Ugly Americans: The United States in the Eyes of Europe

On my first visit to England as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, I had a flare-up with an English war veteran. I had been brought up in a conservative, moderately patriotic American home in Pennsylvania, and for the first time in my life I was confronted with anti-Americanism. The aging soldier was grumbling about the ubiquitous presence of Americans—the old complaint of Americans being “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” I countered by saying, “But we bailed you guys out not just once, but in two world wars.”

That’s when the volcano erupted.

I received, for my troubles, a warm lecture about the iniquity of an America that only came into the war at the last minute, after American businessmen had made a fortune selling arms to both sides of the conflict. Clearly, I had struck a nerve.

This brusque introduction to anti-Americanism opened my eyes to a different view of America and its domination in the modern world. As an American abroad, I began to pay attention to the negative comments and tried to analyze them objectively. In my private study, I came across political and cultural criticisms that were cautious, objective, and well thought out. But there was also plenty of uninformed opinion, a good dose of old-fashioned jealousy, and a cultural condescension that assumed that America was both as violent as The Godfather and as hokey as The Waltons.

The causes of European anti-Americanism are fascinating and complex. They reach back into our common, often turbulent history and are rooted not just in historical wars but in cultural wars that stretch back for centuries. Whatever the reason for the rift, it is clear that Europe and America have increasingly clashing cultures. While we may once have been closely aligned, those trend lines are rapidly diverging.

Yankee Go Home!

Americans, of course, are not immune to making self-important snap judgments of other cultures. We may not be fond of the French, but “freedom fries” and a wholesale condemnation of “Old Europe” actually confirm the European suspicion that Americans are ignorant, isolationist, and arrogant, and a cycle of petty name-calling is begun.

The mistake is in assuming that only the “other guy” makes such judgments—an error frequently made by the European intelligentsia, politicians, and liberal press. Too often they relax into an uninformed bigotry that deals in hyperbole, propaganda, and loaded language. Writing in the Nation, Eric Alterman commented on British anti-Americanism: “Mainstream papers like the Mirror announce in large headlines, ‘The USA Is Now the World’s Leading Rogue State.'” Meanwhile, the Guardian announced that the United States is an “unrepentant outlaw” nation. A mainstream television poll revealed that the country Britons regard as the biggest threat to peace today is not Iraq or North Korea—it is the United States.

In the British House of Commons, Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn said about the Iraq war: “The mass of British public opinion is deeply skeptical if not completely hostile to this war, [and] believe it’s been fought in the interests of the Americans and nothing else.” When the British defense minister announced more support for the war in Iraq, Labour politician Dennis Skinner asked him to “confirm that this is all in aid to satisfy the whims of this tinpot American president.”

And it’s not just the British. A CNN report says, “After two generations of guilt, young Germans demonstrating against the United States and against war now feel good about themselves because it is the United States, not Germany, that is seen by many as the aggressive warmonger.”

Predictably, the anti-American spirit is especially strong in France. Alterman reports, “Walk into a French bookstore and you will find titles like, Who Is Killing France?, American Totalitarianism, No Thanks Uncle Sam, A Strange Dictatorship.”

French newspapers are filled with blistering criticism of the U.S. role in the world. Le Monde, for instance, pulled no punches when it recently termed Bush’s Middle East policies “extraordinary, unjust and arrogant.” Dominque Moisi of the French Institute of International relations asserts, “Today’s anti-Americanism in Europe is a combination of what America is doing—going to war in Iraq—and what America is: the country of the death penalty, the country—in European eyes—of arrogance.”

Analysts warn that a whole generation of America-haters is being created, one that believes Americans deliberately bomb civilians and kill Arab babies. Manfred Guttamacher of Potsdam University in Germany says, “We are on the brink of a fundamental rift between the United States and Europe which goes much deeper than the rifts that came up in the course of anti-American sentiments in the ’60s or early ’80s.”

Bush the Dummy

The only thing more offensive than America to the anti-American crowd in Europe is its president. George W. Bush has become an easy target for the intelligentsia who believe that intellectual capability is measured by articulateness. Trying to explain that there is a difference between disagreeing over policy matters and labeling someone stupid or evil has met with little success.

The Bush-haters may not have understood Bush, but Bush and his advisers understood their electorate. In last year’s election, John Kerry came across as a wealthy, East Coast intellectual with a snooty billionaire wife. His attempts to correct that by hunting geese in Ohio were as laughable as Bill Clinton’s spell of Bible-clutching church attendance in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky affair.

In contrast, when Bush said, “I’m glad that Slobodan Milosevic has gone. That’s one more tricky Eastern European name I don’t have to pronounce,” it may not have sold well in Paris, Berlin, and London, but it hit all the right buttons in Topeka, Akron, and Indianapolis. Bush understood his electorate and appealed to their values, their beliefs, and their emotions. It may be corny. It may be embarrassing to the intelligentsia. But it’s not stupid.

In a frantic bid to keep Bush out of the White House for a second term, London’s Guardian entered the election fray on behalf of Clark County, Ohio, a crucial county in that swing state. Last October, an article by Oliver Burkeman encouraged Guardian readers to “adopt” undecided voters in Clark County and send them letters and e-mails, telling them how important the election was to people outside the United States and encouraging them to vote for Kerry.

In just over a week, the Guardian called an embarrassed halt to the debacle after a flood of largely negative responses overwhelmed the paper. Guardian editor Ian Katz acknowledged that a large number of Democrats, among them Sharon Manitta, the spokeswoman in Britain for Democrats Abroad, had warned them, “This will certainly garner more votes for George Bush.” Reaction in Clark County ranged from indifference to amusement and anger. Local headlines read, “Butt Out Brits” and “Trashing Letter Campaign.” Some residents of Clark County even wrote back to the Guardian, and livelier respondents felt no qualms in telling the paper just what they thought of their effort. (Those readers unafraid of some colorful language can find entertaining examples of online responses here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uselections2004/ story/0%2C13918%2C1329858%2C00.html.)

Understandably, when Bush won, European shock and horror knew no bounds. Brian Reade of the Daily Mirror put Bush’s victory down to “the self-righteous, gun-totin’, military-lovin’, sister-marryin’, abortion-hatin’, gay-loathin’, foreigner-despisin’, non-passport-ownin’ rednecks” of America. The cover of the same paper the day after the election featured a picture of Bush with the caption, “How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?” The Guardian‘s special edition cover was simply a black page with the tiny caption in the middle reading, “Oh, God.”

Embracing Contradiction

Of course, it wasn’t 59 million “sister-marryin'” rednecks who carried Bush to victory. Forty-five percent of Hispanics voted for Bush; so did 25 percent of Jews and 23 percent of homosexuals, a proportion of the voting public that greatly expanded the Republican share of the popular vote. The facts are that a wide range of the American public from all walks of life voted for Bush.

In an attempt to explain this apparently inexplicable behavior, many European intellectuals grasped at whatever straws they could find, even those that provided contradictory conclusions. Some critics likened Bush’s America to extreme right-wing dictatorships, while others compared it to left-wing totalitarian states. Alterman noted that in Will Hutton’s book, A Declaration of Interdependence: Why America Should Join the World, this former editor of Britain’s Observer portrays the United States as being in “the extraordinary grip of Christian fundamentalism” that he worries is “very ideological, almost Leninist,” and is bolstered by “tenacious endemic racism,” with an economy that “rests on an enormous confidence trick,” and in which, incidentally, “citizens routinely shoot each other.”

Hutton thinks America’s conservatism is “almost Leninist.” At the same time, clinical psychologist Oliver James said to the Guardian newspaper the morning after Bush’s reelection, “I was too depressed to even speak this morning. I thought of my late mother, who read Mein Kampf when it came out in the 1930s and thought, ‘Why doesn’t anyone see where this is leading?’ ”

Is America drifting into Leninism or nazism? It can’t be both. Easy European opinion of Bush’s America is that of grim-faced religious fanatics marching in lockstep behind their cowboy leader from Texas. But as Mark Steyn pointed out in London’s Sunday Telegraph, when eleven American states voted to affirm traditional marriage last November they were simply claiming the people’s right to decide, rather than allowing a few activist mayors or four Massachusetts judges to redefine marriage for them. In contrast, when Italian-Catholic politician Rocco Buttiglione stood up for traditional marriage he was hounded out of his European Commission post by a cadre of politically correct, unelected officials.

Steyn also noted that while Americans were exercising their democratic right to vote on gay marriage, Dutch police had destroyed a wall mural painted to protest the murder of Theo van Gogh, an outspoken filmmaker brutally killed by Islamic radicals for his criticism of Islam. The mural was next to a mosque and simply showed an angel with the caption, “Thou shalt not kill.” After some Muslims complained that the mural was racist, the Dutch police swept in, destroyed the mural, arrested the TV journalists filming their work, and wiped their tape.

Religion and Responsibility

The gulf that exists between American and European understanding is nowhere more apparent than on the subject of religion. Secular Europeans like to portray Americans as religious Pharisees par excellence. American religion is represented by sweating, weeping evangelists, who have wives with big hair and false eyelashes to die for.

Time and again my English friends will express dismay and confusion over the strong religious dimension of American life. On the one hand they admire the separation of church and state, but then they cannot understand how every president ends a speech with “God Bless America” and how political candidates universally appeal to the morals and religious beliefs of Americans. They can’t fathom how so many Americans said they chose their president based on moral issues last November.

This is the deepest divide between the American and European mentality. Put simply, America is a religious country. It was founded by deeply religious people who sacrificed to build a new society where they could practice their beliefs freely and openly. The countries of Europe, of course, were religious in their conception as well, but more and more these Christian roots have been forgotten; and where they are remembered, forces are at work to extirpate the memory for good. Witness the total absence of any mention of Christianity in the new constitution of the European Union.

It is the religious faith of America that the European intellectual finds most bewildering and annoying. Like Pauline Kael, wondering in perfect seriousness how Nixon could have won—”I don’t know anyone who voted for him”—the European intelligentsia simply can’t understand the morality and religious views of American voters. How could they? They live in a different universe—a universe that is becoming agnostic through and through.

Truth and Consequences

How did we come so far down this road, where our cultural ancestors have become unrecognizable—even hostile—to us? The underlying reason for European anti-Americanism is simple. It has little to do with politics or economics. It has little to do with education or lack of it. As G. K. Chesterton observed, “All arguments are theological arguments.” Beneath it all, the growing divide between Europe and America is a divide between theism and atheism. This simple divide is cosmic in its importance and affects, simply, everything.

This small distinction leads to the most important questions: Which understanding of the cosmos leads to civilization, and which leads to chaos? Which is the culture of life, and which is the culture of death? Which will crumble and fade, and which will prosper and thrive?

Religious middle America is mocked for being blindly obedient to its particular creed, but the European intellectual adheres just as closely to his own—one that is all the more pervasive because it is subconscious. But a creed built simply in opposition to another cannot stand.

As Philip Jenkins has predicted in his book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Christianity will prevail. Atheists the world over may dispute this prediction, and secularists may rage against the dominant trend, but it’s an impotent rage. From the demographics of the Ohio suburbs to the African bush, the statistics confirm that the future belongs to the believers. Fitting, as believers are the only ones who believe in the future.

Rev. Dwight Longenecker

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Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Romance of Religion published by Thomas Nelson. Check out his website and blog at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

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