What is the true measure of civilisation? For Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American transcendentalist, it was a state that secured the greatest good of the greatest number of people. In his novel Travail, Émile Zola conjured the image of the last stone from the last church falling on the last priest. And Mark Twain picked whisky, ahead of the railroad, the newspaper or the steamboat.
This week, a controversial new idea was proposed: that a civilised nation is one with ice cubes. The trouble began when an American journalist upset a lot of Europeans on Twitter by suggesting that "a continent where they don't have ice cubes" was a low bar against which to measure the US coronavirus response.
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Matthew Yglesias added: "Italy and Spain are very nice — great food, been on fun vacations to both countries — but their per capita GDPs are closer to Mexico than to the USA. This is a sad comparison class we've found ourselves in."
Leaving aside the question of whether gross domestic product is a clumsy measure of a successful society, the only thing more curious than this assertion was the fury it elicited. Ice-loving Europeans were livid. The English, in particular, summoned up the spittle-flecked indignation reserved for anyone who dares to write about their nation as though it were a foreign country.
In recent years upstart Yanks have become bolder: making fun of our porridge and mutton-heavy diets and suggesting London's bridges might actually be in danger of falling down. But, for the English, to be lumped in the same category as France, Spain or Italy in terms of ice-producing capabilities was a slur too far. Photographic evidence of the insides of freezer drawers rammed full of ice trays flooded social media.
Next came the predictable moral superiority. It was pointed out that, as well as access to frozen water, European countries have free healthcare, social safety nets and gun control laws. Others boasted about the continent's many ancient castles. Besides, they weren't going to be lectured to by a people who do not see the need for electric kettles and microwave the water for their tepid tea. Back from the US flew barbs about missing mixer taps and damp shirts from combined washer-dryers. It was as though all the pent-up aggression of a plague year would be vented in a transatlantic war over kitchen appliances — a fine example of American exceptionalism versus European complacency.
And why not? One enjoyable byproduct of the pandemic has been tacit permission to make wild generalisations relying on outdated national stereotypes — the assertion, say, that "freedom-loving" Brits can't be expected to follow rules the way the Germans do, or that Italians are incapable of social distancing from their beloved nonnas.
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To be fair, ice is no trivial luxury in the US. I am married to an otherwise self-hating American who nevertheless believes that every car journey of more than 20 minutes demands a back-seat cool box filled with ice packs and bottles of fizzy water. In this regard, at least, he reverts to a national type that includes some illustrious predecessors.
On honeymoon in the south of Spain with Ted Hughes, Bostonian Sylvia Plath fantasised about ice boxes, refrigerators, pasteurised milk and drinkable tap water. Later, living in London, she confessed to a friend that the sound of ice cubes in a whisky glass was the "only thing that made her homesick for the States". Ernest Hemingway wrote to his publisher from Cuba with the news that he had devised a method of making dense cubes of ice in tennis ball tubes that "comes out 15 degrees below zero".
Perhaps the seeds of this reverence for frostiness were sown by Emerson himself, who noted the importance of a temperate climate in his treatise on American civilisation. "Wherever snow falls, there is usually civil freedom," he observed loftily. Tell that to Twitter.
- Financial Times