Saturday, May 24, 2008

European Hatred of America as ‘the Other’ is Still an Act of Forgetting

On the ignoring of poverty in Europe, the very being of the US plays an important role.

I want to understand the whole picture. Is Europe better than the US to the extent that we want to believe? I start to hunt for books and research findings, trawl library catalogues and the Internet, but come up with amazingly little. The pile on my desk does grow, admittedly, but relevant content is sparse. If I had looked for American research on poverty in the US, I would have been drowning in information.
Sweden’s Arena Magazine editor Per Wirtén discusses the means by which the Euvian identity has attempted to construct itself without being engineered by however many attempts to make institutes, venues, and eventes that few visit, and magazines, journals, and blogs that no-one really reads. Where the warm glow is felt knowing telling oneself just how wonder the example before you – i.e. Sicko, repeating the images from the wake of hurricane Katrina, and the like, the way of not knowing and not wanting to know hasn’t changed in a century.
In the autumn of 2005, New Orleans was submerged after hurricane Katrina breached the levees. It was the city's poorest quarters that suffered the greatest devastation. The authorities' arrogance and inability to react shocked the rest of the world. Europe offered the US emergency relief; in Paris, intellectuals wondered how the country could afford to wage war in Baghdad but not to protect its own people; and Swedish premier Göran Persson declared that a catastrophe of such a kind would be unthinkable in European welfare states. Exactly two years later, Greece was in flames. The Greek state was just as ineffectual as the American state had been after Katrina. Help from the EU was slow to arrive; people died and villages were left in ruins. Of course, questions were asked in the European media, but the criticism came nowhere near the wave of indignation that was directed at the US after the New Orleans disaster. Yet Greece's position in the EU as one its most corrupt, unequal and poorest member states is not unlike that of Louisiana in the US.

Perhaps the storm of criticism of the Greek government failed to materialise because it would risk shattering the self-image Europeans have been keen to create since the 1990s. In terms of the politics of identity, the magnet that binds together the EU more than any other is that of being an alternative to the US. Europe is more peaceable, more enlightened and civilised, more democratic, more egalitarian and without any real problems of poverty, more soft power than hard power, saying yes to market economy but no to market society. The identity construct of the Union rests not on culture and ethnicity, but on the idea of not being the US. Europe sees itself as an anti-America.

In this context, criticism of conditions in America assumes particular significance. It works like a television screen in the living room. Europe soaks up anything critical of the US: books, news items, documentaries and feature films. Our eyes are drawn to the moving pictures. But this seems to mean that we stop seeing our own living room.
Nonetheless, many of the poor are overlooked with a view to comparisons of their own society and a superior alternative to some sort of elsewhere that’s hard to reconcile.
The average income in Spain is sixty per cent of that in Germany. Roughly the same disparity, incidentally, as that between white and black Americans. If comparisons are drawn with low-wage countries like Romania and Portugal, the disparity becomes greater than any in America.
Otherwise the critics of America, presumably until they can find a reason to blame some externality for this problem, banish facing the problem in favor of some comfortable proof of something to themselves that can only be statistically supported by the very same banishment of interest in the problem. After all, if few notice, it musn’t really be happening.