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Europe to America: Suck My Ass!

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Some years ago, I wrote a feature story for the Camden, S.C. Chronicle-independent about a group of foreign exchange students visiting Camden, and it kicked up a small storm.

The students had been nursed from birth with this idea that that they were inherently superior to this country of vulgarians which they had apparently been sentenced to visit. People here ate with their fingers, for God’s sake; they saluted the flag — which, a German kid actually had the King Kong-sized balls to lecture me, people in his advanced country associated with the Nazis — they go to church (the German kid, again, pointed out that most people in his country don’t make such an extravagant display of religious faith, provided they have any) and, worst of all, people in this country smile and say hello even to complete strangers, the very epitome of insincerity.

The standard line, repeated ad nauseum, was that they knew about our country but we knew nothing about theirs. These little pronouncements were all met with the approvingly smug nod of a host parent, a loud, garish, overweight hairdresser who — appearances to the contrary — seemed anxious to demonstrate that she wasn’t an ugly American. Whenever I pressed a student on any point, she jumped in to explain his point for him, usually with double the smugness.

The hour or so I spent in the company of these kids brought out my own arrogance, although I held it in check. Why should we know about your country, I wanted to say. The reason you know about us is because you live in our shadow, not the other way around; what we do in this country affects you and what you do back home in Grevenmacher or Prague or Brussels or wherever you hail from just doesn’t account for one whole hell of a lot.

On the other hand, they did have an advantage in that they were here and I’d never been to Europe in my life; hell, I’ve barely been out of the South. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. I like to think of myself as something of a non-citizen of the world, not unlike Mason O’Leary in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, who wrote travel books for stay-at-home types who find themselves in the unfortunate situation of having to actually go somewhere. So I suppose I have to contend with the fact that I’m very limited in how far I can see this country with a foreign point of view — which, ever since President Dumbass wandered into Iraq, seems to be the one with the most currency. Improving the world’s low opinion of America is a central theme of Kerry’s presidential campaign for the presidency, or it will be if he can ever shake the Swift Boat Veterans for Slander off his ass.

“Foreigners can see things about America that natives cannot,” says Mark Hertsgaard in his book The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World ” …Americans can learn from their perceptions, if we choose to.”

Whoa horsey, says Bruce Bawer in his superb “Hating America” in the Spring issue of The Hudson Review — an exhaustive rebuke to Hertsgaard, his academic kin, and most of the European world.

What [Hertsgaard] 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, “Ricki Lake,” “C.S.I.,” and, above all, the daily news reports in their own national media.

What, one must therefore ask, are their media telling them? What aren’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 restaurateur’s assertion that non-Americans “have an advantage over [Americans], because we know everything about you and you know nothing about us,” Hertsgaard tells us that this is a good point, but it’s not: non-Americans are always saying this to Americans, but when you poke around a bit, you almost invariably discover that what they “know” about America is very wide of the mark.

Bawer writes dispassionately, but his essay is something of an act of vengeance; he spent several years in Norway and the deep-seated anti-Americanism of his former countrymen clearly continues to stick in his craw. The Hertsgaard book, and several others on the same topic, gives him a perfect opportunity to respond.

Hertsgaard claims that Americans are poorly served by the media; actually, as Bawer sees it, what we have in this country is a free-for-all of multiple viewpoints.

Reading the opinion pieces in Norwegian newspapers, one has the distinct impression that the professors and bureaucrats who write most of them view it as their paramount function not to introduce or debate fresh ideas but to remind the masses what they’re supposed to think. The same is true of most of the journalists, who routinely spin the news from the perspective of social-democratic orthodoxy, systematically omitting or misrepresenting any challenge to that orthodoxy—and almost invariably presenting the U.S. in a negative light. Most Norwegians are so accustomed to being presented with only one position on certain events and issues (such as the Iraq War) that they don’t even realize that there exists an intelligent alternative position.

The European mindset, says Bawer, is so adamantly anti-American because it is preserves a mentality of victimhood.

If Europe’s intellectual and political elite was briefly pro-America after 9/11, it was because America was suddenly a victim, and European intellectuals are accustomed to sympathizing reflexively with victims (or, more specifically, with perceived or self-proclaimed victims, such as Arafat). That support began to wane the moment it became clear that Americans had no intention of being victims.

Bawer, paraphrasing Jean-François Revel’s L’obsession anti-américaine, says the America seen by Europe is a cartoon.

…the European media still employ the same misrepresentations as they did back then, depicting an America plagued by severe poverty, extreme inequality, “no unemployment benefits, no retirement, no assistance for the destitute,” and medical care and university education only for the rich. “Europeans firmly believe this caricature,” Revel writes, “because it is repeated every day by the elites.”

This goes rather a long way toward explaining not just the students I met, but the Danish director Lars von Trier, whose films are deeply absorbing and profoundly stupid. He has a kind of pornographic fetish for the idea of women as Jesus figures: pure sacrificial martyrs, trusting, decent, kind, and born to be victims.

With Dancer in the Dark, the victim was the singer Bjork, cast in the role of a poor factory worker who is slowly going to blind, and is struggling to hold on to a job and save money for an operation that will prevent her son from having the same debilitating illness. The Bjork character is obsessed with The Sound of Music and sees her life, for all its grimness, as a fantastic musical, complete with choreographed dance numbers and bursts of song; if you like Bjork, as I do, these numbers are easily the best thing in the film, which begins as an absorbing melodrama and ultimately becomes this ludicrous story of a poor woman who gets screwed by the American system of justice. It’s a movie made with very much of a preconceived notion that American justice is an oxymoron and if you’re poor and noble and decent you’re finished before you’ve started.

The same goes double for Dogville — a strange, beautiful, highly stylized, fascinating and abysmally stupid kind of pornographic S&M thing that follows very much the same track, only this time with Nicole Kidman as the martyr, a gangster’s moll who hides out in a small town, makes nice with everyone, and ultimately is turned into everyone’s bitch. Again with the preconceived notion: it’s a movie made with a mythically ugly viewpoint of this country. Unless you believe that the worst that can be said of any place is the truest reflection of it, then this film exists in the America that lives in von Trier’s head.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so offended by all this, and in fact I have resisted becoming so; because, really, this vulgar little parable, right down to its Old Testament-by-way-of-Chicago-gangland-justice ending, could have taken place anywhere in the world, as von Trier says on the Dogville website. But the credits stick it in all over again: a montage of pictures of nothing but wretchedly poor people — from the iconic Dorothea Lange ones right up to the present day — playing against David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” the absolute nadir of von Trier’s facile, high school and amateurish mindset. A great, imagistic song, and it towered over von Trier’s little slide show.

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About Bunuel

  • http://www.resonation.ca Jim Carruthers

    Bruce Bawer, if that is the article I recall, portrays all of Europe based on his experience in one city in Norway, which is like making a portrait of the States like one extended stay in a single USA city, say, St. Louis, Detroit, Tampa or Charleston SC. And watching a teevee show starring Donald Trump.

    Maybe the reason he had a bad experience in Norway isn’t because he is from the USA, but because he might be a prick.

  • http://www.kolehardfacts.blogspot.com Mike Kole

    Part of the problem with European understanding of Americans is that they get so damned much American TV to look at. Last week in Copenhagen, I could watch CNN, Law & Order, and Everyone Loves Raymond at will. I was seeing as much coverage of the US Presidential campaign as the announcement of the intent of the Danish prince and princess to divorce. They see our TV shows and believe it represents as real in too many unfortunate ways, which I guess is more or less what Bawer says.

    I was very amused at their take on typical American political beliefs. When I told the Danes that I am a libertarian, I was made to explain what that meant. I tried to keep it very simple, explaining that I believe that government is too large and intrusive, and that taxes are too high. The inevitable response? “But that’s what all Americans believe!” They really believe that the US is an anarchic Coliseum of social Darwinism on parade, and that an American liberal Democrat is closer to Milton Friedman than to a European social democrat, which is actually the case.

  • Derek Todd

    The Europeans that constantly want to degrade the United States are so full of jealousy towards us that they cant stand it. They just want to make themselves feel better because they are not part of the greatest country in the world. After Europes demise and the rise of the greatest economic and military power in the world, who could blame them. They all wish that the country they live in could be the same. They all really need to understand that the United States is the best thing that could happen to them with respect to the security of there countries. Deep down inside they all know that we are the defenders of the western way of life and without us the socialists in Europe would be hard pressed to find someone to defend our western culture. God bless those in Europe which understand the important role the United States plays in world affairs and God bless the United Kingdom for its political support always. Hey Europe, who freed you from facism and the onslaught of the Soviet Union? Could you really have held them off without us?

  • scott armstrong

    the reason people hate americans is that y’all so opinionated. let people be and keep ya shit to ya self. if u really feel the need to justify yourself every minute of your existence then maybe you should have a good hard look at yourself, bitch!

  • My Opinion, That’s All

    Scott! Jealous, aren’t ya!

    Yep, we Americans have it all. We have stuff, people, music, movies, TV, freedoms of every kind, patriotism, religion. Wow. We do have it all. I love being an American!

  • Antoin Dargan

    The dumbest opinions are always the loudest.

    Intelligent media exists, but must be found.
    Example: the Sunday Independent, an Irish paper.
    I read it religiously because it constantly challenges the status quo and has a lot to say about the terminally messed up state of the our country due to our government’s consistent incompetence and more to say about global affairs.
    I very much recommend checking it out. Journalists such as Eoghan Harris, Brendan O’ Connor, Eilis O’ Hanlon, Gene Kerrigan come highly recommended.

  • LiloiOpira

    Helloeverybody

  • Greg Ruth

    I think this posting better illustrates misunderstanding, cultural difference, and miscommunication between the Americans and Eurpoeans.

    Europeans, in general are better traveled then Americans, but like Americans when they travel they typically go to DisneyLand, not just a random city to talk to the locals. I think that if we all did the latter, even if only on the way to DisneyLand (or Eurodisney :-) we’d foster a stronger feeling of Global Community.

    BTW. just in response to one post above. I think it’s a falacy to belive that Europeans are “full of jealousy” about the US. Europe is series of developed nations, many with emenities we don’t have in the U.S. (like good public transportation and universal healthcare), therefore they are justified in having nationalistic pride (same as us Americans do). The idea that they are better than us, just follows that mindset. It’s harmless, and probably healthy for them to think of themselves as “better”. Just like I believe the Flyers are a better hockey team, then say, the Ducks. :-) Go ahead and disagree.

  • vic

    america sucks and they are usually not man enough to admit and correct it. now because of their greed im suppose to suffer and pay for their indiscretion?

  • NgrLuvr

    How about the Europe AND the US can suck my ass.

  • http://blogs.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/sundaysurfer/index.php STM

    Lol. Love it how some commentators always come back to the US being the greatest country in the world, ever, and how “we saved your asses in WWII”.

    If you were looking for answers to this question, there it is.

    Not quite true, and probably one of the arrogant things some Americans think that doesn’t exactly endear them to the rest of the world – but that’s really another issue.

    The truth is, many Europeans (mainly the French and Germans) just don’t like anglos – that includes the British and the rest of the English-speaking world.

    I have an idea why that is, but it’s not worth repeating here.

    However, there is some truth in the notion that Americans are very isolationist and ignorant of what goes on outside their borders (or outside their own state in many cases).

    I know because I’ve visited the US on many occasions, and while I love the place and Americans generally (I’ve found them to be among the most hospitable people anywhere), the ignorance can be really annoying.

    I’m from Australia, which has virtually the same legal system as the US (both inherited from England), the same ruile of law that guarntees our freedoms, the same rights (again, inherited from the same tradition as the US, except for the one giving unfettered ownership of firearms) and perhaps a few more besides, and an identical standard of living.

    Yet I lost count of the times people would say to me, hey: “Ain’t you still under the Queen”, or “Do have freedom and liberty in Australia?” Seriously, that stuff

    I don’t expect Americans to know about Australia, but it would have been nice if some of them they hadn’t kept letting me know that they “knew” America was the only free country in the world, not to mention the richest and the greatest.

    I guess you are going to strike fools everywhere, so it’s good not have found every American I met to be a fool.

    The ledger was heavily in favour of the latter. But the minority of idiots just don’t help the perception of Americans in the eyes of the rest of the world.

    And yes, we all grew up with American (and British) TV.

    We also all know that it’s just TV.

    At least the scripts, acting and production values are halfway decent compared to some of the dross the Aussie TV industry comes up with a lot of the time.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Life is not a sport. Countries aren’t teams. Just because you were born/live in a country doesn’t make it the best.

  • http://blogs.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/sundaysurfer/index.php STM

    Yep, that’s the truth Cindy.

    I do like the US, though, and it’s a great place but Americans find it bizarre, I think, and some have been quite offended when I tell them that I wouldn’t choose to live there.

    I just like it better Down Under … that’s all. It’s no reflection on anywhere else.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Stan,

    I like the movie The Gods Must be Crazy. Did you see it? It takes place in Australia.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/jordan-richardson/ Jordan Richardson

    Stan, that reminds me of the sort of mini-backlash my wife got when she decided to move up to Canada with me instead of have me move to the States. We still hear about it from some of her family members. Good times!

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Cindy,

    The Gods Must Be Crazy is set in South Africa, not Australia. It and its sequel are the only movies ever filmed in the Bushman language to reach a worldwide audience.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Thanks Dr.D, been awhile since I saw that. Some confabulation occurring. Didn’t the main character have an Australian accent though?

    Why do I remember something Australian?

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Come to think of it, I think both the white male and the female characters had English accents. hrmmm, must be the guy’s hat reminded me of Crocodile Dundee or something …

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Hey Stan,

    Aren’t you guys still under the queen or something?

  • Nicholas

    I’m American. And I’m quite well traveled. I know Americans are very ignorant when it comes to many things outside this country. However, my travels through Europe have shown nothing but the same for Europeans and seeing outside Europe. Bluntly said, the best places in the world lay outside the US and Europe both.

  • FUCAMERICANS

    Americans suck. It is a culture based on ripping off the marginalized portions of society. Where is the merit there. I can hardly wait for it to collapse into dust.

  • Britney Spears

    Merika is the greatest!

  • Ennen

    Funny to see how biased some people are. Yes, I do agree that many (if not most) Americans are completely oblivious of what goes on outside of the United States. But, many people pay attention to what goes on outside the country too. I would rather live outside of America really (or at least outside of Washington which blows). I do not believe that the US is the greatest country in the world and I really don’t care to pick. Doing so would show immaturity…

  • Brutal Truth

    America sucks big time. Worst and most uncivilized country in the developed world. A good, decent country in which to live and in which to raise your children does not:

    1.have 25% of its children going to bed hungry at night.
    2.execute people.
    3.have a government that tries to tell grown men and women what they can and cannot ingest in the privacy of their own homes.
    4.have the worst educational system in the developed world.
    5.have the worst health care system in the developed world, the only one that makes grandmas choose between food and medicine.
    6.have the most crooked, unrepresentative government in the developed world in which one can pick whichever conservative puppet of the billionaires one wants but nobody who isn’t a conservative puppet of the billionaires.
    7.have a kangaroo court judicial system.
    8.have less than 7% unionization of its private sector workforce.
    9.have a minimum wage that is several dollars less than what would be considered a living wage even in the poorest states like Alabama and Mississippi; NOBODY can live on $7.25/hour anywhere in the U.S. Nobody.
    10.have several wars going on that are so transparently motivated by a desire for energy resource dominance that a 10-year-old with an atlas and an encyclopedia could put it all together in an afternoon.
    11.have third-world levels of income inequality.
    This. Country. Sucks.