Monday, August 11, 2003

I’m in a characteristically melancholy kind of mood today. I went to sleep sick last night. I woke up this morning contemplating the dual corporeal and incorporeal natures of God. Sometimes I feel like an ubermädchen, and then I think that I’m only Nietzschean on the scale appropriate for the Sesame Street set. Which is all right, really. I’m not so into Nietzsche as all that.

When I was in Europe, I couldn’t help but sense this sort of omnipresent existentialism everywhere I went. It manifested in so many different, interconnected ways, that I’m having difficulty isolating a specific example of it. But the mood over there is different than at home. The core values of the culture just aren’t the same.

When I was in Europe, I learned more about what it was to be an American than I probably learned about what it meant to be a European. I was constantly questioned about my government’s policies regarding Iraq, the environment, and the United Nations. I was suspect for all of the usual reasons that Americans are stereotypically suspect: we’re loud and obnoxious; we show off our money; we think we’re better than everyone else; we only go to other countries to get drunk off our asses, and we’re too stupid to even attempt an understanding of indigenous cultures, etc. The usual stereotypes didn’t apply to me, but I had to deal with them anyway. And I had to deal with my own often very off-kilter stereotypes of Europeans.

The biggest incorrect assumption that I had about Europeans was that they’re basically just Americans who live on another continent. My reasoning was innocent enough; most Americans had great-grandparents who were Europeans, and America is a relatively young country with so much of “our” history being caught up in the histories of the countries our ancestors came from. But my reasoning was very, very wrong. And Europeans know this. They do not suffer from the American delusion that we have very much in common. In fact, America really does have a very unique history and culture all our own. Contrary to popular American opinion, our embrace of the pizza is not a sign of our cultural similitude to Italy, for instance.

In Zürich, Jody and I stayed with some distant relatives of her best friend. The oldest son in the family met us at the train station, and we’d brought with us our new friend from Sweden, Eleanor. Chris, Eleanor, Jody and I walked around Zurich, talking about the differences between Europeans and Americans. Chris said that the biggest difference he saw between the Swiss and Americans, was that Americans think they can fix anything. The Swiss work hard, he said, but they also think there’s a point past which situations cannot be helped. Americans make no such distinction. We’re entirely convinced that there’s a solution to every problem, and that if we work hard enough, we can figure out whatever the solution is. Eleanor pointed out that Americans work too much, and for the wrong reasons. Swedes, she said, only worked so that they could have fun with their time off work. Americans work so they can buy more things; and they’re happy enough never having time off at all, if it means they have big houses and big cars.

I think they were both spot on in their observations. Their observations, in fact, were things that I’d unconsciously observed myself, in the reverse of course. When I was in Europe, the thing that I most learned about Americans, the thing that makes us very different from Europeans, is that we’re still very convinced of the existence of, and very concerned with the status of, our eternal souls. Whereas most of Western Europe is solidly post-Christian, America is a country in which, as Peter Hitchens recently noted in an article about Anglicanism and English separation of Church and State, religion is still considered “normal.” Even though I was walking around Zürich with two European Christians, we were all painfully aware of the fact that they were different from the society around them. But even their categorical difference from the society around them didn’t keep them free of the influence of those societies, and so they were baffled by our American insistence on our own moral righteousness and our own moral unrighteousness.

Americans still believe in saints and sinners. We believe in the American dream; the social mobility which brings George Foreman from the ghetto to boxing glory to a grill near you. We’re still outraged when our leaders fail us; we still expect our politicians to do the right thing. We talk about George W. Bush’s strong moral leadership, and we don’t blush when we do so. We believe in all of these things in spite of mounting evidence that the American Dream is not so much a fantasy as an outright lie; that all of politics is a game of power and chance in which ethics are either quickly trampled or which cause a politician’s quick trampling; and in spite of the prevailing worldview that, not only are there no saints and sinners, but as Nietzsche pronounced it over a century ago, there is no God.

For Europeans, it’s just a little different. Europeans do not put their hope in social mobility, nor is there much of a historical precedent for doing so. Some people are born kings, and some people are born paupers; such is life. That doesn’t mean that they don’t work hard, or that they don’t believe they can advance. Just that the Dream for them is a dream and not the mythical stuff of pop culture. They’re much more prone to credit situations for personal successes and failures than individuals themselves. One guy is rich because his father was rich, and he went to the best schools and had all of the advantages in life; another guy is poor because he grew up in the ghetto and faced discrimination and the temptation of drug culture. Americans, by contrast, say one guy is rich because he’s industrious and made good use of his resources; another guy is poor because he lacked ambition to climb out of the ghetto, and had a weak character that found him quickly addicted to drugs. Europeans don’t worry so much that their leaders are righteous and moral; they quite expect that they’re not, and accept it as one of life’s situational difficulties that they must deal with them. And religion is not a thing for the public sphere anyway. Mother Teresa and her like be damned, the UN is the right man for the job for distributing aid to foreign countries; saints and sinners are the stuff of history and legend, not modern practicality. People are the results of their situations, is all, and while Mother Teresa was very nice, she’s an anomaly and not to be considered part of the people as a whole.

And Eleanor was right about what drives American labor forces. But she failed to understand the underlying basis of it. It’s not that Americans are materialists, really. We are not necessarily obsessed with owning “stuff.” Americans see the owning of stuff as the visible symbols of their success. And their success, of course, is the proof of their own moral righteousness. Being the Protestant Calvinist retches that we all are, even our Catholics are Protestant Calvinists in this respect, Americans are quick to believe that we can see how much God loves someone by how much God blesses their lives. As such, Americans, even the ones who are almost entirely secular, and even those who pay a lot of lip service to a St. Francis and his poverty-stricken way of life, are quick to get “stuff” so that they can assure themselves and others of their own salvation. Americans not only believe that they’re the elect, that glorious city on a hill, but we have a secret nighttime terror that maybe it’s no so, and as such, we’re manically driven to prove in the only way that we know how, that the God we can’t help but believe in still loves us. “Faith alone” is all well and good, but Americans are still convinced that idle hands are the devil’s plaything, and we believe quite fervently in our own individual ability to affect the outcome of our soul’s judgment. And hence we work for stuff, and never have time to enjoy the stuff, and we’re not concerned with it.

For Europeans, it’s different. Europeans don’t, culturally, even believe in salvation, much less that stuff is a sign of it. And so stuff is not so inherently important to the European as the American. Additionally, insofar as circumstance and situation are believed to determine how much stuff a person can get, and individual ability and aptitude don’t have much to do with it at all, the power of the status symbol is significantly reduced. Which is not to say that Europeans don’t like stuff, because they do. They’re certainly materialists on the same order as Americans. The main difference is the moral overtone that Americans have and Europeans don’t. Europeans are post-Christian, and they’ve seen their great leaders fall. Hitler promised salvation, you know, and Lenin promised salvation; and all they brought was destruction.

Berlin was my favorite city in Europe. And I think it’s because it’s the city in which all of this was most overtly displayed. Berlin is all about rebellion and old scars and amazing hope. Berlin is very much alive. But the Eastern half of Berlin is much more alive, in my sight, than the Western half. There is nothing much in West Berlin to distinguish it from the rest of Western Europe. But in East Berlin, there’s something just a little different. There’s all the madness of years of oppression, and frustration, suddenly being lifted in a glorious revolution of the people. East Berlin is all anarchy t-shirts, and spiked up, dyed hair. East Berlin parades its pain before you for your viewing pleasure, while quietly lifting your wallet from behind. East Berlin believes in opportunity; in individual advancement. It’s tired of bemoaning its circumstance, and it’s full of entrepreneurial spirit. East Berlin is piss and vinegar. The West is green, respectable, full of grin-and-bear it.

I don’t know where all this is heading. Except to say that I see something of a tear in the American populace, almost akin to what I see in Berlin, though the specifics are almost entirely opposing. In America, you’ll find the piss and vinegar in the buttoned up, crew-cut, respectable crowd. And the “revolutionaries” are all full of whimpers about circumstance. Half of America believes in God; and, as Flannery O’Connor wrote about it once, the American South is downright haunted by Him. But half of America is growing increasingly secular. Half of American demands personal responsibility; half of America is concerned with the collective well-being as seen through the lens of the collective and with relief as administered through the collective whole. Increasingly, there are two Americas. And it will be interesting to see if these two Americas can cohere as one.