Geography Lesson 2:
I would never suggest spending precious time abroad watching
television in lieu of getting out and actually experiencing another culture.
However, I have found that it can
provide some valuable insights–in small doses. Television and other mass media
platforms are primary means for cultural communication in many societies, after
all. Most nights that I was in the U.K, I would take a couple of
hours to unwind while I drank some Earl Grey tea and watched a bit of British
Like many Americans, I am aware that hits like The Office and American Idol were British phenomena before the concepts were
exported to the United States. But I was shocked just how
pervasive, and reciprocal, the trend of cultural
diffusion–the spread of cultural traits including ideas, styles, religions,
technologies, and languages from one society to another through migration,
trade, war, or other contact–really is in the media medium. The British, for
example, have their own version of the reality show The Apprentice: same
title, same iconic catch-phrase (“You’re fired!”) different location (London) and different millionaire
businessman (Sir Alan Sugar).
Another reality show called The Baron appears to adopt elements of the The Simple Life: Celebrities
travel to small, relatively isolated communities where they live with and
attempt to get along with locals, albeit with a distinctly British twist: Three
English celebrities compete in an election to become the “baron”– a title
indicating leadership and noble status, transferable to descendants–of a
“traditional” Scottish fishing village called Gardenstown. A provocative
exploit into dynamics of culture, politics, class, history, etc., the unique
program displays the influence of cultural diffusion–and resistance to it–in a
single community struggling to find its place in the modern world. I found myself
glued to the “tube” (the television, not the London “Underground” subway) late at night watching the episodes.
Most of us know from our U.S. history/government/civics
class in grade school that many elements of the system of government devised by
our founding fathers, including the bicameral legislature, were adapted from
the British model of Parliament. Today, U.S.and British political dynamics
still share many similarities, with a few distinct differences.
In addition to featuring substantial coverage of the U.S.
presidential primary races, I found that the BBC channel (British Broadcasting
Corporation, the world’s largest news gathering service) also highlighted
domestic sentiment toward Gordon Brown, the new Prime Minister charged with the
daunting task of taking over the reigns from ten-year PM Tony Blair. Debate emerged over the “10 pence tax band,” a tax on low levels of income that Brown
recently agreed to abolish. Check out this BBC
video on the topic and note 1) the seemingly rowdy proceedings of British
Parliament relative to the more aseptic Congressional hearings one might see on
CSPAN; 2) the references to British political parties (three major parties– Labour,
Liberal Democrats, and Conservatives, also pejoratively referred to as “Tories”–compared
with two major political parties in the U.S.) and 3) the London scenery in the
last frame. Can you make out Big Ben?!
I’ll conclude my series of U.K geography lessons with
another feature on British culture: food, language, and holidays.