[This is the first in a series of blog posts on anti-American sentiment in Europe, based in part on a mini-series produced by the Finnish Broadcasting Company, and continuing our wider inspection of Dumb Europeans.]
In my junior year of high school, our geography teacher asked the class to join her in a thought experiment. Imagine you had to leave Finland for good and settle down in another country, never to return. Which part of the world would you most likely want to move to, and where would you not even consider living?
On the top of my list were, I think, Canada, the US, and Sweden, which seemed culturally and linguistically like a good fit. But the surprising result of the poll was that an overwhelming majority of my classmates named America as the number-one country they would never, under any circumstances, make home. This despite the fact that we all ate at McDonald’s, wore Nike shoes, watched MTV and Hollywood movies, and none of us understood or followed international politics.
In 2004, I did move to the US, eventually becoming a citizen, and I’ve been obsessed with how Europeans relate to America ever since. Writing about the topic in the Finnish media, as an expat living in New York, made me question — and shed — many of my own beliefs, which I had previously thought were based on a coherent political outlook.
To express the attitude in the form of a joke: What’s the difference between an American liberal and a European liberal? An American liberal is harshly critical of the United States’ role in world affairs and of the flaws in American society, whereas a European liberal is harshly critical of the United States’ role in world affairs and of the flaws in American society.
There are very good reasons to oppose the US government — especially if your tax dollars go towards paying for its actions, as mine do. But European anti-Americanism has a wholly irrational, emotional dimension to it. It’s a toxic brew of socially acceptable prejudices, intellectual laziness, hypocrisy, jealousy, and fear. At its worst, it makes people blind to the terrible policies pursued by their own governments and by the EU — even when they mirror or support the very US policies we claim to oppose.
There’s an additional layer of cognitive dissonance to this mentality. As historian Seth Armus, author of French Anti-Americanism: Critical Moments in a Complex History, told me, one of the most striking demonstrations of European ambivalence towards the US comes from a poll taken right after 9/11 in France. When asked which country they disliked the most, a majority of the French named America; but when asked which country they felt closest to, America made the top of that list, as well. This reminds me of my old high school teacher’s experiment with her Pepsi-drinking students.
“These Romans are crazy!”
Asterix, the classic French comic book series, is often seen as containing a hidden critique of American cultural imperialism. No wonder that its bumbling Roman soldiers look more like extras from old Hollywood epics than, say, present-day Italians. A popular turn of phrase among the brave Gauls — most frequently uttered by the hero’s dumb sidekick Obelix — goes: “These Romans are crazy!” If someone gave me a euro every time a conversation culminated in a similar exclamation about Americans, I’d be a rich man. It can serve almost as a punctuation, a shorthand for a sad reality we all know: “Yankees are stupid!”
Not only are they stupid, but shallow, pretentious, and narcissistic. Above all else, though, they are stupid. And it is perfectly acceptable for me to call them uneducated idiots in polite company, or in a blog post, seeing as their ignorance has, in part, caused their society to become so utterly twisted. That’s the reason we have an empire run amok, led by crooks who attack and subjugate other countries with impunity. In other words, their stupidity hurts us and the entire world. Their so-called democracy is a disgrace and a joke — which is almost as alarming as the fact that this nation of dimwits is allowed to elect such powerful leaders in the first place.
Mind you, these idiots are never your American friends. No, the mythical “real American” is the white, morbidly obese, diet-cola-drinking tourist from Florida who thinks Lapland is Finland’s equivalent of Disney Land. He is the evil halfwit responsible for the deaths of Iraqi children.
I’m not even exaggerating much: this is the thinking behind much of European anti-Americanism. In fact, when we first began to research and write about the phenomenon, many of my European friends were baffled: What’s there to inspect? Isn’t it obvious why we resent Americans, and for good reason? This speaks to an obvious tendency to equate an entire population with the actions of their government, bordering on justification of collective punishment.
One American expat we interviewed, Philip Schwartzman, who has written extensively about living in Finland, noted how casually people throw around words like “I hate Americans.” For a while after 9/11, he remembered feeling as if the whole world was “on our side” — but as soon as George W. Bush managed to flip all that on its head, he began to face hostility directed at him personally: “It was something I had to deal with every day.” In Germany, some universities have taken proactive measures to curb the aggressive encounters between American exchange students and locals taking them to task about US policies. (That’s right — in Germany, with its proud history of peaceful liberalism.)
No one in Europe would read an Amnesty report about China’s human rights abuses and then vent their outrage at a random Chinese person. We don’t even care what goes on in China. Quite like the 800,000 people killed in the Rwandan genocide barely registered in Europe compared to our shock at the World Trade Center attacks seven years later, offenses both committed and suffered by the US trigger much more impassioned reactions in us.
What accounts for this fervor? For instance, why should Europeans give a shit about health insurance in the US? Why, in fact, are we so knowledgeable about American domestic policy in the first place? Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko, theatrically released around the world, was a huge success in Europe. Could anyone imagine a movie about healthcare, say, in Russia being watched by a popcorn-eating, global mass audience? Don’t get me wrong: I’ve lived in the US both with and without health coverage for many years, and I can tell you from experience that it is a miserable non-system. It’s good to draw attention to that — inside the US. While Sicko was being shown in cinemas across Finland, a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis was fast spreading just behind its Russian border.
Even more nauseatingly, Scandinavians were flattered out of their wits by Moore’s latest movie, Where to Invade Next. Even as Finland keeps plunging downhill and to the right, towards a US-style neoliberal order, we gladly pay to see a Hollywood movie about an American who’d just love for them to become more like us. This, quite like our collective reaction to 9/11, strikes at the heart of the conflicted European mindset: much of the hostility is a symptom of our little-brother complex, masquerading as political awareness.
For a European audience, the entertainment value of Moore’s films lies entirely in their confirmation of our belief that “these Yankees are dumb.” Political comedy shows around the world utilize this stereotype to good effect, even in the States. The most aggressive ones seem to have an underlying agenda of shifting the blame for the US government’s actions squarely on its people.
Following this evergreen formula, we conducted a social experiment of our own, for a radio series back in Finland, a country known the world over as a beacon of education. Here’s a little study in (a lack of) contrast:
I swear to god, this didn’t even take much time or involve many omissions. Obviously, the point is not to demonstrate how ignorant Finns are, but that you can collect this type of material anywhere — and that jokes about “dumb Europeans” just aren’t as funny. Stereotypes can be amusing in and of themselves. Like with the characters of commedia dell’arte, the minute you evoke a stereotype, it already builds up comical expectations: the American is ignorant, the Jew is stingy, the blonde is a promiscuous airhead, and the Swede is gay (according to most Scandinavians).
In this age of political correctness, though, making earnest generalizations about Americans is one of the few remaining, socially acceptable forms of discrimination in the west. Though the US is a single country with one dominant language, it’s otherwise about as diverse as Europe; no one would buy into any conception of “the stereotypical European”.
Violence and Entertainment
Americans don’t create art, they do entertainment: inane, shallow, commercial garbage. Quite like their imperial tentacles that reach every corner of the planet, American pop music, TV shows, and movies spread around the world like a cancer.
Even the European intellectual who thinks this, and laments the stranglehold of “Yankee schlock” over “European art film”, is more likely to buy a ticket to the last installment of the Star Wars franchise than bother seeing the hottest indie movie from Austria. But we, of course, watch Hollywood blockbusters ironically, with a kind of detached amusement, well aware of their utter lack of depth. In fact, we ironically spend more than twice as much money watching American movies than on all the rest combined. (“European art cinema” is mostly just trash of a different kind, I would add — and anyone who claims the US doesn’t produce great art doesn’t know what they’re talking about.)
Criticism of US foreign policy is often intertwined with a critique of American entertainment: its black-and-white depictions of good vs. evil, its jingoism and glorification of violence. Strangely, in the US, Hollywood is considered a stronghold of liberalism. This is another area of heightened cognitive dissonance in Europe; we are just as receptive to, and influenced by, Hollywood spectacles. Both in the movie theatre and the theatre of war, we eagerly follow the lead of our trans-Atlantic older brother, until it suits us to play innocent.
Finland has one of the highest per-capita rates of guns in the world: ranked third, by some estimates, just below the United States and Yemen. We also suffer from an enduring epidemic of mass murders and school shootings by teenagers. Just this past November, a young woman confessed in court to meticulously planning the murder of at least 40 people at her old school. At the time of her arrest, she had already bought a handgun, and was attempting to acquire an assault rifle, a shot gun, hand grenades, and pepper spray.
Her intention was for the attack to take place on November 7, on the nine-year anniversary of one of the most famous school shootings in Finland, at the Jokela High School. I still remember seeing the incident all over the US news back in 2007, and repeatedly hearing a tone of collective introspection: how much of this was America’s bad influence? The New York Times, recalling the reactions to an earlier school massacre in Germany, cited Europeans describing the incident as a symptom of “an American pathology spreading with globalization,” adding:
“Whether that will be the conclusion in today’s case remains to be seen, although the line from Jokela High to Virginia Tech and Columbine seems an easy one to draw.”
Strikingly, the initial response in Finland and in many European countries was not one of collective introspection, though otherwise the same as in the US: how much of this was America’s bad influence?
Make Them Love US Again!
Though the title of this blog post may very well be just another proof of Betteridge’s law of headlines, there is a reason for my rhetorical question. Yes, Europeans loathe Donald Trump — even more than they hated Bush II, who ended up causing unprecedented damage to America’s brand, while Obama’s popularity gave it a clear boost. But as Stian Bromark and Dag Herbjørnsrud point out in their book Frykten for Amerika (Fear of America), European resentment towards the US doesn’t correlate primarily with their opinion of its leader, or even with its policies.
During Ronald Reagan’s time in office, 54% of the French had a positive view of the US, but by the time the presidency was taken over by Bill Clinton — much loved by Europeans — this number had plummeted to 35%. What could possibly be the reason? One very plausible explanation is that, after the Iron Curtain fell, the US was suddenly the world’s only superpower. It’s easier to hate the top dog. Similarly, even during the first years of George W. Bush, the French still had a largely positive view of the US, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. Obama was more popular in Europe than anywhere else in the world, but in this case, his actual agenda — mostly a wholesale continuation of his predecessor’s policies — didn’t have much impact the other way.
What about Donald Trump? Whatever agenda he will pursue, the current chaos within the political establishment and the related, relatively more assertive posture of Russia, have made the US look weak. (Weak leadership! Sad!) If Trump manages to rule effectively and keep the empire together, we are likely to see another rise in European anti-Americanism. But inasmuch as Trump is a symptom and catalyst of a coming twilight of US power, he might also be a harbinger of a more sympathetic attitude from the other side of the Atlantic.
More sympathetic, that is, to America as a nation, not towards its government — as it should be.
[Related article: Dumb Europeans—Part 2: The Bully Made Me Do It]