Trans-Atlantic Comparisons (3) Is the US Really a Nation of God-Fearing Darwin-Haters?

By Peter Baldwin

Part 2: The Individual vs. The State

They may be scientific, then, but Americans are also thought of as die-hard individualists who live in a society of sharp elbows and an ethos of live and let live. They are imagined to be unusually anti-governmental in their political ideology -- practically anarchists, by European standards.

Yet a Pew Foundation survey in 2007 found that proportionately fewer Americans worried that the government had too much control than did Germans and Italians, with the French at the same level and the British just a percentage point lower. And a higher percentage of Americans trust their government than all Europeans, except only the Swiss and the Norwegians -- although no people, truth be told, demonstrates much faith in their elected representatives.

But talk is cheap, and these findings may indicate desire as much as reality. The trust of Americans in their state apparatus can be measured more concretely by their willingness to pay taxes. Unlike many Europeans, Americans pay the taxes required of them. Only in Austria and Switzerland are the underground economies as small. Tax avoidance is over three times the American level in Greece and Italy.

The archetypal Montana survivalist so beloved of the European media -- holed up in his shack and determined to resist the government's impositions -- is as uncharacteristic of America as the Basque or Corsican separatist -- ready to kill for his cause -- is of Europe.

The Real Difference

These are just a few examples of how the presumed chasm dividing the Atlantic is not, in fact, nearly as deep as opinion among the chattering classes and their mouthpieces believes. Why, then, does this notion persist -- even though a sober look at its empirical basis suggests that it is an inverted pyramid, a lot of conclusions perched on flimsy premises?

For one thing, the European press wants the juicy, titillating low-down. And America certainly dishes that up. It is not a culture accustomed to putting its best foot forward. Is there another nation that washes its dirty laundry so publicly? British tabloids aside, is there one where the seamy underbelly is more readily proffered for inspection? Hence that genre of such fascination to the European chattering classes: the tedious travelogue by the sophisticated European -- whether Bernard-Henri Lévy, Jean Baudrillard or Borat -- observing American yokels and reporting back with the smug assurance of superiority to other sophisticated Europeans.

Moreover, Europe's various cultures are ones still steeped in the lore of national stereotypes and quite happy to wring from them whatever elixir can be had.

Who can forget Edith Cresson, Mitterand's prime minister, who was convinced that no Frenchman was gay, while the English were all limp-wristed poofs? Or consider the extent to which no Europeans -- however otherwise politically correct -- can be shaken in their conviction that the Roma really are shifty and thieving.

Having a trans-Atlantic whipping boy is convenient and serves politically useful purposes, especially if there is little else that you can agree on. The purveyors of anti-Americanism in Europe appear to have rediscovered the truism that nothing unites like a common enemy.

And the Bush administration played into their hands by serving up caricatures by the spadeful. It will be interesting to see how the European pundits deal with Obama once he does something they do not like. While Bush could be portrayed as an ignorant cowboy, which of the available stereotypes will they dare lambast Obama with?

Here, we come to the grain of truth to the Atlantic divide. If there is anything that most separates American society from Europe, it is the continuing presence of an ethnically distinct underclass. Even as other outsiders have successfully assimilated, the tragic resonances of slavery in the black urban ghettos of America continue to prevail.

Indeed, take out the black underclass from the crime statistics, and American murder rates fall to European levels, below those in Switzerland and Finland, and even squeaking in under Sweden. Child poverty rates, which are scandalously high in the US, fall to below British, Italian and Spanish levels if we look at the figures for whites only. PISA scores for American whites (ranking secondary school proficiency, in this case, for combined science literacy in 2006) come above every European nation other than Finland and the Netherlands.

This is not meant to excuse the atrocious negligence with which the problems of racism have been dealt in the US. But it does suggest that, far more than any grand opposition of worldviews or ideologies, it is the still unresolved legacy of slavery and its tragic modern consequence that distinguishes -- to the extent anything does -- America from Europe. Whether Obama's election will mark a turning point in this respect remains to be seen.

And if it is this distinct urban underclass that most separates the US from Europe, Europeans should pay notice. In this respect, their societies are rapidly becoming more like America's. Europe's birthrates have plummeted, and immigration continues unabated. It is a demographic certainty that an ethnically and religiously distinct lower class in Europe will grow in the decades to come.

Perhaps Europe will turn out to have been lucky. Having instituted universalist social policies, highly regulated labor markets and redistributive fiscal policies in the belief that they were all -- so to speak -- being kept "in the family," Europe may weather the expansion of its social community. On the other hand, it may be that the social fabric will fray.

No one is arguing that America is Sweden. But neither is Britain, Italy, or even France. And since when does Sweden represent "Europe" -- at least anymore than the ethnically homogenous, socially liberal state of Vermont does America? Europe is not the continent alone, and certainly not just its northern regions.

With the entrance of all the new EU nations, it has just become a great deal larger. These new entrants are not just poorer than Old Europe. They, like Europe's many recent immigrants from Asia and Africa, are religious, skeptical of a strong state, unenthusiastic about voting and allergic to high taxes. In other words, from the vantage point of Old Europe, they are more like Americans.

And so, as Europe expands, the argument made here for western Europe -- that the differences across the Atlantic have been exaggerated -- will become irrefutable.

A note on sources: The data in this essay comes mostly from a handful of organizations that devote significant efforts to presenting internationally comparable figures: the UN, UNESCO, UNICEF, WHO, the IMF, the World Bank, Eurostat, the Sutton Trust, the World Values Survey, the ILO, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the International Association for the Study of Obesity, the World Resources Institute, the International Energy Agency, the International Social Survey Programme and, above all, the OECD.

This essay originally appeared in the magazine Prospect.

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