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Wednesday, March 05, 2003

The Ugly Anti-American

I've been writing this post for weeks, jumping off from various news items. Generally I become disgusted and give up. Let's see what happens this time.

Tim Blair brings us this USA Today story on anti-Americanism in Europe.

Pieter Ockers, European analyst for iJet Travel Intelligence, an American company that provides travel risk management advice for corporate and leisure travelers.

"But the (European) media often stoke the fires," he says. "Their media portray Americans as culturally inferior, ignorant of world politics, arrogant in our interaction with the rest of the world and, worst of all, the bully of the neighborhood."

Oh, that's new.

Vince Vaughn, who is an actor of some sort (which means I've never seen the show he stars in) says:

Sometimes the complaints left him speechless, like the time he was told " 'America had no culture' by a kid wearing a Kobe Bryant T-shirt and listening to rapper DMX."

But one incident really stung.

"Man, it was bad," says the Rat Pack-y star of Swingers. "These girls saw us and were kind of flirting, and they kept asking us if we were American. Finally we said, 'Yes,' and they just took off.

"One girl turns and says, 'We were hoping you were Canadian.' Canadian? Since when was it cooler to be Canadian?"

Well, for a long time. For one thing, it is legendary that Canadians are urged to make sure they put Canadian flags on their backpacks as they travel through Europe, lest they be taken for those nasty Americans and spit upon. One Canadian woman told me that she was told to take Canadian flags, but American money.

Fifteen or so years ago, my brother went to the Boy Scout Jamboree (or something like that) in Australia. He was in his mid-teens at the time. For some reason there were a lot of girls, European girls, at the Boy Scout whatsis.

One flirted with him for a bit, then asked where he was from. He told her he was American.

"Oh, Americans are so rude!" she said, and stomped off.

Later on, he was talking to another girl, who asked where he was from. This one sniffed, "Americans are so arrogant!" and vanished.

The next time a girl asked him where he came from, he told her he was Canadian, thus shaming his descendants for four generations. It's too bad, because she probably would've told him that Americans were bigoted, thus completing the Hypocrisy Trifecta.

This story has the smell of legend about it, but that's what he told me.

Then there's this utterly typical piece in New Yorker.

It's entitled, "The Unloved American: Two Centuries of Alienating Europe", so we'll know right off the bat where its sympathies lie. It's not about two centuries of misunderstandings, two centuries of culture clash, or two centuries of European snobbery: it's about two centuries of American offenses against decency and taste.

I found this article by way of InstaPundit. He didn't seem to notice this aspect, and neither did Gary Farber, from whom he got it. So it occurred to me that it might be intended as sly irony, to expose European hypocrisy. After re-reading it, I don't think that's the case.

Here's are some small samplings:

Dickens's America is all Yankee repression and southern stupor. He saw Boston, New York, and Philadelphia through the keyhole of the prison cell and the madhouse.

You forget, sir, who you are dealing with. This is Dickens. Dickens was in his element when richly detailing filth and corruption. He saw London and Paris that way too.

Soot-black, fog-fouled Chicago, its scummy river speckled with rust and grease, was, [Kipling] thought, an apparition of the American future.

And an apparition of the contemporaneous British present: London was also "soot-black and fog-fouled" at that time.

I hate to bring up such trivial examples, but that's pretty much what the entire piece is based on: excerpts from famous writers who came, who saw, who were appalled by conditions that often existed in their homelands at the same time.

He goes on:

But of all the character flaws that Europeans have ascribed to Americans, nothing has contributed more to widening the Atlantic than national egocentricity (a bit rich, admittedly, coming from the French).

Yes. And the British. And the Germans. And the Russians. And the... In fact, there is hardly a group in existence whose members will not admit (occasionally in the strictest confidence, as with Australians) that their nation is the proudest, the richest, the free-est, the most passionate, the most logical, the most cultured, the best one on earth. This is not limited to Europeans, or even Westerners. East Asians, for example, can be famously ethnocentric.

I've been listening, these past months, to story after story of European anti-Americanism. In fact, one rarely hears that European opposition to war with Iraq is the result of any particular American policy, but an objection to America itself. We are arrogant, we are told. We are ignorant. We are clumsy and simplistic.

Friends, every time you hear this, reflect on how each of these things is also true of Europeans, very frequently to a far greater degree. Like my brother, I've rudely been told by arrogant Europeans that all Americans are rude and arrogant (not to mention bigoted). I've been told that Americans are ignorant by Europeans who had the most fantastic and childish notions of what life in the US is like.

This is the thing that astonishes me the most. The average American is ignorant of other countries. But in my experience, the average American---or, at least the one you find travelling abroad---is willing to learn; willing, in effect, to be told he's ignorant (although often with a small internal sigh).

The problem with many Europeans (and others) is not so much what they don't know, but what they do know that isn't true. Europeans get their view of American life from American movies and TV shows, so they know more of the surface features of the US than Americans do of Europe. But they take this thin facade for the true whole, and insist that it is they who know what the US is really like. Poor, blinkered, Americans---so manipulated by corporations and their fascist government that they don't know what an evil hellhole their country is.

In fact, they remind me a lot of X-Files fans for whom the show confirms their lifelong fears/wishes. When they find that the show doesn't jibe with reality, it is "reality" that is determined to be artificial. If you don't understand that, then it's because They have succeeded in brainwashing you.

Not all Europeans are such hardcore idiots, by any means; but even the more sympathetic ones still have gaping holes in their knowledge of the US, even the ones who have actually lived here. Of course, there's no real reason why anyone should be required to have deep knowledge of American politics or life. That would be silly.

Unless they're going to tell us where we're wrong---not only wrong but greedy, stupid, childish, or evil. Then, they'd better know something a little more informed than "Imperialism!" and "Bush is a cowboy!"