"Hating America" by Bruce Bawer
This is the first half of part 1 of 4 in the total article (24 pages total).
I moved from the U.S. to Europe in 1998, and Iâ€™ve been drawing comparisons ever since. Living in turn in the Netherlands, where kids come out of high school able to speak four languages, where gay marriage is a non-issue, and where book-buying levels are the worldâ€™s highest, and in Norway, where a staggering percentage of people read three newspapers a day and where respect for learning is reflected even in Oslo place names (â€œProfessor Aschehoug Squareâ€; â€œProfessor Birkeland Roadâ€), I was tempted at one point to write a book lamenting Americansâ€™ anti-intellectualismâ€”their indifference to foreign languages, ignorance of history, indifference to academic achievement, susceptibility to vulgar religion and trash TV, and so forth. On point after point, I would argue, Europe had us beat.
Yet as my weeks in the Old World stretched into months and then years, my perceptions shifted. Yes, many Europeans were book loversâ€”but which countryâ€™s literature most engaged them? Many of them revered educationâ€”but to which countryâ€™s universities did they most wish to send their children? (Answer: the same country that performs the majority of the worldâ€™s scientific research and wins most of the Nobel Prizes.) Yes, American television was responsible for drivel like â€œThe Ricki Lake Showâ€â€”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 werenâ€™t Bible-thumpersâ€”but the Continentâ€™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 multilingualâ€”but then, if each of the fifty states had its own language, Americans would be multilingual, too.1 Iâ€™d marveled at Norwegiansâ€™ 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, Norwayâ€™s newspaper of record. Not that my articleâ€™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 Iâ€™d stayed, irked that Iâ€™d made a point of his want of hospitality, got his revenge by telling reporters that Iâ€™d demanded McDonaldâ€™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 wasnâ€™t: he knew his country; he knew its media; and heâ€™d known, accordingly, that all he needed to do to spin events to his advantage was to breathe that talismanic word, McDonaldâ€™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 Iâ€™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 Iâ€™d always taken for granted, or even disdainedâ€”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 oneâ€™s mind and question the accepted way of doing things. (One reason why Euro- peans view Americans as ignorant is that when we donâ€™t know something, weâ€™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 â€œexpertsâ€; 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 thereâ€™s important, exciting work to be done. Reagan-style â€œmorning in Americaâ€ clichÃ©s 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 â€œsense of historyâ€ than Americans do (in fact, in a recent study comparing studentsâ€™ historical knowledge, the results were pretty much a draw), but America has something else that mattersâ€”a belief in the future.
Over time, then, these things came into focus for me. Then came September 11. Briefly, Western European hostility toward the U.S. yielded to sincere, if shallow, solidarity (â€œWe are all Americansâ€). But the enmity soon re-established itself (a fact confirmed for me daily on the websites of the many Western European newspapers I had begun reading online). With the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, it intensified. Yet the endlessly reiterated claim that George W. Bush â€œsquanderedâ€ Western Europeâ€™s post-9/11 sympathy is nonsense. The sympathy was a blip; the anti-Americanism is chronic. Why? In The Eagleâ€™s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World, American journalist and NPR commentator Mark Hertsgaard purports to seek an answer.2 His assumption throughout is that anti-Americanism is amply justified, for these reasons, among others:
Our foreign policy is often arrogant and cruel and threatens to â€œblow backâ€ 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 worldâ€™s model, through the glories of corporate-led globalization.
America, in short, is a messâ€”a cultural wasteland, an economic nightmare, a political abomination, an international misfit, outlaw, parasite, and pariah. If Americans donâ€™t know this already, it is, in Hertsgaardâ€™s view, precisely because they are Americans: â€œForeigners,â€ he proposes, â€œcan see things about America that natives cannot. . . . Americans can learn from their perceptions, if we choose to.â€ What he fails to acknowledge, however, is that most foreigners never set foot in the United States, and that the things they think they know about it are consequently based not on first-hand experience but on school textbooks, books by people like Michael Moore, movies about spies and gangsters, â€œRicki Lake,â€ â€œC.S.I.,â€ and, above all, the daily news reports in their own national media. What, one must therefore ask, are their media telling them? What arenâ€™t they telling them? And what are the agendas of those doing the telling? Such questions, crucial to a study of the kind Hertsgaard pretends to be making, are never asked here. Citing a South African restaurateurâ€™s assertion that non-Americans â€œhave an advantage over [Americans], because we know everything about you and you know nothing about us,â€ Hertsgaard tells us that this is a good point, but itâ€™s not: non-Americans are always saying this to Americans, but when you poke around a bit, you almost invariably discover that what they â€œknowâ€ about America is very wide of the mark.