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April 21, 2008

what I'd like Europeans to know about us

I try not to be thin-skinned about European anti-Americanism. They have legitimate complaints, and besides, we're the great power and ought to be able to handle criticism. People around the world hold other negative stereotypes (for instance, against Islam and against Africa) that are much more disturbing to me than the bad opinions many Europeans currently hold of the USA. But a stereotype that's wrong can lead to false conclusions. Thus, in the interest of their own clarity and judgment, I would want Europeans to understand a few points about us:

1. Popular culture portrays the United States in fictional forms. This popular culture is a global phenomenon; it feeds international demand, using international financial investment. It happens to be headquartered Los Angeles and New York, much as the production of software is concentrated in Silicon Valley and Seattle. The concentration of production could be explained in economic terms without assuming that American culture is especially prone to mass production. On the contrary, mass popular culture is in tension with all kinds of indigenous, amateur, classical, academic, and local cultures, including the ones that emerge from American communities. Lots of Americans are as offended by Hollywood's fictions as Italians and Germans are, and for similar reasons.

2. We are not as culturally new or young as Europeans sometimes assume. To be sure, Las Vegas sprang out of the desert and borrowed all its cultural icons from the old world, in tacky versions. But most Americans don't live in Vegas. Cities like Philadelphia and New York basically developed their current shapes and characters during the nineteenth century, growing from substantial eighteenth-century cities. Their streets and buildings are not, on average, much newer than the buildings of Paris or Vienna. They are probably considerably older than the buildings of Berlin. And often our political institutions are much older than our buildings. The federal Constitution is more than two centuries old, and local institutions can be older. I am typing this blog in a county that was chartered in 1696, and whose current government derives from that charter.

3. We are more culturally and ethnically diverse than many Europeans seem to realize. I met a kid in England a few years ago who assumed that my children had never tried Asian food before, because we were Americans, and Americans eat burgers and fries. I think he would be rather startled to find himself in LA, for instance, where 10 percent of the population is Asian, 58 percent speak a language other than English at home, and 41 percent were born in a different country.

4. We have a federal system of government, so national leaders are less powerful and representative than they from seem abroad. We didn't hire George W. Bush to run our education system, for example. He has executive control over only about 7% of the national education budget. The kind of hard-edged, militaristic conservatism that he represents would never get him elected to the governor's office in most of our states.

5. Many of the awful social phenomena that make headlines in America--from school shootings to the obesity epidemic--are not fundamentally American. In my view, they are symptoms of modernity and therefore they inevitably appear in other countries that have similar economic and social structures. These phenomena seem to be American inventions and exports simply because we have a large population and an advanced economy. Thus the odds are high that the problems will hit us first. But it is an analytical mistake to identify them with American culture.

April 21, 2008 11:17 AM | category: none


One thing that also bothers Europeans about America is the financial contagion America has spread to their continent. That is a reality. They can't understand the laissez faireness of America and the fact that for such a developed country it doesn't have a universal health plan. The medical system and health care in America, for all its greatness, is the least efficient in the developed world.

There is plenty about America to cause one to scratcher their head or slap their forehead in amazement. Nevertheless, what would the rest of the world do without America, with its beacon-on-the-hill stature.

April 21, 2008 1:13 PM | Comments (3) | posted by airth10

A great list. Actually one I think Americans need to recognize about themselves. Especially 1,3,5.


April 23, 2008 7:53 AM | Comments (3) | posted by mooredp

I concur that the list and the preamble are valuable.

While point 5 is probably correct, let's note how European intellectuals and their progenitors have perceived our "new" nation: sometimes uncultured or primitive, other times hyper-modern. (James Ceasar RECONSTRUCTING AMERICA examines Hegel, Nietzsche, etc. on the subject).

This brings us to RELIGION, a subject you didn't raise. I find Europeans misunderstand our dynamics of religion and liberty. I took children of EU leaders to St. John the Divine Cathedral in NYC and they were astonished at a recommended donation for tour groups. "Would you just turn away a poor man from praying?" This fee struck them as mean and greedy, not a consequence of financial independence from the state.

Lastly, too, Europeans like Arendt and Strauss might have misread the US scene by transferring European "disenchantment" to our subconscious covenantal (or associational) culture.

April 23, 2008 7:44 PM | Comments (3) | posted by Scott D

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