This is the first in a series of posts on life, culture, and politics in the U.S. and E.U. by Robert Entman, who spent 2012 as a Humboldt Research Prize Scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin. He has also spent extended periods in Madrid and Paris.
This is an account not only of things done but of thoughts thought, especially those pertinent to my various pet peeves about US politics and life.
Bottom line: I did return with some small added appreciation of the US in some ways, after seeing the US more through European eyes. In particular, the notion they have that the US is freer and more flexible, more open to innovative, creative ideas, seems to have some validity. That’s the flip side of Europe’s possession of a long history—and Europeans’ deep appreciation of it.
It is their historical memory, the constant awareness of cultural heritage and connections that make Europe and Europeans so charming and fascinating to me. (Of course I’m generalizing in calling it “Europe” rather than individual countries but I think this is generally true throughout.). It is Americans’ maddening obliviousness to history of 10 or 20 years ago let alone 300 that drives me nuts, but the downside to Europeans’ quite opposite hyperawareness of history’s presence every day that also apparently makes them somewhat more rigid when asked to change a practice or think up a new solution.
I wouldn’t exaggerate this tendency toward caution about change, not at all, because there’s so much evidence that Europeans can and do accommodate change. Just think about the movement from crazy nationalism to the EU, from fear and distrust of the Iron Curtain to integration (albeit imperfect) of so many Eastern European countries into the West, or the adaptation of wind power and solar power.
Obviously the US has its own enormous prejudices and rigidities and especially ignorance (though I understand a bit better why Americans tend to be ignorant and indifferent to the perspectives of foreigners, at least compared to the average European). (More on that later.) But it did occur to me this year while seeing all the traces of the US everywhere in Europe, from IPhones (indeed all telephones) to Hollywood movies to laptops, and while hearing so many Europeans talk in glowing terms about their trips to New York or Washington or California, and while noting the Starbucks and the McDonald’s which market themselves as a kind of exotic luxury because they’re so American, all this tells me the US does have a degree of openness to innovation, especially commercial/business innovation, i.e. creativity that can earn money, that is unusual in the world. (Two different people in Paris—Paris!—told me DC is their very favorite city, as did somebody else in the enchanting city of Copenhagen, and several in Berlin told me how much more they like NYC.)
Allied to this are such obvious characteristics as the huge size, which makes Europeans marvel at how far you can go and still be in the same country speaking the same language: the big cars, the big houses, the skyscrapers. So that, whereas I come to Europe and love the narrow streets and center cities with their height restricted-buildings, and especially the way everything is smaller from the apartments to the washing machines, waste baskets and cars, Europeans look at the wide open US and its room for everything big and see a kind of dynamic, youthful optimism and openness to just about anything.
It’s not really a contradiction to note at the same time that the Europeans adore America’s open culture and landscapes, they tend to puzzle at the Americans’ political choices. The more politically interested people do have a lot of hostility to the US. At my Buddhist retreat—where everyone is above average in leftist sympathies—outside Lockerbie, Scotland, several people told me they were surprised I am an American because I’m nice and fairly unassuming, rather than arrogant and loud.
But I’d say more dominant is bewilderment at how inanities like denial of climate change and evolution, or scandals over political leaders’ private sex lives, or refusal of gun control, or election/selection for high office of the obviously mediocre like George W. Bush or Sarah Palin, can happen in a place otherwise so seemingly overflowing with intelligence and talent. I guess the hostility comes more from US foreign policy than anything else, whereas the puzzlement comes over the strength, extremity and dogmatism of America’s right wing and its religious conservatives. More on that in a later entry.