The American Nightmare
We havent got a European dream yet. Thats what weve got to get! Weve got to get a dream! A dream to build on!
America may be the worlds only superpower, but when it comes to projecting an alluring vision of the future, we are being left behind. So says author Jeremy Rifkin in The European Dream, a book that tries to articulate how and why the European Union (EU), and not the United States, is the humanist dream factory of tomorrow. The American dream, which was based on autonomy, private property and endless growth, is giving way to a vision of human interconnectedness in which well all be able to enjoy a rewarding life that, because its economically and environmentally responsible, wont simultaneously deprive some poor bastard of the same opportunity.
So expansive is the EUs vision its constitution runs for hundreds of pages that even animals get a look-in, and are formally accorded a bundle of rights. Rifkin notes that a 300-pound gorilla called Koko has been taught sign language and recognizes over 2,000 words. On human IQ tests, she scores between 70 and 95, putting her in the slow learner but not retarded category. Which, one can imagine a European sourly remarking, makes Koko at least as smart as the average American.
As well as being a prolific author (The Age of Access, The Hydrogen Economy), Rifkin is the president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C., and currently serves as an adviser to Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, the EUs governing body. Rifkins book, which weighs in at just over 400 pages, spends a great deal of time expanding on what neocon thinker Robert Kagan suggested in a handful of glib words: Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus. In The Metrosexual Superpower, an essay published in the journal Foreign Policy, Parag Khanna may have come even closer to the truth when he wrote, Brand Europe is taking over. By emphasizing diplomacy, international law, a more equal distribution of wealth and respect for the environment, the Europeans are making the Americans look bad. Never mind that European words often outstrip reality (the reek of car exhaust in Paris is astonishing to someone from L.A.); by saying all the right things, Europeans are attracting the kind of universal good will that Americans once enjoyed.
The EUs vision, writes Rifkin, emphasizes community relationships over individual autonomy, cultural diversity over assimilation, quality of life over the accumulation of wealth, sustainable developments over unlimited material growth, deep play over unrelenting toil, universal human rights and the rights of nature over property rights, and global cooperation over the unilateral exercise of power.
Nonetheless, Rifkin concedes that the EU still faces plenty of obstacles. It may be that the European dream is more suited for the global world, but there are problems there, he says, speaking by phone from his home in Washington, D.C. He allows that Europes population may simply be too old, too skeptical, and its dream too top-down and bureaucratic to have any realistic chance of succeeding.
Americans always believe tomorrow is going to be better than today, while Europeans are much more cynical. How can you have a dream without hope and enthusiasm? Can you have a dream for the future if youre pessimistic? But the young kids, the middle-class college students, are guardedly optimistic, and the reason for that is that Europe has opened up. Americans have always had a huge continent thats wide-open, but until recently Europe was bordered up. Now the kids have all of Europe at their beck and call, and it widens their horizons.
The EU-versus-the-U.S. debate is a hot journalistic topic, and Rifkin is by no means the only thinker to tout the EU as an already formidable superpower, though he may be one of the few Americans to openly welcome the development. Ironically, Americans disenchanted with the bellicosity of the Bush administration are looking longingly toward Europe just as Europeans are flexing their economic muscles and thinking about acquiring some serious military ones as well. Out of both a sense of their own burgeoning strength and an antipathy for Bush, they are starting to talk the talk and walk the walk. Before long they may even start to swagger. (In Brussels, eet eez called walking.)
In a recent issue of the London Spectator, Stephen Haseler, author of Super-State: The New Europe and Its Challenge to America, argued that, in keeping with its newfound status, the EU should set about coordinating a coherent nuclear strategy to counterbalance Washingtons. He also called for a militarily strong Germany at the heart of Europe, which, coming from a British publication, suggests just how deep the martial currents flow beneath all the calls for the use of diplomacy rather than force. A psychologist might argue that European rants against American power simply mask a fervent desire to have some of it for themselves. Imagine if Jacques Chirac, not George Bush, were the most powerful man in the world. I suspect wed all start to feel like a guest on a Gallic version of the Bill OReilly show. Tais-toi!
Just days into the war with Iraq, I spoke with a friend over coffee on the corner of Sunset and Highland. The café was empty (it is almost always empty), but since we both wanted to smoke, we had to stand outside in a grubby corner of the strip mall and drink our coffees there. My friend was in a doleful mood and announced that he wished he could move to France, where, if nothing else, he could smoke his cigarette inside. The French, he said, were a grown-up, sensible, mature people, with intelligent political leadership, as opposed to the cross-eyed idiot in the White House who was dragging us into an unnecessary war and embarrassing us before the whole world. Out of sympathy, I held my tongue and refrained from saying that, crosseyed though Bush might be, freeing Iraq of Saddam Hussein was the one American action of the last 10 years I took genuine patriotic pride in. It would be hard to think of a better use for an army than removing a repulsive thug like him . . .
But that isnt how the world sees it, it may not even be how a majority of Iraqis see it, and so the mirage of Europe looms ever larger in the left-leaning American imagination. It is the Mature Place, the Thoughtful Place, and judging from the reports of roving Americans, also the Sexy Place. (I dont go to bed with just anyone anymore, proclaims a slinky señorita in Whit Stillmans film Barcelona. I have to be attracted to them sexually.) Even in the guise of the leveling EU Euroland to our Dollarland it has an obvious linguistic and cultural variety that the United States, under the ceaseless barrage of pop culture, is beginning to lose. As depicted in Hollywood movies like The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy, the new Europe is a vast, almost frontierless zone of high-speed trains and midget cars, a babel of languages and cultures and landscapes and achingly gorgeous cities that can make our own United States look remarkably uniform in comparison.
Our image of Europe is of course somewhat selective, as is the Europeans of us. Christopher Caldwell pointed out in The New York Times that one example of Frances diplomatic genius is her ability to cloak conservative attitudes in impeccably idealistic language guaranteed to appeal to the liberal in all of us. Thus Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin, one of the heroes of the anti-war movement, wasnt criticized for threatening sanctions against the mayor who presided over Frances one and only gay marriage, because the French left, rather than being outraged by Villepins actions, sniffed that it was disappointingly petit bourgeois of gays to want to get married in the first place. And when Frances government banned the wearing of Islamic headscarves in schools, it did so not on nationalist or religious grounds but on feminist ones.
Nor do the French mess around when it comes to dealing internally with Islamic militants. According to the Jerusalem Post, they deal with them in ways that would make John Ashcroft envious deportations, mass trials, black and blue marks down at the police station. But as always, the language remains elevated and attuned to universal aspirations. Which is simply to say that the French, and the Europeans in general, have become adept at advertising their own brand and cloaking realistic security assessments in soothing phrases. We, on the other hand, announce that Youre either with us or against us, and the result is that almost overnight the entire world begins to sympathize with the latter group.
Let me lay out what I think is the context, says Rifkin, who talks at lightning speed and responds to simple questions with answers that, were they to be reproduced in their entirety, would run on for pages.
When Americans think of Europe, frankly we think of a great place to go on vacation and feed our souls. We also think of red tape, creaky bureaucracies, overburdened welfare systems and an aging population. Yes, theres a germ of truth to all of this. But Americans are completely asleep about the sheer magnitude and scope of the social and cultural experiment going on there. For example, the EU is the third largest governing institution in the world after China and India. It is the biggest economy in the world today. Its the largest exporting power in the world today, and has the worlds biggest internal market. Sixty-one of the [top 100] companies in the world are European. We lead in many industries, but Americans would be surprised to know that Europeans lead in banking, aerospace, insurance, construction and chemical industries, food distribution, and retail trade. Theyre powerful, and the reason we dont fix on this is because of a context problem. We normally compare individual countries to the U.S. Germany, France but now you have to compare Germany to California, and Germanys economy is much more powerful than Californias. The U.K. has a much more powerful economy than our second largest state, New York, and France is more powerful than Texas, which is the third. What you see when you compare the EU to the U.S. state for state is the enormity of whats happening.
Perhaps the simplest way to gauge the EUs growing strength is to consider what the final tally in the table of medals from the recent Olympic games would have looked like had all those European countries competed as one bloc, which they may start to do in 2008. (Answer: They would have thrashed us.) On the other hand, what exactly makes a Lithuanian the compatriot, in any genuine sense, of a Spaniard or a Greek? Can historical rivals such as France and Germany really blend seamlessly on a political and economic level while retaining full rights to their own cultural peculiarities? And what of the continents 25 million Muslims, some of whom speak tauntingly not of Europe but of Eurabia, zone of empty churches and proliferating mosques? European journalists may rage against America in the better sort of newspaper, but about Muslim imams who live in places like Birmingham and Oslo and Marseilles and call for the overthrow of the West, they are strangely reticent.
For Rifkin, the big question hanging over the EU is its low fertility rate, and the chapter he devotes to the subject almost brings the book to a crashing Pat Buchananesque halt. The EU could be the dominant economic power by around 2015, for five or 10 years, but then the fertility problem may ruin the experiment, he says. Unless the birth rate increases at an astronomic clip, Europe will be forced to open up its gates to the rest of the world even more than it already has.
Theyre going to have three retirees for every working person, and you cant sustain that . . . The problem is that we Americans know how to welcome new people, and Europes not used to it. Theyre worried that welfare will collapse, government services wont keep up, and there will be more social instability and even more far-right political parties. This is a concern all over the EU. The test is whether they can open up to immigration and still sustain multicultural diversity. If they dont, it will be their death knell.
But what about the American Dream? According to Rifkin, faith in our defining myth began to tank in the 1960s and has not recovered since. Furthermore, the dream itself has become outmoded, he says, since it is too go-it-alone and cowboyish for a densely connected world. During his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, President Bush said that the 21st century would be libertys century, a classically American concept that may no longer resonate in Europe.
It took me a very long time, going back and forth across the Atlantic, to realize that Americans have a different notion of freedom, Rifkin says. We associate it with autonomy and mobility and making enough money to not be dependent on others, but autonomy makes no sense to Europeans. For them it means isolation. Freedom is embeddedness, relationships, connections and access to communities.
Or, as he recently wrote in the London Guardian, Its about belonging, not belongings.
With Europe becoming a geographic free-for-all, Rifkin believes that the social glue that will hold people together is neither patriotism nor religion (We hate God, one of the EUs architects stated bluntly), but . . . empathy. In a world in which its no longer possible for people or countries to become islands unto themselves, the new human condition is vulnerability.
So, if thats the universal human condition, whats the dream? he asks. It would have to be identifying with the planet. What would be the glue? I say it has to be empathy. When we empathize with someone, its because of their vulnerability and their struggle to simply be. Human rights is an extension of empathy in universal form. The reason that interests me is that the centerpiece of the EUs constitution is universal human rights. Its the first constitution where universal human rights supersede the nation-state and territory.
If all this sounds a bit on the idealistic side, it is. The social glue that currently holds the EU together seems to be criticizing America, a form of propaganda, if not warfare, in itself. (Parlez-vous anti-American? as one wag put it.) But Rifkin insists that the EU constitution, or European dream, is now a greater global magnet, and makes more sense to more people than the American variant, because it conjures up a kinder, gentler world than our own.
But once it starts to feel its oats, can such a powerhouse as the EU really remain as wedded to diplomacy and soft power as it has been thus far? Robert Kagan asked whether Europeans dislike war because they do not have enough guns, or do they not have enough guns because they dislike war? Its a good question, and disenchanted Americans dreaming about the good life in metrosexual Europe will just have to wait and see whether, in the coming decades, Europe ends up going all macho on them. Less like David Beckham, in other words, and more like an English soccer fan.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.