Europeans and Us

For those of you interested in the general topic – how Europeans see us – I’d like to suggest two articles. The first is Bruce Bawer’s “Hating America” in Hudson Review. We follow his mood swings, beginning as an amiable American abroad, moving into a more defensive mode, and then concluding with a thorough summary of current works on the topic. His last paragraph points not only to a major difference between Americans and Europeans, but also perhaps the greatest indicator of a divide between red and blue values—religion. Of course, as he notes, this is a good deal more complex than either the blue states or Europeans realize.

That some of America recognizes “human nature” and some of America (and much of Europe) does not is a theme we return to again and again (and will again and again). Of course, it is not that arguments are merely between Europeans and Americans, nor among each. We start from broadly differing definitions of what it means to be human.

In one of my earlier posts a comment was made (perceptive because it cut to what I meant better than I had), the comment addressed Sowell’s distinction between “constrained” and “unconstrained” thinking. [Yes, I apologize -thanks for fact checkers like Dr. Weevil] It seems to me that we might also describe that as between people who recognize human nature, with its frailties, and the tragic nature of our life versus those who see man as pure, unfettered will. The former has problems with abortion; the latter detests limits, even being tied to biology – arguing that sexuality is itself culturally defined. The former is going to see checks and balances as necessary; it is less likely to trust institutions defined by man. The latter finds utopian schemes attractive. Of course, the latter is idealistic, but it is also foolish and in the twentieth century such thinking has led to more than fragmented psyches, but also death camps. Well, you might say, that is painting with a broad brush. Yes, it is. We’ll leave the arguments for another day. Instead, I’ll give you the last paragraph of Bawer’s essay.

Europeans mock American religiosity. But American religion, for all its attendant idiocies and cruelties, has never prevented Americans from acting pragmatically. Secular Western European intellectuals, however, have their own version of religion. It is a social-democratic religion that deifies international organizations such as the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and, above all, the U.N. Not NATO, which is about waging war, and which has for that reason been the target of much European criticism in recent years; no, the NGOs are about waging peace, love, brotherhood, and solidarity, and, as such, are, for the elites of Western Europe, beyond criticism, for they embody Western Europe’s most cherished idea of itself and of the way the world works, or should work. The elites’ enthusiasm for these institutions, whether or not they are genuinely effective or even admirable, is a matter of maintaining a certain self-image and illusion of the world that is intimately tied up with their identity as social democrats; America’s unforgivable offense, as Kagan notes, is that it challenges that image and that illusion; and the degree to which the reality of America is distorted in the Western European media is a measure of the desperate need among Western European elites to preserve that self-image and illusion. It sometimes seems to me a miracle, frankly, that America has any friends at all in some parts of Western Europe, given the news media’s relentless anti-Americanism. There is no question that the chief obstacle to improved understanding and harmony between the U.S. and Western Europe is the Western European media establishment. It is an obstacle that must somehow be overcome, for Western civilization is under siege, and America and Europe need each other, perhaps more than ever. More sane, sensible European books along the lines of Revel’s L’obsession anti-américaine and Bromark and Herbjørnsrud’s Frykten for Amerika can help.

If you would like something written by Mimi Swartz, who is more an observer of society than a thinker, then “Them’s Fightin’ Words!” in the latest Texas Monthly might interest you. (If you are not a subscriber, this is a hassle to get–but you do get pictures of Kinky Friedman in drag.)

I would write a post about our parochialism but I have to go to the airport to pick up my husband, returning from two weeks teaching and conferencing in Europe.

10 thoughts on “Europeans and Us”

  1. I’d like to read the Texas Monthly article, but it says I have to have an access code and in order to get this code, I have to pay! Can someone post the code or the article on the internet? I’m confused as I thought I was registered because I read an article in Texas Monthly just this past year on the movie Dazed and Confused.

  2. Sorry, I shouldn’t have posted this. We had a copy of the magazine and hwne it looked like a hassle I just used the paper copy.

  3. Thanks for the article and the links. Bawer’s piece was fascinating. I can’t say that Kinky in drag was a sight I relished, but I’ll live.

  4. I haven’t read the book, but doesn’t Sowell distinguish between “constrained” and “unconstrained” thinking? You seem to have dropped a couple of letter from each word.

  5. Bawer’s essay hits the nail on the head.

    During my time in Europe I detected not only in the people I came in contact with but also in the news media what I call “group think”. They all had exactly the same opinions about political issues.

    In an informal discussion while having a few beers, the 4 Americans in our group all had somewhat differeing opinions on the subjects at hand (why are the Brits so obsessed with Bush, teh war on terrorism, etc.) even though all of us came from the same corporate, upper-middle class background. In contrast, the Brits all had the exact same opinion on everything and even tag-teamed in trying to explain their universal, shared views. They never differed with each other even on minor points or even on the relative importance of this concern over that concern. It was as if they had all studied from the same text book and had memorized the answers to take a test. They all parotted the same conspiracy theories as if they were hard, proven facts. It was almost bizarre in contrast to the way that we Americans all differed in opinion on the various issues we discussed.

    What sometimes makes America so aggravating is that there are genuine differences in opinion on almost every issue, and most Americans are proud of the fact that they can make up their own mind about any given set of facts, and are a little ashamed to “follow the heard”, act like “lemmings” or “drink the kool-aid”. There is also a culture of skepticism about almost everything from one side or the other on almost every issue. It is almost our birth-right to disagree. Maybe this comes from our legacy of being the first country in history to successfully tell a king to go f*** himself and get away with it.

    This leads to the single biggest misunderstanding that Europeans have of America:

    There is no mainstream equivalent of the Conservative/Supply-Side/Libertarian wing of the Republican party in Europe. In Europe, the left and the right are socialist/statists who only differ on who the socialist government should favor and who should get screwed. The left in America is much more libertarian than the left in Europe. Ted Kennedy, the bastion of the American left-wing, has never proudly displayed the Soviet Hammer and Sickle like the far-left parties in Europe. The few communists in America are deep underground and would never openly admit their ideology, despite the demonization of Joe McCarthy.

    In the end the deepening rift between Europe and American can be summed up as: Individualism vs. Collectivism, Free market capitalism (classical liberalism) vs. socialism, and Liberty vs. equality.

    To find like-minded individuals, we are going to have to look somewhere other than Europe.

  6. I think DSpears is entirely correctin pointing out that Americans have varying opinions on a wide range of topics. I do, however, entirely disagree with the observation that Europeans don’t. First of all, just as I think it’s necessary to point out American diversity, it seems silly to speak of “the Europeans” as if they were some monolithic group of people.

    Having been to Germany recently, my experience has been entirely different from the one described by DSpears. The people I met there, German, French, British, Irish, Italian, Polish, were all very thoughtful and deliberative individuals. I think that the idea of a European “herd mentality” is as much an American myth as the perception of an uncritical American media is a European one.

    In his essay, Bawer is careful to make clear that he is speaking about Western Europe’s “intellectuals” and “elites.” [What he is talking about is of course those kind of intellectuals and elites that we have come to call “liberal” in the United States (as if there were no conservatives intellectuals and elites in Western Europe!).] To equate the world-view of these intellectuals with that of all intellectuals, or even that of the “European public” (as if there were such a thing) in general would be just as misguided as the assumption found in some Europeans that the policies pursued by the Bush administration is shared by all Americans. As has been pointed out correctly, Americans have diverse opinions, and so do Europeans. To suggest otherwise would be obscenely careless or maliciously shallow.

  7. Of course, by “Europe” I mean the non-former-communist countries in Europe, the so-called “old Europe”.

    Give some examples of this diversity of opinion you speak of. Did you encounter anybody who liked George Bush and thought he was doing a good job? Did you speak to anybody that wished the German government would outlaw their labor unions? Did you encounter anybody in France that thinks that communism is evil and that the French government should significantly cut the size of it’s government? Did you meet anybody in Italy that thinks their government should stop sunsidizing tiny, inefficient craft manufacturing? Did you encounter anybody who thinks that Swedens social welfare programs are sapping the life out of it’s productive classes? Or that Amsterdam could cut down the number of junkies in it’s parks if it stopped giving out free needles?

    These opinions do exist in Europe. But they are rare and entirely outside of the mainstream. WIth the exception of Margret Thatcher, even the Tories in Britain are not all that “Conservative” by American standards, and certainly not libertarian in any way.

    I stand by my perceptions until shown differently.

  8. Whether making blanket statements about all of Europe or just about “old Europe”: either is misguided because it generalizes in an unacceptable way.

    I must admit, I have yet to come across a German who thinks labor unions should be outlawed. However, labor unions are quite weak in Germany anyway (German union membership is at its lowest ever), and strikes in Germany are so rare that they practically don’t occur (unlike in France or Italy, for instance). Giving their weakness, I’m not sure why any German would see the point of outlawing labor unions. [By the way, in no sector of industry or commerce is there a compulsory union membership in Germany, unlike in the U.S.]. In Germany, there’s currently much discussion on rolling back workers’ protections re. working hours and holidays. Looks like the Germans have finally figured out that by lowering the number of regular working hours (which occured in the 1980s, when the unions were at the hight of their power) actually raised unemployment, rather than lowering it. A (albeit slim) majority of Germans currently thinks that they should work longer hours for the same wages, which the unions vehemently oppose.

    I did meet several people on my recent trip to Germany who told me they had been supportive of the war (though they were clearly in the minority). However, they did not like President Bush’s style of dealing with our European allies. Of course, there are many prejudices in Europe about the United States, just as misperceptions about Europe seem to be not unheard of here.

    Talking about Amsterdam and handing out free needles to junkies: this has also been the subject of recent debate in the Netherlands. The conservative government (though perhaps not conservative by your standards) that was elected in 2003 ran on a law-and-order platform that included rolling back some of the (rather permissive) drug legislation.

    Communism: Let’s leave aside for a minute the fact that Western Europe fought by our side to defeat Communism in the Cold War. Italy and France, most notably, have had comparatively strong Communist parties after WW 2. But of course the French Communists have traditionally been disliked by many in France, particularly the Gaullist RPR. De Gaulle himself was a staunch opponent of the Communists. Suggesting that Communism is a mainstream phenomenon in France is like claiming that Ralph Nader will be the next President of the United States.

    Since you asked me a series of questions, DSpears, let me ask you in turn: On your trip to Europe, did you encounter anybody in France who said that communism is great and that the French government should significantly increase the size of its government? Did you meet anybody in Italy who said that their government should continue subsidizing tiny, inefficient craft manufacturing? Did you encounter anybody who said that Sweden’s social welfare programs are the best thing to happen to its productive classes since they got the right to vote? And what mainstream European communist party did you see whose flag included the hammer and sickle?

    And since you insist that diversity of opinion is so much greater here than in Europe: how many parties are there in the United States that are represented in Congress? And how does that compare to any number of European countries? [E.g. 11 in Italy, 5 in Germany, 12 in Britain, 12 in France, and so forth.] See? Why have Italian governments been traditionally been so short-lived? (There have been 59 since 1945, and Berlusconi’s government is currently in its death throws.) Because everybody agrees with each other?

    The misguided impulse to generalize about another country (or in this case, 15 countries) is human and understandable. But to bemoan that “the Europeans” don’t agree with “us” while gloating that, unlike those herd-like Europeans, we Americans don’t agree among ourselves seems schizophrenic. All I’m trying to say here is that just as we don’t like Europeans to generalize about us, we should refrain from doing likewise.

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