The ‘Napoleon Complex’, more commonly known as ‘Short Man Syndrome’, is the alleged psychological predilection of short men towards aggression, named after the diminutive Emperor of France. (Psychologists are divided over whether it’s a genuine phenomenon or a baseless stereotype but, being below average height myself, I find it plausible. People constantly making jokes about how they’re always looking down on you/you’re always looking up to them is incredibly annoying.) Whether or not height is one of them, it’s a concept that applies universally to most scenarios in which one party with ‘less’ is jealous of one with ‘more’.
A whole host of less/more dichotomies – of land mass, economy, and cultural dominance to name a few – come into play with the example that inspired this train of thought. The example? Well, judging by the frequency with which I see Facebook statuses sneering about Americans, and am directed to half-baked blogs protesting that the Brits are superior to the Yanks because we ‘gave them’ The Beatles, you have to come to the conclusion that the English* are gripped by a Napoleon Complex whenever we consider our enormous ally across the Atlantic.
It’s been well over two centuries since the United States was a British territory, and about a century since they became the dominant world force in just about everything, yet we still seem piqued that they had the temerity to surpass us on the world stage. This has led to a general attitude of “if you can’t beat them, insult them”. And insulted them we have, until the insults have become the central traits of our archetypal American stereotype. If we believe that stereotype, then Americans are stupid, crassly jingoistic, gun-loving, humourless, conservative, hyper-religious, devoid of any significant cultural history and either too thin (if they’re famous) or too fat (if they’re not).
When phrased so bluntly, even those who snipe at Americans online can see that this is intensely reductive. Of course, negative cultural stereotypes are nothing new – The Mail essentially exists to imbed stereotypes about Polish immigrants into its readers’ minds, while the French are joke fodder for a broad section of society. However, in my experience, the ‘us v them’ mentality is most prevalent and competitive when discussing America and its population. While the USA is home to horrors such as Fox News, Rick Perry and the Black Eyed Peas, it’s also responsible for innumerable scientific and technological advancements. Not to mention that while it’s rarely the first country to embrace liberalisation, when it does accept progressive measures it’s arguably more influential than when any other country does, as the subsequent worldwide press attention undoubtedly provokes debate and discussion in other countries. The idea of America inspiring less developed countries to civilise themselves (i.e. conform to a Westernised ideal of acceptability) is unhealthy, but if Obama openly supporting gay marriage means some of the Caribbean islands consider repealing their laws against male homosexuality, then maybe it has some currency.
There’s no smoke without fire. Some of the stereotypes are largely true – a third of the American population is overweight, another third is obese – but some are clearly not. Despite YouTube videos appearing to show the opposite (remember, there are obese religious fanatics who don’t know how many sides a triangle has in the UK too – the difference being that the US, having a far greater population, has a few more of them), and despite the continued influence of the Republicans seeming to imply the stereotypes have a point regarding ‘American stupidity’, it’s clearly something of a myth: over half of the population has a degree, while American universities utterly dominate worldwide university rankings. For all the history that English people pride themselves on having – and look down on Americans for not having – there were only two universities in England by 1800 (Oxford and Cambridge). America, by contrast, had over 20, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton. We may have an interesting national history stuffed with turbulent monarchies, but the American settlers were clearly far more pragmatic with regards to investing in the country’s future.
And so on and so forth. Countering every individual argument is beside the point. As ever when wisdom is needed, I defer to the words of Mean Girls: “Calling somebody else fat won’t make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter… All you can do in life is try to solve the problem in front of you.” That is: condemning America and Americans doesn’t make England any more a paragon of virtue. Essentially, the problem is that countries are just kids in a playground, each trying to be the most popular so they can dictate the way the world runs. England, the little kid who somehow managed to be the top dog for a while, can’t cope with having her place at the top of the pecking order usurped by one of her former minions. So to make up for losing our influence in the playground, we either try to claim the credit (“I, like, invented her!”) or discredit them (“You’re a home-schooled jungle freak, who’s a less hot version of me!”).
Newspapers such as The Mail contribute to our pique, making sure to emphasise England’s downs more aggressively than its ups, in order to make the population feel like they’re in terminal decline from some mythical Golden Age of the British Empire. By mythologising the era when we had most influence as a Golden Age, perhaps we begin to believe that America, now the most influential player on the world stage, is experiencing her Golden Age – and we’re jealous. Of course, what the newspapers fail to note is that, while we held domain over huge swathes of land, this was only achievable through the poverty and subjugation of millions. America, at least, is not guilty of that (even if it is guilty of secret internet surveillance. Swings and roundabouts).
Next time you feel the urge to sneer at Americans because they “can’t make tea” properly, wonder why you’re sneering at them as opposed to, say, Canadians. Is it because you’re subconsciously subscribed to our national Napoleon Complex? Think about it. Maybe you don’t need to sneer at anyone.
*I refer to the English and not the British because, while researching my dissertation, I came to the conclusion that the British Empire is really a misnomer – it should have been the English Empire. If anyone wants to have a lengthy quibble about this, quibble away. Just thought I’d clarify that.