately they all want to be caned by Bertrand Russell and buggered by Oscar Wilde.

  10. Duffy – point taken. I haven't watched his show, just this clip by Sipp. And you're right, it's clear (as I gathered by his expression at the singing of "God Bless America") that he has quite a soft spot for the US of A. I'm glad to know he has taken the time to discover Flyover Country, and better, found that it was worth exploring.

    Whatever shenanigans he may wish to engage in with Messrs. Wilde and Russell, he still seems a genuinely decent chap. And one can hardly blame him too much for the "overpopulation" remark when even our idiot veep finds something admirable about China's "one child" policy…

  11. There is extant somewhere the stated opinion that the English conquered much of the known world primarily due to their ability to speak without the use of their hands.

    So there's that.

  12. I do love these words and images!!

    "Like Christopher Hitchens, who are just rustbucket brain freighters laden with tedious opinions drifting around the world looking for any odd pier to bump into to spill their cankered cargo all over"

  13. When I lived in the U.K. in the late '80's it seemed like everybody's attitude towards the U.S. was either a) the streets are paved with gold or b) it's the root, divisor, sum and product of all evil. Admittedly, the "b" part was from all the Marxists I knew, because I was studying over there.

    But really, in my extended meanderings through Britain and the Continent, it seemed like nobody much over there really "got" us. Almost nobody seemed to understand our political system; the primacy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights on the one hand and the role of Federalism and sovereignty of the various States on the other. People tended to view us through the prism of their own set-up, which is only natural, I guess. They tended to think that the Presidency is way more powerful than it is, for instance, more in line with Prime Ministers in a Parliamentary system; and then you had to explain how it could be that the President could belong to one party and Congress could belong to the same, or half or all to the other party.

    "How the heck are you supposed to govern with that kind of inefficient system?!!" "Exactly!!", I would respond.

    The funny thing is, our founding ideals and documents are more radical than anything most countries in Europe ever put into enduring political practice (excepting the U.K., of course). The radicals of the French Revolution did not revolt against the primacy of the State over citizen. The Communist Manifesto is a reactionary contraction towards the centralized all-powerful state and away from the primacy of the individual.

  14. I once read in a book by American-style public intellectual Thomas Sowell that all the people in the world could fit into the state of Texas in single story family homes with average sized yards.

    But guess what? It will never happen, thanks to Rick Perry's anti-immigration policies.

  15. I do believe our British cousin ment well in his "Over Populated" remarks, in context the Auburn Vs. Alabama Tide game is well over populated in its exuberance, so i will grant him a stay of execution (s)
    as for his personal proclivities, i dont give a dancing rabbit's damn what he does in his bedroom, I will still ask him to dinner.

  16. "…who are just rustbucket brain freighters laden with tedious opinions drifting around the world looking for any odd pier to bump into to spill their cankered cargo all over."


    *throws confetti*

    I'm beginning to think you are too smart for me.


  17. Hi everybody- Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Thud- You think you have it bad? I'm an ignorant bogtrotter and a garlic eater. I'm considered about second from the left on the chart o' walkin' upright.

  18. However, there is something deeply wrong with European culture, especially the ease with which Europeans submit to authoritarian regimes. It's as if the feudal system never really disappeared, or at least left a deep scar on European psyches.

  19. Hi sykes- That has never happened in the history of the Intertunnel. You've restored my faith in humanity.

    I believe that a retreat to feudalism is exactly the way to describe the strangulation of free, sophisticated commerce and self-governance that Europe is suffering, and America is emulating. I pointed out in an earlier essay that the Duchy of Chicago was awarded to a loyal lord by the sovereign last year.

    I come from Boston. I know all about feudalism.

  20. I am surprised that Alistair Cooke as participant/observer has not entered this conversation on the American experience.

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