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The American-European Divide

There's a piece by German writer Peter Schneider entitled "Across a Great Divide" currently making its rounds on the internet. The article is poorly argued and simplistic to the point of absurdity, which is ironic, given Western Europe's predisposition to decry naive American simplisme in favor of their more sophisticated, "nuanced" ways of thinking. It is an ugly, thinly disguised exercise in European anti-Americanism, and I'm going to fisk it. I am including the text of the article below, interspersed with my comments (emphasis mine).

The war in Iraq has made the Atlantic seem wider. But really it has had the effect of a magnifying glass, bringing older and more fundamental differences between Europe and the United States into focus.
These growing divisions -- over war, peace, religion, sex, life and death -- amount to a philosophical dispute about the common origins of European and American civilization. Both children of the Enlightenment, the United States and Europe clearly differ about the nature of this inheritance and about who is its better custodian.

Start with religion. The United States is experiencing a revival of the Christian faith in many areas of civic and political life, while in Europe the process of secularization continues unabated. Today the United States is the most religious-minded society of the Western democracies. In a 2003 Harris poll 79 percent of Americans said they believed in God, and more than a third said they attended a religious service once a month or more. Numerous polls have shown that these figures are much lower in Western Europe.

Mere belief in God does not constitute religious fundamentalism, and the 79 percent figure cited here is indeed high compared to Europe, but it has been higher still in the past. It's hard to interpret this as a "revival" in faith of any sort.

What really bugs Schneider is that America is not openly hostile religion, as is (say) France, with its recent headscarf ban.

In the United States a majority of respondents in recent years told pollsters that they believed in angels, while in Europe the issue was apparently considered so preposterous that no one even asked the question.

Gee, I'm sorry we're so gullible. Does anyone remember "The Horrifying Fraud" by French author Thierry Meyssan? Despite its absurd premise that the 9/11 attacks were the actions of the American military-industrial complex, as part of an elaborate conspiracy to increase defense budgets, the book was a runaway bestseller in France. Color me "unimpressed" by claims of superior European "skepticism".

When American commentators warn about a new fundamentalism, they generally mention only the Islamic one. European intellectuals include two other kinds: the Jewish and Christian variants.

Yeah, well, there's a reason for that, Peter. The Islamic variety is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans, in our own homeland, as well as in places like Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and others. The Christian variety gives us the death of the occasional abortion doctor every decade or so. I'm sorry, there's a difference.

Terms that President Bush has used, like "crusade" and "axis of evil," and Manichaean exclusions like his observation that anyone who is not on our side is on the side of the terrorists, reveal the assumption of a religious mantle by a secular power, which in Europe has become unthinkable. Was it not, perhaps, this same sense of religious infallibility that seduced senior members of the Bush administration into leading their country into a war with Iraq on the basis of information that has turned out to be false?

That's quite a stretch. The terms "crusade" and "evil" certainly have meanings other than in the religious sense. President Bush went out of his way after 9/11 (as well as before, if anyone cares to remember) to reach out to the Muslim community, and to remind us that Islam is a religion of peace, despite the actions of a few murderous radicals.

The separation of church and state is alive and well in America, Peter. Remember when Former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing explicitly called for a "Christian" European Union? That was your guy, not ours. Nobody would argue that M. d'Estaing is a religious fundamentalist, so why would he say such a thing? Why, to keep out the Turks, of course! Hurray for European tolerance and diversity.

As far as our religious inflexibility luring us into a war in Iraq, I'd like to remind Mr. Schneider that 34 nations sent troops into Iraq. More European countries stood with the States than against us. Do the same notions of religious infallibility fuel these 34 countries? Mr. Schneider does not say. Of course he, like many Europeans, prefers to believe that America acted "unilaterally" in Iraq. His definition of "unilateralism" seems to reduce to "France and Germany don't like it".

Another reason for Europe's alienation from the United States is harder to define, but for want of a better term, I call it American narcissism.

When American troops in Iraq mistakenly shoot an Arab journalist or reduce half of a village to rubble in response to the explosion of a roadside bomb, there will inevitably be a backlash. Only a fool would maintain that an occupying power could afford many such mistakes, even if it is under constant threat of suicide attacks. The success of an occupation policy -- however temporary it is meant to be -- depends on the occupier's ability to convince the population, by means of symbolic and material gestures, that it is prepared to admit to mistakes.

What?!? This is classic European appeasement-speak. I'm all for being willing to admit mistakes, but is it really the single determining factor in a successful occupation? Is that how Alexander the Great did it, by being "prepared to admit to mistakes"? The Romans? The European colonial powers of recent centuries? It must be, I guess, or else they wouldn't have been successful.

In its use of the language of power the Bush administration has created the opposite impression, and not just in Iraq. The United States apparently cannot be wrong about anything, nor does it have to apologize to anybody. In many parts of the world people have come to believe, fairly or not, that Americans regard the life of their countrymen as infinitely more valuable than the lives of any other of the earth's inhabitants.

This is not only insulting, but demonstrably false. America has proven itself willing, time and time again, to place the lives of its best and brightest young men and women on the line to bring relief to the world's suffering. Europe would have dithered forever in impotent paralysis during the genocide in the Balkans had the Americans not stepped in to put an end to it. It seems the Europeans, rather than the Americans, are chronically averse to risking their own skin to help others. Can Mr. Schneider say "projection"?

Of course, even in Europe only a pacifist minority denies the existence of necessary, unavoidable, justified wars. The interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan were supported by many European nations, even if some took a long time to make up their minds. European soldiers took part in those wars and continue to play a part in the peacekeeping aftermath.

I'm sorry, it didn't take "a long time" to make up their minds, it took American resolve to make up their minds.

What arouses European suspicion, though, is the doctrine of just, preemptive wars President Bush has outlined. Anyone who claims to be waging a preventive war in the cause of justice is confusing either a particular or a partisan interest with the interests of humanity.

How dare he. If Mr. Schneider wants to pretend that Western Europe's foreign policy is guided by "the interests of humanity", how can he possibly justify turning a blind eye to the suffering of 25 million Iraqis? When did the European left lose its stomach for confronting fascism? Or torture? Or systematic human rights abuses? You want to have an isolationist foreign policy? Fine, but don't dress it up as concern for "humanity".

A president who makes such a claim would be arrogating the right to be the ultimate arbiter of war and peace and to stand in judgment over the world. From there it is but a short step to dismissing a basic insight of the Enlightenment, namely that human judgment and decisions are fallible by their very nature. This fallibility cannot be annulled or ameliorated by any political, legal or religious authority. The same argument goes for the death penalty.

Sure. Had to get the death penalty in there. Never mind that it's an out-of-context non sequitur.

There follows a few nonsense paragraphs in which Mr. Schneider bemoans that fact that America, despite being the most diverse and multicultural nation in the world, is neither diverse nor multicultural. It seems we don't watch enough foreign films, or some damn thing.

He then goes on to apply a thin veneer of impartiality to conceal this vapid, anti-American diatribe. Too little, too late, Peter.

So what's to be done? Can we meet in the middle?

These disagreements will be influenced but cannot be resolved by the the American presidential election in November. The divisions are too deep, and Europe cannot meet the United States halfway on too many issues -- the separation between church and state, the separation of powers, respect for international law, the abolition of the death penalty -- without surrendering its version of its Enlightenment inheritance.
Yeah, God forbid that you meet us halfway. And yet the Americans are portrayed as intransigent and uncompromising. There's that "projection" thing going on again.

And once more I have to object to this ridiculous, recurring "church and state" issue. Mr. Schneider is German, and the last time I checked, Germany, home of the Christian Democrats, funded its major churches via a "church tax", a notion which would be repellent here in the United States. Mr. Schneider certainly has some big shiny brass ones to criticize us on that score.

That jibe about "respect for international law" is a howler too. The French and Germans had no qualms about violating the U.N.-mandated sanctions against Iraq when it was in their financial self-interests to do so. Nor did they object to bombing Kosovo without a U.N. mandate. It seems their passion and zeal for international law is selective, at best.

Regarding the death penalty, I don't have much to say, since I oppose it myself. Nonetheless, it must be said that it is very difficult to execute a criminal in the States. There are a raft of protections and automatic appeals which (rightly) render the ultimate sentence rare and exceptional. My personal beliefs on the death penalty notwithstanding, I resent the haughty air of European superiority on the matter. The French, in particular, are recent converts, abolishing capital punishment only in 1981. Please, spare me your moral outrage, Francois.

Mr. Schneider sums up:

On other contentious issues the United States feels as strongly: the universality of human rights and the need to intervene -- if the United Nations is unable to act -- when there is genocide or ethnic cleansing, or when states are failing.

So are we standing on the threshold of a new understanding or a new historic divide, comparable to the evolutionary split that occurred when a group of pioneer hominids thousands of years ago turned their backs forever on their African homeland?

So far it has usually been the Americans who have had to remind the Europeans of these common origins, which the Europeans, in turn, have so often betrayed. Maybe this time it is up to the Europeans to remind the Americans of the promises of the Enlightenment that the United States seems to have forgotten.

Yeah, yeah, yeah...