Adrian Hamilton: British historians do so want to cut a dash in America


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If, declared the historian Simon Schama grandiloquently this week, "the quarrel over the mosque at Ground Zero turns into a debate on the sovereign principles of the American way of life, it is the President and Mayor Bloomberg who will emerge with honour, as the true custodians of what the founders had in mind".

Unfortunately these noble sentiments appeared in the Financial Times the day after President Obama had rowed back desperately from his initial remarks at a White House Iftar dinner to mark the start of Ramadan. "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there," he stated a day later as the furore over his earlier remarks gathered pace.

No shame in that on Obama's part. He's a politician and, in an election year, must bend with the wind of popular feeling. Every reforming president or prime minister arrives with a train of expectant followers behind them and every premier is forced by events to disappoint them. Only Obama's most ardent supporters such as Schama expect him to behave as some kind of beacon for moral purity.

But that's the trouble with outside cheerleaders – and they come mostly from abroad – for the President. In their eagerness to have their voice heard in the US market, they forget that Americans rarely, if ever, accept the strictures or even the interpretations of foreigners. They know they are better than the rest of the world, they don't need outsiders to tell them so or to tell them they're not.

The hunger to strike a pose in America seems to affect British historians especially. Because they are liked across the Atlantic for their narrative skills, are good at positing over-arching themes and are invited on to chat shows, they aspire to be an intellectual sage there. Schama isn't the only one: Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts are just as prone to such delusions. They, of course, are on the right, where the money and the shock jocks are. Schama, who has become something of the Tigger of the history profession, comes from the liberal wing, and forgets that in America, as here, the most successful columnists make their reputation from attack, not drooling enthusiasm.

There's no need for Hollywood here

For weeks now there has been gathering excitement as to who will be picked as Lisbeth Salander in the Hollywood version of the best-selling Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. Would it be Carey Mulligan or Scarlett Johansson, or a lesser known actress such as Mia Wasikowska or Rooney Mara (the latest tip)? Daniel Craig is, quite wrongly, to play the leading male role of Mikael Blomkvist. It's not until you get to the final paragraphs that you come across the fact that there has already been a film of Stieg Larsson's phenomenal success – indeed all of the trilogy – in Swedish and that the character of Lisbeth has been played to general acclaim by Noomi Rapace.

One could understand this US-centric view of the films if we were talking about replicating obscure Continental products. The US has always reworked French crime, Hong Kong action and Japanese horror movies as if the originals had never existed. But the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has already been released, and taken $100m worldwide. Its sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire (with the same cast), is opening next week .

I hope audiences over here just ignore the Hollywood version as the act of cultural colonialism that it is.

Don't judge the Arabs by the oil rich

Ramadan has indeed started early this year, as anyone working in central London knows from the fancy cars and appalling road manners of the Arab princes taking refuge here. "I suppose you'll be getting a lot more business now," I said at my local café on Kensington High Street. "No," said the Jordanian manager. "We got more before it began. Most Muslims like to return to be with their families for Ramadan."

I felt more than a little ashamed for judging Muslims by the antics of the Gulf rich. Summer does indeed see them flocking to the European capitals and the Mediterranean hot spots to escape both the heat of the desert and the rigours of an early Ramadan. But, made welcome as they are by our fawning Government, the oil rich don't represent the wider spirit of a religion that is, above all, communal and egalitarian in its observances.

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