Troy Worden, Foreign Policy Contributor
As the Bush years undeniably illustrated, the biggest gripe other countries have with Americans is their propensity for unilateral action. Europeans especially disdain the modus operandi of the American – his belligerent swagger, his sense of ownership over the world. The Pax Americana has made us New Worlders speak loudly and carry a big stick, as if power were nothing unless accompanied by vulgarity. The ascension of president-elect Donald Trump to the White House will do nothing but reinforce this image, even if he visibly departs from his Texan predecessor in policy by avoiding nation building abroad. So why, then, should Europe care for an American’s opinion about Europe itself? If a Trump presidency means going it alone and making the member states of NATO and the UN pay their fair share, why should the European resist responding in kind?
I can offer no counter-argument convincing on its face. Nevertheless, I humbly offer my opinion – and an opinion I think many Americans could possibly share – to the European on the kind of Europe I want. It is not my place to dictate which policies Europe should adopt, but I hope our interests converge in this matter.
For instance, do Europeans want a thoroughly commodified Europe. By this I mean:– do Europeans want a Europe turned into pleasure gardens for tourists and tourists alone. This thought worms its way into my head whenever I am a tourist abroad in the Old World; I am but one individual among a crowd, a swarm, a mass of tourists looking to fritter away money in an extraordinarily aesthetic continent. I suspect the Marxist will sympathize with the picture I paint.
Every church is converted from holy house of God to footpath for the rabble; the nouveau riche of Asia and bourgeoisie of America do not enter these places of worship with uplifted thoughts or eyes – they ogle at the artwork and snap pictures if permitted. A Hamlet would not have the slightest hesitation in dispatching the whole lot of them, for they do not even assume the outer appearance of prayer.
The mundane world is no better. No non-Anglophone country can proudly demand its language be spoken within its borders; train stations, signs, announcements, mandatory foreign language classes in universities – English is the ineluctable lingua franca of the age. However flattered we Americans are that our mother tongue is spoken across the Atlantic, we can reflect on the negative cultural repercussions of this linguistic imperialism. An exercise in empathy: What if we proud English-bleaters were forced to accommodate East Asian or European tourists by becoming bilingual? Methinks we would not welcome this sort of extensive hospitality.
Turn now to the economies of Europe – what do you find? Where there should be artisanal workshops, local produce, things of quality, you find shops selling all manner of bric-à-brack, clutter, and cheap trinkets and souvenirs. Where is the diversity promised by the evangelizers of capitalism? Who condescends to buy so much mass-produced, indistinguishable stuff? The market is meeting a demand, but is this demand truly a necessity? If tourists unflinchingly demand baubles for their satisfaction, why permit them entry? If they want only unindividuated toys, why accept their dollars or yen? Is nothing more sacred than Mammon in Europe, the Europe whose churches and cathedrals outlast newer buildings by centuries, whose art and architecture testify to a spirit desirous of pleasing God and country at the expense of money. How many Eiffel tower key chains could have been produced by the wealth of nations had they not been squandered on actual monuments and the luxurious apartments of royalty!
These are just some of the symptoms of the new Black Death which now ravages Europe:– commercialism. Europeans enjoy such a high standard of living because they are subsidized by the funds of Americans and their international competitors. They should take a warning from the source of their prosperity; as a tourist I speak for their interest at the cost of my own. For much of my life I have been constantly drawn to Europe – culturally, intellectually, aesthetically. In my mind Europe is more an abstract idea than a concrete existence. My conception has met with some resistance now that I have finally visited the continent in person. No, I have undergone no paradigm shift, for I follow European politics closely enough to expect what I have seen, but only by actively engaging in the tourist industry have I fully taken stock of its significance. The Europe of today is not the Europe of the nineteenth or eighteenth centuries. The Grand Tour, originally meant to polish manners and cultivate the learning of aristocrats’ sons has now become the rude and unenlightening stomping of tourists past the greatest labors man has produced. To transplant oneself to Europe for but a few weeks or months and gawk at the Old World without realizing what it all means is the worst offense that can be done to a symbol. Like Herodias in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, we see the moon as just the moon and nothing more. We see everything without context, as a consumable good meant for our pleasure, converted into the number of euros or pounds it took us to get there. The folly – to think that Europe could even be worth something else!
Americans – well, I can only speak on my own behalf, but I am certain there are some who agree with me – want a Europe that exists as proudly as the United States – a Europe that exists for itself. Philosophers – and yes, even Americans – realize that that which is independent is superior to that which is not. A Europe with its own industry, a Europe that exports goods rather than imports tourists is undoubtedly a Europe which has, like a gem repolished, regained its luster. Will the tide of right-wing nationalism currently sweeping the Old World engender such a transformation? Or will the possible dissolution of the European Union necessitate a doubling-down on the tourism industry to sustain current standards of living? Self-reliance is both a gift and a curse; sometimes freedom entails selling one’s soul in order to get one’s bread. Libertarians often forget this.
What kind of Europe do Americans want? Better to ask:– What kind of Europe do Europeans want?
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