Fri Dec 8th, 2006 at 11:45:40 AM EST
(The title is deliberately provocative. There is nothing below but a sincere but sketchy attempt to jot down some thoughts about Americans and Europeans, and it represents no more than my imperfect understanding of the situation. There are plenty of objections to a good many of the points I raise. Just trying to move things forward a bit...)
Recent discussions here (here and here, for example), and on DKos have emphasized that dialogue between Americans and Europeans is increasingly difficult. We don't understand each other, and it seems to be getting worse, not better.
When I say "worse, not better", I'm thinking in the short term (the last few years, and even over the last year), but also in the relatively long term. From my own recollection, it was certainly much easier for Americans and Europeans to agree at the time of the Vietnam War and particularly during the Nixon years (so why don't Iraq and Dubya produce the same effect, one may wonder?). But there was a much more radical critique of Amerika among Americans then, both from hardened left campaigners and young baby-boomers -- and it was Americans who were spreading that critique elsewhere in the world. The draft may well have had a lot to do with that, by radicalising middle-class youth, and by setting off a movement of draft-dodgers to other countries. Back then was also the high point of a long upswing of progressive values in America, through the Depression and New Deal years to the Sixties and the final achievements of the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps most of all, the headiness of the youth revolution of the Sixties, the brusque movement towards sexual and cultural emancipation, was shared between the States and European countries. It was a generation thing.
Since then the conservative backlash -- almost a Reconquista -- has significantly swung the American political compass rightwards. A whole heap of boomers dropped their radicalism and joined the mainstream, partly thanks to the glorification of business, of the enterprise, in the Reagan years. Younger generations have since grown up with a number of changes in cultural and sexual mores as given -- things to defend, since they're under attack from the Christian right, but with none of the elation of breaking the taboos in the first place.
These points are true of Europe too, to some extent, but have had less far-reaching effects. It's generally fair to say that a difference exists here -- overall, the American political spectrum at the moment is further to the right than the European (with the possible partial exception of Britain). And this is one source of misunderstanding.
But another obstacle that is often in evidence is that Americans (again, I'm talking about Americans on this blog, on DKos, on other progressive blogs), experience European commentary as arrogant, condescending. I'm not thinking just of knee-jerk reactions on DKos (which may even come from MC Kos himself or other principals), but of words like these that I believe deeper and more thoughtful:
Sheesh we are doing the best we can. I think its a shame that we are in such a shitty state to begin with, but really, there are a lot of us trying our best to shove this big son-of-a-bitch in the right (make that left) direction. I think you are discounting the generally positive movement. <...>
Maybe I'm being foolish here, but I really like this place and respect you guys and its a shame imho to see the attitude of cynical superiority. Keep the superiority if you must but drop the cynicism. Lots of us are trying.
There is also the paternalistic attitude toward America and every other country for that matter woven into the fabric of European cultures. That's what drives us crazy, or at least disappoints us.
Though I take these comments seriously, I have to report that they surprise me. Let me just get two things out of the way first:
- there are different idioms at work. A lot of people here don't have English as their first language, and those who do (mostly British and Irish) don't express themselves in the same English as Americans do. That does not signify we are being stuck-up, toffee-nosed, elitist, or any of these things we get accused of. Before Americans object that they're in fact aware of this, I'd just ask them always to be aware of it. People don't have to speak the American vernacular to be just plain folks;
- cynicism: NearlyNormal's response was to an admittedly cynical comment from Bad Colman, and it's an understandable reaction. But please bear in mind that our sense of humour is not quite like yours, we play with irony and cynicism more than you do (in general), and above all we apply it to ourselves and each other. It is obviously up to us to bear in mind the difference too, when we write, to avoid giving offence.
Arrogance, condescension, a superior attitude, may of course exist in some individuals and on some occasions, it would be useless to deny that. But the accusation is levelled routinely and on occasions where it doesn't seem entirely justified to Europeans
, meaning we are astonished to hear that we come across as arrogant, and are at a loss to see how. (Was Jérôme's diary yesterday arrogant and condescending, or angry and provocative?) My feeling is that the frequency of these accusations has to do with perception: Americans perceive their relation with Europeans as one in which they are looked down on.
And that's what surprises me, and no doubt other Europeans, because we have a different perception of that relation. It springs from America's position as the world's greatest power throughout all our lifetimes. It's not just a question of military and diplomatic power, though that counts. It's enormously a question of economic power, and of cultural power acting as a conductor for economic power. I sometimes wonder how far Americans (non-expats) fully realize the extent to which American culture -- language, music, TV, films, food, popular culture, corporate culture, ways of being, working, doing business -- has permeated the world and become standard since the mid-20th century. Speaking of higher culture, of art, how often has it been noted that the centre of the world's artistic activity moved to New York with WWII? What basis is there in this for Europeans feeling superior to Americans? And there is another factor at work here, that of corporate and financial capitalism-based propaganda in favour of, essentially, the American way of organising society and business, run through pet think-tanks, pundits, and the world's English-language media that influences so strongly the rest of the world's media. Then there is the special variety of neo-colonialist hegemony practised by America (Amerika?) and that only the neo-cons call "empire" to its face. The European experience of all this is not akin to a downward-looking, ivory-tower view, but more the sensation of living in America's shadow. If anything, the perception Europeans have of the "psychological" balance between them and Americans is the converse of that relation as perceived by Americans.
So possibly what I'm saying is that you can't feel paternalistic towards an 800-pound gorilla (unless you're a 1600-pound gorilla yourself). Or can you?
Frankly, I think that European paternalism is worn out. It might just be held to apply to former colonies which have become neo-colonial stake-outs. The USA just doesn't fall into that category, not at all. More into the category of those countries that can be paternalistic here and there...
Is this getting us anywhere?
It doesn't look much like it for the moment. But I think there's another difference between us that contributes to misunderstanding (of the kind: astonishment on both sides), and it resides in the nature of our views of our own public discourse and public life. Some progressive Americans maintain a critical distance from belief in the nation and its founding myths -- the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, if not the Exemplary Nation (the city on a hill), at least the country that tries -- but most share sincerely in that belief. Here's a comment from Migeru (that you're free to discount if you think it's over the top, I'm quoting it as the view of a European who recently spent several years living in America):
...even after all that we know Bush has done in the past 6 years, it seems to be an open question whether a groundswell of outrage can be generated in the American public. Because to admit what Bush has done flies in the face of the myths that underpin America as a nation and define Americans as citizens. It is a question of faith, if being American is a religion the Constitution is scripture and the President is the High Priest, and people will rather deny the evidence before their eyes than deny their faith.
You will not find belief in the nation anywhere in Europe, including Britain. We have no faith in our nations, states, or supra-national structures. Post-modern nationalist or regionalist identity movements exist, but that's precisely what they are, no more, and they don't signify positive belief in the nation. We come from generations of devastation and massacre. We have built a peace on ruins, and Germany was not the only country to start from zero, to some extent we all did (the UK held a gratifying position, but even then...). Behind us we have the swathes of dead of World Wars I and II and genocide, on our own territory, and a long history of shifting borders defined by war. We don't have the deceptively short and the deceptively simple history of the USA, and we don't have Americans' more direct and positive attitudes. At the risk of sounding condescending -- but that truly isn't the case -- I'd say a great deal of American civic culture is primary compared to the secondary, tertiary, even highly convoluted civic culture of Europeans. I'm not making a value judgement there. Europeans may have the critical distance, Americans have the oomph.
We can learn from each other, and perhaps we'd better. In any case, the differences aren't going to disappear by magic. If we go on not understanding them (or preferably trying to make capital out of them), I'm afraid we are going to stop talking to each other.
If we want to go on talking, could we think of these points that I'm setting down quickly? Is it possible that Americans might see a bit more where Europeans are coming from, and be less defensive, less prompt to ascribe European attitudes to arrogance or elitism? Is it possible that Europeans seek genuine dialogue through fully appreciating the differences in attitudes to public life? Could Americans be less innocent about the projection of US power in the world? Could Europeans take on some of the positive American spirit, and try harder?