Nous sommes toutes ...quoi?
July 23, 2004 8:46 AM   Subscribe

America... through Europe's eyes Yes, there have been countless books and articles on this, but this is by far the best I've ever read. Part a review of the literature, part historical research, part personal reflection. it's a bit long though, so set some time aside. Hudson Review, via A&L Daily
posted by leotrotsky (38 comments total)
an excerpt: Bromark and Herbjørnsrud examine the rather sorry Norwegian record (to which that nation’s twin titans, Ibsen and Bjørnson, were honorable exceptions): in 1889, Knut Hamsun denounced what he considered to be America’s sexual equality; in 1951, Agnar Mykle sneered that American mothers “raise children, not as boys and girls, but first and foremost as people who will become adults, with clean souls, well-scrubbed teeth, well-ordered hair, clean hands and a big smile.” (America’s excessive cleanliness was long a European theme: Hamsun whined that in the U.S. you couldn’t “spit on the floor wherever you want.”) But the main flash point was race: in America, complained one Norwegian writer, one “had to fight for one’s blond scalp in conflict with bloodthirsty natives.” Bjørneboe wrote in his teens that the physiognomy of immigrants to America changed after three years (“Northern and Central Europeans become Indian, Southern Europeans become Negroid”); Hamsun grumbled that the U.S., by allowing blacks to work in white restaurants, had created “a mulatto stud farm”; Mykle, spotting a mixed-race couple in New York, had “the same uncomfortable feeling as when you see a bulldog mate with a birddog.” Note that these writers were not marginal cranks: they were major literary figures. Nor were these Norwegian writers very different from their colleagues south of the Skaggerak. For an appalling number of them, America’s supreme iniquity was, as Bromark and Herbjørnsrud put it, its “project of [ethnic] blending.” Such views, which remained in the European mainstream well into the 1950s, had by the 1970s, however, been supplanted by reflexive, supercilious condemnations of American racism, the implication usually being that racial prejudices of the sort found in the U.S. were utterly foreign to Europeans.

oh, and I thing I got the gender wrong in the post title, I believe it should read 'tous'
posted by leotrotsky at 8:51 AM on July 23, 2004

that would be, I think I got ...
posted by leotrotsky at 8:52 AM on July 23, 2004

Or did they reveal a culture, or at least a media class, that was so awed by America as to be flattered by even its slightest attentions but that was also reflexively, irrationally belligerent toward it?

This, regrettably, describes Canada's attitude toward the U.S. perfectly.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 8:55 AM on July 23, 2004

Oh, and I might as well mention the most obvious example of America through the eyes of a European, Democracy in America. Online for your eye-straining reading pleasure Now I'm done posting, I swear.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:56 AM on July 23, 2004

Good article.

Shows that non-Americans' feelings about America (like our own) are far more complex than partisans of any stripe would have you believe.

I dug that he name-shecked my boy Jedidiah Purdy, as well.
posted by jonmc at 9:10 AM on July 23, 2004

this is by far the best I've ever read

Same here. Thanks for posting it.
posted by dhoyt at 9:34 AM on July 23, 2004

See also the March 2002 edition of Granta entitled "What We Think of America."
posted by samuelad at 9:42 AM on July 23, 2004

On the first read this seems a bit out of tune with the conversations I have had with Europeans on recent trips, but it does seem fairlly reasoned and well thought out. So far, I think, the most thorough I've read.
posted by jmgorman at 9:44 AM on July 23, 2004

"from conservative Fox to liberal CNN"

liberal compared to what? racist norwegians?
posted by raaka at 9:48 AM on July 23, 2004

I managed about half of it before giving up. The inaccuracies and misrepresentations just got harder and harder to pass over. For an American who has spent so long amongst us Europeans, he clearly doesn't understand us at all.
posted by salmacis at 9:55 AM on July 23, 2004

I made it to the end, though with frequent skimming, but I don't really see what the fuss is about. Yeah, he does a good job of thwacking European hypocrisy (I was going to quote the same passage leotrotsky does in the first comment), but how hard is that? I would have been truly impressed if he'd coupled that with an acknowledgment that there was much to complain about if only the Euros would get their smug heads out of their collective ass and do a good job of it. But no, it's the standard right-wing Americanist rant: we fight for freedom and liberty and All That Is Good and Right while those pansy Europeans squawk and pretend war is a bad thing (while letting us defend them, the pussies). It's basically a supersized National Review screed with added footnotes. Too bad; I'd really like to see a less biased version of this.
posted by languagehat at 10:32 AM on July 23, 2004

still, the:

" Our foreign policy is often arrogant and cruel and threatens to “blow back” against us in terrible ways. Our consumerist definition of prosperity is killing us, and perhaps the planet. Our democracy is an embarrassment to the word, a den of entrenched bureaucrats and legal bribery. Our media are a disgrace to the hallowed concept of freedom of the press. Our precious civil liberties are under siege, our economy is dividing us into rich and poor, our signature cultural activities are shopping and watching television. To top it off, our business and political elites are insisting that our model should also be the world’s model, through the glories of corporate-led globalization."

..really resonated with me. Living in the USA and never having been overseas, it's interesting to understand the full complexities of how we're viewed by the world, and why. This article seems to try and find that place. Good link.
posted by thisisdrew at 10:49 AM on July 23, 2004

"from conservative Fox to liberal CNN"
liberal compared to what? racist norwegians?

Well, he does go on to note "...the sly conflation here of 'liberal' and 'leftist,' which in Europe, of course, are opposites..."

Which, I have to admit, I didn't really get on more than a superficial level. Any Europeans care to explain that one? Or is he splitting hairs to make a point?
posted by chicobangs at 11:13 AM on July 23, 2004

I can't claim to have made it through (the formatting was completely terrible), so I shan't comment on the ideas presented by Bawer, but (possibly minor) factual errors spotted in the first half or so:
Norway's government is comprised of representatives from The Christian Democractic Party, The Conservative Party and the Liberals and is thus, by Norwegian standards, loads more right- than left-wing.
Norway is also a member of The Coalition of the Willing and being a Norwegian, I know with absolute certainty that lots of Norwegians supported the war in Iraq and continue to do so. There were polls in the Norwegian newspapers, I think about 35% of the people supported the war in March last year. (Norwegian link.)

As for the rest: A priest is our prime minister. Any critique of Norway is probably deserved.
posted by anjarchista at 11:14 AM on July 23, 2004

chicobangs: I'm American, but I'll give it a go. 'Liberal' in europe tends to mean classical liberal, like John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hobbes, etc... Today, folks who've got books by Milton Friedman & F.A. Hayek. They're probably closest to libertarian on the US spectrum, the folks who are supporting NAFTA as well as gay rights. It's where I'd put myself, actually (pay the username no mind).
posted by leotrotsky at 11:27 AM on July 23, 2004

That does make a certain amount of sense, and I'm -- well, maybe not familiar with the concept of Classical Liberalism a la Locke, Hobbes, etc., but certainly aware of it.

As long as that's the liberalism to which they are referring, then I think I sort of have a handle on it, and now all I have to do is read up on the details and actually learn what I should probably already know.

Thanks, Messrs. Harlan and Rotsky, for the treatiseses.
posted by chicobangs at 11:52 AM on July 23, 2004

Chicobangs; here a "liberal" is someone who believes in loose state control in both social and economic life. Like American Libertarians, but with not nearly so many quare ideas about central banking et al. Broadly speaking, "liberal" translates into European as "Social Democrat".
posted by Celery at 1:45 PM on July 23, 2004

Basically what trharlan and leotrotsky, although i have to admit, there are 550 million people in Europe, and probably not one of them would be caught dead with a book by Milton Friedman these days. We're all pinkos, see?
posted by Celery at 1:49 PM on July 23, 2004

As a European who spent most of his adult life in the US, this article clicked almost perfectly. I love Europe and I love America, and I think both places/societies/systems have their problems. The big difference is that Americans are willing to discuss their own --this very thread is testament to that. OTOH, questioning certain things in Europe (say state intevention, "right to work", etc) will get you no friends from either side of the political spectrum.
posted by costas at 2:11 PM on July 23, 2004

" Our foreign policy is often arrogant and cruel and threatens to “blow back” against us in terrible ways. Our consumerist definition of prosperity is killing us, and perhaps the planet. Our democracy is an embarrassment to the word, a den of entrenched bureaucrats and legal bribery. Our media are a disgrace to the hallowed concept of freedom of the press. Our precious civil liberties are under siege, our economy is dividing us into rich and poor, our signature cultural activities are shopping and watching television. To top it off, our business and political elites are insisting that our model should also be the world’s model, through the glories of corporate-led globalization."

best part of the whole piece and it was a quote from someone else that he follows with "Nuh uh!"
posted by Tryptophan-5ht at 2:12 PM on July 23, 2004

celery: is clearly indicated by your continent's unemployment rates. *ducks*

tryptophan-5ht: don't be a hater
posted by leotrotsky at 2:19 PM on July 23, 2004

trotsky - America i love.. but this guy i could do without. He's a typical ex-pat whining about whining. gimme a break.
posted by Tryptophan-5ht at 2:37 PM on July 23, 2004

meh, i didn't like it. but i can see how some people would.

i find it interesting that he referenced that Swedish (I think) Trade Institute report, that was thoroughly debunked here a while back, to say that a black american living on or below the poverty line is better off than a rich norwegian.

turned into the same old rant i've heard a dozen times before.
posted by knapah at 2:58 PM on July 23, 2004

Unsurprisingly, it turns out I'm still a yellow belt in political philosophy-fu. Thanks, black belts. I am awake, and I smell coffee.

This doesn't sound like the kind of thing anyone's going to be able to agree on. In terms of Americans seeing the world and Europeans (or Africans, or Asians, or anyone) seeing Americans seeing the world, there's a certain amount of five-blind-men-and-the-elephant going on here.

Articles like this, as almost-informed as they may be, can only help. I'm going to hunt down that Granta issue as well (or maybe just read it slowly online). It sounds kind of fascinating.
posted by chicobangs at 5:17 PM on July 23, 2004

This article is about an American expat right-winger who doesn't find enough of "Europeans" (we come in many different flavours) right-wing enough for his taste.
First of all he has a very hard time differentiating between "Europeans" and "Norwegians": he quotes Hamsun for chrissakes, and a teenaged Bjørneboe (that's from the 1930s) not only as typical of Norwegian but of European attitudes - and projects the years before WWIII to 2004 quite casually, without trying to factor in what were the corresponding racial attitudes of much of the American middle class during that same time.

He also manages to mix and match different kinds of critiques against the US ranging form those of the racist conservative (Norwegian) to that of those of the leftist anti-imperialist (Norwegian) - and presents them as if they were coming form the same people... Or presents them to demonstrate different aspects of "anti-americanism", (a highly ambiguous concept) which the author doesn't really define, except to say that "Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky" (authors which he gives no indication of ever having read) are guilty of it...

This is a highly political rant presented as detached commentary... It only goes to show that visting or even living in a country doesn't necessarily provide someone with a good perspective on that country (especially when one confuses it with a continent).
posted by talos at 5:20 PM on July 23, 2004

This is a brilliant piece of writing; really too good to be linked to Metafilter.

I'm only about 1/3rd of a way through it, but it already reminds me of the shift-to-the-right transformation that many, and probably most Americans experience after living in Europe for a few semesters, or years.

Thanks for this wonderful post!
posted by ParisParamus at 5:45 PM on July 23, 2004

Europe sounds, and feels pretty good while you're drinking wine, and getting laid, and loving the architecture. Then you realize that "these people" are too sheepish, cynical and economically complacent for you to ever feel comfortable; and to ever not feel like a foreigner. And then you miss Letterman (this is 1984-5), and the kindness of people in Manhattan, and you ask your girlfriend to come back with you, but she doesn't, and then...
posted by ParisParamus at 6:04 PM on July 23, 2004

You also realize there's a reason so many of the talented Europeans GOT THE HELL OUT, before they were murdered or brainwashed--obviously Europeans will never love us....
posted by ParisParamus at 6:47 PM on July 23, 2004

Project much?
posted by inpHilltr8r at 7:42 PM on July 23, 2004

I like to place truth in a spoon full of comedy.
posted by ParisParamus at 8:34 PM on July 23, 2004

The big difference is that Americans are willing to discuss their own

Yeah this is a good observation. When a professor from the UK stayed at our house a while back he seemed very surprised at American "historical revisionism" .. tearing down the heroes of the past re-examining history in light of modern politically correct views. For example saying that early explorers were in fact responsible for the genocide of millions of native americans. Such a thing would never happen in Europe their national heroes would never be torn down so publicly, perhaps in academic press but not in popular culture like we do here. How many grew up thinking Columbus a great hero, and how many now see him a disruptive genocidal force setting off the murders of millions.

On a broader level this reflects a more conservative attitude about change in Europe and a more optimistic embracing of change in America.

European history has a long tradition of.. tradition. Many European laws existed since the Middle Ages solely on tradition even when the origins no longer made sense. Tradition often trumps all. For example the royals not paying taxes is from the Middle Ages when nobles did not pay taxes because nobles fought to defend the realm and those who fight are paying service by putting their life on the line and should not be taxed twice. Much of this discussion is easy to understand in the context of history and how we are today is a molding of where we came from, I think in addition to spending a lifetime living in Europe or America a careful study of history one can discover a lot in short order.
posted by stbalbach at 8:47 PM on July 23, 2004

I read a great post somewhere regarding this essay, and I thought I should share it:

My background: I am a US and Norwegian dual citizen. I grew up bilingual, with one parent from each country, and have lived 18 years in Norway and 13 in the US - all the while visiting "the other" on vacations.

I know many of the Norwegian authors, media and incidets he refers to - including his tiff with a Norwegian farner who hosted tourists for a "rustic weekend" (As I recall, the biggest bone of contention was Bawer's insistence on smoking in his room and condescending frustration about not having internet access).

Bawer's article varies between bald-faced lie and absolute, transparently self-serving pigswill. E.g. in the first half of 2004, the most quoted individual in Norwegian print media was George W. Bush, with Tony Blair a distant second, and our own prime minister (who is oerfectky in line with Bush and Blair) third. Yet Bawer insists that Norwegians aren't exposed to "the other side" of the Iraq issue... Just to give ONE example.

For another: he claims Islam in Europe is a bigger threat to pluralist democracy than fundamentalist Christianity is in the States. Just think about the power difference between the two: reviled minority in Europe versus politically and culturally significant force in the US. Which Muslim leader in Europe can match Jerry Fallwell or the anti-Catolic, homophobic "Left Behind" series or John Ashcroft for influence? What European head of state is as beholdento the Muslims in his country as Bush is to the religious right? Etc.

Want more? he uses McDonald's bigger "market share" in Norway as "proof" that Norwegians are more addicted to McD than Americans. Never mind that "the market" (for fast food) didn't EXIST in Norway until McDinald's created it here in the early 80s - and that they don't have to compete with Jack in the Box, Wendy's, Carl's Jr. and most of the others. (Only Subway and Burger King).

He responds to the foolish overgeneralizations of critics of the US, with reckless overgeneralizations of his own. Pretty transparent.

Obviously, this is someone who was homesick and glad to be back. I can sympathize (I'm always glad to leave Norway, and always glad to go back. I'm always glad to leave America, and always glad to go back). But not forgive. Because his whiny, smug, arrogant attitude and lazy "argumentation" doesn't just stoop to the level of those he criticizes - it reflects poorly on ME! Americans who live in or travel though Europe are often embarrassed by the stupidity and self-righteousness of travelers like Bawer.

I'm currently in Oslo, working a night shift at a youth hostel. I meet lots of people from all over the world here, and travel a lot myself. I can personally testify that at least 90% of all American tourists are well-informed, courteous, open-minded people. But they're not the ones that get noticed. The American tourist I remember most vividly as I write this, the one who comes to mind, was the one who asked me "How much is that in real money?" when I told her the rate for internet use

There are many informed Americans in Europe. There are many ignorant Europeans in America. The difference?

Europeans (nation by nation) have a stock of knoweldge they feel everyone should share. One who doesn't is looked down on (European arrogance) and will feel embarassed by their ignorance.

Americans have much more diverse levels of knowledge and education (with a huge, diverse population and 50+ school systems hardly surpsising) and are more TOLERANT of "ignorance". They even celebrate it (W's public persona, "Forrest Gump")! In America, it's OK for one person to know these things, another to know those things, and a third to not know much at all.

So, when a Norwegian gets lost in New York, he will shamefacedly approach someone and politely, quietly ask for help.

An American lost in Europe? He isn't embarassed AT ALL by being out of his depth and will broadcast his ignorance (often with accompanying boorish remarks) to the annoyance of more permanent visitors such as myself (I soend every summer in Norway, now).

It's not that all Americans are ignorant - it's that the ones who are make such a ruckus, draw so much attention to themselves.

End of theory.

posted by Masi at 12:57 AM on July 24, 2004

Alternate headline: "American Get's Homesick"

There seemed to me to be so many generalisations, inaccuracies and misunderstandings in the first few paragraphs that I couldn't see much point in reading further. I really dread to think what he says later on. There be dragons in Ireland, monsters in France and nudist beaches all over the place.
Seriously, us Europeans are quite nice really - come over and say hello sometime.
posted by dodgygeezer at 2:50 AM on July 24, 2004

"... sorry Norwegian record ..."

Not only are the Norwegians racist america-haters, they also have oil.

Guess who the next war will be on?
posted by spazzm at 3:25 AM on July 24, 2004

"Which Muslim leader in Europe can match Jerry Fallwell or the anti-Catholic, homophobic "Left Behind" series or John Ashcroft for influence?"

Huh? If Jerry Fallwell ever had influence, it ended more than a decade ago; and I'm not sure he ever did. Mr. Ashcroft lost his Senate bid, and to the extent he has and respect today, it's as a serious, sober civil servant, with a quirky, religious background.

On the other hand, Europe, with it's economic stagnancy and close-mindedness, is raising large numbers of Muslim immigrants who aren't being intergrated into the mainstream (some of which is their fault; some of which is Europe's).

Sorry, but Europe has a serious problem. The US? Not the one mentioned.
posted by ParisParamus at 8:37 AM on July 24, 2004

it's as a serious, sober civil servant, with a quirky, religious background.

Yes, and Hitler was an uderrated watercolorist with untoward politics.
posted by jonmc at 10:09 AM on July 24, 2004

this is a stupid stupid article
posted by mr.marx at 10:29 AM on July 24, 2004

After having finally read the whole article and finding it here before I had linked to it in this post, I find Masi's post a good counter. I was only able to spend a couple of weeks in Europe once and had a great time. I found the people of Paris to eager to help a very lost looking tourist and overall very friendly.

I found that the original author's constantly interjected bias derailed much of what could have been a good essay. Still, it does show how we all have to deal with reality tunnels that conform the gaps in our experience. All it takes is one bad remark to sour the soup.
posted by john at 1:07 PM on July 24, 2004

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