In which I attempt to explain the chasm between Americans and the countries of Europe, and respond to the contention that Europeans understand Americans, but not vice versa…
What began as a long comment has morphed into a post.
As a courtesy, comments should rarely exceed three or four paragraphs but, alas, that is a rule I often break as I free associate down the page. As you can see here, verbosity is the main reason we had to set up our own blog and stop hogging others’ bandwidth.
No doubt we made a number of bloggers breathe a sigh of relief when we finally sailed off on our own.
I think it’s more complicated than you say.
As a first generation American I sometimes feel like a participant observer in the US. But that might have been my natural inclination anyway… people who write tend to have this “observing ego” that notices without let-up.
The last two World Wars damaged Europe badly. John Derbyshire had a recent column in which he looked back on the many spinsters of his childhood in Britain. “Many” because the flower of British manhood had been obliterated and left entombed in Flanders Field.
It was the same for France and Germany, and Spain to some extent in the ’30s.
World War II was wash, rinse, repeat, but with far more damage to the infrastructure of things ancient, things which could not be restored. In fact, some of them ceased to exist even as cultural memories.
In addition, this time the Jewish brain drain, whether by oven or by emigration, left a vacuum in the European intellectual tradition that could not be recovered either.
America lost many men in that war, even though her shores were never breached. But she also had a net gain in her pool of brilliant scientists, especially the Ashkenazi Jews, because Hitler was discarding them and we were picking them up.
This great sea change (as H. Stuart Hughes called it) has had profound effects on both sides of the Atlantic. Meryl Yourish notes that Americans have done it again… American Jews, that is: Three More Jewish Nobel Prize Winners.
These were awards in the field of Economics. In fact, the percentage of American Ashkenazi Jews amongst the Nobel Prize winners in academic areas is truly astounding. Though I do think the Asian and Indian immigrants will catch up and give them a run for their money in the next generation.
The closest America ever came to bloody internecine warfare is our Civil War. Or, as some Southern ladies up until the 1940’s called it, “The Recent Unpleasantness.” The South’s dependence on slave workers and its lack of a middle class was never overcome until the advent of air conditioning. After that, industries in the Northeast began to wither because poor Southerners were willing to work for less, and didn’t believe in unions.
It was America’s first experience in outsourcing.
I don’t think America understands Europe very well. The closest we come is in the South, where bitter memory dies hard.
But I disagree that Europeans somehow understand us — that kind of hubris is what makes Americans turn away. Perhaps Europeans who have spent many years here, who have raised children here… they might, but even then it’s sketchy knowledge at best.
When a couple marries, they bring together two families who may not have much in common. The families are bound together by their children’s union, but that doesn’t make them necessarily decipherable to one another. Which is why parents are relieved when kids marry among “their own.” That’s not racist or nationalist, it’s simply the Law of Gravitas.
My mother said that when she stepped off the boat in New York City, she felt the weight of a thousand years of ghosts drop from her shoulders… but she paid a price for it in feeling alien and alone. Not understood. With her Dublin accent, Southern Americans thought she was… maybe Russian?
When I married the Baron (WASP that he is), my mother joked that it was time for something besides Irish genes in the family. That must have been hard, though: his background was British and German and French. As my mother would say “foreign.”
We have lived almost three decades where we are now. And yet a few years ago, someone told me I was nothing but an “outsider.” Actually, she used the word “foreign.” It was all I could do to keep a straight face. Though I considered our differences serious at the time, I didn’t think they were based on where I was from.
When you say of that we think of Europeans as crappy little people who still believe that God is not just big and awesome but is also in the details, I would demur:
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Europeans appear to have given up on God altogether. The EU Constitution is a good example of that. So is the fact that the charming Danish people, so full of life and spirit, are required to support their state church but only five percent attend services or express any affiliation. But I could be wrong: perhaps there is even yet the next Søren Kierkegaard lurking in the shadows.
Not that there aren’t exceptions, but it seems to be easier to be open about one’s religious faith in the US than it is in Europe. In fact, that’s one of the reasons we’re ridiculed — we’re so simple-minded and childish for still believing in what the more sophisticated Europeans have long since left behind. Our sophisticated academics are trying to catch up in the rational disbelief department.
In the ’70s I reviewed Jacques Monod’s book Chance and Necessity. To me it seemed so thoroughly post-world wars thinking. In other words, he and his confreres were traumatized and could only say:
… man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance. Neither his destiny nor his duty have been written down. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.
Many American academics and literati buy that Continental viewpoint. But a majority of the rest of us don’t. And the more physics opens up to uncertainty, the more I understand the faith/doubt dialectic.
That is the dividing line, not America’s failure to understand Europe… on that subject we and Europeans are equally in the dark. We don’t even know what we don’t know about one another.
That is how cultures are.
BTW, I don’t really believe in the concept of “Europeans.” I see Italians, Brits, Danes, Swedish, Spanish, etc. “European” is an EUSSR concept. Even within each country, there are vast differences: the gap between Northern and Southern Italians, between London and Yorkshire, etc. And, of course, Paris as the hub of the Universe. We are all people of a particular place and it is from our experience of belonging that we derive our identity.
On that subject, I suggest Paul Belien’s book, A Throne in Brussels: Britain, the Saxe-Coburgs and the Belgianisation of Europe. Near the end, he says:
Like ‘Europe,’ that other gravy train in Brussels, Belgium has never been based on a sense of national unity. It has been held together by a political class prepared to subvert democracy to its own ends. The Belgian regime, because it could not be based on a real nation, could never tolerate a democratic form of governance. Ironically, in the early 21st century, the Belgian model, the ideal of the 20th century welfare state corporatists, came to fascinate an entirely new group of intellectuals and activists. These so-called ‘neo-Belgicists’ began to sing the praises of Belgium as the world’s first post-modern or post-national nation, unaware that they were actually applauding a post-democratic model…Belgium is characterised by an ‘identity of non-identity.’…without identity and a sense of genuine nationhood, there can also be no democracy and no morality. The neo-Belgicists, however, regard the absence of identity as the supreme morality.
Personally, I think it sounds like hell on earth.