Us and them, as seen from abroad.
In my last post I promised to follow up with a bit on the differences between Americans and our neighbors across the pond, as seen from the point of view of an American living abroad. A few years in another country does not an expert make, and it serves even less to qualify me as competent to address the myriad differences between the U.S. and the EU as a whole. Of course lack of expertise has never stopped me before! What follows are my observations as to the similarities and differences between"us" and "them", and a few items on each side where we can all learn from each other. By them I mean what has traditionally been considered Western Europe- many emerging Eastern European countries are could easily follow the American model, or follow the herd into the EU lock, stock and barrel, it is just too early to tell. You may want to take all of this with a grain of salt, or you may have ha different experiences- if so please share with us in the comments section. Just a short warning- I am going to be writing in huge, sweeping statements that will in most circumstances not hold true for individuals or small subsets- this is my opinion and not a scholarly treatise, so please do not leave comments like the "the Basque goat herders do not blah, blah, blah." This might just well turn out to be a two, or more, part post, I'll just have to see how it flows.
An English friend once told me, on the occasion of his return to Europe after a long car trip in the U.S. that the difference between an American and an Englishman (and Europeans by extension) is that an American thinks a hundred years is a long time, and that an Englishman thinks a hundred miles is a long distance. That has really stuck with me over the years- while it is true on both accounts, it is demonstrative of the differences between the two sides. Most Europeans have no idea of the actual size of the United States. The idea of spending days in the car to cross a portion of one country is alien to them. At the same time we have a hard time imagining spending time in a building that was constructed 900 years ago. This small difference in perceptions is important to the understanding of what separates us from the Europeans, because there is no single large factor that makes us "us" and them"them."
Some factors are more important than others, though, first and foremost is the fact that the United States of America is a single cohesive nation which is never the less made up of diverse peoples who adhere to often divergent beliefs. The EU, on the other hand, is a loose confederation internally homogeneous states, made up of people who have remarkably similar beliefs, that have very little in common externally- other than a desire to "balance" America. Outside of Brussels there really is no "union" in Europe- no Italian who you meet in Central Park will tell you he is from the EU- every American you meet in Rome will tell you they are from America. To put it another way, there will never be a sports movie where a Spaniard defeats an American and the crowd breaks into a frenzied chant of "EU-EU-EU!"
In many ways Americans and Europeans have never been closer, at least superficially- we share the same pop-culture, most of it generated by Hollywood and New York. Many Euros resent this tremendously, calling the American global domination of the entertainment industry "cultural imperialism", as they are unable to comprehend that this is simply capitalism writ loud. more on that to follow. You can hear Britney Spears in a McDonalds anywhere in the world (as an aside I have been meaning to send a thank you letter to the good folks at McD's- we have utilized their restrooms in at least 10 countries, what a lifesaver!). Fashion, the kind real people wear, not the Paris runway type, is somewhat more divergent than our shared taste for block buster movies, but not but no by much. New York Yankees jersey are ubiquitous, as are baseball caps worn cockeyed and jeans several sizes too large. Spot an outfit like that anywhere in Europe and check out the feet to determine if the wearer is an American- the white socks will give him away. Between the clothes, the music and the multiple facial piercing, a seventeen year old from Annapolis is hard to tell apart from one from Amsterdam- at least until they open their mouths. Our Euro teen will most likely speak at least two languages fluently and have a smattering of a couple more, the same cannot be said for the vast majority of American kids.
No, in order to determine the differences one must delve into topics not generally considered polite conversation between relative strangers: politics and religion. Several fully modern European countries still cling to their monarchies as a tie to the distant past, even while they heap scorn or praise on their elected leaders. Come what may in the Parliament, the King or Queen is a link to their idyllic past, perhaps a past that includes a period of continental, if not global, dominance. While the ideals of personal responsibility may be slowly fading from the far left in America, most of us still hold dear the idea that the Government is ours- for and by the people- and that it is beholden to us. We would prefer to solve our own problems, not have the government intervene. This is a foreign concept for most Europeans. Any and all problems are to be solved by the government. A perfect example is the recent move by the French to have the EU curb British overtime; the stagnant French economy is losing out to the British. Rather than work more hours themselves the French seek to have the Government level the playing field by strangling the British ability to earn wages and get ahead financially. Politics in the Euro zone is far removed from what we are used to here. Party systems are less rigid with many small parties constantly emerging and fading from site (which is a good thing, I think) but at the same time more regulated- i.e. a certain percentage of women is required on every ticket in most countries, and since voters often have a choice of entire tickets and not individual candidates, there exists an appearance of widely accepted and desired gender equality that in fact is in reality electoral affirmative action.
With regards to religion, it is simply fading from public life in Europe. The European elites have no need for, nor tolerance of amongst their peers, religion or religiosity. Indeed in the major European cities the practice of Judeo-Christian religion is largely non-existent (Rome and Dublin excluded). Apart from the surging Islamic immigrant tide and elderly women most Europeans believe they have no need for religion. They have so firmly grasped onto the idea that the state will provide everything for everyone that they have put their belief in the government ahead of their belief in a Deity. As a result moral codes are often absent from the teaching of children- replaced by P.C. pap that leads today's young Europeans to want to analyze Islamofascism in the hope of finding something that the West has done to "deserve" the wrath of terrorists. Europe learned the lessons of World War II so well (don't attack a religious group identified as such) that they have lost the ability to discuss religion as central to any threat- hence the influx of radical Islam and the sharp rise in anti-Semitism in many parts of Europe It has become chic to vilify the United States for both being religious and for taking the fight to those who would see us subjugated or destroyed- evil as a concept that must be fought against has disappeared from Europe, unless by evil you mean America. The vast majority of Americans claim to believe in God, and many practice their religion openly and regularly. Our President (no matter which party he hails from) invokes the name of the Lord in every address he makes, and our current President is quite candid about his beliefs. The American Left is derisive of this, but carefully so- they know their fellow countrymen and generally respect their beliefs. So far I have identified a few of the major differences between the U.S. and the E.U.- I plan to continue this thread with some more similarities and what we might learn from each other, as well as to delve into how these differences and similarities affect our working relationship with our erstwhile allies. Stay tuned.