By the time British Petroleum completed its 1998 acronymization to BP, the company had probably spent millions in "brand consultant" fees. It’s an important point, this, because the rebranding was meant to signal that BP is no longer a mere British entity and no longer a mere oil company. And if one believes the heavy-breathing British press (and one should always be circumspect when reading both the red tops and the "quality" dailies), Obama administration officials, cable news talking heads, and members of the Republican opposition are ignoring the acronym in favor of its geographically specific root, in a blatant effort to stoke Anglophobia.
A small bit of explanation is in order. As BP’s technical teams and public relations machine flail, the Obama administration seized a rather obvious opening to deflect attention from its manifold failings and, working on the assumption that Americans suffer from congenital xenophobia, began to stress the company’s foreign roots. According to countless British newspaper and magazine accounts, the president and his flunkies refused to abide by the 1998 name change, which would be like calling Altria "Phillip Morris” or Xe Services “Blackwater.”
The Spectator blubbered that “Obama introduced an element of xenophobia, quite unworthy of his position, by repeatedly referring to ‘British Petroleum.’” The Daily Mail argued that “Obama used his failings to ramp up the anti-British rhetoric and pointedly called BP 'British Petroleum', even though the firm has not used that name since 1998.” The Guardian, a paper notoriously immune to the anti-American disease and generous to multinational oil companies, whined about the president’s “Brit-bashing” and the “administration's assault on the company it likes to call British Petroleum.”
If the BP-British Petroleum conspiracy failed to convince, a columnist for The Telegraph pointed out that a woman in Louisiana wrote to her congressman (or “wailed” to him, according to the writer) that she was prevented from visiting a local beach by BP officials and was now “at the mercy” of this “British-owned company.” It was a veritable Boxer Rebellion of anti-Albionism.
And let us not forget, The Daily Mail reminded its readers, “the fact that American firms owned the rig and safety equipment which led to the environmental disaster.” Indeed, Americans were the primary victims, too, with 11 workers killed in the initial well explosion while two died attempting to contain the damage. But here the Americans are, blaming Britain.
And it wasn’t just the Fleet Street hacks whimpering about hurt feelings. Boris Johnson, the mumbling, shock-haired Tory mayor of London, complained of America’s “anti-British rhetoric, buck-passing and name-calling.” Lord Tebbitt, a member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, took to the pages of The Telegraph to denounce the president’s “hate campaign against the British.”
Now, it is doubtless the case that the Obama administration, whose response to the crisis has been feckless and (it is true) mired in buck-passing, would like nothing better than to offload responsibility for the crisis on a foreign multinational, be it British or Botswanan. Populism plays, after all. But if the “evidence” of an anti-British crusade consists of the odd reference to British Petroleum, or the lunkheaded Sarah Palin bemoaning the “foreign companies” involved in oil exploration off of American shores, it hardly justifies this massive counteroffensive in the British press. In fact, it could be reasonably argued that this Anglo-American battle is being cooked up in British newsrooms, not the Oval Office.
Having spent large amounts of time in the United Kingdom—most of it greatly pleasurable, excepting the interminable pub conversations about silly Yanks who demand ice in their beverages and don’t properly pronounce aluminum—it strikes me as a little bizarre that this banal bit of political populism has engendered such hurt feelings.
So let me remind my British comrades of what the real thing looks like. A few recent examples: The novelist Dame Margaret Drabble confessed in 2003 that her bouts of anti-Americanism were like reflux, that “fashionable American disease,” causing her great physical discomfort. With the subtlety one would expect from a Dame with a dodgy esophagus, Drabble wrote in The Telegraph, “I detest Disneyfication, I detest Coca-Cola, I detest burgers, I detest sentimental and violent Hollywood movies that tell lies about history. I detest American imperialism, American infantilism, and American triumphalism about victories it didn't even win.”
Her last name sounds like a Britishism, so onomatopoetic—my goodness, she does writes such drabble, doesn’t she? But I will resist the Drabble-like temptation to blame an entire civilization for her tedious clichés, though I dare say that this is what actual xenophobia looks like.
And now that the United States and England are advancing to the next stage of the World Cup, how about England's spasms of soccer-related xenophobia, like the recent stories of Arsenal, the London-based club, and its declaration that its board will “resist any foreign takeover” in response to an American businessman expressing interest in taking a controlling share. The patriotic board members professed a desire to "keep Arsenal English.” Or the consistent protests against Manchester United’s American-born owner Malcolm Glazer, which, said The Times, are “played out against a backdrop of anti-American sentiment.” Or the beknighted American owner of Liverpool, who prompted this reaction from one of the club’s former stars: “The day the club was sold to the Americans was one of the worst in the club's history.”
No one died in any of these imperial takeovers of British soccer teams, no wildlife killed, no beaches littered with tarballs. But perhaps the outraged columnists in the UK should inform their football-obsessed readers that, like BP, most everything is globalized these days—from the strikers on their favorite club, to the companies headquartered in London. BP is a multinational corporation with American subsidiaries and workers, Swiss well operators, and a gaffe-prone Swedish chairman. And McDonald's—that often-invoked symbol of American cultural hegemony—is no longer run out of Ray Kroc’s garage. The dreaded hamburger giant uses local products, employs regional officers and franchisees, is staffed by high school students from Flanders and Dortmund, and is eaten by almost everyone on Earth.
Sarah Palin’s lame attempt at vilifying “foreign” BP, or Barack Obama’s subtle attempt to underscore the company’s non-American roots, is little different than former BBC reporter Andre Gilligan complaining that London is “owned by Americans,” with its streets “lined with New York Bagel shops, Manhattan Coffee Company outlets.” The stakes are different, of course, but the sentiment is much the same; if the city goes to pot, if the oil well explodes, it ain’t our fault.
Obama is a blame-passing protectionist. Palin is an attention-seeking populist. And the poor British columnists are giving me reflux, that fashionable and incredibly painful American disease.