Sunday, August 15, 2004
A few years ago, I was in a western European country, on business.
After the obligatory day and a half of settling in and gorging on rich, decadent, locally made artery hardener pastries, it was time to get down to business. After a few hours of back and forth and getting on track in an opulent (read: tacky) office, my new friend invited me out to dinner.
Over a meal that that had more calories than the entire buffet at a NFL training camp (and a few bottles of over nuanced wine), my host asked if I understood why Europeans were so anti American. At first, I was very much on the defensive-- at first. Maybe it was because of the wine and thus being less inhibited, I then went on to reply that when you get right down to it, most Americans don't really care, media navel contemplating notwithstanding. I told him it was like my asking him when he stopped beating his wife-- I resented being put on the defensive like that.
I then asked him why Europeans were so anti American. He gave me an answer that to this day, defines a good part of my view of European anti Americanism.
He went on to explain. Europeans, he said, dislike Americans because, in a short period of human history, went on to surpass Europe in being the center of global influence. What was even worse, was that America was built by European 'garbage' as he put it. I started to object, but he immediately interrupted
He went on to explain that a century ago, Europe was only too happy to rid itself of the 'wretched refuse' and 'teeming masses'. The European elite and intellectuals thought that once rid of the annoying and newly demanding peasant class, Europe would once again regain it's rightful place as the center of the moral and political world, and thus preserve the imperialist relationships they had established, if not formally, then by necessity. Through benevolent noblesse oblige, Europe would assume control the economic and political fate of the 'lesser' nations. Without masses of lower classes, now demanding equitable political participation, Europe's destiny would be assured.
I was intrigued. he went on to explain further.
Europe, he said, never got over the fact that, unleashed, those 'wretched refuse' and 'huddled masses'-- their very own-- went on to build success not only for themselves, but for their adopted country as well. He said that these unwanted masses of people understood what the elite and intellectuals of Europe never understood for themselves-- that given the opportunity, they were perfectly able to fend for themselves and succeed and thus become contributors. Their worth and contributions to the American mosaic was far more than what the Europeans had exploited them. Europe had made a mistake by sending off it's most natural resource, it's own sons and daughters.
My new friend went on to relate a story to me. A year earlier, friends of his were in French wine country, where they ran into an 'absolute American', as he related the story. The friend recounted the story to my host and described how the American had poor table manners and a loud, unrestrained laugh. What really picqued the gentleman was the American's story. Apparently, the American had started his business some 10 years earlier and had made quite a success of it. The American then went on to say that he truly believed that his success was in no small measure predicated on his profit sharing plan. By giving his employees a 'piece of the action', he said, he knew he could count on his employees loyalty and hard work. The Frenchman and his wife were aghast. They could not understand the employees allowing themselves to be so exploited and that even worse, those employees might somehow upset the balance if the company succeeded and others didn't.
My friend then went on to say that Europeans regarded the working class as a 'necessary class' (read: not upwardly mobile) and that business succeeded on the stability of that class.
The rest of the conversation is irrelevant. In a few short minutes, anti Americanism. or at least a part of it, became very clear to me. Europeans view us, as individuals and as a distinctive societal/political entity, very differently than themselves.
I am free to criticize Europeans for what they believe, as they are free to criticize us. Still, beliefs can no more be imposed on a society than morality. Those changes have to come from within. They will or will not, like societies everywhere, evolve into beliefs that may or may not be more compatible with our own.
There are a few realities to anti Americanism that must be addressed. Nationalism, like religion, is a rallying and and binding force. Always has been, always will be. Want to be a real Frenchman? You have to be anti American. Want to assert your (feel free to insert your religion/race/ nationality/cultural background here) identity? Then by definition, you must be anti American. That is unlikely to change. Why? Because everybody needs a cause-- and what cause is safer than anti Americanism? Americans won't come after you and will willingly share all those things that make America great-- the ideas, art, technology and acceptance. We truly are the best enemy anyone can have as long as you keep it inbounds. We won't boycott you, close our borders to you or deprive you of your rights.
Why not? Because this country was built by the 'wretched refuse'. Because everyday, immigrants come to our shores to take their best shot, knowing they won't be impeded or blocked by our 'elite' or intellectuals. Have a better idea or product? We'll adopt it in a minute. There are no barriers to entry because you came from a poor background. You don't need to belong to the 'right' club to succeed or come from the 'right' family background. America is replete with success stories, of immigrants who came with nothing and within a generation or two, made it.
We're told everyday how much were hated around the world. We also know that given the choice, we'd have to issue green cards to millions of those people who 'hate' us. No need to explain that, is there?
I really believe that most people don't want to hate us-- they want an excuse, any excuse, to justify their secret belief in us. That gentleman that I had dinner with-- the one who imperiously asked me if I understood why Europeans hated us-- in the end, conceded that we were hated because of who we were and who they weren't.
No, anti Americanism isn't as simple a matter. In the next two articles, I will discuss the darker sides of anti Americanism-- the concerted efforts to to make anti Americanism (and anti westernism) into religious doctrine and the secular efforts to make anti Americanism a moral imperative.