he gulf in understanding between America and its European friends seems to be widening and not entirely a matter of governmental squabbling. Despite the age of globalization and a world economy, and our similar goals of eradicating the terrorists, there are real differences in the perceptions of the current war that do not bode well for the future.
After spending the last two weeks abroad talking to a number of Europeans, I sensed that the constant criticism of the United States that we read in European newspapers and magazines are not reflections of an out-of-touch elite, but the general pulse of a complex anti-Americanism that is widely shared among much of Europe's citizenry. At the heart of the misunderstandings are a number of paradoxes in our relationship, wounds whose thin scabs the events of September 11 have ripped open.
Yet when these criticisms are probed, a startling revelation appears: Far from being radicals, Europeans are, in fact, in a fundamental sense more reactionary than Americans. And here things get interesting. In conversations, the Europeans very soon begin to voice all the old right-wing complaints about America that explain why they see our country as so insular, crass, and dangerous: We have no respect for tradition; our movies and television are uncouth; our volatile citizenry is increasingly ignorant, multicultural, and lawless, and so blinkered to the concerns of others. Welcome to radical democratic culture.
So the Europeans have not a clue that we are powerful and influential precisely because, unlike themselves, we truly are a radically revolutionary society the only one in history in which the hard-working and perennially exhausted lower and middle classes are empowered economically and have fully taken control of the popular culture to create strange institutions from Sunday cookouts and do-it-yourself home improvement to tasteless appurtenances such as Winnebagos, jet skis, and Play Station IIs.
The Europeans profess that they resent us because of a sinister military-industrial complex that has a stranglehold on American foreign policy, has replaced idealism with Realpolitik, and has illegitimately and selfishly tried to abet exploitative corporations abroad. But upon examination, they freely admit that our idea that money, not education, breeding, and culture, determines success, bothers them. This unease is coupled with the new awareness that Americans Mexicans, Hindus, Mormons, Vietnamese, blacks, Pentecostals, poor whites, or Puerto Ricans have no identifiable race, religion, or common bond other than a purportedly shared allegiance to values and ideas.
This new notion of a future United States with a minority of Euro-Americans and religions other than mainstream Protestantism and Catholicism unleashed upon the world is a frightening idea to those of largely homogeneous racial stock, itself struggling badly with nascent immigration from impoverished societies. Europeans are as vocal as leftist critics of America as they are silently embarrassed over their rightist disdain for what we have become.
As one European professional told me, "Paris was there well before American GIs and it will be there long after them" a debatable point given the events of 1914-1918 and 1940-1944. But after the first few minutes of conversation, another admission creeps out. In truth, most Europeans seem privately to look forward to unilateral American action against Iraq. There is a strange sense that they are fed up with the extremist regimes of the Middle East, tired of the secret subsidies from the Arab world to criminals, and deathly afraid of terrorism. While they surely would not be so silly as to lose treasure and youth on such a foolhardy expedition ("A Sicilian Expedition" one professor scoffed of our proposed Iraqi war), and while they will be the first to criticize us should we stumble, there is nevertheless a general feeling that the temperamental, half-crazed Americans are now going to be unleashed to settle accounts for the Western world in general.
Of course, in their view, we are fighting the war against terror crudely, and must be continually monitored and audited by more subtle minds that can guide us through the labyrinth of world politics. Somewhere in all our efforts they suspect also that there must be some unstated and sinister American goal. Still, in the last analysis, there is a certain satisfaction among Europeans that al-Qaeda and Iraq have perhaps bitten off more than they can chew and will earn a reckoning long overdue.
WHAT YOU WANT
But oddly many Europeans love to visit the U.S., have relatives here, or were educated at an American university. Some of the most adamant socialist critics of America are former residents of the United States who taught in (and often are pensioned from) American colleges and universities.
Part envy, part adolescent resentment toward a supportive but interfering parent, part simple confusion the Europeans seem to think they are the brain to our brawn, fascinated with our wealth and power, but saddened that such splendid assets could not be directed in a more focused and supplicated manner to do the world real good. Just as they were confused about the ultimate source of our economic and military strength, so they have even less insight about the morality of removing murderers like Noriega, the thugs in Grenada, Milosevic, Arafat, and Saddam Hussein. In contrast to Americans, they seem to care more about the procedure than the ultimate result of using force.
So there is a real gut fear that there is something dangerous about us Americans. We are like some frightening virus that bores into the system and takes control of the internal mechanisms, thereby ensuring the zombie its slow destruction. Whether it's the baffling addiction of their youth to violent American videogames or their own preference for Spiderman over French films, Europeans have to watch themselves around us lest they lose their carefully developed and maintained hierarchies.
Americans are the new Sirens whose seductive appeal to the appetites might lure even the most resolute Odysseus onto the shoals of self-indulgence and moral corruption. Most Europeans seem to attribute problems with their own children's disobedience, laxity, and listlessness to the poison of American popular culture (what they euphemistically call "globalization") odd given that Americans, in fact, are not pampered, but work about a month per year longer than Europeans and often expect their kids as adults to work their own way through college or join the military.
No longer. They fear now that September 11 was a macabre liberating experience for Americans, and realize that we don't much care about European carping when our greatest buildings and best citizens are vaporized. Yet, when you tell a European precisely that and as politely as possible he is either shocked or genuinely hurt.
Iraq? Stay put we don't necessarily need or desire your help. The Middle East? Shame on you, not us, for financing the terrorists on the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority and Israel? You helped to fund a terrorist clique; we, a democracy go figure. Racism? Arabs are safer in America than Jews are in Europe. That 200,000 were butchered in Bosnia and Kosovo a few hours from Rome and Berlin is a stain on you, the inactive, not us, the interventionist. Capital punishment? Our government has executed terrorists; yours have freed them. Do the moral calculus. Insensitive to the complexities of the Middle East? Insist that the next Olympic games are held in Cairo or Teheran, and let a deserving Islamic Turkey into the EU.
If we can ignore all the grating ankle biting and hypocrisy, the Europeans must remain our friends because they do see within us a shared moral heritage, and so admire American idealism when it is coupled with real power. In these dark days ahead, it is in our own interest that our efforts against Middle Eastern autocrats always be couched in the language of genuine concern for their captive peoples. Liberation, not aggression, must be our motto. Europe won't like publicly what we do, but privately they will agree that we did what we had to do.