Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Europeans Still Not Getting It

There's been much crowing in Germany over President Bush's praise for Gerhard Schroeder's commitment to help militarily in Afghanistan.

To the peace-at-all- costs crowd, such praise appears to be yet more validation of their belief that America has gotten itself into a quagmire that only the mature nations can resolve.

The fact that Bush's favorable statements about the German commitment have succeeded in driving the wedge between France and Germany even deeper seems to be lost on these geo-political realists.

Score another one for W.

But the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has an interesting take on this. Basically, Richard Wagner -- the columnist not the composer -- says that Germans who believe they "know" the United States are kidding themselves.

"The Germans do not grasp the Americans' political courage, which precedes all material power.

The Germans don't understand the fact that, ever since the first settlements on this continent, Americans have regarded their country as the promised land and from this have derived a world historical mission. The columnist Thomas Friedman speaks of the “revolutionary side of U.S. power“ in the Iraq question.

No matter how close Germans and Americans may get in practical terms, the fact that the Germans have no corresponding political concept will continue to keep the two peoples at a distance."

I've said before that Europeans tend to believe they understand America much more deeply than Americans understand them. This sense comes from constant exposure to American-made movies, music, food and other pop culture froth.

But this understanding is as superficial as the insight you get about Germany from watching a Volkswagen commercial.

Even among the educated and well-traveled elite of Europe, few truly understand America. That's why "Bowling for Columbine" is considered an important social commentary in Germany while in the U.S. it's a comedy flick. (In fact, Michael Moore has become a sort of neo-Jerry Lewis -- a buffoon in America but an artiste in Europe.)

Imagine how perplexing the real America looks from overseas. Gun ownership, religious fervor, huge gas guzzling cars, and widespread indifference to foreign affairs, yet also the most successful society at assimilating foreigners, the cleanest and most environmentally conscious nation on earth, the most tolerant of divergent opinions and lifestyles, the most stable political system yet devised, and the safest from from the sort of chaos that engulfs much of the world.

Perhaps most perplexing is America's ability to change radically. The recent blackout is a great illustration of this.

In 1977, the blackout immediately turned ugly with much of New York ravaged by looting. When it happened again a week and a half ago, New Yorkers practically held hands and sang Kumbaya.

Change is hard-wired into American culture. And when people say they understand the culture they are usually talking about a culture that no longer exists.

Few Americans would be so arrogant as to say they understand Germany, or France, or the Arab world. (I, of course, am one of those few).

Yet show me a European who doesn't think they know more about the world than George Bush.

Then consider, who is the greater fool?

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

"Islamic Democracy"

How disappointing it is to find that friends who used to share my concern for peace and justice are now concerned with peace to the exclusion of justice.

Not only is this an obvious dead-end, but it's morally lazy.

I wish they could imagine -- as they once could -- what it must be like to be on the wrong side of an unjust system.

For those whose compassion has completely atrophied, here's a helpful guide: Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and currently director of The Dialogue Project at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Is it not insulting to think that democracy is the property of a few Western countries? Do Iranian women like to be flogged for a piece of hair showing? If this was their tradition and culture, [would] they need to be flogged and stoned and jailed [to] implement it? Do Americans need the state [to] put a gun to their heads to carry on their traditions and culture: going to church, reading Mark Twain, or simply protesting against or for the war? Is this Islam?

Perhaps, George Bush and Paul Wolfowitz are right, that the Arab world is oppressed by authoritarian regimes not because of some cultural heritage, but in spite of it.

The burden of accepting this perspective might mean leaving the safety of "progressive" conformity and opening yourself up to attacks from Michael Moore and the cultural enforcers of the left.

Painful at first. Liberating in the end.