14 January 2015

Europeans think Americans have "gone crazy"

Excerpts from a thought-provoking TomDispatch essay by Ann Jones reposted at Salon:
Americans who live abroad... often face hard questions about our country from people we live among. Europeans, Asians, and Africans ask us to explain everything that baffles them about the increasingly odd and troubling conduct of the United States.  Polite people, normally reluctant to risk offending a guest, complain that America’s trigger-happiness, cutthroat free-marketeering, and “exceptionality” have gone on for too long to be considered just an adolescent phase...

Then recently, I traveled back to the “homeland.”  It struck me there that most Americans have no idea just how strange we now seem to much of the world...

At the absolute top of the list: “Why would anyone oppose national health care?” European and other industrialized countries have had some form of national health care since the 1930s or 1940s, Germany since 1880.  Some versions, as in France and Great Britain, have devolved into two-tier public and private systems.  Yet even the privileged who pay for a faster track would not begrudge their fellow citizens government-funded comprehensive health care...

In Norway, where I live, all citizens also have an equal right to education (state subsidized preschool from age one, and free schools from age six through specialty training or university education and beyond), unemployment benefits, job-placement and paid retraining services, paid parental leave, old age pensions, and more.  These benefits are not merely an emergency “safety net”; that is, charitable payments grudgingly bestowed upon the needy.  They are universal: equally available to all citizens as human rights...

In all the Nordic countries, there is broad general agreement across the political spectrum that only when people’s basic needs are met — when they can cease to worry about their jobs, their incomes, their housing, their transportation, their health care, their kids’ education, and their aging parents — only then can they be free to do as they like...

Other things I’ve had to answer for include:
  • Why can’t you Americans stop interfering with women’s health care?
  • Why can’t you understand science?
  • How can you still be so blind to the reality of climate change?
  • How can you speak of the rule of law when your presidents break international laws to make war whenever they want?
  • How can you hand over the power to blow up the planet to one lone, ordinary man?
  • How can you throw away the Geneva Conventions and your principles to advocate torture?
  • Why do you Americans like guns so much?  Why do you kill each other at such a rate?
They’ve watched the United States unravel its flimsy safety net, fail to replace its decaying infrastructure, disempower most of its organized labor, diminish its schools, bring its national legislature to a standstill, and create the greatest degree of economic and social inequality in almost a century. They understand why Americans, who have ever less personal security and next to no social welfare system, are becoming more anxious and fearful...

What baffles so many of them, though, is how ordinary Americans in startling numbers have been persuaded to dislike “big government” and yet support its new representatives, bought and paid for by the rich.
There's more at the link.

Posted for my expat cousin Karl in Barcelona, who undoubtedly has to answer the same questions.


  1. Can't blame them sometimes....


  2. I assure you, Europeans, that the feeling is entirely mutual.

    If I was confronted with the questions that Jones lists, I'd just politely change the subject. There would be no hope arguing with such people.

    1. I'm with this guy. Universal Healthcare is the reason why western Europe is stuck in the dark ages.

    2. Yeah, I'm with both you guys! Having guaranteed health care has repeatedly and unequivocally been proven to be the number one cause of everything from our continued economic downturn to the inevitable rise in global terror. How is it that Europeans fail to see the obvious? Maybe having to worry about how they're gonna pay their medical bills would smack some sense into them!

  3. My answer will be a lot shorter than intended, firefox ate my comment twice.

    I am an European and I live in Europe and I follow American politics very closely. Let me just say five things.

    1. Europe is many countries and peoples. The nordic countries are a social democrat's wet dream but not at all represantative for Europe as a whole (but definitely great people there, Swedish and Norwegian are also beautiful languages to just listen to).

    2. This piece does *not* read like anything written from or about a specific European point of view but from a very specific partisan point of view (i.e. 'liberal', or what we here would call it: 'left')

    3. I will try to give you a non-partisan overview on general European critizisms of America today:
    - wars, international laws, drone killings, NSA in Europe, torture, and so forth - the non-partisan version on this is: we generelly feel you at least overdid it a bit recently
    - guns, not everyone finds your way with guns bad, but almost everyone finds it weird
    - health care, this one is completely true. We Europeans think of public health care like it was a law of nature. (Still: after having been able to study our systems' strengths and weaknesses for decades I would have thought that your system would not turn out to be such a bureaucratic mess!)
    - death penalty
    More informed (about America that is) Europeans would probably add:
    - your prison system
    - opposition to evolution theory
    - absurd costs of even minor election campaign + influence of donors (why the xxx should actors and musicians have such a strong influence on politics?!) [don't get me wrong: I am aware about lobbyists, but those guys we have over here as well and also in force]
    - pre-occupation with race
    - de-industrialization and decaying infrastructure seems just unnecessary

    4. Europe and America are actually very much alike by now. The major political debates are more or less faught the same. So an American liberal and a European left would probably find more common ground than each one with a conservatice countryman.

    5. The grass is always greener on the other side. Your congress seems inefficient, yes, but Belgium recently needed more than a year to just build a government coalition after their general elections. And think about Greece, which is just shy of becoming a failed state. Your education system is optimizable for sure, but does anyone believe Rumania's system is better? The role of organized labor is a question that offers endless debate, but there are some European countries who would be more than happy if their public infrastructure wasn't completely disabled monthly by competing unions (or union leaders campaigning for reelection).

    Bonus remarks: Almost no European would even know what is meant by "Americans interfering with women’s health care" (aren't women Americans too?) and the line about "understanding science" just baffles me, since in my experience most Europeans are very much aware of the fact that American universities are shining examples of scientific excellence in the STEM fields and that European education on the other hand seems to be on the wrong track.

    Anyway: Come visit! We have cookies.

  4. That's obviously a seriously leftist line of questions, and one might counter by asking why France doens't try to emulate Signapore or Washington state to solve some of their economic problems.

    And how is that people from an area still remarkable for its hostility to Muslims, various sorts of hostility to Jews, mistreatment of the Roma, and so forth, has standing to call out America? We're no saints but neither are they.

    "Europe" does not have "national healthcare" - the Nations of Europe have their own systems, so far as I can tell no two are the same, many of them face similar pressures to our own. Given this I find it odd that anybody expects the entire US (as opposed to each state) to have a socialized healthcare system.

    The statement that "only when people are secure in .... can they really be free" is in manifest contradiction with history, and indeed, with natural selection....

    Finally, individual nations of Europe are by American standards small, and many of them quite homogenous culturally and ethnically. Comparing Sweden or worse Denmark to the whole US is silly - Denmark's whole population is about equal to Chicago.

    The remark about 1 person and nuclear war is sort of odd - are they claiming the Prime Minister of the UK doesn't wield similar power?

    If America is so screwed up, why is it that we call the shots (perhaps incorrectly) on so many topics while Europe either goes alone or whimpers in the background?

    As for science - most of it doesn't matter in daily lives - whether people believe in natural selection or not doesn't affect most people most of the time. The huge forces around energy, poverty, wealth, and politics, mean that whether people believe in global warming or not is largely irrelevent.

    The one word reply to main post - BS...

  5. I am an American who has lived in Europe. I have been asked a lot of those questions. My answer, interestingly, is not unlike how Anonymous, above, talks about Europe. When people ask about America's religious bigotry, murder rates, and apparent anti-science attitudes, I usually start with something along the lines of: "Well, the U.S. is a big country. In a place that big, you are going to have a few people doing and saying all sorts of things. The fact that you see it on the news means that we're astounded by it too. Don't get the idea that those things represent everybody. What if we assumed that everything that was true in some part of Europe was true of all Europeans?" That usually goes a long way toward helping people get a more accurate image of things.

    That said, the U.S. is way out of step with regard to health care. And here I usually have to explain how it would be great to have national health care, and there is for many Americans (Medicare, Medicaid), but health care and health insurance is now such a large chunk of our economy (~18%, I think) that we it's tough to change. A true competitive national health service would therefore destroy our economy. Most Europeans then understand that we're not crazy with completely different values; we're just victims of economic circumstance struggling with things the same way they often do. Discussions about religion often arise with Northern Europeans, who tend to be more secular. Here I again remind them that the U.S. is a big country, and that in general the U.S. feels a lot more secular to me than, say, Italy. We tend to forget that the Roman Catholic Church still holds a lot of power, but it's a religion. Same with the Dalai Lama. Why do these guys have the ears of major world leaders, including Europeans? Should they? These guys are not from the U.S., and never could be. Christian protestant ethics permeate German society. It's just so ubiquitous that they don't even notice it. Islam is way less integrated in Europe, compared to the U.S. I have watched Mosques and Hindu temples get built around me in the U.S. with nary a murmur. But remember the anti-minaret stuff in Switzerland a few years ago? What about current events in France? Europe thinks the U.S. has religious problems only because they quashed theirs a long time ago and mostly haven't had to deal with it since them. Ask Europeans to explain the 30 years war.

  6. (...continued...)

    Higher education in the U.S. definitely has less government subsidy, but it's also WAY more accessible. European students may get college education free, but they are segregated into college and non-college (trade school) tracks starting at ages that most Americans would find offensively young. American culture places high value on individuality, compared to Europeans, which tend to be a bit more collectivist. We think anyone who is willing to 'work for it' (e.g. $$$) should be able to go to college. I am not going to say that Europeans are more classist (although they are, in a traditional sense), because America has a strong class system based on money. And THAT is the key to understanding a lot of things about American culture. We don't have the history where we could build up a class system based on pedigree or geography. Our class system is (and has been for a long time) based on money. This is useful because it precipitates an interesting discussion of classism in Europe vs America, and how the different values lead to different priorities on an individual and societal basis.

    As for America's militarism -- we are the sole superpower. We are an Empire. By definition, that means that we have our noses poked into all parts of the world in often unpopular ways. Europeans can complain about that, but then we can remind them how the Pax Americana benefits them economically. They have health care and greta infrastructure because they don't need to spend so much on their militaries any more. They have cheap import and export because the U.S. rules the seas.

    Let's see if this comment posts. I have read this blog for years, but have not been able to comment using Safari for years, and had to fire up a different browser for this. Fingers crossed...

  7. Reading it over, my two part comment above seems like a defense of the U.S. I didn't really mean it that way, because I don't feel a defense is really needed. I have no problem with the questions in the original article. Indeed, I've been asked those same sorts of questions a lot. However, I do have a problem (like the other Anonymous, who called it B.S., though I wouldn't go that far) with the article writer's apparent attitude that the U.S. has screwed up. I don't think it's that simple. We simply have different solutions and approaches, just like different European countries do. Playing games with lopsided comparisons like Alabama to Sweden or Massachusetts to Greece or Alaska to Germany. And lumping all those states together as the U.S. and those countries together as Europe... That's just rhetoric. I don't think it's useful, and I don't think deeper thinkers on either side of the Atlantic do that. There are things I personally like about Europe, sure, and other things I like about the U.S. But I don't think either place has it uniquely 'figured out'.

  8. nothing new, really. been fielding these types of questions since the mid-90s.

  9. Neither European nor American conservatives (republicans) know the difference between freedom and anarchy, so there is something both unions have in common.
    So when educated yet dim-witted people, and yes, they are legion, speak of free market, they actually describe unfree and unrestrained anarcho-capitalism. When someone parrots the evokative buzzwords like 'nanny state' or 'thin government', they actually are blissfully unaware that the majority of taxes goes to pay interest on government debt rather than government employment wages.

    Finally European contries are not socialist, it's just that a democratic society seeks to integrate all people rather than austracise or inprison "undesirables", leading to absurdities like "war on drugs" or "war on terror". The terms of how big a help or chance people get are negotiated again and again, the capitalist way.

    Ruling parties in Europe are also heavily influenced (corrupted) by big capital, laws are written and rewritten by lobbyists, but at least there are green, left wing, right wing and various "opposition" parties present in the partliaments to oversee and catch the worst transgressions.

    I worry about the US which was the model, supporter and inspiriation for many of modern European constitutions after WW2 and after the Cold War, yet it is stuck with a constantly dead-locked 2 party system, a hoplessly outdated constitution, without any commercially independent / state sponsored media, and what often seems a powerless puppet government.

  10. " ...blissfully unaware that the majority of taxes goes to pay interest on government debt rather than government employment wages."

    This is not even close to true for the U.S. Which European countries is it true for?

    As for the origins and consequences of a two party system, I found this very enlightening. I highly recommend it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7tWHJfhiyo

  11. Every country has its issues and its benefits. Some of those things mentioned aren't really issues.

    If you look at any European country, they have major issues right now as well (with Switzerland possibly excepted, and to a lesser extent Germany). But most Americans are blissfully unaware that Europe is having problems. There is rightly a lot of focus on the issues of Greece and Spain, but France had major issues even before the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

  12. From where I sit, here in the middle of France, having actually visited the majority of the "United" States that comprise your Republic and having met many U.S.citizens throughout the world and invited them into my life I think I can safely say that this article by Ann Jones (Dodged that apostrophe quite nicely.) hits it bang on the head.

  13. I'm American, born and bred, and could belong to the DAR, should I wish to. Reading some of the comments makes me sad. Justifying things like militarism, anti-science, no national health care is just whistling in the dark. We have too many uneducated people who vote against their own self-interest because of deep belief in one thing, be it the right to bear arms everywhere, or the perception that one party is for white people and will keep the darker-skinned people down, I truly fear for my country's future. Seats in Congress are bought by the highest bidder, and then used to further their interests rather than those of the American people.

    I used to be a Republican, as was everyone in my family, going back to Lincoln. Now everyone, even my daughter the banker, is a Democrat or Green Party. Just to mention one issue, I remember my father saying that Republicans stood for individualism and keeping politics out of the bedroom. How far has the party devolved from that! Why do young people have to mortgage their futures just to get a college education?

    I need to stop. But you can see where I'm coming from.

  14. Q. Why can’t you Americans stop interfering with women’s health care?
    A. A national healthcare system doesn't interfere, at all , ever?

    Q. Why can’t you understand science?
    A. Lot's of us do, thanks. You do recall who go to the moon and did a little golfing right?

    Q. How can you still be so blind to the reality of climate change?
    A. It's really not agreeing with the solutions of wealth redistribution and carbon sin taxes but folks feek if you give an inch the other side takes a mile so there's a whole lot of pretending going on, and in case you didn't notice it's been pretty f'n cold in the U.S. lately.

    Q. How can you speak of the rule of law when your presidents break international laws to make war whenever they want?
    A. Well, where are those court decisions for the international laws that were actually broken? I'm all for ending the imperial presidency myself but as our congress drags it's heels in that regard wouldn't it help if the something besides complaining came from somewhere else?

    Q. How can you hand over the power to blow up the planet to one lone, ordinary man?
    A. You leader has no power?

    Q. How can you throw away the Geneva Conventions and your principles to advocate torture?
    A. Well aside from a few disgusting violations the Geneva Conventions were not broken, someone should really try reading those things sometime there's all sort of horrible things in there that are still okay.

    Q. Why do you Americans like guns so much? Why do you kill each other at such a rate?
    A. The guns my family owned have never hurt a soul, we don't all kill each other at such a rate. We are also in the Western hemisphere not Europe, take a look at the rest of the homicide rates in the western hemisphere and wonder why we aren't worse.

    1. "in case you didn't notice it's been pretty f'n cold in the U.S. lately."

      LOL. I can't BELIEVE someone actually said that in this blog. That is the CLASSIC response of climate-change deniers who ignore all the data ("It's not getting warmer because this week it was quite cold in some parts of the country.") Amazing that anyone still thinks that is a valid argument.

      That even outranks the self-contradictory "aside from a few disgusing violations the Geneva Conventions were not broken" and the non-logical "my family haven't killed anyone so guns can't be that bad."

    2. You do recall that we went to the moon when the talking snake believers were safely in their place? Right now, we have people in charge who can't even distinguish climate from weather- as you yourself go out of your way to demonstrate...


    3. Stan I explained why so many people have issues with global warming. I also pointed out...hey look here it's still wintery in winter (most folks have no concept of minor changes). Step back from the preachy "if you aren't an acolyte of the church of AGW and wealth redistribution you gotta be a daft troglodyte that doesn't grok science B.S." okay?

    4. Sorry, JD- I somehow must've blew right by your in depth, climate break down concerning "feeling" and "pretending." Maybe, it's just me! Why I can't even understand how anyone would say that their family's guns "have never hurt a soul," and actually offer that as a supposedly rational counterbalance to this country's now regular slaughter of innocents.

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. Stan B. how can you not understand the statement "The guns my family owned have never hurt a soul" and go on to assume there is some nuance of that statement applies elsewhere? I know darned well not a single firearm owned by anyone in my family has been used to harm another person for three generations. It's completely rational and absolutely accurate to statement to say the firearms my family owns and has owned have harmed no one.

      I have had to depend on the threat of using a firearm three times in my life to protect myself or my family and no one was harmed. Once an idiot with a knife to my brothers throat, a second time someone trying to break into my apartment in the middle of the night while my wife and baby slept, and a third time a car full of thugs who thought they had the right to settle a traffic altercation with violence (in front of a police station no-less).
      None of those scenarios would have played out better for anyone involved with the absence of the threat of a firearm. My brother cut, me tussling with an intruder in the middle of the night before the cops could show, or me ripped from my car and stomped into pavement before the police could respond are not favorable scenarios. The notion gun owners are universally fire-first and think second sort of people is complete prejudicial garbage.

      In what rational world do we prefer the brutal and manic to have an advantage over others becasue other people lack the means to defend themselves?

  15. The comments on this post only prove further how strange Americans are :) And that anonymous "European" guy with long posts who is clearly a Brit and would like to be over the rainbow, on the right side of the Atlantic.

  16. Stan,

    Today I officially stop reading your comment section. Thanks again for your blog, it is very instructive and amusing.

  17. Ah yes, we americans are SO HORRIBLE! And, just like the SO HORRIBLE Russians, Chinese, Indians, and well, most everybody else on Earth, the Righteous and Enlightened Europeans [1] have very little ability to make us change our ways.

    [1] The Righteous and Enlightened Europeans who probably will not be able to keep the Eurozone together, have about as many or more firearm manufacturers as the US does, and were at the center of two of the most horrible wars in history, one still in living memory. The US obsessed with race? Looked at the list of rising parties in Europe of late?

  18. A sizable number of responses here from Americans prove your post, Stan. It's shameful how ignorant, spoiled, and selfish we are as a nation.

  19. Honestly as an American: 1) I hate it here too. 2) But I can't leave bc nobody else's door is open.

    I haven't wanted to be American in years. Yet no other country will take me in so... idk. ON the one hand I'm asking these questions too, on a constant basis. Yet on the other, I have looked into what it takes to get into one of these better countries, and it's impossible. Nobody is allowed in (not that America is easy to immigrate to either--totally not what I'm saying). So like, ok yeah i admit my country is terrible--but the solution that would honestly work best for me and my loved ones? Is not an option bc hey we're nearly homeless, disabled, and were not educated. Bc America. So... idk. I would very much like to move to Norway or even Britain, but y'all won't let me in bc I'm seen as just as 'useless' to your government as I am to my own (heck, my own sends me clear messages that as someone who is disabled, *I should just kill myself, and decrease the surplus population*).

    Soooo, idk. If Europe thinks America is so horrible, why aren't Americans granted refugee status yet? We are literally living in a dystopia at this point. I would love to leave. Please let me leave. I need basic human needs. My wife needs them. We don't want to live here anymore, our country doesn't want us to live anymore. I've looked into almost every immigration possibility and they're all impossible for a couple of homeless disabled trans kids from abusive homes, who can't afford what our own nation calls 'an education' or 'a job' (bc jobs cost money in America, idk what it's like outside).

    Sorry I know this is deeply personal for a blog comment but this issue literally makes me cry with how much I want to get out of here and how scared I am that I never will.

    1. Learn a bit of French (Tip:- Buy Canadian versions of all your favourite movies and watch them with the French soundtrack.) and come on over.
      Better here than in a country that is governed by a group of people who think they are in charge but are allowing themselves to be manipulated by a world wide group of incredibly powerful industrialists.


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