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April 27, 2002

A brief detour into wild generalizations There’s been a lot of talk about growing differences between liberal-minded Americans (I use the word “liberal-minded” in its broadest and most inclusive sense), and Europeans of similar outlook, regarding the Middle East and related issues. How it seems to me: After decades of nodding along with endless assertions that Europeans understand things about the world and international affairs to which Americans are dense; that there’s something inherently narrow and provincial about the American outlook; that our politics are more prone to outbreaks of antidemocratic Babbitry…a lot of Americans like me have reached a point where we’re saying No. No, the European media and the European commentariat are no more insightful, or foresightful, than ours. No, European voters are just as prone to elect short-sighted nitwits. No, our democracy has spectacular problems, but it’s hard to imagine anything in recent American history to compare with (for instance) Margaret Thatcher’s comprehensive destruction of autonomous local government bodies, or the widespread European surrender of regulatory power to unelected transnational officials. No, the US is not a big dumb cowboy superpower that needs to talked down by softspoken European diplomacy. No, Europe is not Athens to our Rome. In fact, sometimes it’s as provincial as Peoria.

We’d like to stay friends. But the European and British intelligentsia, by and large, is like a friend who’s been allowed to be condescending for so long that he literally can’t see it any more. Even those of us in America who oppose this Administration and the right-wing apparatus to which it reports are no longer inclined to put up with unearned claims to greater European and British intellectual, cultural, and moral sensibility. In 1956, even in 1976 and 1986, the idea that somewhere outside America was a West that understood more about the world than Americans did was something that gave alienated Americans heart. (As Tom Wolfe so accurately characterized it: “Europe, where they have the art of living.”) So, as often happens between friends, we let bad habits grow: Europe’s habit of condescension, and America’s habit of putting up with it.

It’s not 1956, or 1986. It’s a different world. It’s not time to stop criticizing America. It’s not time to stop listening to Europe. But it’s time to stop the superiority dance and the cultural cringe. [01:55 PM]

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