Through a Glass Darkly
The view of America from Europe is not always rosy
, a point which is discussed and expertly dissected by Moira Breen on her Blog Inappropriate Response
My take on this particular European's view of our country:
Today America marks its first Independence Day since September 11. Americans will celebrate their new-found sense of national unity and purpose. Yet beneath the patriotic pride, there will be a sense of unease and foreboding – and not just about the risk of another terrorist attack, or the slump on Wall Street, or the chances of another Enron or WorldCom.
To judge from my recent visits there, many Americans will be asking themselves why the world seems to dislike their country. The easiest way to answer this question is simply to point out how much the world loves America — how many people want to live there, to buy American goods, to watch American films and so on. But this doesn’t deal with the problem of anti-Americanism, which has always been in essence a love-hate relationship.
Keep that "always been" bit in mind, since he's going to trash his own argument in just a couple of paragraphs.
How, then, can one account for the world’s love-hate relationship with America? Obviously there are economic forces — envy and admiration — tugging in opposite directions. There are also genuine differences in the perception of national interest. American politicians and the vast majority of voters seem to believe that they must support the Israeli Government, come hell or high water, regardless of how irresponsibly it behaves. The rest of the world takes a very different view.
Well, yes. The Israeli government doesn't want its citizens murdered, having seen quite enough of watching Jews murdered by anti-Semetic enemies for, oh, about the last 2,500 years. Americans, generally, understand and agree with this. The "rest of the world" (meaning: Europe and the Arabs), don't, but then, since they've been for the most part the ones doing the murdering for those 2,500 years, it's understandable that they don't care about Israeli deaths. Old habits die hard, and all that.
Besides that, though, American support of Israel is only 35 years old, give or take; but the love/hate relationship has "always been" there. So it isn't just that, obviously. What else could it be? Let's see if he tells us...
But there is another less familiar explanation for the love-hate relationship with America, especially in Europe. And it is becoming more relevant by the day, as the gulf between the United States and Europe keeps widening. The European (and in this I include the British) attitude to America may be less contradictory than it seems. It is possible to admire America and simultaneously to hate it, without any contradiction. For America is now split so deeply and irreconcilably over almost every key issue of politics, lifestyle and culture that it is sometimes better to think of it as two distinct nations, rather than one.
Well, entirely aside from demographic differences, the U.S. has much larger geographic and regional economic distinctions than any single nation in Europe. Pick any single European nation and it's (relatively) homogenous in a lot of ways (and to the extent that any of them aren't, their divisions are far more stark - and far more violent - than anything in the U.S. You'll remember the ongoing unpleasantness in Ireland, or among the Basques; or of course the ongoing strife in the former Yugoslavia).
Back to America, culturally, an argument could be made that we're a lot more than two distinct nations in some ways.
But so what? Show me any other nation of our size that this isn't true of? China? India? the former Soviet Union? They all have (or had) distinct "sub-nations" far more at odds than America.
The America that is feared, distrusted and increasingly disliked in the rest of the world, and especially in Europe, is the conservative country that constitutes George Bush’s political heartland in Texas and the South — the America of self-righteous Christian fundamentalists, of military machismo, of gun shops, lethal injections, anti-abortion zealots and gas-guzzling pickup trucks spewing out greenhouse gases. The America that Europeans find fascinating and beguiling, albeit a bit frightening because of its shifting moral compass, is the liberal US of Bill Clinton, centred on Hollywood, Manhattan and Silicon Valley.
The "liberal US of Bill Clinton". Of course. It comes back to that.
Except that this is bullshit. How much whining have we heard from Europe about our cutthroat, socially Darwinist, winner take all free market fixation that leads to unconscionable wealth gaps? Where does that originate from? Um...maybe Wall Street?
And what about American "cultural Imperialism", trying to turn every culture into one just like us, showing our films and TV shows and products and vaules where they're not wanted? Um...maybe Hollywood?
Europeans don't like those aspects of America any more than the rest. They sure as hell don't love them. To the extent that your standard Upper West Side liberal sucks up to his or her betters in Paris and London (and Clinton did that more than anybody), sure, they approve of that, but that's as far as it goes.
Despite the appearance of unity after September 11, the gulf between the two Americas has never been deeper than it is today. This is shown by opinion polls on many divisive social issues, the almost unprecedented partisan discipline in Washington and the nervousness in the White House about November’s congressional elections, which could well turn Mr Bush, for all his apparent popularity, into a lame duck.
"Unprecedented partisan discipline"? Coming from a Brit, with their Parlimentary system which can see an entire government fall if a single party-line vote is lost, that's a laugh.
It's not true in any case; there's always
been fairly strict party discipline, if that's the right word, in America; at least for the past 75 years (my knowledge of electoral politics in any sort of detail gets hazy past that).
And a President nervous about mid-derm Congressional elections is hardly a new thing; bush is no more nervous about then than was Clinton, or his father, or Reagan, or...well, any President, really.
This is just historically ignorant; I don't expect a columnist for a British paper to be an expert on our electoral history, but if he's going to bring it up...
The origins of the great political divide seem to go back to the unresolved battles over culture and lifestyles that have obsessed Americans since the 1960s. William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, described this dichotomy in a brilliant article, “Politics Remains Stalemated”, for the Los Angeles Times: “Europeans are often perplexed by the failure of Americans to get over the Sixties. After all, they too, were convulsed by great cultural changes during that decade. But only the US experienced a ferocious backlash against those changes, partly based on America’s religious culture.”
Um...it goes back further than that...try the 1860's. We did have a little thing called the "Civil War" (it's probably in some history book somewhere, in case you want to look it up).
We also, as noted above, have a much more diverse population; there isn't any Western European nation with the sort of ethnic, religious and economic differences that exist in the U.S. (and again, to the extent that they do, there's been more than a "ferocious backlash", there's been outright warfare, so maybe they ought to shut the hell up about our divisions until they can learn how to resolve their own divisions without resorting to open bloodshed).
Bill Clinton was the first President to represent and embrace the counter-culture of the 1960s. That is why he was so deeply hated by the many Americans for whom this convulsive decade symbolised the start of a near-fatal national decadence, which Ronald Reagan managed to arrest in the nick of time. As Mr Schneider notes: “Conservatives never accepted Clinton as legitimate. To them, Clinton was the draft-dodger, the war protester, the womaniser, the truth-shader, the gun-hater, the gay-protector, the non-inhaling drug fiend.”
Or maybe it was the outright lying, and his dismal record as governor in Arkansas, and his horrendous policies, more than his "counter culture" origins that did the trick. Just a thought.
For these Clinton-hating Americans, George W. Bush represented a return to America’s heyday in the 1950s. Having ousted the Democrat usurpers from the White House, the one thing they needed to complete the counter-revolution was some international challenge comparable to Eisenhower’s Cold War.
"Eisenhower's Cold War"?
Oh, this is just too good. The Cold War started in 1945. It was, in fact, Eisenhower who warned against it; remember his speech about the "military-industrial complex" when he left office?
And at any rate, there was another party to that war...the U.S.S.R., led by a psychopath who ran a police state, who'd murdered at least 20 million of his own people, and whose army occupied Eastern Europe and quashed any hope of self-government by the people therein.
It's possible that they had something to do with the Cold War. Maybe?
The closeness of that election was one of the main reasons why America is becoming an even more divided country despite the unifying effect of September 11. The fact is that there is an almost perfect balance between the two opposing visions of the American dream. In terms of population, the two sides are equal, as demonstrated in the 2000 election and, despite the patriotic support for President Bush since September 11, the same split has persisted throughout this year in polling for November’s congressional contests.
Actually, it's been divided for a long time; polls show that this partisan split has been around for decades.
Thus it has been impossible for Americans to settle their ideological quarrels through the normal democratic process. Yet there is an ideological chasm between these apparently balanced sides: the big cities vote for the Democrats by a 70-30 margin and urban social attitudes are at least as liberal as they are in Europe, the suburbs and rural areas are as strongly Republican and conservative.
"Settle their ideological quarrels"? Where are ideological quarrels ever
settled? In Britain, where there's still major division over the EU and the Euro? In France and elsewhere on the Continent, where the far right is gaining in popularity?
Ideological quarrels are not settled; people go right on believing; but in a democracy, we have our elections, we win or we lose, and then we go ahead and prepare for the next one, sharpening our arguments and looking for better candidates to support them. That's how a democracy works.
The only places where there are no ideological quarrels are single party states; dictatorships. There aren't any ideological quarrels in Cuba, because Castro throws you in jail if you don't like his ideology.
Slicing the country another way, the eastern and western seaboards are overwhelmingly liberal, while the interior of the US is more conservative than ever. This was why the election was so virulently adversarial, and simultaneously so inconclusive.
But the deepest and most worrying faultline across America is not connected with geography, domestic lifestyle or even social class. It is the religious split. Religion has become a crucial element in all American political battles, not only over abortion and sexual mores, but over such secular issues as taxation, foreign policy and global warming. And polling statistics show that the most important dividing lines are not between Protestants and Catholics or Christians and Jews. They are between religious Americans of all faiths and those who do not believe.
When you finally get that Ireland thing sorted out, you can come and lecture us about religious splits. OK?
While the Republican Party had long been the political bastion of white Protestants, it now attracts a clear majority of the “more observant” voters from all religions, including Orthodox Jews. In the last election, the vote among “more observant” Catholics, defined as people who say they go to church once a week or more, went 57-43 per cent for Bush. Less observant Catholics voted 41-59 the other way. Among evangelic Protestants, the more observant supported Bush by a 84-16 margin, while the less observant were more evenly split at 55-45. The minority of Americans who describe themselves as “secular” voted for Gore by 65-35 per cent.
To put it another way, 54 per cent of Bush’s voters were “more observant” Protestants or Catholics, while only 15 per cent were blacks, Hispanics or non-Christians. Gore’s support had exactly the opposite composition: 51 per cent were black, Hispanic or non-Christian, while only 20 per cent were observant Protestants or Catholics.
The issues on which observant and non-observant Americans are most divided have nothing to do with economics or foreign policy. They are abortion, the environment and gun control. Yet the intense political allegiances and animosities created by these issues now dominate mainstream politics and determine America’s stance on the worldliest of issues. Cutting taxation appeals to relatively rich Protestants. Steel tariffs appeal to observant Catholic trade unionists. Unstinting support for Israel appeals not only to orthodox Jews, but also to fundamentalist Christians.
Gasp! We have a diverse religions culture! And people with different views of spiratulity see the world differently! And vote differently!
Wow, what a revelation!
I have heard Christian preachers on American radio saying that Israel was clearly in the right because God promised the whole of Palestine to the Jews and that fulfilment of the promise might bring forward the Second Coming of Christ.
You can find anyone saying anything, if you look hard enough. As Moira's response on her blog points out, a look at the French bestseller lists will show a book claiming that 9/11 was in fact perpetrated by the U.S. government. And again, you've got that whole Le Pen/far right thing going on. What did he get, 18 percent of the vote?
Hell, in Britain right now, you've got supposedly respectable folks running an ad linking Adolf Hitler to the Euro, so maybe you shouldn't be lecturing us on strange or alarming viewpoints, you think?
Secular Europeans, whose pragmatic scepticism has been tempered in the furnaces of Hitler’s and Stalin’s dogmas, feel a certain chill when they see the poison of religious certainty seeping into the mainstream democratic politics of the world’s sole nuclear superpower. And who can blame them, when the US President had the moral certitude to make the following statement at the West Point academy last month: “The 20th century ended with a single surviving model of human progress”? Maybe, but which America did he mean?
secular, as I recall.
If you're going to conflate the ideology of Soviet communism with a religion, then you can equate any
ideology with a religion, in which case, everyone is tarred by the brush of "religious certainty".
And as for Bush's speech, well, he didn't mean America in that speech. He meant free, democratic societies with market economies; which we and Europe both have, albeit in different flavors.
He was contrasting that with authoritian, closed, undemocratic societies, like the former USSR, or Hitler's Germany, or most of the Arab states today.
But getting the facts right isn't the point, obviously.