In diametric contrast [to the fond dicta of foreigners] stands the characteristic tone of native commentary. Most languages have some self-critical locution, usually a wordplay or neologism, to indicate typical national defects. Germans can cite Hegel’s contemptuous description of local identity politics, Deutschdumm; the French deplore the vauntings of franchouillardise; Peruvians term a hopeless mess una peruanada; Brazilians occasionally mock a brasileirice. England seems to have lacked such self-ironic reflexes: ‘Englishry’ – the gift of Tom Nairn, a Scot – is without currency in its land of reference. Italy lies at the opposite pole. In no other nation is the vocabulary of self-derision so multiple and so frequent in use. Italietta for the trifling levity of the country; italico – once favoured by Fascist bombast – now synonymous with vain posturing and underhand cynicism; bitterest of all, italiota as the badge of an invincible cretinism. It is true that these are terms of public parlance, rather than of popular speech. But, as the familiar contempt of the phrase all’ italiana (divorce etc) testifies, the lack of self-esteem they express is widespread. The good opinion of others remains foreign to the Italians themselves.
It appears that England’s lack of terms for national self-deprecation extends both to Russia and the United States. To be sure, neither land comes short in the production of mockery either non-verbal or all too prolix. This week alone, on April Fool’s Day Russia’s performance artists rewarded their incorruptible leader Vladimir Lenin with a gaping hole in his rear, and on the next day an American jury awarded $1 to a professor fired for an essay that characterized the 9/11 attacks against the United States as defensive acts of war. But pithy epithets seem to be in short supply. On the Russian side, one finds alienated cavils concerning “this country” («эта страна») and liberal mockery of “kvass patriotism” («квасной патриотизм»). But the land of the free and the home of the brave is suspiciously bereft of such terms. We fall short of spoofing ourselves, as witness Roy Blount’s lack of traction in disparaging the Supporters of Our Troops as “flaggots” and Team America’s failure to brand its anthem, “America, Fuck Yeah!” While this country still goes without a good five-cent cigar, what it needs is a garland of four-letter words to leaven its embattled self-esteem. Any suggestions?