(This is the third post on Okie Funk titled “Bush and Europe.” I recently traveled to Europe, arriving first in Amsterdam, Netherlands for a week-long academic conference on diversity. I then took a train through Belgium to Paris, where I spent a few days. Along the way, I tried to gauge how Europeans now perceive Americans given Imperial President George Bush’s quasi-fascist policies of unilateral war, torture, wiretapping, and secret government. My overall impression is a bleak one. Europeans detest Bush and his government, and many hold Americans accountable for not speaking up. Any goodwill Americans received from Europeans after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks has been squandered by Bush’s reckless foreign policies and anti-democratic ideologies. I believe it will take a major concerted effort by a post-Bush government to forge new bridges with our European allies.)
“I do envy these Europeans the comfort they take. When the work of the day is done, they forget it. Some of them go, with wife and children, to a beer hall and sit quietly and genteelly drinking a mug or two of ale and listening to music; others walk the streets, others drive in the avenues; others assemble in the great ornamental squares in the early evening to enjoy the sight and the fragrance of flowers and to hear the military bands play -- no European city being without its fine military music at eventide; and yet others of the populace sit in the open air in front of the refreshment houses and eat ices and drink mild beverages that could not harm a child. They go to bed moderately early, and sleep well. They are always quiet, always orderly, always cheerful, comfortable, and appreciative of life and its manifold blessings. One never sees a drunken man among them. The change that has come over our little party is surprising. Day by day we lose some of our restlessness and absorb some of the spirit of quietude and ease that is in the tranquil atmosphere about us and in the demeanor of the people. We grow wise apace. We begin to comprehend what life is for.”—from Mark Twain’s book The Innocents Abroad,1869
The grand Europe described by Mark Twain in his classic 1869 book, The Innocents Abroad, still thrives. As Twain writes, Europe allows the American to “absorb some of the spirit of quietude” and “comprehend what life is for” because of its basic living routines and infrastructure.
What strikes one immediately in the cities of Amsterdam and Paris are the massive public transportation systems that include trains, trams, buses, and subways. They are inexpensive and easy to use. Many Europeans also travel on motorized scooters, in small cars, and on bicycles. Amsterdam, in particular, is known for its numerous bicycle riders. All of it creates a grand ballet of motion and noise.
What you will not see in Europe are single-occupied SUVs, huge pickup trucks, and Hummers, relics of The Oil Age. Europeans do not often display class cues through their daily mode of transportation. A successful businessperson, perhaps dressed immaculately in an expensive suit, will sit on the tram next to a teenager in jeans. Meanwhile, a French woman dressed in a business suit, will zoom by the bus on her Vespa.
Like Twain, I am struck by the symmetry, motion, and efficiency of the transportation systems in Europe. So why won’t the United States adopt European transportation models in its cities when it is so apparent it should given the looming world oil crisis? There are some exceptions (New York, Boston, San Francisco, etc.), of course, but most of our large cities are built around the automobile.
There are a myriad of reasons for the scarcity of public transportation in the United States, including the sheer size of the country, suburban sprawl, scalding hot climates that prohibit much walking in some areas, and the vested interests of energy companies, which promote wasteful consumption.
Imperial President George Bush and his cabal have been especially negligent when it comes to public transportation. Bush, of course, is an “oil” president, a man who once owned an oil company and wholly supports the interests of big energy companies above the concept of public transportation. These energy companies make money on the American model of transportation, which is no longer sustainable. These companies fight tacitly and implicitly against public transportation systems with all their power and money.
Add to this mix other powerful politicians such as U.S. Senators John Coryn (R-Texas) and Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), whose campaigns are heavily funded by energy companies, and it becomes apparent that under the current governmental rubric only an oil crisis will spur action. A shill for big oil companies, Inhofe has even called global warming a hoax.
Those Europeans I spoke with have little to say or little sympathy with our country’s massive energy consumption. “Why does everyone need such a big car?” you are asked. Americans are accused, and rightly so, of being lousy world citizens. We are known as gluttons, and this attitude increases along with our country’s energy consumption and obesity levels. It’s difficult to spot an overweight person in Paris, for example. Do not kid yourself. “Fat, stupid Americans,” or some variation, is a phrase embedded in the minds of most Europeans.
The point here is the United States has much to learn from the “old Europe,” once derided by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Old Europe cities are immaculate and beautiful. Their public transportation systems are tremendous examples of engineering and common sense. Europeans are healthier than Americans. Far from representing something archaic and deteriorating, the countries in “old Europe” represent the most advanced civilizations in the world. It will take a major change in American government and at least a decade to overcome the embarrassment of Rumsfeld's stupid, crass remarks
Tragically, our country has made a critical error in recent decades, exasperated greatly by Bush and his courtiers, to merge its public interests with corporations. This error will surely result in a loss of American dominance in world affairs. Our lack of decent public transportation systems, for example, enriches a relatively few citizens who operate energy companies. The same goes for our health care systems. There is no longer a concept of a “public good” under the Bush government, and, without this sentiment, there is really no country, only multi-national corporations.
If Americans can bring about a fundamental change in the 2008 elections with a massive Democratic sweep, then perhaps we can correct this critical error. At the very least, we can discuss the corporatization and privatization of the public domain in open forums without recriminations. It almost goes without saying that we should also begin a massive public transportation initiative. This initiative should be unparalleled in world history. Until we correct our error, our quality of life will slowly decline—higher gasoline prices, lousy health care at higher costs—until some final crisis wakes us up.
“We have come five hundred miles by rail through the heart of France. What a bewitching land it is! What a garden! Surely the leagues of bright green lawns are swept and brushed and watered every day and their grasses trimmed by the barber. Surely the hedges are shaped and measured and their symmetry preserved by the most architectural of gardeners. Surely the long straight rows of stately poplars that divide the beautiful landscape like the squares of a checker-board are set with line and plummet, and their uniform height determined with a spirit level. Surely the straight, smooth, pure white turnpikes are jack-planed and sandpapered every day. How else are these marvels of symmetry, cleanliness, and order attained? It is wonderful. There are no unsightly stone walls and never a fence of any kind. There is no dirt, no decay, no rubbish anywhere -- nothing that even hints at untidiness -- nothing that ever suggests neglect. All is orderly and beautiful -- every thing is charming to the eye.”—from Mark Twain’s book The Innocents Abroad, 1869
“Don't want to be an American idiot
One nation controlled by the media
Information age of hysteria
It's calling out to idiot America”—from Green Day’s song “American Idiot,” 2004
(This is the second post on Okie Funk titled “Bush and Europe.” I recently traveled to Europe, arriving first in Amsterdam, Netherlands for a week-long academic conference on diversity. I then took a train through Belgium to Paris, France, where I spent a few days. Along the way, I tried to gauge how Europeans now perceive Americans given Imperial President George Bush’s quasi-fascist policies of unilateral war, torture, wiretapping, and secret government. My overall impression is a bleak one. Europeans detest Bush and his government, and many hold Americans accountable for not speaking up. Any goodwill Americans received from Europeans after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks has been squandered by Bush’s reckless foreign policies and anti-democratic ideologies. I believe it will take a major concerted effort by a post-Bush government to forge new bridges with our European allies.)
Our country’s mythology constructs for us an American who stands in stark contrast to the European. This American can be loud and crass, true, but always in possession of solid pragmatism and genuine kindness. The European, under this mythology, is cultured, brilliant with languages and philosophies, but perhaps overly academic and sometimes contrived, too affected.
None of this, of course, remains true in today’s global economy, if it ever was, but mythologies are often underwritten and supported with easy stereotypes that push the American and the European—on mass media levels—to form opinions about one another without considering the individual. The American can be brilliant; the European can be crass. I know many personal examples. Until recently, though, one might argue this dichotomy between the American and the European has helped define a workable relationship on various class, literacy, and psychological levels.
In a related matter, the relationship between Europe and the United States has been informed for sixty years by our country’s involvement in World War II. The French and British, for all their supposed haughtiness, once (some still do) felt gratitude to the United States, and this feeling translated to a certain street-level espirit de corps between cultures. So what if the American could not speak French or knew the difference between Shakespeare and Milton? The American, in her/his mythological dimensions, was brave and warm-hearted. More importantly, the money-spending American would pull you out of a jam to protect world democracy.
After traveling Europe the last week, I am convinced the old, stereotypical mythologies, The Innocents Abroad of Mark Twain and the post-World War II “debt” Europeans once owed to the United States, has been replaced with a bitter, deep-seated anger against Bush and his government. In addition, this bitterness goes further. Why, as I was asked repeatedly, do Americans not take to the streets to protest Bush’s anti-democratic actions in the United States?
(I must qualify my arguments in my post. I talked to mostly academics and writers on my trip, though I did have conversations with some service and blue-collar workers. My claims are informed, of course, by my particular experience. Also, earlier and recent polls show Europeans continue to distrust the Bush government on a massive level. My experience supports these statistics. I also understand the recent election of conservative Nicolas Sarkozy to the French presidency could help change this dynamic, but I am not hopeful this will happen.)
I was asked as well why American academics do not focus on accessibility in terms of political literacy. Do we not teach our students about democratic structures? I argued that many American academics are too timid to speak out under the new rubric of the corporate model of education. But many Europeans I met seemed oblivious to the major right-wing turn of our country’s corporate media, including newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. They seemed almost astounded when I talked about someone such as Charles Krauthammer, a Post columnist whose rigid doctrine supports the new framework of an imperial presidency. They asked: Why would the newspaper print such nonsense? Why would the newspaper give such important space to someone so wrong about the Iraq occupation?
I saw Europeans treat Americans with disrespect on the streets of Amsterdam and Paris on my trip. Uneducated Americans from southern states and Christian fanatics—two major right-wing groups—face the most derision on a personal and larger level from Europeans, but again and again the question came back to the seemingly ineffectiveness of the American resistance or protest movement. I argued the resistance was now online and therefore perhaps not as visible in a traditional sense. But can anyone really define “traditional” in terms of the mass media from the 1950s on? I had to expand my argument to acknowledge the fluidity of technology and the accompanying fragmentation.
And how does one explain to a French person in a café near the Louvre how Americans have completely abdicated their quality of life and democracy to Bush, corporate interests, and religious fanatics? Try explaining, for example, in broken French, English, and a conglomerate of other languages to a Parisian, how Americans actually pay “health management” companies to deny them needed health procedures, and you will stare into a face of incomprehension. Yes, Americans pay companies through their health insurance premiums to deny them health coverage, you explain. It is required. “But how can this be so?” you are asked. “Why don’t people complain? Stupid Americans.” And so it goes.
Europeans can obviously live with American complacency in terms of their country’s own domestic policies. What does it matter to someone living in beautiful France if Americans will not speak up so their own children can receive adequate health care? France has one of the best health care systems in the world. What matters most to those Europeans with whom I spoke is Bush’s reckless foreign policy. French leaders, for example, were absolutely right about what has become the gruesome and violent Iraq occupation, and Europeans, you must remember, have received balanced press coverage of the Bush administrations mistakes since the ill-advised invasion Meanwhile, Americans have dealt with the WMD lies of Judith Miller, the disgraced New York Times reporter. Yet another NYT reporter, Michael Gordon, continues to write one-sided articles favoring the Bush’s administration claims about the Iraq occupation.
I can make this limited claim: I believe younger Europeans, who possess little post-World War II nostalgia, believe the European Union is a moral and, perhaps more importantly, rational and logical contrast to the current violent and quasi-fascist United States government. My sense is that Bush has created a critical world problem for the United States that could take at least a decade, if not more, to solve. We need the European Union far more than they need us right now. Bush was defeated in Iraq, but he was also tragically defeated in Europe in terms of ideas and language. This cannot be underestimated.
Our military, for example, has shown it can be overwhelmed by a small insurgency, and the Bush government has shown it does not respect the Geneva Conventions or honor basic democratic structures, such as habeas corpus. Reviled throughout Europe, the Bush government has made our country less secure, less powerful, and less influential. The “old Europe” once criticized by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is actually the “moral Europe” or the “rational Europe.” Rumsfeld, Bush, and the rest of their cabal, have made us symbolically the first fascist pigs of the twenty-first century. Certainly, there is much of the century left for any number of deranged despots to enact tyranny and practices of torture. These potential acts might even surpass Bush’s bizarre blip of a personality disorder. But, for now, Bush and the Republican Party remain a symbol of discombobulating madness throughout much of Europe. Let me put like this: As an American walking the streets in Paris—and most Americans are easy to spot—you might be seen as a person who at the very least implicitly supports torture of prisoners. That’s Bush’s legacy.
If the United States can make a critical correction in the 2008 elections by bringing into power a Democratic administration that is truly aware of the problem we face with Europe—and that is a huge “if”—then I propose this new government launch a study and live abroad program in Europe on a massive scale. I propose we flood Europe with millions more (yes, “millions”) intelligent, open-minded Americans who want to embrace diversity and plurality in terms of language and ideas. More of our country’s students and intellectuals need to speak European languages such as French, Dutch, Italian, and German. These students and intellectuals need to live in Europe to become fluent. For too long, the language of money, English, has allowed Americans to become lazy about languages of ideas. This is obviously self-defeating. It is, in fact, intellectual suicide.
In order to retain some position of power in world affairs, the United States needs to rebuild bridges to Europe. All of us should get behind this effort.
(Next: What the United States should learn from Europe.)
Imperial President George Bush and his corrupt courtiers are detested in Europe. At least that is the vibe I received in Amsterdam and now in Paris. While Europeans still like individual Americans on a case-by-case basis, they remain afraid of Bush’s reckless foreign policies. Many see Americans, especially southern people, as ignorant and culpable. “Where are the protests?” more than one person has asked me. I think Bush made a major historical error in terms of American interests when he deliberately alienated millions upon millions of rational, European citizens with his unilateral posture, his redneck rhetoric, and his sanctioning of torture. When Europeans see and hear Americans on their streets, do they think of us as sadistic torturers? Is it even possible to mend this rift under a different presidency? Yes, but it will take a concerted effort. I will share my ideas about Europe and Bush when I return to the states later this week.
Meanwhile, here are some recent paragraphs from Okie Funk:
The United States' current government no longer universally recognizes majority rule, freedom of speech, nor the Geneva Conventions. It stands against scientific and medical advancement. It operates as a secret, military junta oblivious to basic human rights and decency. A secretive, hardcore minority of right-wingers, huge corporations, and religious fanatics now control the government, and, frankly, there is no end in sight. Meanwhile, some argue the Democratic Party leadership—in theory, the antithesis of the corporate-military complex—has sold out the nation for its own political ends, placing personal careerism, power, and money above the country’s democratic structures. Others still hold out hope, but if the Democratic Party cannot win big in 2008 in national elections, many will abandon it. The bourgeoisie intelligentsia has proven itself typically impotent and, even at times, corrupt. The poor, of course, have no voice. Some people in the United States might be counting on Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or other Democratic leaders to change things, but the growing American resistance knows their immoral complicity—whether tacit or implicit—in the Iraq occupation, the illegal wiretapping of American citizens, and this new heinous policy of torture, which includes waterboarding, stress positions, sensory deprivation, and even sexual humiliation and rape. In addition, it is quite possible, perhaps even likely, that Bush’s successor—whether Republican or Democratic—will consolidate her/his power under the new rubric and philosophies of the American Imperial Presidency or even under the construct of a military dictatorship.
As an aside, let us not forget that “large numbers of neo-Nazis and skinhead extremists have infiltrated the U.S. military,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that monitors hate groups in the country. This is not your grandfather’s or great-grandfather’s World War II military. Those who serve in Iraq now are primarily (1) poor and have few educational or job choices available to them when they graduate from high school, (2) doing so to obtain combat experience because they are career soldiers or (3) want to go because they get a macho kick killing people and living on the edge. Within this third group, according to organizations such as the SPLC, there are a growing number of militia types and right-wing extremists in the mold of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.
Columnist Charles Krauthammer's views and the goose-step opinions of other right-wing writers given disproportionate space in the country’s largest newspapers today are dangerous lies that threaten our country’s democratic structures. They give cover to and support neofascist policies such as the execution of endless unilateral wars to foster crass nationalism, the torture of prisoners, the wiretapping of citizens, the right-wing politicization of the U.S. Justice Department, the suspension of due process and habeas corpus, the creation of secret prisons, the sanctioning of the highest domestic incarceration rates in the world, and the governance of the country by presidential edicts which ignore legislative oversight.
Inhofe and Coburn are the tools of big corporations, which are damaging the environment and making our food supply unsafe. The state’s corporate media, especially Daily Oklahoman reporter Chris Casteel, who is a Washington bigwig “correspondent” (a big joke since he really writes editorials), allow the two politicians to consistently lie to Oklahomans without offering dissenting views. Some media insiders say Casteel is under strict orders issued by Executive Editor Ed Kelley to give the gay-bashing Coburn and Inhofe positive coverage despite their lies, contradictions and rhetorical gaffes. The somber Kelley, for example, appeared recently in a personal video lauding bigot Coburn as a Senator. What type of metropolitan newspaper editor would take the personal time to kiss the tushy of one of the weirdest right-wing Senators in the history of the United States?