June 23, 2005

American vs. European Openness

A common stereotype in transatlantic relations is that the US is more staunchly conservative where Europe is more tolerant of change. This grossly oversimplified dichotomy is wrong, even backwards. America has always been the more radically individualist place since at least the mid-18th century. That radicalism helped prompt the American Revolution. For the centuries following the revolution, Americans have always looked at Europe as strange, immoral, hypocritical, state-worshipping, violent, imperialistic, hopelessly pessimistic people. I'm exaggerating of course, but only to show the distinction. The distinction grew greater as the 20th century progressed, as wars, genocide, romanticism, fascism and communism sapped Europe's interest in life and ideals and as emigration from Europe sent more and more of the most optimistic to America's shores.

The economy is the prime example. Europe is incredibly fearful of change to culture, jobs and politics brought on by economics. They have stringent labor laws to protect jobs from changing. They have lavish welfare to allay fears of poverty. They often have rules and quotas (as do the Canadians) intended to protect native film, music and television from American entertainment exports. All their efforts are focused primarily on avoiding negative changes - rather than embracing positive changes.

But I have a better example, one with more resonance to the US left. In Europe, immigration is a hot-button issue. Economic and cultural concerns have pushed many anti-immigration and slow-immigration parties further up at the polls. This is happening in all European countries to some degree, especially France andf the Netherlands. The US, meanwhile, is moving on repeated efforts to liberalize immigration and allow in more migrants as workers.

The fact is that having a lot of sex with strangers doesn't make you socially tolerant. The French may not care about mistresses or group sex but they live in a country where a neo-fascist like Le Pen got almost 20% of the second-round presidential vote and where majorities have polled affirmative to questions of whether there are "too many" Africans in France. They're not evangelical Baptists, but that sure doesn't have to mean they're open and liberal.

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