Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Hating America

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Hating America

Article excerpt

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I moved from the U.S. to Europe in 1998, and I've been drawing comparisons ever since. Living in turn in the Netherlands, where kids come out of high school able to speak four languages, where gay marriage is a non-issue, and where book-buying levels are the world's highest, and in Norway, where a staggering percentage of people read three newspapers a day and where respect for learning is reflected even in Oslo place names ("Professor Aschehoug Square"; "Professor Birkeland Road"), I was tempted at one point to write a book lamenting Americans' anti-intellectualism-their indifference to foreign languages, ignorance of history, indifference to academic achievement, susceptibility to vulgar religion and trash TV, and so forth. On point after point, I would argue, Europe had us beat.

Yet as my weeks in the Old World stretched into months and then years, my perceptions shifted. Yes, many Europeans were book lovers-but which country's literature most engaged them? Many of them revered education-but to which country's universities did they most wish to send their children? (Answer: the same country that performs the majority of the world's scientific research and wins most of the Nobel Prizes.) Yes, American television was responsible for drivel like "The Ricki Lake Show"-but Europeans, I learned, watched this stuff just as eagerly as Americans did (only to turn around, of course, and mock it as a reflection of American boorishness). No, Europeans weren't Bible-thumpers-but the Continent's ever-growing Muslim population, I had come to realize, represented even more of a threat to pluralist democracy than fundamentalist Christians did in the U.S. And yes, more Europeans were multilingual-but then, if each of the fifty states had its own language, Americans would be multilingual, too.1 I'd marveled at Norwegians' newspaper consumption; but what did they actually read in those newspapers?

That this was, in fact, a crucial question was brought home to me when a travel piece I wrote for the New York Times about a weekend in rural Telemark received front-page coverage in Aften-posten, Norway's newspaper of record. Not that my article's contents were remotely newsworthy; its sole news value lay in the fact that Norway had been mentioned in the New York Times. It was astonishing. And even more astonishing was what happened next: the owner of the farm hotel at which I'd stayed, irked that I'd made a point of his want of hospitality, got his revenge by telling reporters that I'd demanded McDonald's hamburgers for dinner instead of that most Norwegian of delicacies, reindeer steak. Though this was a transparent fabrication (his establishment was located atop a remote mountain, far from the nearest golden arches), the press lapped it up. The story received prominent coverage all over Norway and dragged on for days. My inhospitable host became a folk hero; my irksome weekend trip was transformed into a morality play about the threat posed by vulgar, fast-food-eating American urbanites to cherished native folk traditions. I was flabbergasted. But my erstwhile host obviously wasn't: he knew his country; he knew its media; and he'd known, accordingly, that all he needed to do to spin events to his advantage was to breathe that talismanic word, McDonald's.

For me, this startling episode raised a few questions. Why had the Norwegian press given such prominent attention in the first place to a mere travel article? Why had it then been so eager to repeat a cartoonish lie? Were these actions reflective of a society more serious, more thoughtful, than the one I'd left? Or did they reveal a culture, or at least a media class, that was so awed by America as to be flattered by even its slightest attentions but that was also reflexively, irrationally belligerent toward it?

This experience was only part of a larger process of edification. Living in Europe, I gradually came to appreciate American virtues I'd always taken for granted, or even disdained-among them a lack of self-seriousness, a grasp of irony and self-deprecating humor, a friendly informality with strangers, an unashamed curiosity, an openness to new experience, an innate optimism, a willingness to think for oneself and speak one's mind and question the accepted way of doing things. …

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