Skip to comments.Hating America
Posted on 07/18/2004 1:07:36 AM PDT by Bryan
This is an excellent essay on the reason why so many Western Europeans tend to view Americans with contempt: public opinion is being manipulated by the left-wing media. It is long but definitely worth the read. Posted here in four installments, for education and discussion purposes only.
I moved from the U.S. to Europe in 1998, and Ive been drawing comparisons ever since. Living in turn in the Netherlands, where kids come out of high school able to speak four languages, where gay marriage is a non-issue, and where book-buying levels are the worlds highest, and in Norway, where a staggering percentage of people read three newspapers a day and where respect for learning is reflected even in Oslo place names (Professor Aschehoug Square; Professor Birkeland Road), I was tempted at one point to write a book lamenting Americans anti-intellectualism their indifference to foreign languages, ignorance of history, indifference to academic achievement, susceptibility to vulgar religion and trash TV, and so forth. On point after point, I would argue, Europe had us beat.
Yet as my weeks in the Old World stretched into months and then years, my perceptions shifted. Yes, many Europeans were book lovers but which countrys literature most engaged them? Many of them revered education but to which countrys universities did they most wish to send their children? (Answer: the same country that performs the majority of the worlds scientific research and wins most of the Nobel Prizes.) Yes, American television was responsible for drivel like The Ricki Lake Show but Europeans, I learned, watched this stuff just as eagerly as Americans did (only to turn around, of course, and mock it as a reflection of American boorishness). No, Europeans werent Bible-thumpers but the Continents ever-growing Muslim population, I had come to realize, represented even more of a threat to pluralist democracy than fundamentalist Christians did in the U.S. And yes, more Europeans were multilingual but then, if each of the fifty states had its own language, Americans would be multilingual, too. Id marveled at Norwegians newspaper consumption; but what did they actually read in those newspapers?
That this was, in fact, a crucial question was brought home to me when a travel piece I wrote for the New York Times about a weekend in rural Telemark received front-page coverage in
Aftenposten, Norways newspaper of record. Not that my articles contents were remotely newsworthy; its sole news value lay in the fact that Norway had been mentioned in the New York Times. It was astonishing. And even more astonishing was what happened next: the owner of the farm hotel at which Id stayed, irked that Id made a point of his want of hospitality, got his revenge by telling reporters that Id demanded McDonalds hamburgers for dinner instead of that most Norwegian of delicacies, reindeer steak. Though this was a transparent fabrication (his establishment was located atop a remote mountain, far from the nearest golden arches), the press lapped it up. The story received prominent coverage all over Norway and dragged on for days. My inhospitable host became a folk hero; my irksome weekend trip was transformed into a morality play about the threat posed by vulgar, fast-food-eating American urbanites to cherished native folk traditions. I was flabbergasted. But my erstwhile host obviously wasnt: he knew his country; he knew its media; and hed known, accordingly, that all he needed to do to spin events to his advantage was to breathe that talismanic word, McDonalds.
For me, this startling episode raised a few questions. Why had the Norwegian press given such prominent attention in the first place to a mere travel article? Why had it then been so eager to repeat a cartoonish lie? Were these actions reflective of a society more serious, more thoughtful, than the one Id left? Or did they reveal a culture, or at least a media class, that was so awed by America as to be flattered by even its slightest attentions but that was also reflexively, irrationally belligerent toward it?
This experience was only part of a larger process of edification. Living in Europe, I gradually came to appreciate American virtues Id always taken for granted, or even disdained among them a lack of self-seriousness, a grasp of irony and self-deprecating humor, a friendly informality with strangers, an unashamed curiosity, an openness to new experience, an innate optimism, a willingness to think for oneself and speak ones mind and question the accepted way of doing things. (One reason why Europeans view Americans as ignorant is that when we dont know something, were more likely to admit it freely and ask questions.) While Americans, I saw, cherished liberty, Europeans tended to take it for granted or dismiss it as a naive or cynical, and somehow vaguely embarrassing, American fiction.
I found myself toting up words that begin with i: individuality, imagination, initiative, inventiveness, independence of mind. Americans, it seemed to me, were more likely to think for themselves and trust their own judgments, and less easily cowed by authorities or bossed around by experts; they believed in their own ability to make things better. No wonder so many smart, ambitious young Europeans look for inspiration to the United States, which has a dynamism their own countries lack, and which communicates the idea that life can be an adventure and that theres important, exciting work to be done. Reagan-style morning in America clichés may make some of us wince, but they reflect something genuine and valuable in the American air. Europeans may or may not have more of a sense of history than Americans do (in fact, in a recent study comparing students historical knowledge, the results were pretty much a draw), but America has something else that matters a belief in the future.
Over time, then, these things came into focus for me. Then came September 11. Briefly, Western European hostility toward the U.S. yielded to sincere, if shallow, solidarity (We are all Americans). But the enmity soon re-established itself (a fact confirmed for me daily on the websites of the many Western European newspapers I had begun reading online). With the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, it intensified. Yet the endlessly reiterated claim that George W. Bush squandered Western Europes post-9/11 sympathy is nonsense. The sympathy was a blip; the anti-Americanism is chronic. Why? In The Eagles Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World, American journalist and NPR commentator Mark Hertsgaard purports to seek an answer. His assumption throughout is that anti-Americanism is amply justified, for these reasons, among others:
Our foreign policy is often arrogant and cruel and threatens to blow back against us in terrible ways. Our consumerist definition of prosperity is killing us, and perhaps the planet. Our democracy is an embarrassment to the word, a den of entrenched bureaucrats and legal bribery. Our media are a disgrace to the hallowed concept of freedom of the press. Our precious civil liberties are under siege, our economy is dividing us into rich and poor, our signature cultural activities are shopping and watching television. To top it off, our business and political elites are insisting that our model should also be the worlds model, through the glories of corporate-led globalization.
America, in short, is a mess a cultural wasteland, an economic nightmare, a political abomination, an international misfit, outlaw, parasite, and pariah. If Americans dont know this already, it is, in Hertsgaards view, precisely because they are Americans: Foreigners, he proposes, can see things about America that natives cannot. ... Americans can learn from their perceptions, if we choose to. What he fails to acknowledge, however, is that most foreigners never set foot in the United States, and that the things they think they know about it are consequently based not on first-hand experience but on school textbooks, books by people like Michael Moore, movies about spies and gangsters, Ricki Lake, C.S.I., and, above all, the daily news reports in their own national media.
What, one must therefore ask, are their media telling them? What arent they telling them? And what are the agendas of those doing the telling? Such questions, crucial to a study of the kind Hertsgaard pretends to be making, are never asked here. Citing a South African restaurateurs assertion that non-Americans have an advantage over [Americans], because we know everything about you and you know nothing about us, Hertsgaard tells us that this is a good point, but its not: non-Americans are always saying this to Americans, but when you poke around a bit, you almost invariably discover that what they know about America is very wide of the mark.
In any event, The Eagles Shadow proves to be something of a gyp: for though its packaged as a work of reportage about foreigners views of America, its really a jeremiad by Hertsgaard himself, punctuated occasionally, to be sure, by relevant quotations from cabbies, busdrivers, and, yes, a restaurateur whom hes run across in his travels. His running theme is Americans parochialism: we not only dont know much about the rest of the world, we dont care. I used to buy this line, too; then I moved to Europe and found that surprise! people everywhere are parochial. Norwegians are no less fixated on Norway (pop. 4.5 million) than Americans are on America (pop. 280 million). And while Americans relative indifference to foreign news is certainly nothing to crow about, the provincial focus of Norwegian news reporting and public-affairs programming can feel downright claustrophobic. Hertsgaard illustrates Americans ignorance of world geography by telling us about a Spaniard who was asked at a wedding in Tennessee if Spain was in Mexico. I once told such stories as well (in fact, I began my professional writing career with a fretful op-ed about the lack of general knowledge that I, then a doctoral candidate in English, found among my undergraduate students); then I moved to Europe and met people like the sixtyish Norwegian author and psychologist who, at the annual dinner of a Norwegian authors society, told me shed been to San Francisco but never to California.
One of Hertsgaards main interests which he shares with several other writers who have recently published books about America and the world is the state of American journalism. His argument, in a nutshell, is that few foreigners appreciate how poorly served Americans are by our media and educational systems how narrow the range of information and debate is in the land of the free. To support this claim, he offers up the fact that internationally renowned intellectuals such as Edward W. Said and Frances Moore Lappé signed a statement against the invasion of Afghanistan, but were forced to run it as an ad because newspapers wouldnt print it for free. Hertsgaards acid comment: In the United States, it seems, there are some things you have to buy the freedom to say.
Now, I didnt know who Lappé was when I read this (it turns out she wrote a book called Diet for a Small Planet), but as for the late Professor Said, no writer on earth was given more opportunities by prominent newspapers and journals to air his views on the war against terror. In the two years between 9/11 and his death in 2003, his byline seemed ubiquitous.
Yes, theres much about the American news media that deserves criticism, from the vulgar personality journalism of Larry King and Diane Sawyer to the cultural polarization nourished by the many publishers and TV news producers who prefer sensation to substance. But to suggest that American journalism, taken as a whole, offers a narrower range of information and debate than its foreign counterparts is absurd. Americas major political magazines range from National Review and The Weekly Standard on the right to The Nation and Mother Jones on the left; its all-news networks, from conservative Fox to liberal CNN; its leading newspapers, from the New York Post and Washington Times to the New York Times and Washington Post. Scores of TV programs and radio call-in shows are devoted to fiery polemic by, or vigorous exchanges between, true believers at both ends of the political spectrum.
Nothing remotely approaching this breadth of news and opinion is available in a country like Norway. Purportedly to strengthen journalistic diversity (which, in the ludicrous words of a recent prime minister, is too important to be left up to the marketplace), Norways social-democratic government actually subsidizes several of the countrys major newspapers (in addition to running two of its three broadcast channels and most of its radio); yet the Norwegian media are (guess what?) almost uniformly social-democratic a fact reflected not only in their explicit editorial positions but also in the slant and selectivity of their international coverage. Reading the opinion pieces in Norwegian newspapers, one has the distinct impression that the professors and bureaucrats who write most of them view it as their paramount function not to introduce or debate fresh ideas but to remind the masses what theyre supposed to think. The same is true of most of the journalists, who routinely spin the news from the perspective of social-democratic orthodoxy, systematically omitting or misrepresenting any challenge to that orthodoxy and almost invariably presenting the U.S. in a negative light. Most Norwegians are so accustomed to being presented with only one position on certain events and issues (such as the Iraq War) that they dont even realize that there exists an intelligent alternative position.
Things are scarcely better in neighboring Sweden. During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the only time I saw pro-war arguments fairly represented in the Scandinavian media was on an episode of Oprah that aired on Swedens TV4. Not surprisingly, a Swedish government agency later censured TV4 on the grounds that the program had violated media-balance guidelines. In reality, the show, which had featured participants from both sides of the issue, had plainly offended authorities by exposing Swedish viewers to something their nations media had otherwise shielded them from a forceful articulation of the case for going into Iraq.
In other European countries, to be sure, the media spectrum is broader than this; yet with the exception of Britain, no Western European nation even approaches Americas journalistic diversity. (The British courts recent silencing of royal rumors, moreover, reminded us that press freedom is distinctly more circumscribed in the U.K. than in the U.S.) And yet Western Europeans are regularly told by their media that its Americans who are fed slanted, selective news a falsehood also given currency by Americans like Hertsgaard.
No less regrettable than Hertsgaards misinformation about the American media are his comments on American affluence, which he regards as an international embarrassment and a sign of moral deficiency. He waxes sarcastic about malls, about the range of products available to American consumers (whom he describes as dining on steak and ice cream twice a day), and about the fact that Americans spent $535 billion on entertainment in 1999, more than the combined GNPs of the worlds forty-five poorest nations.
He appears not to have solicited the opinions of Eastern Europeans, a great many of whom, having been deprived under Communism of both civil rights and a decent standard of living, have a deep appreciation for both American liberty and American prosperity. But then Hertsgaard, predictably, touches on Communism only in the course of making anti-American points.
For example, he recalls a man in Havana who, during the dispute over Floridas electoral votes in the 2000 presidential contest, whimsically suggested that Cuba send over election observers. (Well, that wouldve been one way to escape Cuba without being gunned down.) Hertsgaard further sneers that for many Americans, the fall of the Berlin Wall proved that they lived in the chosen nation of God.
Now, for my part, I never heard anyone suggest such a connection. What I do remember about the Wall coming down is the lack of shame or contrition on the part of Western leftists who had spent decades appeasing and apologizing for Soviet Communism. In any event, does Hertsgaard really think that in a work purporting to evaluate America in an international context, this smirking comment about the Berlin Wall is all that need be said about the expiration of an empire that murdered tens of millions and from which the U.S., at extraordinary risk and expense, protected its allies for nearly half a century?
I'd read this a few weeks ago with great interest and am delighted to have the chance to see it again. There's 'so much meat on the bone' in this article that it's hard to take it all in at one go. The last piece reminds me of a two door garage I see with enough windows showing for its owner to tape up one letter in each window to spell out: 'War Is Insane'. Obviously, he's bought into the preposterous notion that all we have to do is sit down and talk with our enemies, who at that point be only too glad to stop aiming airliners into tall buildings.
What happens when we tell Europe to solve their own problems and fight their own battles? This will happen, although we'll probably share information, intelligence, etc.. They, however, will expect and demand the whole enchilada: that we use the force of our firepower to defend them, even at the risk of America itself. Well, why not? They see us as dumb, vulgar, hired Hessians and make no bones about saying so loudly and often. Envy, laziness, and a whopping inferiority complex are at the root of this mindset.
That we often fail to express curiousity about the rest of the world's opinion on this or that is explained by the fact that Americans are so busy working two or three jobs to support the rest of the world, we don't have time to doff our caps to our betters and beg their pardon for our lack of attention to their dignity. However, the height of Euroweenie arrogance and foolishness is when they demand a vote in our Presidential election! No doubt there will be wailing and much gnashing of teeth in that Euroweenie wilderness when GW wins in a landslide. I can hardly wait.
In sum, Europe has never gotten past WWII. That Europe has some type of "understanding" amid the European countries, it is still infuriated that it took the US to save them from utter destruction. So, Europeans are of the mindset that in order to maintain it's "old order" power structure, it must belittle America, in order to appear as strong. America, a baby country (in contrast to how old "Europe" is) has more moxy and "can do" than Europe. Europe then takes the position to make fun of the "infant" America, in the mistaken belief that over time, America will come to be as "wise" and "experienced" as Europe.
Europe is in denial. It takes selective history in order to appear not frightened by the rightness in the charter of America -- namely, its constitution. Europe cannot free itself of its past "charters"; and so it attempts at the EU, in order to make Europe more like America. Furthermore, Europe belittles America because so many here in America have ancestr'ed from Europe -- leaving Europeans to deal with some very untenable positions, while the immigrants to America get to play on the "beach" of life. Ergo and hence, European snobbery and arrogance in viewing "raw" Americans. In shortform, Europe is jealous of America. Again.
One other point that struck me. Europe operates mostly as a "daddy" union -- meaning, the "daddys" lecture to the citizen as to what they should think; how they should behave. America is the "mommy" country - encouraging individualism, and individual choice and responsibilities. Which then serves to thoroughly confuse Europeans in understanding how Americans can have such open brawls over such topics as abortion, etc. Europe has a monochrome view of life. And nor can they comprehend the "mommy" country being so assertive and aggressive in times of war in defending not only her own citizens, but those abroad.
Must make Europe feel, um, quite emasculated.
This is somewhat untrue. America has been very willing to absorb cultural elements from all over the world. I'd suggest that Americans are simply better at it, and so it doesn't bother us like it does them. After all, absorbing other cultures is itself one of the fundamental elements of our culture, whereas alot of Europe has a more provincial attitude at it's base, which doesn't mix well with their attempting to absorb American culture.
I prefer chicken aundouie gumbo, myself.
Thank you for posting this.
WOooooooooo, Big nature boy bump!
Most excellent Bryan.
I would venture to say thst there are many people in europe who wish Eastern Europe had never been freed.
Yes, we're very lucky to have access to such a wide range of views in this country. ;-)
I just got back this morning from Mexico and I can assure you that I very politely ate one of their lobsters last night. Yum, yum!!! ;-)
I'm sorry - I just don't think you can generalize about a thing like that. I don't doubt that there are some Americans who behave in the way you describe, but I can't imagine the majority of Americans are that bad, or anywhere near it.
And speaking of rude, I have never encountered anyone more rude (with the possible exception of a particularly nasty Seahawks fan at the Kingdome) than a French woman who asked me if she could try on a (very cool) shirt she knew I wanted to purchase.
A salesperson had hung my shirt on the fitting room door while I continued to shop; when I entered the fitting room area, there she was, admiring my shirt (I figured she didn't realize it was there for someone else). I told her the clothes were my selections, and went into the room; a few minutes later, she was pounding on my door, asking me if I was going to buy that shirt. I said yes. She asked me if she could try it on anyway. I said no. Once I was finished, I tried to help her find one like it in that size, but there were no more.
When I went to the register to pay for my clothes, she appeared and asked the salesperson if she could try MY shirt on. The salesperson looked at me quizzically (I don't think any customer had ever done such a thing there before), and I explained that I was in a hurry. (It sounded nicer than, "Hell no.")
At this point, my credit card had been swiped, and my shirt was being wrapped in tissue. I swear to you the French woman GRABBED MY SHIRT, talking her head off, trying to get the salesperson to let her try my shirt on. The salesperson explained again that I was in a hurry, and that she would try to help the woman find an acceptable substitute.
Now that was rude.
Do I think all French people are rude because of her? No.
It kind of cuts both ways. I imagine most Americans are just FINE when they're abroad. Reasonable people wouldn't make gross generalizations about our country because a percentage of our citizens don't have manners acceptable to Europeans. (Personally, I'm not convinced they are in a position to judge such things.)
I certainly hope you carefully placed your napkin on your lap, and gently dabbed your lips with its corners. ; )
BUMP for tonight's perusal...
"Just being a little more polite when we visit other countries would be a start."
BALONEY!! American tourists in France are generally more considerate and polite than tourists from other countries. Canadians, even those from Quebec, are disliked because they are lousy tippers. That is a generalization as true as your assumption that Americans are crude and thoughtless and despised by the French.
Americans who are ashamed of America, apologizing for its existence, are not respected by sensible people anywhere. "Who s...s in his own nest?" a bus driver said to my French friend and me after listening to a group of slovenly dressed, loud mouthed American "yootz" excoriating in very bad French the America that had shed blood and treasure to free the country they were visiting. The passengers, going home from shops and offices for lunch, carrying baguettes and produce from the market in string bags, were disgusted by the Americans' cringing self-abasement..."Quelle honte." Shame.
People from other countries besides America are baffled and depressed by what they consider French rudeness and hostility. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding of French culture and ignorance of the basic French practice of "politesse." It is more than politeness and although it may seem a trivial emphasis on antiquated rules of ettiquette, politesse preserves the dignity of the individual in his daily encounters outside the home.
It is important to greet the clerk in the tabac, "Bonjour, Monsieur/Madame." Watching a horde of well-dressed Japanese tourists pointing in vain at film on the shelf behind the clerk who stared unmoved by their pleas, ignoring a chance for a big sale, one knows that they entered the shop and without acknowledging that the clerk was a human being began demanding she obey their wishes.
It is especially snotty to say that Americans are not well-mannered, when, in truth, other nationalities are as ignorant of French politesse, and it is really too bad that this cultural chasm exists, for the French are not, by and large, a disagreeable people. Germans, yes, Irish, unquestionably, and they never shut up.
This article goes far to show how a statist press distorts Europe's perception of America and Americans. It is a tribute to the endurance of that spirit in all of us that this distortion does not affect our ability to see past surface differences and recognize a shared humanity.
Just don't smile a lot. It is considered strange and suspicious. Perhaps because of being invaded and occupied so many times. Come to think of it, Northerners complain or ridicule the Southerners civility and good manners and their nearly obsessive concern with origins, "Who are your people?" Perhaps it is the same sense of preservation under the enemy's boot that accounts for politesse. b
Europe and Europeans are replete with the same type of ignorance that they endlessly repeat about the United States, but Americans do not suffer the inferiority complex that would induce any intelligent human being to criticize their host country, or as illustrated in this article make up incidents to illustrate their feelings of inferiority by making us look silly. The irony is totally lost on them, since anyone who has traveled at least once knows the lie to be a lie. Sort of the view of America from the perspective of Pravda during the cold war.
Unfortunately, Europe has no defecting pilots to marvel at the depth of the duplicity, once experiencing America first hand.
These delusional neurotics continue to wonder why we don't even waste the time to criticize them? or to respond to their provincial inanities? Or their "intellectual" psychobabble?
Nothing remotely approaching this breadth of news and opinion is available in a country like Norway.
Or possible. The same can be said of any European country. The irony is that, although most Europeans would love to live in the U.S. and unashamedly say so. The few that "would never(!)" uniformly hold, or perceive to hold special privileges of one kind or another back in their socialist paradise, and are loathe to entertain even the hint of egalitarianism that de Toqueville wrote about in the 1830s.
So many words to say so little. In deference to the great European journalist, let me tell you why the US is great and they are not:
We the People ....
Full of nuance and intellectualism. Elite, yet common. We get it. You don't.
Thanks for playing along.
If you have a ping list, put me on it.
This may be due more to naivete than ignorance. After all, the "average" American has the option to visit Europe if they choose to do so, whereas the reverse in universally not true.
I visited Europe perhaps a couple of dozen times between 1970 and 1993. I spoke three languages then as I do now, and "stealth" listening brought out the true nature of the feelings Europeans have for Americans. My daughter, who spent 1/4 of her early life in Europe, experienced the same results, when she spent her Junior University year in Paris V. Her stories of slapping down designer-clothed morons at school, as well as boorish supermarket clerks are satisfying beyond belief, and humorous as well.
Europe wishes beyond avarice to be as accomplished as the "smartass" new country across the sea with no culture and no history.
The next best thing to competence for them is to tear us down by any means necessary.
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