Observations of a European in America
In Response to ‘Murica and Other Fallacies
By Ville Lampi
“This particular individual, a relatively inebriated university student, was even more distracting than the words he was butchering. He held a Heineken in one hand, a loosely gripped cigarette in the other hand and wildly gestured with every syllable.”
This image only lacks a lopsided beret and the stereotypical image of the French would be perfected. In his article, Murica and Other Fallacies, in the previous issue of the Observer, Ryan Baker seems to want to subvert the predominant stereotype of Americans. “The spirit of anti-Americanism in Europe is at odds with itself,” he notes, referring to conflict between Europeans’ love for American cultural products and their disdain for, well, pretty much everything else. Surprisingly, Baker starts his observations with the cookie-cutter French image, which does not seem to be the most constructive way to dispel stereotypes. The student is depicted as “butchering” words as if it were not enough that he is communicating with a native speaker of English in their own language. This denigrating attitude makes me hope that Baker’s own French is impeccable and his pronunciation indistinguishable from the native Parisians’ way of speaking.
While starting one’s article about why Europeans do not like Americans by showing a sense of superiority based on better command of English is problematic on its own, I was further frustrated by the image of America presented in the article. Baker seems to take the idea of freedom in American society as a given. The United States is supposedly a country in which “[you] can be who you want to be.” Apparently, the ability to follow one’s dreams is the driving force behind the American media presence in Europe. “[The] freedom with which American society has evolved has created the beautiful monster that is our culture.” This attempt to prove the uniqueness of the American “you can be who you want to be” mentality – supposedly the cause of jealousy in Europe – is fundamentally frail, employing the rhetoric of freedom so common in American society without ever questioning it. The America in Baker’s article is a land where citizens “question tradition, root for the underdog and believe in the pursuit of individual happiness.” As France moves same-sex marriage legislation through its parliament while similar efforts in America are repeatedly put down over appeals to tradition, is Baker’s depiction of the Land of the Free a truly honest appraisal?
Furthermore, Baker fails to make a reasonable comparison between the French (or European) and American societal structures, nor does he consider how the image of America differs between Europe and the United States. Instead, he seems to argue, see, you like to watch Jersey Shore, so you must like the society that produced it. There is no differentiation between the society and its products, which seems as valid as stating that if I enjoy Heineken over PBR, I must also be in favor of Dutch immigration policy.
The American cultural products – TV series, fast food chain restaurants, pop music, etc. – are the products and stories of winners. Pop stars from meager backgrounds, coming from single-parent families and waiting tables, rising to global fame and making millions with their music, are presented as the incarnation of the American Dream. However, these cases that spread into the European consciousness are individual stories that ignore the systemic inequalities in American society. Europeans hardly ever see this side of American society, but it is arguably far more representative of reality. Before visiting downtown Detroit during my freshman year of college, I had never seen so much homelessness and poverty. Without talking with my friends about their public high schools or their choice of not attending one, I would have never understood the sheer size of some schools, nor would I have known how poorly-funded they were. These stories are hardly ever discussed within the United States; no wonder they are rarely heard outside of its borders. Those who wish to have a serious discussion about inequality in America are typically drowned out by a freedom, liberty and Founding Fathers mad lib. For example, during the debates about the Affordable Care Act, many of the loudest voices were questioning whether the act would take away the freedom to choose one’s health insurance provider, avoiding much discussion over how best to insure the tens of millions of Americans who lacked insurance in the first place.
I wonder what a European would say if they were placed into the same niche of the American society that they occupy in their home country. The cleaning lady would find herself without union support, the unemployed auto worker would find himself with no monthly allowance to pay his rent and the mother or father of a newborn child would realize that they have no right to paid family leave. I believe that many Europeans would say that their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have been greatly diminished by their change in nationality. If the idea of America in Europe is as one-sided as the exposure to American films, music, food and TV shows, how can “the perception of Americans” be anything more constructive than “one part jealousy and one part disdain”?
Personally, not having grown up surrounded by such rhetoric, I find the America’s focus on freedom strange. Many high schools do not have qualified teachers, some school districts cannot afford books and universal health insurance faces the threat of repeal. From my point of view, when a country is more worried about the freedom to choose a health insurance provider than it is about making sure that everyone has health insurance in the first place, it has an unbalanced, unrealistic conception of freedom. When corporations and individuals making millions of dollars pay less in taxes than I have paid, America’s sense of freedom becomes twisted. When workers uniting in order to fight against said corporations can be banned by legislation, it has an unjust sense of freedom. America does, at times, appear to be a country where freedom is defined as being able to choose between Pepsi and Coke or McDonald’s and Wendy’s – freedom to choose based on the narrow field of options that someone else is handing to you.
“America adopted values that reflected more of our individual wants and less of our moderating traditions…So while these values may not be high-minded, the reasons we have them in the first place are.” Baker sums up what his interactions with the French have taught him. I see nothing wrong with this statement; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the fundamental tenets of the American nation. However, I do see a problem when the examples of these tenets in action are presented as being able to enjoy watching “TV shows about people getting drunk and going to crazy parties, fighting with their exes or being sixteen and pregnant” instead of hearing about extensive action to provide affordable housing to homeless people, and other social justice causes. From an outsider’s perspective, the illusion of choice offered by the consumerist society – the amount of differently packaged products, the impressive number of TV channels and the ever-changing list of hottest celebrities; all offered by a few companies maintaining a majority stake of the market – hides the fundamental framework in which freedom can exist: Free people are, indeed, people who can become who they want to be. But they must also have the means to do it.