Is America Flying Europe's Flag?

EU flags-Brussels.jpg

Consider the recent government shutdown as a disagreement about how much influence Europe should have on the continuing American revolution. Who would have predicted that, more than 237 years after the United States threw off the English yoke, disagreement over European approaches to life and government would be strong enough to shutter the democratic experiment, or downgrade the nation's credit? And yet, Congress is divided, as it was in 1797, between Royalist Republicans and Jacobin Democrats, arguing about which model of government best suits the young and restless American republic.

Never far from the lips of Tea Party stalwarts is the accusation that the Obama administration is bent on importing European socialism to the fair shores of free enterprise.

The Republican right sees supporters of the health care act, immigration reform, and deficit spending as the equivalents of English levelers, idle Greek pensioners or French syndicalists. They fear that as these ideas anchor in the lee of the Statue of Liberty, it will perhaps soon be rededicated as Our Lady of Communal Redistribution, Occupational Safety, and Bureaucratic Oversight.

Democrats, too, have fears inspired by their transatlantic neighbors. Many believe that only additional legislation can keep the United States from turning into another constitutional European monarchy, rife with income inequality, sweetheart tax breaks for the aristocracy, and enough gated suburban Downton Abbeys to impress even the noble lordships on Fox & Friends.

I spend much of my time shuttling between Europe and the US, and thought it might be useful to see if there is any rationality in the fear that the Monroe Doctrine might no longer be strong enough to hold off creeping European influence. Here's a short, idiosyncratic list, not at all definitive, of a few of the divisions between the continents:

Store Hours: In many European countries, shops are closed whenever management has the sense that someone might want to buy something. In Italy and in parts of France it is not uncommon to find restaurants that close for lunch, and few establishments in Europe are open between Saturday afternoon and Monday lunchtime. In the US, AM/PM and 24/7 set the retail bar.

Vacations: Europeans live for them. They take time off for Christmas, New Year’s, Easter, and a raft of saint days, not to mention their entitled four weeks of work leave and the occasional long weekend or bank holiday. By contrast, Americans fear time off from work more than they fear trade unions or, well, family vacations.

Political parties: In the US, third or independent parties hint at irredentist change. In Europe, most countries have dozens of political parties, from communists, socialists, and greens on the left to near fascists on the right. Nevertheless, neither multiparty Europe nor two-party America can escape parliamentary paralysis, in part because both are dealing from insolvent decks.

Suburbanization: Around many European cities suburbs have never taken root, and it is not unusual for the last stop on the metro (as in Munich or Geneva) to leave passengers in the wild. In the US, major cities have the qualities of a sprawling suburb, where cars are needed to shop or get to school. Even Spanish Harlem now has a Target.

Churches: Except for the spread of Islam in countries like the United Kingdom and France, organized religion is on the wane in Europe. I bike a lot in France, and pass dozens of shuttered churches that appear to have neither a congregation nor a priest. Italians love the papacy a lot more than they do morning mass. In the US, however, many new churches need lots for overflow parking.

Religion: Americans have married their love of promotion, organization, and public faith to create all sorts of new sects and churches, and with them religious academies, summer camps, bible study groups, cable channels, and ecclesiastical conferences. In Europe, the established religions -- Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Judaism — hold the most sway; the only holy rollers are Bentleys.

Television: In America, the village square is its community of television programs, which have now wormed their presence into portable handsets. There, gossip, information, advertisements and entertainment are shared at all hours. In England, France, and Germany — to name a few — the daily newspaper remains competitive.

Lunch: In the US — as Gordon Gekko says in Wall Street — the business lunch is for wimps, while in Europe you still count yourself lucky if the noontime meal lasts less two hours.

Dinner: Americans take their suppers (standing up) with Coke Zero in front of the TV, while Europeans take their evening meals (seated) in the company of wine.

Getting Around: Usually I drive more on a two week trip to the States than I do all year in Europe, which has buses, trains, and bike lanes across most countries and cities. In Switzerland I often go to a small mountain village where 36 trains stop daily at its tiny station. For comparison, the city of Houston has two trains a day.

Militarism: Save for the British hanging on to their lancer regiments, Europe’s armies are home guards and dads’ armies. The US, meanwhile, is dispatching aircraft carriers to the seven seas and branding its navy (at least on Monday Night Football commercials) as “a global force for good.”

Adultery: The French may still disconnect their cell phones between the hours of five and seven PM (“cinq à sept,” as the phrase has it), but an extramarital affair will never cost anyone a job or political office. Even the lascivious French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn is plotting his comeback. In the US, adultery is a bigger barrier to political office than foreign birth.

Sex: In the US it is welcome as a sales agent — Mad Men Über Alles — but somewhat less forgiven when it mixes with politics. If only Anthony Weiner had the good sense to confine his online dalliances to a reality show (The Onanist?), he would be accepting an Emmy Award for best actor. Because he chose the stage of politics, he was seen as Pee-wee Herman running for mayor from the back of a virtual theater.

Marriage: Americans marry to have children. Europeans have children so that later they can get married.

Education: Most European universities, except for those in the UK, are free, provided you can make the grades. In the US, acceptance and graduation rates are more a function of capital allocation. Americans choose their aristocracy from privately-funded academies — costs at many four-year colleges are approaching $250,000 — while Europe prefers a meritocracy that combines public universities blended with a fading aristocracy.

Healthcare: Although many Americans think all medicine in Europe is socialized, few countries have the equivalent of Britain’s National Health Service. Obamacare most closely resembles the Swiss system, which requires all citizens to buy health insurance from private companies, although in Switzerland deductibles are so high (to reduce premium prices) that most families never see a dime back from their insurance payments, unless they are dragged by a truck.

Transatlantic Balance Sheet: I would say that the US fosters more inventive thinking, creative entrepreneurs and capital markets. And it is always open for business (including on Christmas).

Europe has better public schools, infrastructure, railroad networks, and work-life equations. Of course, it has many drawbacks. No continent can fight wars for four hundred years or have an Iron Curtain down its middle and not have residual side affects, notably unresolved ethnic conflicts and crammed cemeteries.

But the next time you have to work through lunch or vacation, ask yourself if you would rather be weathering the economic crisis in Detroit, or on a Mediterranean beach.

Flickr photo: Brussels, by Eszter Hargittai

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine, is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays. His new book, Whistle-Stopping America, was recently published.


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