Work and Days


It’s a Euro Thing

If one were to collate European criticisms of Americana and then compare them to reality in Europe, well, sure confusion results. Some random thoughts about another visit these next two weeks in Europe.

1. We Americans, we are told, are violators of freedom and have shredded our Western heritage through Guantanamo, the Patriot Act, and detentions.

But if one were to assess rationally the degree of privacy and freedom in Europe, by any fair margin it proves far more the police state. There are far more municipal surveillance video cameras. On the highway flashes go off, as computerized cameras snap pictures of speeding motorists who set off their sensors. Bus drivers must find ingenious ways to hide their hours logged driving, as they insert their computerized cards into their ignition to start their motors. All that seems unimaginable in the US.

2. Grasping Americans? The last few weeks I have stayed at some top hotels in the US while speaking. Internet service was usually around $10 to log in on Wifi. The pool and gym were of course gratis.

Here? Hotel internet service can run about 20-30 euros for a mere day. There are additional fees to use the gym or pool at most hotels. Read your bill carefully at restaurants; most require some “correction” as the waiters inadvertently add things not ordered. In short, money and its acquisition seem on the brains of almost everyone you meet.

3. Health conscious Europeans? In France and Luxembourg this week, I tried to count the obese among an average of every 10 or so on the street. The result? Americans seem no fatter than Europeans.

Smoking? I don’t know the statistics, but each time I come over here I notice immediately that it is far more common and socially acceptable. As far as the incidence of meat consumption, and the size of servings, I sense no difference, only that food is about double what it is in the states.

4. Repugnant American culture? The television has nothing much but dubbed American old movies and current television series. Fashion, music, and popular culture are usually American derived. America may run a massive trade deficit with Europe, but American trade names are everywhere.

5. American decline? The French and German newspapers are full of scare stories about their own fuel costs, price-fixing and the loss of national treasure. Scandals involving mortgages and bank collapse are common. In other words, Europeans share the same anxieties about finance and energy as we do—despite having much of the oil and banking industries nationalized or at least carefully state monitored.

The Cauldron of Europe

The region along the French-German border is beautiful, rich and understandably disputed for over 2,000 years. We Americans have a long history with it as well. My mother’s cousin Holt Cather is buried at the American cemetery at Hamm. Not far away at the Meuse-Argonne battlefield, my paternal grandfather was gassed in the first World War. My late cousin Dick Davis came through Luxembourg with the 3rd Army. And so it goes for most Americans, whose ancestors came here under much different circumstances that we do today.

We rightfully give the European Union credit for stopping the historic bloodletting for two generations. But two qualifiers. First, it was birthed because of the American-led destruction of fascism; and preserved only by the American-led resistance to the Red Army.

Second, the price for peace has been a sort of Lotus-eater society of long lunches, obsession with fashion and “nice things”, and secular worship of the God Leisure. In their abhorrence at the old catalysts of strife—nationalism, patriotism, religion—the Europeans have failed to see that national defense, religious belief, and pride in culture need not lead to endless war, but in fact to a healthy society that is content not to expect heaven on earth.

If the EU Needs the US, and We Become Another EU, then where’s our U.S.?

Today the French here are striking over threats to raise the retirement age back up to 62, and to reconsider the 35-hour work week. Lost in the discussion is any notion that there is not a “they” out there to shake more money from—only themselves. Europe, for all its socialism and egalitarianism, seems a sort of lottery society, in which each union, each age cohort, each EU collective recipient, in a game of musical chairs, tries to outwit the other—the pie finite, its pieces endlessly resliced.

I have admiration for the European Union’s unmistakable achievement in avoiding war for half a century, and its widespread prosperity—but it has come at a price. Given what Barack Obama has said about raising taxes, funding new entitlements, yielding to international consensus abroad, and seeing Americans in terms of various racial, class, and tribal constituencies, all with justified grievances, I think his notion of our future is what we see in European today—even as the Europeans grow increasingly restless about unions, high taxes, and their impotence in the world abroad. Apparently even two-hour lunches, no children, no church, no military, good food and the disco can get boring.

A note on Obama: in minute one, Euros gush; in minute two, the questions come; in minute three, they express concern (if they think you too might as well and so can be candid); in minute four, you sense they understand there is only one EU. So should the US become one too, they worry about who might play the US to the US?

In a sick way this speaks well of Obama: by his intent to turn the US into something like the EU, he is scaring some elites in the EU as never before. There can only be one socialist union: it requires a capitalist wide-open trading partner and a Nato-like ally to offer it free defense as well as an easy target for cheap invective. So the Europeans hint: “Please, don’t become quite like us—we need you as you are.”