During a stimulating walk and lunch with Dave Winer today, our conversation digressed to obituaries. There’s a striking distinction between British obituaries – irreverent, witty, enjoyable – and US obituaries – sententious, eulogistic and boring. Dave nailed the reason: “This country isn’t good at handling truth.”
I think he’s right. Obituaries are just one of the manifestations.
Go on a school tour led by a volunteer parent. Everything is wonderful; the sun always shines. In Britain, at the opposite extreme, there would be constant grumbling and sniping. But there’s a happy medium of helpful truth. After all, everyone knows that there’s no place that is absolutely perfect. Wouldn’t some honesty about that help people make decisions?
In universities the phenomenon of grade inflation seems a manifestation of the same blindness. The truth is that individual performance varies. But in a world where everyone gets an A or an A- that’s another truth considered too difficult to handle. The same applies in the world of job references (reinforced by the worries about litigation). Everyone is wonderful; you have to read between the lines to figure out whether someone was truly wonderful or a no-hoper.
On an issue of greater importance, consider the craven US mainstream press. Now that the worm has turned, the papers are full of the incompetence of the Bush administration and the unfolding disaster in Iraq. When it was unfashionable to criticize the president? The press was largely silent. Truth wasn’t part of the equation.