June 29, 2004


Hating America (Bruce Bawer, Spring 2004, Hudson Review)

[A]s my weeks in the Old World stretched into months and then years, my perceptions shifted. Yes, many Europeans were book lovers—but which country’s literature most engaged them? Many of them revered education—but to which country’s universities did they most wish to send their children? (Answer: the same country that performs the majority of the world’s scientific research and wins most of the Nobel Prizes.) Yes, American television was responsible for drivel like “The Ricki Lake Show”—but Europeans, I learned, watched this stuff just as eagerly as Americans did (only to turn around, of course, and mock it as a reflection of American boorishness). No, Europeans weren’t Bible-thumpers—but the Continent’s ever-growing Muslim population, I had come to realize, represented even more of a threat to pluralist democracy than fundamentalist Christians did in the U.S. And yes, more Europeans were multilingual—but then, if each of the fifty states had its own language, Americans would be multilingual, too.1 I’d marveled at Norwegians’ newspaper consumption; but what did they actually read in those newspapers?

That this was, in fact, a crucial question was brought home to me when a travel piece I wrote for the New York Times about a weekend in rural Telemark received front-page coverage in Aftenposten, Norway’s newspaper of record. Not that my article’s contents were remotely newsworthy; its sole news value lay in the fact that Norway had been mentioned in the New York Times. It was astonishing. And even more astonishing was what happened next: the owner of the farm hotel at which I’d stayed, irked that I’d made a point of his want of hospitality, got his revenge by telling reporters that I’d demanded McDonald’s hamburgers for dinner instead of that most Norwegian of delicacies, reindeer steak. Though this was a transparent fabrication (his establishment was located atop a remote mountain, far from the nearest golden arches), the press lapped it up. The story received prominent coverage all over Norway and dragged on for days. My inhospitable host became a folk hero; my irksome weekend trip was transformed into a morality play about the threat posed by vulgar, fast-food-eating American urbanites to cherished native folk traditions. I was flabbergasted. But my erstwhile host obviously wasn’t: he knew his country; he knew its media; and he’d known, accordingly, that all he needed to do to spin events to his advantage was to breathe that talismanic word, McDonald’s.

For me, this startling episode raised a few questions. Why had the Norwegian press given such prominent attention in the first place to a mere travel article? Why had it then been so eager to repeat a cartoonish lie? Were these actions reflective of a society more serious, more thoughtful, than the one I’d left? 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 experience was only part of a larger process of edification. Living in Europe, I gradually came to appreciate American virtues I’d always taken for granted, or even disdained—among them a lack of self-seriousness, a grasp of irony and self-deprecating humor, a friendly informality with strangers, an unashamed curiosity, an openness to new experience, an innate optimism, a willingness to think for oneself and speak one’s mind and question the accepted way of doing things. (One reason why Euro- peans view Americans as ignorant is that when we don’t know something, we’re more likely to admit it freely and ask questions.) While Americans, I saw, cherished liberty, Europeans tended to take it for granted or dismiss it as a naive or cynical, and somehow vaguely embarrassing, American fiction. I found myself toting up words that begin with i: individuality, imagination, initiative, inventiveness, independence of mind. Americans, it seemed to me, were more likely to think for themselves and trust their own judgments, and less easily cowed by authorities or bossed around by “experts”; they believed in their own ability to make things better. No wonder so many smart, ambitious young Europeans look for inspiration to the United States, which has a dynamism their own countries lack, and which communicates the idea that life can be an adventure and that there’s important, exciting work to be done. Reagan-style “morning in America” clichés may make some of us wince, but they reflect something genuine and valuable in the American air. Europeans may or may not have more of a “sense of history” than Americans do (in fact, in a recent study comparing students’ historical knowledge, the results were pretty much a draw), but America has something else that matters—a belief in the future. [...]

If America is founded on liberty—and on the idea that its preservation is worth great sacrifice—those who steer the fortunes of Western Europe have no strong unifying principle for which they can imagine sacrificing much. Their common cause is not liberty but security and stability; the closest thing they have to a unifying principle is a self-delusionary, dogmatic, indeed well-nigh religious insistence on the absolute value of dialogue, discussion, and diplomacy. This dedication has its positive aspects, but it can also make for moral confusion, passivity, and an antagonism to the very idea of taking a firm stand on anything. If, in the view of many Americans, a love of freedom and hatred of tyranny provide all the legitimacy required for taking actions like the invasion of Iraq, European intellectuals, having no such deeply held principles to guide them, turn instinctively to the U.N., as if it existed, like some divine oracle, at an ideal, impersonal remove from any possibility of misjudgment or moral taint.

John Kerry certainly would get along with them better than George Bush does--he too values security at the cost of liberty.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 29, 2004 8:19 AM

It has been noted that the twin arches of McDonalds do have such a striking resemblance to the Ten Commandmants.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that Americans (with exceptions) worship at the shrine of the Big Mac and the Egg McMuffin, and why this peculiar American institution is most perturbing for those Europeans who have bothered to glimpse behind the arras?

(I will spare you the commentary on both Ronald McD's uncanny resemblance to Moses and its religio-cultural significance.)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at June 29, 2004 10:26 AM

Dear Mr. Meislin:

If the citizens of European nations are so perturbed at McDonald's restaurants, they can stop eating at them. If the restaurants do not make profits, they will close. Then the Norwegians (for example) can eat their reindeer steaks without fear of American taint.

Regarding the rest of your posting about Americans "worshipping" McDonald's, sir all I can say is that we don't worship restaurants, we get food from them. We go to McDonald's (and its competitors) because they are convenient. In addition, your comment reveals you to be a condescending, arrogant, boor. On behalf of the vast unwashed American peasant population let me state that you may shove it where the sun doesn't shine.

As the article's author put it, we Americans are independent: we don't have betters and we don't like being lectured by snobs.

Very truly yours,

Posted by: Mike at June 29, 2004 11:29 AM

Don't worry nobody is going to mess with your fries. Always nice to hear from an unwashed guy.

Posted by: h-man at June 29, 2004 12:31 PM

What happened to that "lack of self-seriousness?"

Posted by: Timothy at June 29, 2004 12:41 PM

gee, that Barry guy is really smart, and he's really been around!

he recognizes 'Ronald McD's uncanny resemblance to Moses' -- this guy knows what Moses looks like !

I wonder where Barry saw him?

Posted by: JonofAtlanta at June 29, 2004 12:43 PM

This thread is almost European in its surrealism.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 29, 2004 12:55 PM

I read Mr. Meislin's posting, and I sense the pulling of legs. . . .

The Hudson Review piece, however, is outstanding--well worth the time it took me to read.

Posted by: Mike Morley at June 29, 2004 12:55 PM

Ah. A leg pull. Could very well be. If so, Mr. Meislin has my apologies. Perhaps over the years I have read too many articles that were not leg pulls wherein self-appointed intellectual and cultural "superiors", both home-grown and imported, bemoaned the crudeness of Americans. Now, from time to time, I lash back.

Posted by: Mike at June 29, 2004 1:11 PM

If memory serves (and often it does not), Mr. Meislin is a regular poster here and he indeed was being silly.

Let's all just be silly, okay? It's what separates us from the Europeans.

Posted by: NKR at June 29, 2004 1:37 PM

Silly? I was trying to analyze the Europeans' love-hate relationship with certain American institutions.

Anyway, no problem. Seems that those wild elections in Canada have us all on edge...

Posted by: Barry Meislin at June 29, 2004 1:48 PM

Does anyone know the basis of Bawer's falling out with The New Criterion? I assume it was over homosexual marriage, but I don't know for sure...

Posted by: Carter at June 29, 2004 3:33 PM

This is a good article, although he could have probed a little deeper psychologically. The point about the Norwegian is that he was furious and embarassed that the guy DIDN'T ask for a Big Mac but criticized him anyway.

Posted by: Peter B at June 29, 2004 3:56 PM
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