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The danger of fetishising foreign lands Other nations don't need our hot takes

Polish nationalists gather to mark the country's defeat of Russia. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty

Polish nationalists gather to mark the country's defeat of Russia. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty


September 16, 2021   5 mins

Imagine you were lodging in someone else’s house. You would not walk in and start vocally criticising their interior decoration. Nice furnishings, mate, but you should repaint those walls and throw out this old furniture. If you were asked your opinion, you might suggest a few improvements, but otherwise you might seem just a little obnoxious. And that’s why, even though I live in Poland, I tend to avoid writing about Polish politics.

Of course, the first instinct of a writer is to stick your nose into other people’s business. There is no point in bemoaning this, but it can have unpleasant manifestations, in the way they criticise, judge and misrepresent those around them. The same thing applies, to a certain extent, when people write about countries other than their own.

When I first arrived here, I tried to focus on foreign reporting, by challenging hysterical Western perspectives of Poland. The Government and, sometimes, the people here are often portrayed as being backwards and xenophobic — and I objected to such characterisations. To the extent that Poles are more right-wing than Western Europeans, moreover, I argued, they have the right to be. A lot of American and British commentary appeared to embody what the social scientist Richard Hanania calls “woke imperialism” — the aggressive promotion of progressive pet causes in countries where there is little appetite for them.

I take none of my criticisms back. But on the flip side, it would be unfair of me to obscure the existence of Polish progressives, who have more right to make prescriptive judgements about their homeland than I, an immigrant, do. On the fringes of Right-wing Western opinion there is a caricature of Poland as an ever-strengthening, “BASED”, traditionalist Catholic idyll — leading one conservative commentator from the USA to claim that “the mood [in Warsaw] is unmistakably buoyant”, as if Polish public opinion is not as divided as anywhere else — and I have no wish to feed such clichĂ©s. To be a valuable observer you must tell the whole truth and not just part of it.

You must also bear in mind our view of foreign lands tends to be a matter of ideological projection. Nations which appear to represent our beliefs are happy, thriving sunlit uplands, where the rain never falls. They are often presented in striking contrast to one’s own bleak, grimy, cloud-ridden homeland. Communists romanticising far-flung revolutions are an obvious example: Malcolm Caldwell, a British academic who idealised Pol Pot’s Cambodian regime, was invited to Phnom Penh and then murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Perhaps, in their paranoid bloodlust, they mistook him for an enemy.

But there are less blatantly irrational examples. Consider how British advocates of remaining in the European Union portrayed continental Europe as a saner, smarter, more compassionate place — less because they were interested in life there, and more to make a comment on Britain. John Kampfner’s Why the Germans Do It Better, which bore the insufferable subtitle Notes From a Grown-Up Country, was essentially a book-length stick to beat Brexiteers with. Kampfner contrasted Britons’ “monolingual mediocrity” with Germans, who are “taught two languages at school”. A moment’s thought should have made it obvious that British people are likelier to be monolingual than Germans not because they are less curious and cosmopolitan but because English happens to be the lingua franca in modern Europe.

A more comic case is provided by a man who call himself RS Archer on Twitter. Archer, who is nearing 100,000 followers, claims to be the author of the “David Saunders” book series (which does not exist). He has constructed a fantasy life as an English expat in France, satisfying Remainer prejudices with his tales of civilised bourgeois domesticity in the Dordogne — all wine, snails and jolly local mayors, and the stupid, backwards Brexiteer tourists who bother him. Perhaps “Archer” does live in France (and he certainly has the right to anonymity) but he is not interested in France as it is but as Remainers imagine it — as, in other words, the antithesis of England. They want to sink into a warm bath of oikophobia with a cool glass of “1983 Case Basse di Gianfranco Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Riserva”.

When a country defies our ideological preferences, of course, we cannot hear enough about what a cruel and benighted place it is. A telling example of the sort of credulity this encourages emerged during the Trump years. In perhaps the most outrageous case, an award-winning reporter for Der Spiegel, Claas Relotius, was found to have “falsified his articles on a grand scale”. Relotius’s pieces, many of which explored life in Trump’s America, contained such comically obvious fabrications as a town in Minnesota having a “Mexicans Keep Out” sign on display. You would think Relotius could never get away with printing such unbelievable stories, but he did, for years, because he told his audience what they wanted to read.

And when a reporter for the Right-leaning Wall Street Journal went looking for horror stories in Sadiq Khan’s London, meanwhile, he amusingly mistook an “alcohol restricted zone” sign in Whitechapel as evidence of Islamic rule in the British capital. Unlike in the case of Claas Relotius, this appears to have been an innocent mistake, but it illustrates the dangers of projecting your expectations onto a place.

Accuracy may be a difficult standard to reach, given the incentives against it, but it is also a basic one. A more difficult problem is whether it’s justifiable to make value judgements about nations that are not your own. Almost no one is a pure cultural relativist; can anyone, for example, observe Kim Jong-un’s North Korea with ice-cold detachment? But a newcomer to a country should not dictate how it should be run, as if there is a single means of ordering societies and their enlightened perspective transcends that of their hosts.

Consider the beleaguered Americans. They have had to watch the English Piers Morgan tell them to give up their guns, the English Milo Yiannopoulos tell them who to have as president and the English Prince Harry lecturing them on the First Amendment. (The poor souls even have to deal with James Corden obstructing traffic.) It seems like you can’t turn on the TV in the US without hearing an English voice telling you what to do and what to think, which must be grating if you have no platform from which to project your American opinions about your own country.

An outsider’s perspective can be valuable, inasmuch as if offers a sideways look at familiar problems. And of course, observers can become participants, visitors settlers. It would be wrong to think that a migrant cannot — like a native — love and criticise a country simultaneously. Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily, for example, combines social criticism with a deep affection for the people and culture of the mafia-assailed island, to beautiful effect.

As for me, I hope to write more about Poland, but as someone who is learning rather than lecturing. To do otherwise would be to do a miserable disservice to the many varied people who have helped me feel at home.

Humility is key — a humility which never places judgement before knowledge, nor assumes that one’s preferences must take precedence merely by the fact of being one’s own. That does not mean saying what you do not believe — an act which would be worse than saying nothing at all — but being careful with when, how and how much to say it.


Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. He has written for Quillette, Areo, The Catholic Herald, The American Conservative and Arc Digital on a variety of topics including literature and politics.

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Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

I like the phrase Woke Imperialism. I’ve never heard it before. Captures the situation and it’s paradoxes beautifully.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

Malcolm Caldwell, a British academic who idealised Pol Pot’s Cambodian regime, was invited to Phnom Penh and then murdered by the Khmer Rouge
You would have to have a heart of stone not to……

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

I followed that link and read the story.
An excellent story and a reminder of when The Guardian was worth reading, a mere decade ago.
There have been so many like him over the years but they never learn.

Sam McLean
Sam McLean
2 years ago

Yes it was an excellent piece, recommended.

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

Lol endlessly.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago

I have a serious question for the British readers of UnHerd. Why all the massive obsession with America over the last decade? A little over ten years ago you hardly cared at all. Now your opinons of this country are everywhere and this started well before Trump. Please don’t give me a one word answer of “wokeness.” Your obsession started a few years before that “movement” took off. Although you have my sympathies for its spread. I remember a time when the BBC did some of the best American political reporting there was simply because they did not care who won anything. Now they sound no different from MSNBC. Why do you care so much about us now?

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt Hindman
Tim Bartlett
Tim Bartlett
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I think we’ve cared a great deal about the USA for a very long time for a variety of reasons. Maybe you didn’t notice? We are / were close cousins, albeit with different ideas on how to run our lives. We’ve fought together and traded extensively. Then 70 years ago you took over from us as the biggest dog on the block, and everyones going to pay attention to you then.

As you say, the difference now is the increasingly shoddy and partisan state of reporting here. It grates with us too. For what its worth I believe this is another import from you guys. Clean up your act and we’ll probably emulate you.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Buggered if I know, but then I don’t think that America is the font of all evil either, although it does seem to be an object lesson in what happens when a country promotes and over educates opinionated idiots, with no common sense, and with too little meaningful employment to occupy them with afterwards.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

Very few people in Europe or the west think America is the font of all evil. Most of us know perfectly well that, for all its faults and mistakes, the world is better off for America’s existence. Unfortunately, the tiny number who DO think of the US as the Great Satan are the loudest vessels and the ones with greatest control of the megaphones.

Last edited 2 years ago by Francis MacGabhann
Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

What happens when a country promotes and over educates opinionated idiots, with no common sense, and with too little meaningful employment to occupy them with afterwards.”
No offense, but that sounds like most of the complaints I read on here about Parliament.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Brits have been obsessed with Americans since the jazz era. Life in the 1920s in Britain was very poor and newsreels showing all the cars in the States gave people something to be jealous of. Then came the movie stars. Then chewing gum and chocolate during the war.

Later came the bad things like Vietnam and steaks and obesity.

The USA is loud and does not fail to advertise itself all over the world. Young people dream of going to New York (but not Detroit or Portland). Our young people even try to speak with an American accent.

Unfortunately, there is more bad than good today.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Steaks? As a “bad” US import?? The first of London’s many Beefsteak Clubs was founded around 80 years before the USA. Plus, steaks are great.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jonathan Weil
Sean Penley
Sean Penley
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

We didn’t invent Vietnam either. That was the French, combining three nations into one colony. Perhaps they mean the war? We didn’t invent that either. It was close to 20 years old (having morphed through various forms) when we got directly involved, and kept going for a few after we left.
We’ll gladly take credit for steaks if you want to give it to us, though.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Our young people speak with a Jafakan accent, not an American one.

Andrew Masterman
Andrew Masterman
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

It’s a really good question. I’m sorry to say it’s a case of literal disillusionment. We thought the US was the light on the hill, a more modern and prosperous society. We thought the suburban USA we saw at the movies was worth aspiring to. But the twenty first century has seen the illusion lift. Now we see the underside of US society and, ironically given Brexit, prefer a more European type welfare state. We don’t (really) understand race relations in the US, the bizarre relationship with guns, the opioid crisis, polarised views on abortion, refusal to embrace public health care and definitely not Trump. Perhaps we’re still coming to terms with the loss of our naivety.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago

I would like to think U.K. readers for their comments. It has been informative.
“We don’t (really) understand race relations in the US, the bizarre relationship with guns, the opioid crisis, polarized views on abortion, refusal to embrace public health care and definitely not Trump.”
This is the part that has been driving us crazy. The American Left and mainstream media keeps trotting out opinions of American politics and culture from your most magnificent idiots. You know the ones. It is that certain “special” and smug part of your media landscape that does not know a damn thing about what is going on in your own country, let alone across the Atlantic. For some reason our media thinks a narcissistic blowhard like Piers Morgan is somehow going to change a Montana rancher’s opinion on guns and cannot understand why no one listens to someone from the BBC who has no clue why an island with far away immigrants might have different immigration issues than one that shares a physical border and some cultural overlap with its immigrants. I doubt you care what Americans think of your politics and culture. Why do these people think we care what they think? Finally please tell me you do not have American talking heads telling you what to think across the pond.
P.S. Most of the refusal to embrace public health care has less to do with the theory on paper and more to do with the expectation it will be a complete disaster in implementation.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt Hindman
Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

If this decade-long obsession is true, I would guess it is because the left side of Britain was enraptured by the glamour of Obama (especially in contrast to Bush). And then Trump dominated the media here as well as everywhere else. And because people were paying attention they – as the author of this piece suggests – projected their own prejudices onto the America.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

The left in there country were, and still are, enamoured by Clinton. And before that there was Kennedy and earlier still Roosevelt

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

That is true. It is funny how US and UK often have similar leaders: malaise under Carter and Callaghan, free markets under Thatcher and Reagan, third-way under Clinton and Blair, maybe restating national sovereignty under Trump and Boris. So maybe no surprise that cheerleaders exist on this side of the pond.

Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Observing US culture is usually a reliable portent of what’s coming to Britain. And these days, looking at the way things are going Stateside with the nutcase leftie ‘progressive’ agenda taking over politics, academic institutions, the entertainment industry and the corporate world… it’s depressing.

Peter Francis
Peter Francis
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Ignore the BBC: it’s just a woke joke these days. The plain fact is that the UK has always been fascinated by the USA. Whatever happens in the USA invariably ends up getting copied in the UK, but usually in a laughably inferior way: examples range from hamburgers, through elected mayors, to office architecture. In particular, UK politicians invariably look across the Atlantic for solutions to their problems. One obvious example is UK politicians’ enthusiasm for immigration. But another example is appointing Tsars. Tsars might work in the States, but when a UK Prime Minster tries to get rid of a problem by appointing a Tsar, it is always a dismal failure because the Tsar always run up against intractable pieces of legislation that over-ride whatever it is that their Tsardom is supposed to achieve.

Last edited 2 years ago by Peter Francis
Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Francis

 “it is always a dismal failure because the Tsar always run up against intractable pieces of legislation that over-ride whatever it is that their Tsardom is supposed to achieve.”
I see the point of confusion. See the thing is, that is exactly the way Tsars are supposed to work. They allow political leaders to pretend to care and then go “well the laws on the books prevented us from doing what we want.” (they already knew that in the first place) Then they can try to pretend to get support for changing legislation that is not going to change. It supposed to make them look good, but I just think it makes them look lazy and incompetent.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt Hindman
Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Wokeness. There is some truth to what you say though, there was a time when we could report “here’s this new nonsense ideology, or theology, or fad from America” and dismiss it. Or most people did. We still have people jogging though.

Here’s what I think.

Obama happened and the European left, never comfortable with the US left, became enthralled. Suddenly America was a bright shiny upland.

Trump happened and the bright shiny upland became an incredibly evil place. The BLM protests exacerbate this (although they started under Obama).

American ideologies like white supremacism or trans rights percolated back into Europe through the university system. Nearly all the european woke copy this stuff.

American capital becomes woke and employees of those companies have to play along. For careerists it’s easy to just add pronouns and all the rest.

Online editions of British papers have US sections and have become noticeably less anti American regarding foreign policy and more concerned with US internal politics.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Perhaps because we are a colony

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

We have always cared about you, many of us are related to many of you (bit to much talk about god on the Christmas cards should any American relation be reading – the mocking cheers us up though). But the obsessions are held by the media not the people, the sort that know if they hit the right note they might get offered the same job as here but with multiples more in salary. Even the most highbrow are basic when it comes to money, and the most powerful pay the most money.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

You’re conflating British media with their readership.

AL Tinkcombe
AL Tinkcombe
2 years ago

Thank you for this. As a student at St. Andrews in the early seventies, I experienced anti-American prejudice on almost a daily basis, from overt contempt and direct rudeness to the far more common, invariably pejorative, set of assumptions about the country and its citizens. Doubtless the Vietnam war was a factor, though I opposed the war and had no issue with criticisms of it. The reaction and overarching sense of superiority was fundamentally cultural. It goes back to the eighteenth century at least, and is, I suspect, the reaction of a former colonial power to a former colony. Inferiority is assumed. What gets lost is the possibility of difference, of being neither better nor worse, just different. And complex. One of the many things I hold against the Trumpian right, and the contemporary American right in general, is the way its members incarnate, and seem to justify, all the worst stereotypes of the country. It should be intellectually unsustainable to talk about polarization in America and at the same assume that all Americans are the same, but somehow the generalizations go on. I have recently appreciated those commenters in unHerd, British as well as American, who have challenged the often over-generalized denunciations on offer from the official contributors. I’ve thought seriously of unsubscribing both because I refuse to pay to be beaten about the ears and because vast generalizations hung on a few odd facts have little, if any, credibility. Then along comes an article like this, subtle, reflective and in need of wide readership. Thank you again.

John Lee
John Lee
2 years ago

America helped GB to win the 2nd world war and then supported the German recovery whilst driving GB into penury with the Marshall plan.
The US failed to support GB over Suez which destroyed the government of the day but still expected us to support them in Korea, a support which they have wiped from history.
Latterly American money funded the IRA terror campaign, the money only dried up after 9/11 when the yanks realised that any terrorist is only a terrorist.
And more recently have treated GB like a 3rd world state over Afghanistan.
We are interested in the USA but only to speculate over the next disappointment.

L Walker
L Walker
2 years ago
Reply to  John Lee

Korea was before Suez. Not sure the Marshall plan caused GB’s penury. I think it had more to do with the governments you had. The IRA thing is true. I found myself in an argument with a fool from Boston about that. Lot of Irish here. Wonder why? Our treatment of GB over Afghanistan was abysmal, I agree. We elect a lot, and I mean a lot, of idiots here. I was a teenager when Eisenhower stopped the Suez thing. I believe now he was wrong. John Keegan is and was one of my favorite historians.

L Walker
L Walker
2 years ago
Reply to  L Walker

As far as history goes, most Americans don’t know much history and what little they do know they don’t understand. The destruction of our education system is almost done. See Woke.

ralph bell
ralph bell
2 years ago

A wise and insightful article that you do not need to live in another country to use its lessons.

On the American news comment I totally agree, it has been about 20 years of increased obsession, with Obama then Trump as well as a thirst for being close to the top power in the world.
I think even in the 80’s US culture has charmed many in the world, from Movies to fast food and the whole multi screen cinema and shopping malls, and then there’s the National Parks!!! Their suburban and city life was always like a more glamorous big brother. I for one wanted to live in the USA as a teen, but over time have seen the negative consequences of these cultural imports and the poisonous reality for many of making a living in the USA.
If you ever visit and talk to real Americans they are so different to what you see in the movies or on the news, they are just life us, in the main, funny that…

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

Interesting article, thank you.
What an adventure to be living in Poland.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Richard Riheed
Richard Riheed
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

I like your writing, Ben. Have visited Poland 2 or 3 times for work, and would love to learn more so look forward to reading more from you.

yp54797wxn
yp54797wxn
2 years ago

“But a newcomer to a country should not dictate how it should be run, as if there is a single means of ordering societies and their enlightened perspective transcends that of their hosts.”
I wish someone would explain that to Representative Ilhan Omar, a most singular ingrate.

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago
Reply to  yp54797wxn

What about our own dear Yasmin Alibaba-Brown?

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

Partly news agendas. The US is clearly important and the middle east conflicts but beyond that woke news frequently focuses on trivial woke identity issues and race. Hardly ever focusing on countries in Europe in any depth.

Matt Deacalion
Matt Deacalion
2 years ago

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt Deacalion
Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago

Your, good, article was much enhanced by your understanding of the concept of humility, a concept so much out of fashion most journalists would need to check its meaning.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Lee Jones

True! Humility being the opposite of arrogance. Methinks it is human arrogance that is the root cause of ALL the problems that now beset humanity……………………….And we do get to see rather much of it on Unherd ………………

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

Thanks Ben – this essay should should be mandatory for Journalism 101 as a yardstick. Also i am very interested in where the Poles are at given their very tough and difficult history.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

“Imagine you were lodging in someone else’s house. You would not walk in and start vocally criticising their interior decoration.”
This is why I feel utter disdain for fellow immigrants who lecture our hosts.